Olympics 2008

Olympics, Olympics, Olympics! It's hard to avoid the Olympic games right now, even if you're not into sports. But what really gets me is the nationalistic jingoism that surrounds it. People want to criticize China for making such a big deal out of hosting it, but other host nations, including the U.S., also make a big deal about it.

And yet, why do people get all nationalistic about it? I mean, these are presumably the top amateur athletes that a nation has to offer in the competitions, meaning these are exceptional people, not ordinary people who are representative of their nation. So an American wins the gold in some particular event? It doesn't mean that I'm (as an American) a particularly gifted athlete, or that Americans in general are especially athletic. All it means is that one person is the best athlete in that event at that time, and he just happens to be from the United States. A Chinese athlete winning the gold doesn't make China a better (or worse) place, either. So all this nationalistic furor seems way over the top for me.

If anything, the Olympics are supposed to be above politics and nationalism, a chance for people to come together and celebrate the best that humanity as a whole has to offer, and to show the best that people can be. A win by an athlete from any country is a win for all of us.


Williams Keytar - Unusual musical instruments, part 1

I got a Williams Keytar, the V-1 model! Why? After playing around with autoharps, zithers, bulbul tarangs and other strange instruments, I still longed for the perfect combination of strings and keys. While I'm not sure this is the perfect combination, it's a lot closer than anything else I've come across.

How to describe the Williams Keyboard Guitar? Well, it's like a guitar, but instead of a fretboard for selecting notes and chords, you have an actual keyboard instead. The V-1 has 12 strings and keys, from C3-B3, so you can finger any possible chord type, although you have to settle for inversions of some chords to do it.

Like the Bulbul Tarang, pressing a key pushes a string down onto a metal platform and "frets" the string to that pitch. Unlike the Tarang, pressing a key only frets one string (one key per string), not all the strings, and thus allows for true polyphonic playing that the "Indian Banjo" is incapable of. Simply pushing the key down like that makes a sound, but you get a louder sound if you strum the string(s) at the same time. In fact, you can use the difference in volume to create complex rhythmic patterns.

Thanks to the strings, you get a very guitar-like sound out of it, even though you don't usually get the actual guitar voicings. Run it through some guitar effects, and you can get some very cool sounds and noises out of it. Chorus, reverb, distortion, any effect that you'd put on a guitar.

Because any unplayed strings are dampened, strumming the strings can give you that "washboard" effect. While that could be distracting, I think it adds interesting "guitar-like" noise to the sound. However, the effect can be lessened by playing more complex, four-note chords instead of simpler three-note triads.

Like I said, you can make sound simply by pressing the keys, and thus, can play melodic or harmonic lines as well as chords, but because the volume is lower than by strumming, and because you're limited to a 12-note range, the Keytar is not well-suited to soloing. The V-2 model has a 2-octave/24 string range, which would help there.

The default strings are pretty thin, though. The four lowest strings are .023 and sound pretty good, but the eight higher strings are all .009's. One of the first things I did was buy some heavier loop end strings to replace the .009's. I got a couple of .012's, .015's, .017's and .020's. I figured I would lay them out from highest and thinnest to lowest and thickest. Alas, I suck at changing strings, and ended up breaking a few while trying to get them on and tuned up. I ended up keeping 3 of the .009's so I would still have all twelve playable strings. But I do think the heavier strings help give it a meatier sound--I'll go get some more strings and try again to finish re-stringing it.

When I first saw pictures of the Williams Keytar, I figured playing it guitar-style with the strap over your shoulder would be awkward. I was right. It can be done, but it's really easier to play it sitting on your lap, or simply laying it flat on a keyboard stand and play standing up.

I don't know about that triangle-shaped, aluminum body, though, and I do wish they had some other colors for it. I suppose the aluminum body made it easier to do the precision machining and put it together, but I'd still like to see a solid wood body with some nice curves on it. The aluminum with the sharp edges just seems too harsh, although I suppose it could be considered a plus for metal or thrash musicians.

All in all, I'm really enjoying playing the Williams Keytar, and expect to start writing and recording with it pretty soon. I'd also like to get the V-2, but at $999, it'll have to wait a while. If I could just get someone else to do the re-stringing for me! ;-)