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It's not you, it's me 11 October 2009 at 02:17 [link]

Well, it's starting to look as if this blog thing isn't working out any more. I am shocked and saddened to see that we're coming up on six months since my last post. Six months! It's not that nothing is going on in my life, or that I haven't given thought to topics I'd like to blog about. In fact, I've thought a bit about reasons why I haven't blogged. Here's what I've been able to come up with:

  • Naturally, I've got to start off with the same reason you'll hear from anyone else. <whine>I'm so busy!</whine> Sure, I might be able to claim that I'm a busy person, what with my important job and all. Ha. Plenty of other faculty members maintain active blogs and still get their work done. And it's not that I've lost interest in the medium of blogging; I read more blogs than ever.
  • For the past year or two, I've been growing dissatisfied with the editorial policy I established for this site. Specifically, I decided that I wanted to remain anonymous (or at least, that I would not overtly identify myself). Increasingly, I'm finding that this policy interferes with my ability to talk about interesting topics that would reveal my identity.
  • This blog is still powered by a set of Python scripts that I wrote, mostly in 2000 but with occasional updates thereafter. Rolling my own was a worthwhile experiment in 2000, but it's a nuisance today. As the medium evolves, it would require ever more effort on my part to stay current. And as little time as I've been devoting to blogging, I've got even less to spend on developing the underlying code, particularly given the many excellent free solutions out there for the taking.

What I'm building up to here is that I think it's time to experiment with a change, to see if it can renew my interest in blogging. This is something I've been contemplating for a while, and I think I've finally built up the motivation to go for it. There are many ways to go about this change; here are my requirements:

  • I'd like to host the software installation and all the content. Just as a matter of principle, I prefer not to rely on a third-party site. Having my own blog installation also allows me to make finer-grained changes to look, feel, and behaviour.
  • I expect that the new blog will not be anonymous. Theoretically, I lose the ability to speak freely about, say, my job, my bosses, my students, my colleagues, and so on. Of course, that "freedom" is the blogging equivalent of security-through-obscurity (the text of this blog has always been in plain view), and is therefore mostly an illusion.

    Still, it would be nice to make an occasional restricted post. This sort of thing is easy in Livejournal, but that only works because I read enough LJ blogs that it's worth having an account and friending people. I don't want to force readers to keep track of an account on my site. Ian's blog, which uses browser-based authentication, has a similar issue. Also, I like using Google Reader for RSS feeds, and even if I have some form of authentication it's not clear that it can be compatible with Reader (or other aggregators). Does anyone have thoughts on that?

  • I absolutely want to support comments. That's one of the most painful absences in my software---the comment threads on the blogs I read are a rich source of information and entertainment. I don't want to go through the effort of implementing comments myself. I don't want to have to deal with comment spam.
  • I want better tagging or categorization of entries, so that, for example, I can point people at the complete set of One Minute of Music posts.
  • I'd like to have a web-based interface for authoring entries. My software requires me to create a text file and run a script that enters it into the database. The web-based approaches simply seem more lightweight, which means that I might be more likely to post.

Other features (feeds, customizable themes, images, etc.) are important but so common to blog software that I don't need to mention them.

Anyway, right now I've got a mostly-working test installation of Textpattern running on this server. It seems like it has most of the features I want, though I kind of prefer Bloxsom file-based model over the use of mysql in Textpattern and Wordpress. I'm still playing around with the look and feel, but if everything goes smoothly I might announce a changeover at some point.

Or not. As is common in the medium, this might be the last gasp of my nine-year-old blog. To paraphrase the old saying, perhaps we ought to blog as if every entry were our last.

(Oh, and at this point, music fans might be wondering "whither One Minute of Music"? Good question. I do have a few doodles I've been working on, and I enhanced my musical capabilities by buying Propellerhead's new software Record when it came out. I've been stuck, actually---I've got a full-length pop song that cries out for lyrics, but I've never written complete lyrics before. I've also got a few other doodles that could become more OMOMs. I don't think anything will happen on this front in October. Maybe November...)

What's this Flash thing everyone's talking about? 23 April 2009 at 14:59 [link]

Every now and then I see something built using Flash that makes me wonder whether I should learn to program in it. I mean, ultimately there's nothing you can do in Flash that couldn't be done any number of other ways, Java being the most likely alternative. However, it seems like Flash is running away with the coolness and sophistication, leaving Java to pick up the unappealing scraps (such as my university's appalling graduate student application system). I think I have a prejudice that tells me that Flash is too slow and not very programmable. I suspect that impression is about 17 years out of date (my first CO-OP job in 1992 involved creating Interactive Multimedia content using Macromind Director, which I believe was a very early precursor of Flash).

The most recent case in which I was thoroughly impressed by Flash is Audiotool. Audiotool is a flash-based music production system. It provides simulations of some classic synth gear: the TR-909, the TB-303, a matrix tool reminiscent of the Yamaha Tenori-On, a pile of effects pedals, and a few other gizmos. It's obviously less flexible than Reason, but the fact that it runs as a Flash gizmo inside a browser window is somehow very neat. Plus the interface looks like a physical tabletop covered with gear; the comparison to the Reason Rack is inescapable.

Seeing tools like ths one makes me think I ought to learn Flash for graphics and sound work. Happily, one of the developers of Audiotool has made the source code for a bunch of his previous experiments available for the curious. That might be a good starting point. There's also the growing body of open source Flash development tools to consider.

The riddle resolved 16 March 2009 at 22:17 [link]

First of all, thanks to my mother, who pointed out that this site was reporting internal server errors. For the record, I believe the maintainers of this server upgraded the web server installation. As a result I was running on a more recent version of Python, in which the random number generator I was trying to use was deprecated. I changed my calls to random (mainly used to choose a tagline at the top of the home page) and all was well.

I realize that I left the riddle in the previous entry unanswered. Ian was the first to respond with the correct answer (not surprising, since he studies codes for a living, at least to a first approximation). I'm sure most readers recognized the mysterious black writing as Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, the writing system used to write aboriginal languages such as Inuktitut. OK, great, so they included some Inuktitut message in the ad, perhaps the name of the film, right?

Wrong. The text is a simple substitution cypher (a cryptogram) of the English name. It's easy to see that, because the syllabic characters are broken into "words" with the same length as those in the English name. Looking more closely, you can see that the same symbols are used consistently to represent the same letters: ᑎ for T, ᕿ for E, and so on (go ahead, test your browser's Unicode support!).

So what's the deal here? It comes across as a cheap and insensitive stunt, as if the person creating the ad thought they had to make it look more "Inuity". As if it didn't matter what the text was; the syllabics are just clip art, after all, not actual language. Besides, in Canada the movie doesn't even use an Inuktitut name or writing, as is obvious from the movie's official site -- just French and English. (They do use the name Inuujjutiksaq internationally; I wonder what that translates as.)

I've been trying to come up with a good analogy for what kind of insensitive graphic could accompany a movie about a different culture or group, just to reinforce the point. But I haven't been able to pick the appropriate group or offensive graphic: "Can you believe that the ad for that movie about a black/Jewish/gay/furry has a _________ in it?" And no, I don't mean a black-Jewish-gay-furry person (as interesting a movie as that would make). Pick one, or devise your own.

The Necessities of Life: a quick riddle 28 February 2009 at 21:18 [link]

We have the calendar for our local repertory theatre hanging from our bulletin board at home. On the front page of the current issue, they've been advertising the Canadian film The Necessities of Life. Here's their ad:

After walking past this ad for weeks and merely glancing at it, I noticed something very odd about it over the past few days. Does anyone else see what it is? And no, I'm ignoring the two (count 'em, two) typos in the name Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Just curious.

Helpful comments regarding my personal appearance in the context of teaching 26 January 2009 at 12:14 [link]

I finally got around to reading the written comments on my teaching evaluation forms from last term. For the most part they're positive. The overall ratings are probably my lowest ever, which isn't surprising given that this is the first time I've taught non-majors. And some individual students were quite negative. Oh well. The most common criticism was that the lectures are too fast. I do have to work on that -- I tend to speed up when I get excited.

There were a few interesting comments on my personal appearance. One student wrote "I appreciated that Craig always had a casual appearance. It made him very approachable". I've seen different attitudes on the question of appropriate dress for faculty. Clearly I'm on the casual end, though I don't go around in the summer wearing tight Adidas shorts like at least one professor in my department. I know our chair (who is a very snappy dresser) would prefer us all to be a bit more dressed up. But I agree with this student: I'm a casual person, and I want students to feel at-ease with me. My uncle, a distinguished professor, once told me that the only rule I needed to remember for teaching was to wear a jacket and tie, and I know professors my age who follow that rule. I don't think I could.

On the other hand, I suppose it's possible to be too casual. Two students, one from each of my sections, wrote that I should shave my back hair because it's distracting. I assume they're not suggesting that I shave it in class; that would be very distracting indeed. Perhaps I can kill two birds with one stone and wear more turtlenecks.

Master Bates 06 January 2009 at 17:16 [link]

Happy new year! With the arrival of 2009, I bring you another unsolicited discussion about words.

I've been reading Dickens's Oliver Twist, which Nath was kind enough to give me as a holiday present. I haven't read any Dickens before, though we've enjoyed listening to Patrick Stewart's reading of A Christmas Carol ever since Chris gave it to us year ago. Through that reading, I've come to love the rhythm of Dickens's prose (made all the better through Patrick Stewart's delivery).

In this book we are introduced to a number of scofflaws and ne'er-do-wells, including Fagin (the old Jew), Bill Sikes, Jack Dawkins (The Artful Dodger), and Charley Bates. This last character, being a youth, is frequently referred to by Dickens as "Master Bates". Heh heh heh. Master Bates. Get it? Of course you do.

Now, let's reflect on this. We have to assume that Dickens did not intend this pun (I mean, it's not like Charley Bates spends the book, er, living up to his name). We also have to assume that he was intelligent enough to avoid introducing such an egregious pun unintentionally, since it disrupts the flow of the story for intelligent-but-puerile readers (i.e., me). The conclusion I come to is that the word "masturbate" simply wasn't in common usage at the time.

Is that possible? Well, the introduction to my copy of Oliver Twist claims that the book was serialized beginning in 1837, in a magazine for which Dickens was hired as editor. Looking up "masturbate" in the Oxford English Dictionary, we see that the first recorded use of the word in English was in 1839 (and the next after that was in 1880). The dictionary also tells us to compare with the french masturber, which was used by Marquis de Sade in 1787. (Interestingly, there are also several competing etymologies for the word.) Taking the OED as authoritative on first use, we can make a legitimate claim that indeed, Dickens might not have been aware of the word when he wrote Oliver Twist, despite his considerable vocabulary. We can assume that this wasn't a not-so-subtle bit of lowbrow humour at his character's expense (as funny as that would be).

Of course, this analysis leads inevitably to one other question. If masturbation was only invented in the early 1800s, what did people do before that to pass the time?

Comments, writ on water 08 October 2008 at 22:03 [link]

This morning, I decided spontaneously that I would finally attack the problem of hooking a commenting system into this site. I figured out a simple way to do this.

Now, many of you already use the Livejournal feed of this blog for comments. I appreciate that, since they did all the hard work and I'm just piggybacking on top of that. I decided that when building the page view for individual thingo entries (which you can find by following the link from LJ, or clicking on [link]), I would scrape the LJ page for my feed and figure out what URL they're using to represent that entry. Then I can embed that link in my blog to direct people to the appropriate page for comments. For bonus points, I'd cache the URL so that I can go back later and see old comments.

Mission accomplished, sort of. If you're looking at the single entry view for this entry, there's a fair chance that you'll see a comments link at the bottom. The caching doesn't seem to be working, but I'm not worried about that problem. You see, the big issue is that LJ doesn't seem to store old syndicated posts and their comments. All the wonderful comments you've left in the past are gone! We can't revisit our discussion on whether Harry Potter can be choked underwater, for example.

I guess I'm left with a couple of options. I can write my own commenting system. Writing blog software was an interesting exercise in 2000, but at this point I can't see the point; frankly, other people have done much better jobs at this than I ever will. I can become a partial sell-out and install popular blogging software like Blosxom or MoveableType, or become a total sell-out and use a hosted blogging site. In both cases, I would want to find an automated way to pump all my old blog entries into the new system. Or I can abandon comments altogether and remain a Web 1.0 curmudgeon (as my uncle would say, I can embrace trailing-edge technology).

Er, comments?

September 2008 Minute of Music 08 October 2008 at 21:43 [link]

It was a heroic tale of derring-do, and we are admittedly well into October by now. Nevertheless, it is my pleasure to offer you September's Minute (well, 2:16, but who's counting?).

Download: [ogg] [mp3]


  • Yes, I'm calling this September's OMOM. I'm hoping to have more time in the second half of the month to do an October Minute.

  • Yes, this is more bleepy electronic stuff (sorry, no chucka guitars). Unlike some of the previous Minutes, however, I actually kind of like this one. I think it holds together reasonably well.
  • The whole thing got started because of the beautiful sound that makes up the sixteenth-note sequences. The sound was hiding inside a complex arpeggiated Combinator in the Reason Factory Sound Bank, but I'm using it without the arp.
  • Unlike several other Months, I didn't draw inspiration from Zero 7 this time. The most obvious antecedent for this song is the beautiful Aphex Twin song "Chesh", which is on an ambient compilation that Doug gave me years ago. I think the high theremin-like sound towards the end is reminiscent of a song by Aphex Twin and μ-Ziq on the "Expert Knob Twiddlers" album. So thank you, Mr. James. I also stole one miniscule idea from Tom Third.

Thanks for listening, and remember to ask your local radio DJ to play more Minutes of Music.

Local arts update 02 October 2008 at 16:19 [link]

Those of you who eagerly watched the calendar inch over into October, hoping for the next installment of OMOM, are no doubt disappointed by now. I still haven't put one up for September, and I'm not sure I'll be able to make one any time soon. My schedule's simply too full at the moment. Rest assured that when I find some spare time, I'll devote (some of) it to music making. Interestingly, T suggested today that we should start an on-campus music production club, which would meet over lunch every two weeks or so and work on making music. That would probably help me find more time for OMOM.

In other news, I'm pleased to report that I supported the arts. Specifically, I purchased a single mega-ticket for a five night performance of all fifteen Shostakovich string quartets. Woo hoo! I even threw in a donation to help support this fairly ambitious project. And so, to our esteemed prime minister, who claims that ordinary Canadians do not support the arts, let me say this: Bite me, Harper.

In still other news, I'm really enjoying the new album Dear Science by TV on the Radio. But I don't think I'm out of line when I say that the video for the song "Golden Age" is, like, totally gay. I'm not I could articulate why exactly, but, well, wow.

More information about logically flawed books 23 September 2008 at 23:11 [link]

With the onset of autumn, Nath brought home a book of slow cooker recipes from the library. Hurray! I love soups and stews that have been simmering all day in the slow cooker. Also, it's just about the only way that my poor nubby teeth can handle beef.

Unfortunately, this cookbook is not without its problems. In several places, a recipe will encourage you to "serve this with" some other side dish mentioned elsewhere in the book. The Chicken Cacciatore recipe suggests Roasted Potatoes as a side dish. Great, except that both recipes take hours to cook in the slow cooker (or am I expected to have two?). To be perfectly fair, I should say that I don't know exactly how long it takes to cook the roasted potatoes -- the page number you are directed to contains the recipe for Pork Chops With Winter Fruit, as does the entry for Roasted Potates in the index. I'm not sure what the deal is there.

Later, the recipe for Caramel Peaches (yum!) observes that it's "the perfect dish to whip together when unexpected guests arrive". Mind you, this is a dish that cooks on low heat for four to six hours. I can understand "whipping together" a batch of cookies or brownies. But if you have six hours to put together this dish for impending guests, they can scarcely be considered unexpected. On the other hand, making your guests wait six hours for dessert might be an appropriate way to punish them for arriving unexpectedly. Take that, guests!