Coda and Coding

I’ve been playing the Coda EDC flute for a couple of weeks. Here is the instrument with its inventor, Karl Ahrens.

Coda in Hand Malborough Man Resized

This vessel flute, closely related to the ocarina, is marvelously durable and portable, perfect for Everyday Carry. Beyond being literally easy to bring, it’s also easy to pick up, particularly for anyone with a musical background. The fingering for diatonic notes is linear and remains constant across both full octaves.

The Coda is a joy to play and, more significantly, a joy to learn to play. Because it is in the key of C, spans more than two octaves starting with C4, and includes the entire chromatic scale of sharps and flats, there is a world of sheet music available. I have no prior experience with woodwind instruments, so at times I struggle with embouchure, especially because it is different for the two side-by-side mouth pieces. I also need to make sure the pads of my fingers cover the holes adequately. Finally, I am working on controlling the flow of my breath: to blow steadily in order to hit the right note and prevent the tone from wobbling, yet to vary the strength of my exhalation across notes as more or fewer holes are open. 

However, these challenges in technique are manageable, as well as fulfilling to confront. I can feel when the muscles in my face get a good workout. Likewise, my fingers are becoming stronger and I am learning how to position them better; these demands are especially gratifying for my left hand, serving as physical therapy for the internal scarring and tightness I suffered from a hard fall I took earlier this summer. Finally, I love being aware of my breath, even more at my current level than when I am scuba diving. My lungs feel good after I play.

Meanwhile, I am sounding better as I progress through the lessons on the Coda website, the songs in the included workbook (I am especially fond of “Silent Night” and “Scarborough Fair”), and melodies from a Beatles fake book I purchased last week. It is satisfying to make music and gratifying to hear my progress. I think that is just one of the reasons people like to make food (that is, if they like to program or cook at all): clear and immediate feedback. Writing computer code, while much less sensory, has this quality too.

I taught myself to code with BASIC on the TRS-80 (“trash eighty'”) during high school, when programs were stored on the same cassette tapes we used to play music. A bit later in college I learned PL/C and kept my programs on 8-inch floppies. In grad school I programmed mostly in FORTRAN and backed up on TK50 cartridges. These computer languages are still in use in some form, although they are no longer state of the art. The hardware storage technologies are, of course, long obsolete.

These days I don’t code much at all. Still, I find it entertaining to work on similar problems by playing programming games. Recently I began while True: learn() , which is giving me a better understanding of machine learning as well as a tiny taste of visual programming. In that game I have progressed far enough in the timeline to begin using genetic algorithms, which in real life I first encountered twenty-eight summers ago at the Santa Fe Institute immediately after grad school. (As a graduate student, I handled my own multi-variable optimization problems with simulated annealing and Monte Carlo simulations.)

I’ve also been rehashing the problems in 7 Billion Humans. a game that focuses on parallel computing, a concept I initially learned while working on Cray supercomputers during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Human Resource Machine, by the same game developer, is more focused on low-level, assembly-like programming, the same highly constrained code used in classic HP calculators, the same tightly succinct code that got twelve astronauts to the surface of the Moon. 

It’s wonderful to make music on the Coda (as well as on my guilele) and to code in computer languages (as well as learn human languages). In areas such as these, the immediate result tell the tale of how well I am doing. In other aspects of life, it’s more difficult to connect intent and result; head and tail are cloven.

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