IFF18 @EdenCourt – Other Pleasures

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During last year’s film festival I organised my film reviews using the festival’s own themes – Highlights, New World Cinema, Documentaries, Altered States and Shorts – which worked well as my viewing centred on a couple of the categories allowing me to corral them neatly. However, this year my viewing was rather less thematic as I saw a rather more disparate selection of films. So I find myself with three remaining films to write about that don’t seem to really hang together. However, arguably, these three films epitomise the theme of the films I saw over the course of the festival. Which is that of the importance of love – whether romantic, familial or platonic – and it’s absence, to our lives and how they interact with the world around us.

Capernaum

I picked this film out from the program because I’d seen Nadine Labiki’s first feature film Caramel several years ago, during my first run through of the 12 films challenge. And the film certainly lived up to my expectations even if it could not have been more different in subject and tone. It’s a film about poverty and exploitation, about cruelty and kindness, the price of survival and whether or not it is worth paying. Caphernaüm, we are told in the opening title, means chaos and that’s as apt a description as any of the world the characters inhabit. An invisible world of desperate poverty, petty crime, illegal immigrants and refugees.

Capernaum is like Caramel in one important aspect, in that it is a film about love and the lack of it. Most of the action is driven by Zain’s on-going quest to be a good older brother, first to Sahar and then to Yonas. To defy those who insist that love is only something to be exploited and abused for profit. The film’s only true moment of grace feels like a reward for Rahim who, despite her own troubles and struggles, finds the space to be kind to Zain in a way that almost no-one else in the film even tries to be.

Anna and the Apocalypse

I’m not sure what category this film should be put under. It doesn’t really fit under any of the film festival categories – for that matter, it’s a complete genre mash-up. It’s very definitely not a Hollywood movie though; it’s fundamentally a very Scottish movie – less about the accents than the news anchor of choice being Jackie Bird. I picked it because it was one of the young film programmer’s choices, and they gave us one of the gems of last year’s festival Cloud Boy and they did not let me down. This film was a delight.

It’s not a great work of cinema but it is genuine pleasure to watch. I knew it was a comedy horror going in, but not that it was also a musical and that could have gone horribly wrong. However, the second musical number makes it very clear that the film knows full well it’s ridiculous and isn’t remotely embarrassed about it. It’s the perfect balance between silliness and sincerity that allows them to pull it off. Though it probably also helps that the horror elements work really well, the gore effects are excellent, there are real moments of tension and some good jump scares to sit alongside the physical comedy that goes along with fighting zombies.

Birds of Passage

This is a film about the drugs trade in Columbia like no other. For a start it’s about marijuana rather than cocaine – and frankly in the day-to-day lives of the protagonists, it’s alcohol that causes the most damage. Additionally it’s set among the Wayuu people of northern Columbia – the largest indigenous ethnic group in the country – so not only is about 80% of the dialogue in an indigenous language, people both adhering to and ignoring cultural traditions affect everything that happens. In fact, everything that happens later is a product of our central character Rapayet’s quest to get the dowry for his chosen bride. As such the film ends up being not only about greed and corruption but also the battle to keep cultural traditions alive in the modern world. It’s sort of a gangster film in the family saga tradition, but it’s also something much more interesting and much stranger.

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IFF18 @EdenCourt – Silent Move Special

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There’s always a danger, when you’re at a film festival that’s late in the year, that the programme will be a little derivative, a greatest hits of that year’s festival circuit rather than entity of it’s own.

What you do tend to be guaranteed at the Inverness Film Festival that you don’t tend to get at other film festivals I’ve attended, is a highlight from the Bo’ness Silent Film Festival. Some year’s it’ll be a restored print, others it’ll be a newly commission score, almost always it’ll involve live musical accompaniment. I do appreciate that we not only get silent movies here on a reasonably regular basis, but also that when they do show up, you’re pretty much guaranteed a live accompaniment, as for me, that’s one of the primary reasons to see a silent film projected.

This year’s special feature was the 1920 US version of Last of the Mohicans – there have been enough film adaptations of this film it requires a fair amount of disambiguation – with a new score composed and performed by David Allison.

It’s very much a film of it’s time, and as such has all the obvious problems – there’s not an actual American Indian in the piece. However, this is not a film in which white people come out remotely well. Neither the French or English forces cover themselves in glory – the film even openly acknowledging their shameful role in the massacre – and a great deal of the harm that unfolds in the film is the result of white guys being cowardly. Magua is a piece of work throughout, but he’s essentially a spy in a time of war, his ‘betrayal’ is essentially him doing his job.

Strangely, a major theme of the film seems to be men falling in love with Cora and doing horrible things rather than accept that she doesn’t like them back! (The film indulges in a refreshing lack of blaming her on that front, her sister might be described as capricious but Cora’s just got a ‘girlish crush’ on Uncas.) Cora and Uncas instead get a surprisingly sweet courtly, if doomed, romance – I kept hoping in vain that she’d run off with Uncas and leave her useless drip of a sister behind. Sadly, between the plot of the book and the racial conventions of the time, that would never be, but nonetheless, they get all the big romantic moments.

IFF18 @EdenCourt – Documentaries

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There are far less documentaries showing at the Inverness Film Festival this year, which on one hand is disappointing – because I love documentaries – but on the other hand is a bit of a relief – I can actually see them all this year! All of this year’s documentaries are political, if only with a small p, because they all feature people trying, in very different ways to build a better, kinder world for the future.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is the only documentary I knew anything about before going in. It’s a documentary about Fred Rogers, or as he was known simply to a couple of generations of children in the US, Mr Rogers. I know enough Americans who grew up watching his programmes to have an awareness of him as a cultural landmark, though unlike that other PBS stalwart of US children’s programming Sesame Street I’d never actually seen an episode myself.

It’s utterly fascinating watching him interact with children and the surprising amount of sincerity that seems to have permeated everything he did. (And interestingly, how that sincerity allowed him to communicate really effectively with children, yet that didn’t really work with adults.) That sense that the whole team working on the show appreciated the responsibility that they had to their young viewers. Also in the face of the criticism that I’ve been hearing all my life about children’s television, they seem to have had this radical notion that you needed to teach children the difference between fantasy and reality, rather than expecting them to understand it unaided.

It’s a warm and affectionate portrait of a man and his work.

RBG

Speaking of warm and affectionate portraits, RBG is an informative and enlightening documentary about both US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and about the legal history of woman’s rights in the United States. It’s partly an explanation of how Ginsberg has become an unlikely hero/idol for young Americans, but it’s as much a history of how and why she – and the wider political landscape – got to where she is now. (One of the interesting contrasts with the above documentary is that the Saturday Night Live sketches of Ginsberg are notably funnier and more affectionate than those about Rogers.) It certainly helps that Ginsberg is a living presence in the film, more compelling than charismatic, but always with the sense of great passions carefully constrained.

More than all of that, this felt like a quietly important, timely and necessary documentary. In these troubled and divided times in the states, it feels important to remember how recent and hard won so many things we take for granted in society actually are. How much has changed in the lifetime of one woman and how fragile that progress is in truth. Perhaps there is no metaphor more apt for the position of civil rights in today’s America than the image of one tiny, elderly Jewish woman, still standing firm against those who would turn back the clock on progress.

Sidney and Friends

At the opposite end of the scale, this is a documentary about an all but invisible community; that of transgender and intersex people in Kenya. Shot in beautiful black and white that gives the images a clarity and a starkness that fits the subject matter perfectly. Sidney in particular is a luminous presence, despite the grief and horror of their life-story, their resilience and strength of character, along with their continuing determination to build a life of their own and help others like themselves makes them a particularly compelling presence.

One of the issues raised within the film that I would have liked to have seen more about, was the issue of language. One of the interviewees made reference to the difficulty in helping people in their community arriving in Nairobi who don’t speak either English or Swahili. The extra layer of difficulty faced by those people trying to figure out who they are when they literally don’t have words for those things. Nonetheless it’s a beautiful and thought-provoking film, ultimately hopeful about this group of people as they build their lives and community together.

IFF18 @Eden Court: A Tale of Two Margarets

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One of my favourite parts of attending a film festival is getting to see the more obscure offerings and taking risks on things I might not otherwise see. This year’s Inverness Film Festival saw special screenings of work by two female art film makers: Margaret Tait and Margaret Salman. Other than their shared forenames and being heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism their work has very little in common, but it was interesting to see an overview of both their work and to get a wider context for the changing nature of art film making in Scotland over time.

Blue Black Permanent

I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from Margaret Tait’s only feature film, but this wasn’t it. This was something very different and very special. It’s a dreamy film, about loss and art and grief, an art film in all the best ways. Time and sorrow flows through the film and it’s narrative like waves, ebbing and flowing with Barbara’s remembered grief. Gerda and Barbara’s narrations provide just enough narrative structure to hold the film together, to hold your hand through the dreamlike visuals.

It’s got that peculiar bittersweet and lovely quality of a particular type of Scottish film made in the 1980s and early 90s – for some reason I keep thinking of the opening scenes of Comfort and Joy (Forsyth, 1984) – combined with unashamed art film sensitivities and visuals. Something strange and wonderful.

It also left me with a strange feeling of resentment, that when I was in my early twenties making short films, I never knew she existed. I spent a great deal of time tracking down to watch and reading about the films of John Grierson and the rest of the documentary movement, looking for something and never quite finding it. I suspect it was Margaret Tait I was looking for all along.

Margaret Tait: Film Poems

I wasn’t originally intending to attend this screening, but having been so moved by the previous evening’s screening of her only feature film I squeezed it into my schedule. I’m glad I did though, because they were, almost an object lesson on how to make short art films. I’ve sat through some truly terrible art films in my time and I now see what many of them were striving for and failing to achieve. Film poems is a particularly fitting description for what these are, there’s both a sparseness and a focus on details that feels very poetic. (I’ve been wrestling with Sorley MacLean’s Eimhir recently so it felt oddly fitting to find it referenced here, but it was the little urban details of Edwin Morgan’s poetry that I was reminded of watching these.) There’s an elegiac quality to these films, a deep sense of place and the inevitable, unstoppable passage of time.

I had, in fact, seen one of them before – Portrait of Ga – as part of a screening of shorts by Scottish female film-makers at the festival a couple of years ago. Which is clearly what prompted something in my brain to chime when I saw her name in the programme. I didn’t like all of the films, but the ones that worked – I particularly enjoyed Colour Poems of 1974 – are perfect little capsules of moments in time and the feelings and emotions that go with them.

Cladach and Others

I should say first of all that I did actually like Cladach. It worked effectively as a portrait of Ullapool placing it within its historical, geographical, environmental and cultural context, with a remarkable deftness in the showing not telling department. There was just enough narrative through the ‘found’ sound components to hold the film together and carry the viewer along with it.

However, I struggled somewhat, to greater and lesser extents with the other films in the collection. The films all seemed to start with a clever, or aesthetically pleasing idea and then drag it out that bit too far. Stretching the concept beyond the comfortable endurance of the viewer – presumably intentionally – such that I could feel myself riding the emotional wave from bafflement to enjoyment to impatience into relief at the end. Even Cladach suffers from this a little, as the underwater segment – featuring my new friend the hydrophone – was gorgeous and almost ethereal, but just went on too long. The tonal shift from the rest of the film was too abrupt to sustain itself.

I wanted to like these films more than I did, but it felt like the films were almost actively working against that.

I Heart Hydrophones

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Ever since I first had access to the internet, one of the great pleasures that it’s had to offer me, is the ability to accidentally stumble upon utterly fascinating discoveries that you never knew you were interested in. Despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of the algorithms that seek to give us ever more ‘accurate’ search results, it remains possible make these strange discoveries and fallen fascinating tangents. Like most things in life, sometimes you want to keep to the beaten track and other times you want to grab a map, a head-torch, and go spelunking.

When I was a student wiki-walking was a known phenomenon (XKCD have an illustrative strip on this) and a colleague of mine will often start watching a technology demo on youtube and fall down a rabbit hole that could end up with him watching the latest discoveries from NASA’s probes or learning how to make ASMR videos. Another friend of mine calls it falling down a hole in the internet. (And now we’re back to spelunking.) Personally, I tend to find myself listening to oral histories recorded in the middle of the Navajo dessert in the 1960s or reading up on how to build my own hydrophone. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve fallen asleep listening to location recordings from Sri Lanka or had to give myself a stern talking to about how much I don’t need an Otamatone.

Some discoveries prove to be only passing distractions, but others I come back to over and over again. Hydrophones, are definitely one of the latter.

My real interest in hydrophones, started in a somewhat unexpected location. It was a bright, brisk September day in which I was attempting to finally fulfil and completely different notion. Several years previously I’d read an interesting article on repurposed lighthouses and developed a hankering to go to the top of one. The quest seemingly growing in significance and importance – as these things tend to – the more I was thwarted in my attempts to carry it out. On the day in question, I’d spotted a chance to finally succeed – Cromarty Lighthouse was included in that year’s Doors Open Day events. Cromarty Lighthouse, is actually a retired lighthouse – and is now properly known as the Lighthouse Field Station, a part of Aberdeen University’s School of Biology.

The lighthouse itself is of the short squat kind that mark harbours rather the tall sentinel variety that mark lonely outcrops, which in practical terms means that only a limited number of people can climb its tower at any one time, so they had an exhibition in the base of the tower for those of us waiting. As part of their research, floating in the Moray Firth are a small number of hydrophones, recording the sounds – both natural and industrial – of the Firth for the purpose of passive acoustics analysis. (Some of the research station’s specialisms include the impact of marine noise pollution – from oil drilling, to marine renewables to ferries – on marine wildlife.) They had a variety of recordings and a kid-friendly game set up where you matched the recordings to their sources.

It turns out that there’s a world of difference between knowing, logically, that sound travels differently through water, so the underwater soundscape will inevitably be completely different, and putting on the giant headphones and immersing yourself in that other world while standing on dry land. Even better, they’d not long since had an artist in residence in working with some of the recordings which in turn lead down it’s own strange and wonderful rabbit hole.

I suspect I love hydrophones for the same reason that I love contact microphones, because they open up a whole other dimension in sound. Listening to the world through either of these type of microphones makes it explicit and undeniable how rich and complex the soundscape of our world truly is, and how much of it we ignore in day to day life.

Uncanny Valley: A Short Film About VR

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Uncanny Valley (Heller, 2015) is a film that explores seemingly simple ideas and, in the spirit of the best science fiction, takes them to a horrifying extreme. The first idea of the film, and the focus of the first half of the film, is what happens when virtual reality becomes fully, truly immersive. The film opens with interviews with men who have become addicted to VR and have almost entirely lost the ability to function in reality. The ‘VR Dependent’ are portrayed as junkies, living in buildings that are as broken down and decrepit as the men who inhabit them. Yet all the deprivation is interspersed not just with the luscious VR worlds and alien planets of gameplay, but also with gloriously surreal moments of people taking part in VR seemingly floating and tumbling in mid-air – taking ‘getting high’ to a whole new level’ – amid the deprivation of their ‘real’ surroundings. Pushing again and again, against our perception of what is ‘real’ and what is virtual reality, as a support worker walks among our floating friends. The use of visual glitches in both the VR and ‘real’ environments only adds to the sense of unreality, causing the viewer to question the veracity of everything we see and are told.

I can’t really talk about the second central idea of the film, because I don’t want to spoil the twist of the film and if I say a great deal about it, you’ll be able to guess the twist. (The film isn’t subtle in that way, I saw the twist coming, but the pleasure of the film is in the twist of the knife as your suspicions are revealed to be correct.) Suffice to say that it has plenty to say about the gamification of warfare and the use of robots and drones in combat.

It doesn’t pull it’s punches.

Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom

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Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom is a short film about dreams versus reality. On one level it’s about a young Chinese man, seeking an escape from his humdrum life by learning a new language and travelling half-way across the world to build a new life, along with the difficulties and miscommunications he encounters along the way. On another level it’s about the dreams of a young nation and the practical difficulties of making those real in this modern globalised world.

The film gently lampoons the attitudes of both Irish people – whether they speak Irish or not – and visitors to Ireland, towards the Irish language and it’s status within society and culture. But it’s not a film without teeth, it just keeps them below the surface, but stronger you feel about minority languages, the clearer they are to see.

Some of the best short films I’ve seen in and about any of the minority languages of these islands have been funny ones. (It would arguably make a sweeter, gentler companion piece to 2004’s Fluent Dysphasia.) After all it’s the wry smile to disguise the real pain below it, that saves any story about minority languages from being merely bitter, rather than bittersweet.

It’s only thirteen minutes long, but it packs a lot of feeling into it’s short running time.

Return of the Nablopomo!

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The nights are drawing in, the leaves are off the trees and the clocks have gone back, it can only mean one thing. It Nablopomo time again.

For new readers, the forgetful, or the merely curious NaBloPoMo is a sibling challenge to Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where instead of writing a novel during the month of November, bloggers post every day for the month of November.

At this point I’ve now taken part in the challenge often enough that it’s become a bit of an annual tradition. Last year I managed to write almost 10,000 words over 15 posts (12 here and another 3 on the food blog) so this year I’m aiming for 15,000 words during November. I made my, now traditional, list of writing ideas, and came up with 13 so far, which is rather hopeful! Given the nature of my work, it’s not going to be possible for me to post every day – I already know about a handful of days when I won’t get near a computer, let alone my own computer – but if I can manage to write enough posts that it averages out to one every other day, I’ll consider that a victory for the challenge.

Remixing Riga

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Earlier this year I made – and contributed – my first remix for the Cities and Memories project. Having successfully completed one remix I was keen to try to some more. But it’s been a busy old year for me professionally, so even once I’d gathered a new collection of field recordings in Riga and Helsinki in June, it was a while before I had the time to sit down and experiment with them. That is something I’ve found that I need a lot of when I’m remixing a sound, I need a lot of time. Once the idea hits me then the actual execution of the idea doesn’t necessarily take a long time – a couple of hours over a couple of days – but I definitely need time to sit with the recordings, to listen back to them in different ways until they’ve become familiar and slide back out the other side into strange again. Also I feel that this particular remix benefitted from being left to rest for a while – I built the core of the remix in mid-September, then left it to sit for a good fortnight, before coming back to it fresh and being able to see what needed done to make it better. At this stage in my ‘learning to remix’ process, I definitely cannot work to a deadline, perhaps that will come in time, but for the moment nothing shuts down the creative processes more conclusively. However, I have enough deadlines at my day job so I’ll try not to worry about applying them the art I make for fun and the challenge.

As I noted in the blurb I wrote for the website, the original recording was made either standing in front on the National Theatre or on the traffic island in front of it. (I took recordings of the trams from both places, but by the time I came to edit the recordings I’d forgotten which were which.) The original recording felt quite prosaic and ordinary, but I was playing around with reverbs and another of my recordings from Riga to create different effects and thought I’d try it on the Tram recording too and ended up with something that sounded like a ghost tram. There’s a lot of history in Riga, the obvious older history on the surface, and the more recent history lurking just below the surface. It felt like the tram had just rumbled out of the past and if I dared to get on it, it might take me off to another time entirely.

I tried to be a bit more adventurous with this remix, then I was with my first remix, so this one went through a couple of iterations before I settled on the one that I submitted. As I learn how to make these remixes, I’m trying to push myself a bit further each time. First time out I just experimented with layering sounds to create a realistic, although entirely imagined soundscape. This time round I built a more illusory soundscape, experimenting with both reverbs and loops to create something where the strangeness hopefully sneaks up on you. It’s also somewhat longer, both than the previous remix and than it’s original recording, which was a little bit daunting at first, but has also left me feeling like I have a better idea of how to push the envelope even further next time.

Ada Lovelace Day: (My) History of Coding

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It’s Ada Lovelace Day once again, and given that I actually remembered it was today in time to write something to mark the occasion, I really had no excuse not to. But what to write about? Then, inspiration struck, what have I been doing recently, as my down-time at work project? I’ve been learning to code. What better way to honour the first programmer, than to talk about coding? I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a programmer myself, but I am learning to code. So my contribution to the day, this year, is a history of coding, not in general, but in the specifics; the history of my own encounters with coding.

The first time I ever tried to code something, I was eight or nine years old and had no idea that was what I was doing. It involved an old Acorn BBC Micro and a Turtle. (Googling now reveals that what we actually had was the Roamer, not the Valiant Turtle, but we always called it the Turtle.) It was a maths practical exercise, involving collaborative working and calculating angles to make the Turtle draw shapes. It didn’t teach me to love maths, but it did teach me that there was a lot more to computers than word-processing and games.

My next encounter with programming was appropriately enough in Computing class. After years of disappointing IT classes where I mostly learned how to touch-type and how databases were structured, it was a delight to finally get to actually code things. But even then it was mostly writing little programmes that did basic maths or drew ASCII art. It was too little, too late in many respects, as most of my classmates who were interested in programming had already figured the basics out themselves and the rest of us had lost interest.

As a student I discovered the joys of the internet, and figured out enough html (and good old BBcode for forums) to get by, until Myspace came along with its accidental customability, at which point it was time to break out the big guns. I borrowed a book from the library, made learning html my summer project and went to town. It was an ideal first playground for html, tinkering within a pre-existing structure, learning what worked and what didn’t, both in terms of practical coding and design principals.

Over the last decade or so, as website user interfaces grew steadily better/more layperson friendly, what few coding skills I’d picked up over the years, slowly atrophying as I needed them less and less. I still defaulted to the ‘text’ or ‘html’ options on blogging sites and other content management systems, partly to keep my hand in, partly because the pretty ‘visual’ or ‘rich text’ interfaces are still not quite as clever as they think they are.

And probably, that would be that, I would never have bothered to acquire more coding knowledge than was necessary to make life easier/prettier on the internet of the early 00s.

Except, well, robots.

I love robots. Above all things those afternoons lying on the floor with my classmates, a turtle and a really long roll of dot matrix printer paper, taught me, was that robots are awesome. My practical adventures in robot building started as a fun way to learn more about electronics, but the more I built robots the clearer it became to me that there was a definite limit to what I could do with a robot without programming it myself. (I literally stood in the middle of the Small Boards Club meeting and announced in doom-laden tones, “I’m going to need to learn to code properly, aren’t I?”) If I were the sort of person who believed in fate, I would have suspected the universe of giving me a nudge.

The nature of my work as a tech, is that the work goes in phases, with lulls and rushes. Related to this, we have a variety of ‘bespoke’ tools at work that one of my colleagues has built over the years in lulls. Which are great, except that, well, what if the person that coded and built them gets hit by a bus. So they’ve been encouraging the rest of the team to get a better understanding of coding to help maintain them. And well, I wanted to learn to code, didn’t I? Who was I to turn down a work approved excuse to do so. So here I am with a work downtime project – it’s in my annual review paperwork as an objective – that is currently, nebulously labelled, ‘learn to code’.

The main problem I’ve come against in my attempts to learn to code is that an awful lot of tutorials fall into one camp or the other, of either being the absolute basics for absolute beginners or presuming that you already know one language well and are just learning a new one. (I’ve encountered this in many areas where I’ve been trying to learn something new as an adult, especially languages where all too often, resources are geared to either absolute beginners or the practically fluent, with nothing in the middle for the intermediate learner.) So I went back to basics and did an intro to HTML course – about 75% of which I either already knew, or realised I had known that at one point – but the other 25% was vitally useful, giving me the structural knowledge that I’d never previously needed. I’m working on CSS at the moment, and while it still occasionally melts my brain, and Java Script (my original goal in all this) remains even further down the road, it now seems like an achievable goal.

C++ still gives me the heebie jeebies, but one day, I may eventually be that kind of sound person.