Friday, December 19, 2014

the mind of a seat snatcher revealed, accidentally

I've always been both fascinated and disgusted by people who take up extra seats on a crowded subway. The people who feel their shopping bag needs a seat more than their fellow passengers. What kind of a person is that?

I mean, there are those weird people who put a bag on a seat and stand next to it, and while that's a waste of a seat, at least with them you can say that they just don't understand the appeal of sitting. They're happy to stand so it may just not occur to them that others like to sit.

But those people who sit next to their bag (or, as sometimes happens, between two bags) know the importance of sitting down, because they're doing it. They know that when you're on the train, it's better to sit. they just don't care that they're preventing someone else from sitting.

It drives me crazy. Inspired by "Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train," I've even considered creating a Tumblr called "Bags That Need a Seat More Than You Do," but that's a project for a later time.

Sometimes I just want to ask these people, what the fuck? What sort of entitled person thinks that their own comfort is all that matters?

One seat snatcher has answered that question in an article in Salon meant to be about racist white people that turned out instead to be about the writer's own narcissistic selfishness.,

The article, '“Listen when I talk to you!”: How white entitlement marred my trip to a Ferguson teach-in.', by Brittney Cooper, begins thusly:

On Friday, I was on the train to New York to do a teach-in on Ferguson at NYU. Beats headphones on, lost in thought, peering out the window, I suddenly saw a white hand shoving my work carry-on toward me. Startled, I looked up to see the hand belonged to a white guy, who was haphazardly handling my open bag, with my laptop perched just inside to make space for himself on the seat next to me.
So, a woman sits down on a train, puts her bag next to her, puts on headphones and stares out the window.

In an empty train, I will put a bag on the seat next to me, but if I do that, I constantly monitor the train to make sure it's not getting full. If the train starts to fill up, I put my bag on the floor, or my lap, because I don't want to be an asshole. If I'm wearing my bulky winter coat, I pull it close around me so it doesn't block the other seats. I have bad feet, I have bad knees; I know how important a seat is.

Cooper acknowledges that the train was full, and says she understands why someone would want to sit. But she objects to someone picking up her bag after failing to get her attention. She says he should have tried harder to get that attention, although if she thought moving her bag was a sign of white male privilege, it's hard to believe that a tap on the shoulder or a white hand waved between her eyes and the window would have not have set her off as well.

What she never acknowledges in the article is that she had no right to take up an extra seat. No, "yes, I was in the wrong to take an extra seat on a crowded train, but it is inexcusable to grab someone's bag." Because it really is an asshole move to grab someone's bag; in spite of my bad feet I would never do that.

Cooper seems very angry that a white man did this, but it's hard to believe she would have been that much happier if a black man had grabbed her bag, or a pregnant white lady, or an elderly Korean. And that could have happened; I think we all know that pushy intrusiveness is not limited to any one race.

That's the fascinating thing about assholes; they will unselfconsciously tell you what assholes they are because they feel completely justified in all their asshole behavior. I'm sure that white guy would be willing to sit down and write an article about how he had to grab some stranger's bag and move it with the some obliviousness to his breach of social norms. Rather than being an article about white entitlement, this is simply an article about two entitled assholes facing off.

Most people in the comments section reacted as I have, taking her to task for her own bad behavior. But there is the occasional comment that says, "white people just don't get it." This is a pretty common statement when discussing racism, and a true one. White people don't know what it's like to live in a society where they are considered the other, the ones to be mistrusted and watched out for. We didn't grow up in a society where a "flesh-colored" band-aid is off-white, where the white guy is the television detective and the black guy is the street-wise junkie, where a preponderance of black faces in a neighborhood makes it "bad." We totally don't understand the black experience.

But what does that have to do with being a jerk? Does it mean black people get a pass for being assholes? Is that part of reparations?

An asshole is an asshole. It is condescending to say we are not going to hold Brittney Cooper to account because she's black and upset about Ferguson. It is patronizing to say, "well, she's black,
she has a right to be an ass," and unfair to all the polite people of all races who show consideration for their fellow humans.

When that guy grabbed her bag she had a choice. She could think about how her inconsiderate behavior created a situation, or she could decide that the real problem was racism. She chose the latter, and that tells me a lot about the sort of person who lets you stand so their bag can sit.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Trankey Do Transformation: How Hard Could It Be to Redub a Two-Minute Dance Video?

This is a long and detailed explanation of the process by which I re-dubbed and extended the Spirit Moves Trankey Do video. As with the video itself, it is possible that this is interesting to no one except me. The video can be viewed here.

Context: An Overview of Spirit Moves

In the 1930s, a German Immigrant dancer named Mura Dehn discovered the Savoy Ballroom, inspiring her to spend decades documenting Jazz Dance. The result is the five-hour documentary Spirit Moves.

If you watch the chunks of Spirit Moves on youtube, you'll notice that the music never quite matches the movement. Recording sound and video was not as simple as it is now, and it appears Dehn simply recorded the dance and dubbed the music in later.

One of the things Dehn captured was the Trankey Do (referred to as the "Trunky Doo" in a Spirit Moves title card, one of many alternate spellings; Wikipedia says it's Tranky Doo, for what that's worth.)

The Beginnings: Learning a Dance from Videos, and a Bright Idea

A few weeks ago, I decided I would teach myself the Trankey Do. There are a number of youtube videos where the steps are broken down and other videos that show it performed. The steps themselves are listed on Wikipedia and LindyWiki.

Everyone seems to do the routine a little differently, so I figured I'd go to the earliest recorded version in Spirit Moves, featuring Al Minns, Leon James, and Pepsi Bethel. (While Pepsi is sometimes credited as the routine's choreographer, swing history Bobby White makes a persuasive case that it was originally choreographed by Frankie Manning and later extended with the simpler final moves by Minns and James.)

Unfortunately, I couldn't dance along to the Pepsi video because the song dubbed in - The Dipsy Doodle - was one beat off. The first move, Fall off the log, traditionally starts on 8, but it was dubbed to start on 1. It felt wrong when I tried to dance along.

I decided to redub the sound to match the dance. I figured it would be easy.

A Simple Tweak: The Right Music on the Right Beat

Because of the Spirit Moves video, dancers nowadays usually do the routine to the Dipsy Doodle, but according to wikipedia and other sources it was originally danced to Erskine Hawkins' Tuxedo Junction. I figured as long as I was changing the soundtrack, I might as well be authentic.

Hawkin's version of Tuxedo Junction on youtube was too slow for the  video, so I edited them together with Vegas Pro 12, which allowed me to speed up the music. I got the speed so it matched the first few eights fairly perfectly and got the opening kick on the 8 where it belonged. I called it a success and uploaded it to youtube.

There was something strange though. While the first part of the video was close to other versions, I found that there were places where the dancers were not doing what was done in the instructional videos; for example, they were doing the knee slap on 7 instead of 8. I assumed that over the years the routine had been altered somewhat, but eventually I realized what the real issue was.

Getting Ambitious: Completing the Routine

The Spirit Moves video does not show the complete Trankey Do, fading out around the Paddles. I found a couple more old Trankey Do videos on youtube. One has only the first third of the routine, but the other, which was danced over the end credits of some old TV show, has Al Minns and Leon James doing the whole thing very fast. The quality is terrible and a big chunk shows Al and Leon in the distance behind the band, but the part missing from the Spirit Moves video is clearly filmed in spite of the credit text. I took that video and slowed it down to match the music. Then I synced it up so the Droop Boogies matched between the two videos and I dissolved there from one to the other.

When I danced along, I realized there was a bit missing from the end - there were only two shouts, instead of four, so I repeated the first shout a couple of times to fill out that section. Then I put it up on youtube, and since you can't replace youtube videos with new versions, I put a link in the first video pointing to this "better" one.

The Realization: This Isn't Right. At All.

I could now dance along to an authentic old school video of the entire Trankey Do routine. But as I did, I found there were some places where the second half seemed out of sync. I edited it again. I felt like there might be a difference between the Spirit Moves and TV Credits versions regarding where the Boogie Drops fell, and put them a couple of beats apart. I uploaded that version, then realized that if I compared the TV credits version with what I'd done, Al and Leon were on different beats entirely. I needed to start again.

At this point I decided to make a basic assumption; regardless of how the routine might have changed over the years, Al Minns and Leon James would be doing the same routine on TV that they did for Mura Dehn. Therefore, both routines should have the Eagle Slide happen on the same count in the same place in the music, and my goal was to make that happen in my video.

But while Al and Leon kicked on 8 on TV, Pepsi was kicking on 2, even though he synced up beautifully in the beginning of the video. So I began to look very carefully at where things went off.

First, there's a cutaway during the second of the Apple Jacks, and I realized that when the video goes back to a long shot, things are no longer in sync. I cut the video there and slid it forward a few tenths of a second until it matched, then stretched the cutaway, which doesn't really sync up well anyway, so it looked fairly seamless.

But that wasn't enough. It seemed as though the dancers were no longer dancing at the same speed. Did the cutaway represent a transition between two different takes?

I tried changing the speed of the dancers, and it got better, but it was still off.

The Realization: I Have Embarked on a Fool's Errand

Then I began to think about the music, and I realized I had been making the foolish assumption that Erskine and the dancers were both keeping the beat with machine-like accuracy.

Was this likely? What were the dancers listening to anyway? A 78 record? A friend with a harmonica?

I got a metronome and checked its beat against Hawkins' song, and sure enough, there is no steady beat that will consistently match that song. It speeds up and slows down, varying by as much as 10 bpm. I found the same thing when comparing the soundless Spirit Moves video against that metronome.

I started watching the Spirit Moves without sound, just counting the steps, and going by the number of steps while ignoring the music, the Eagle Slide appeared to happen on 8. But it wasn't working with the music. For some reason, the dancers rush right before that Eagle Slide, as though that guy with a harmonica sped up or skipped a note and the dancers just kept with him.

At this point I decided to do something extreme. If I counted the dance (as I was editing, I was counting everything outloud), the Crazy Legs after the jump starts on 1. There was no way to make that happen with minor speed shifts. I made a cut in the middle of the jump and slid the whole thing over around half a second, leaving a moment of blank video in its place. Now everything was where it should be - more or less.

I needed to get the TV credits part in better shape. At least here I had the original music as a guide to when they did what step, but once again, beats weren't accurate, and I had to fiddle with some chunks to get things synced up. Not perfectly synced , but enough so that I could dance along without getting totally thrown off.

While I had previously been uploading a new version to youtube every time I completed one, this time I decided to spend some time dancing along with this one to make sure that I finally had what I wanted. This was good, because I kept thinking of further tweaks.

First off, I realized I shouldn't leave Pepsi hanging in the air for 4 beats. I put the jump back together and took a clip of the landing and stretched it out so that Pepsi is simply crouched and waiting for a while. Later I decided it would be better to slow down the section before the jump a little so I didn't have to pad the pause as long, although this created an obvious slow motion quality to the jump.

The jump into the Crazy Legs was still an issue, because I couldn't jump that slow. Studying the video some more, I concluded that it would make sense if he jumped so that he landed on 5 (without the padding he would land on 3 in my edit), then jumped into the squat on 7. I moved thing around until he was making a very slow jump turn on 3 and 4. It was still unrealistic, and it seemed more likely he would start the jump after the 3.  I stretched the first three beats so that instead of putting his foot down on 2 before the jump it doesn't come down until 3. That seemed to make sense, looked more-or-less right, and I could dance along.

And That's It ... I Hope

At this point the Spirit Moves video was as close as I thought I could get it. Oh, I could get it closer if I were to break the video into tiny pieces and stretch and contract each of them to perfectly match the music, and every time I see something that's a little off I'm tempted to move it into place, but I've already sunk hours and hours into this "simple" project and I just can't take much more. It also occurred to me that it might have made more sense - since my focus was on the dance - to edit the music to fit the dance rather than vice versa, but I'll leave that experiment to someone else.

Was it worth it? Perhaps. Breaking the dance down so finely, and doing the steps on the right beat and on the wrong beat (I still think the knee slaps on 7 works really well) means I have an unusually strong sense of how Trankey Do is constructed. But if I knew it was going to take the five or six hours I spent on video editing rather than expected half hour, this video would not exist.