Friday, 22 August 2008

From a spam subject line: “Aliens Deny Impregnating Paris Hilton”

Is the bigger story that she’s pregnant, that she had sex with one or more aliens, or that aliens are on this planet?

(Yes, I know it’s a Madlibs thing and none of it is true. It’s still funny.)

Monday, 23 June 2008

Even though I may not totally agree with his politics, I’ve been a fan of Billy Bragg for many years. His songs are strong mix of punk, worker’s ballads, and the world at large that just have this certain appeal to me. Bragg played The Cedar a couple weeks ago and I took my friend Sherry to the show.

It was actually a pretty busy week: Association meeting on Tuesday, drinks with friends on Wednesday, Aimee Mann at the Zoo with Sherry on Thursday, Billy Bragg at The Cedar on Friday, then Stomp! at the Ordway on Saturday.

In the couple-dozen shows I’ve seen at The Cedar, this has been only the third where there were no chairs.

The first was Hoven Droven, a Celtic punk band at the Nordic Roots festival a couple years ago. The show started with chairs, but as the band got going people got up to dance. At first the chairs were (gently) shoved away from the stage, then quickly a bunch of people helped to stack them and put the chairs away properly. In under 5 minutes the floor was clear.

The second show was Konono No. 1, a percussion and thumb piano band from Africa. (Boy was that show loud!) They started the evening without the chairs so people could dance. The crowd really got hopping in sync with itself and you’d see this mass of heads bobbing into the air and back down again.

And then the Billy Bragg show. It was billed as limited seating, but I was surprised to find no chairs at all. I figured it meant the normal seating arrangement, but that there were more tickets than seats. I wouldn’t call Bragg’s music danceable – indeed, nobody really moved that much the entire show. However, the concert was sold out. With chairs The Cedar holds about 300 people but they must have sold 600+ tickets for this show. Standing room only in the truest sense.

The opening act was a guy named C. R. Avery. He did this beat-box, hip-hop, spoken word thing that was just great. I had to buy his two CDs after the show. If you’ve ever heard Kid Beyond before you’ve got the general idea, but with a bit more focus on the words than the beats and the looping.

Billy came out and it was just him and a couple guitars. One electric and one acoustic. He did several songs from the his latest album, Mr. Love and Justice, with a healthy dose of old stuff interspersed. I got to hear most of my favorites, including “Sexuality” and “The Space Race Is Over.” It was a really good show.

At one point, switching back from acoustic to electric, Bragg made a remark about amplification and apologized that I was getting the brunt of it standing there straight in front of his main stage amp. I just smiled, pointed to my ear plugs, and told him it was no sweat; I was getting a great show and couldn’t have picked a better spot about 6 feet off center right against the stage.

After the show he came out and signed autographs. He took the time to talk with everyone in line and come my turn he apologized again for the amplifier placement. I said he shouldn’t apologize, I knew what I was getting into by standing there. I have earplugs and could still hear every word, it just took the edge off. Sherry had helped me grab the set list from the stage, which he gladly signed and tried to point out the one or two spots where songs got added.

Then I asked him to autograph a couple CDs I had brought with me. As I handed them to him, I remarked that they were two of the old ones (not the oldest, but William Bloke and England, Half-English.) He started signing them, and asked “Who are they?” Confused, I looked and realized what had happened. He had written “To the Old Ones, “ and signed the first one.

Unable to make something up on the spot, I explained that I had said “Two of the old ones,” figuring he would just sign them and be done with it. Completely embarrassed, Billy remarked that after a show there is often no brain filtering information between ears and hands, so he’ll often just write whatever someone says because he’s talking with them at the same he signs stuff. “I’m just as likely to write ‘To the git that makes a terrible cup of coffee’ if someone said at the right time.” We all started riffing on “To the Old Ones” a bit, including my friend Kathy who was next in line, and eventually someone (I think it was Kathy) said “To the Young Ones.” The Young Ones was a British sit-com that played on MTV for a while here in the US. A bit more joking around and that’s what the second CD now says: “To the Young Ones, Billy Bragg.”

It was time to go, but I got a picture with Billy and he apologized again for the autograph mixup. I said it was no trouble at all. In fact it was great! Usually it’s just a signature, or “To Michael” at most – as if anyone would be fooled into thinking Billy and I were drinking buddies. These two CDs, “To the Old Ones” and “To the Young Ones” are now truly special. Not only do they have some good music on them, but I have a story to go with them.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

After my TwitterBerry review (it’s only O.K.), a friend suggested trying TinyTwitter by…well…TinyTwitter it seems. You can get it for Windows Mobile Pocket PC, Windows Mobile Smartphone, as well as older and newer Java enabled smartphones (MIDP 1.0 and 2.0).

This one seems to have gotten almost everything right. The main screen is your friend timeline. It shows them in reverse chronological order (newest at the top) with their respective icons and it shows the whole tweet. Moving between messages is easy, just scroll down the list to work backwards in time — no selecting necessary. In fact, if you select the message, it will show you a details screen, but you’ll find that everything was right there on the main screen in the first place.

Sending a reply is easy too. Just highlight the message, pop up the menu (with either select or the menu key on my Blackberry Pearl), and choose reply. It automatically fills in the @username part and you’re good to go.

The entry screen is otherwise straightforward. What more do you need than a place to type your message and hit send? There are two things I would like to see and really they’re just minor changes:

  1. When replying to someone else’s tweet, put the cursor after their @username so you can just start typing. It’s annoying to have to scroll over first. One could argue that leaving the cursor at the start makes it easy to fill in an instruction (d for direct message, follow or nofollow to control your friends list, etc.), but 99% of the time I’m not doing that. Generally replies are intended not only for whom they are directed, but the “room” at large.
  2. Add a character counter. The first line on the update screen only says “What are you doing?” (the ever-present Twitter question); there’s plenty of space to add a character counter so you know how much space you have left. Or use some of the other screen real estate, it’s not like 140 characters is going to fill things up.

The settings are easy to access and fairly straightforward. I’m not sure why there isn’t one “settings” area with sub-sections like most Blackberry applications, but the full menu is only a tiny annoyance. In the UI Settings you can turn on/off images, tell TinyTwitter to play a sound when you get a new direct message, and disable the last tweet ticker at the bottom of the main screen.

Under Sync Settings, there are similarly few choices. Just how often you want TinyTwitter to fetch updates. Never, 4 (the programmer’s favorite), 15, 30, or 60 minutes. I’d like to see this become more flexible, allowing for any user-selectable time here.

Finally there’s a section for Font Settings where the choices are small, medium, and large. Not that this choice actually seems to do anything. I haven’t experimented enough to see if this is an artifact of my overall Blackberry settings (I tend to use a pretty small font) or just something goofy about TinyTwitter, but I can live with it.

The final weird thing is that direct messages don’t show up in your friend timeline, but rather you have to go to a special screen called “Inbox” to see them. The Inbox also shows any replies sent your way via the normal @username thing. Kind of strange, but I can live with it.

It may seem like I’m nit-picking TinyTwitter to death, and perhaps I am, but it comes from love. In just a few days I’ve grown to really like TinyTwitter and would highly recommend it. At least on my Blackberry it completely kicks Twitterberry’s butt. That whole IM and RSS reader combo thing I was doing before? What on earth was I thinking!

Monday, 19 May 2008

I was headed to a friend’s house Sunday afternoon, driving West along 40th Ave in Woodbury, and it was in this middle-of-nowhere location that I came close to death. Much closer than I could ever be comfortable with.

40th is a two-lane road that is straight, flat, and open, with a 55 MPH speed limit. You can see what’s coming a mile ahead, easy. There are some groupings of trees here and there, but they’re set back from the road by 30-40 feet.

It was shortly after 1 PM and the sky was clear. Not being completely familiar with that section of road, I was doing a little under the speed limit. I saw the SUV pull up to the stop sign at a cross-street roughly 1000 feet ahead. They had a stop sign, I did not, so there was no reason for me to slow down very much.

Unless, of course, the SUV decides to enter the intersection…then stop half-way through completely blocking my side of the road. The driver either hadn’t bothered to look or didn’t see me. I’m thinking didn’t look, because I saw them pull up to the intersection and stop in the first place. Doesn’t matter, because there was no way they could have cleared the intersection before I got there.

When they pulled out I had less than 300 feet before reaching the intersection. That’s .06 mile — well under 1/10th mile. 300 feet until disaster. 300 feet from death. 50 MPH is roughly 73 feet per second, so 300 feet goes by in just a hair over 4 seconds. 4 seconds to realize what’s happening, evaluate options, and execute what you hope is the best choice. The 60-0 braking distance on my car is around 120 feet. That’s half the time I had before meeting with what seemed certain disaster.

That’s 2 seconds from death.

Luckily time stood still. I slammed on the brakes, swerved around the front end of the SUV, then punched it to get back my own side of the road before someone else came along. If I had a passenger, they could have reached out to touch the SUV’s front-end on the way by.

I have no idea why the SUV stopped. If they hadn’t, or if there had been a car coming the opposite direction, people would have died — not the least of which would have been me. There would have been no way to avoid it.

I don’t mind the occasional test of my car’s handling capabilities, but I’d rather do so on my own terms and without the involvement of anyone else on the road.

Thankfully the final 5 minutes of my journey passed without further incident, but I had to sit for 15 minutes just to stop shaking.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Just today I finally thought to look for a Blackberry app to do twitter updates. A quick Google search brought me to Twitterberry by Orangatame (http://www.orangatame.com/) so I decided to give it a go. Until now I had been using a combination of Twitter’s Gtalk interface and Newsclip, my RSS reader of choice.

Twitterberry has potential, but it’s not quite there yet.

The friend timeline has a nice layout that shows people’s icons and is a handy interface to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show the whole message either on-screen or when the individual tweet is highlighted. You have to select the message (just hit the select button or press enter), but then there isn’t a way to move between messages. It’s back to the list, then pick the next one to read. At least you can do replies and direct messages right from that list.

The update screen (where you write your own tweets) is straightforward. Just a blank screen and a character counter– something my IM client doesn’t do.

The config is minimalist. Just user name and password. The software doesn’t even auto-retrieve timeline updates, which is a big disappointment.

Another irritation is that Twitterberry doesn’t do anything to keep track of where in the stream you last fetched and download everything since then. It also only shows the last 20 updates, which is a major bummer when you follow more than a couple people and they tweet even a modest amount.

Overall, it’s not bad, but there is much room for improvement. It’s not even a 1.0 version (0.6 actually) and it’s free, so I can’t really complain too much. It will be interesting to see where Twitteberry goes in the future.

Updated 2345 PM: expanded the review slightly to include a couple extra notes.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

I just spent the afternoon helping Patrick redesign his consulting site MACHINE METHODS. It’s another study in minimalism in Web design. Hop on over and take a look.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

At the Kimya Dawson show Wednesday night:

KD: (tuning guitar) So…Are there any questions? Woman in Audience: What’s your favorite color? KD: Blue. KD: A sort of brownish blue. (audience chuckles) KD: Neon clear.

Saturday, 05 April 2008

This is the first installment in an infrequent series on concert sociology that will depict a particular segment – genus, if you will – of the concert-going public. Kind of a taxonomy or spotting guide for concert patrons. Don’t be surprised if you spot someone you know, or even spot yourself somewhere in here.

Aves Liberticus – Freebird

First up is the Aves Liberticus, or Free Bird. Abundant in their natural habitat of Southern-Rock concerts, they are plentiful at nearly any public music performance.

For the unfamiliar, “Free Bird” was a song released by Lynyrd Skynyrd in November 1974. It begins as a slow power-ballad, but clocks in at over 9 minutes (album version; longer in concert) and features gospel-flavored organ, slide guitar, and a 4+ minute guitar duel. At one concert, Steve Wilson (the band’s guitar player), says that they will play one more song. Someone in the audience yells back “Free Bird!” likely due to the song’s length and a desire for the band to play as long as possible. In the 1980’s a radio DJ urged listeners to yell “Free Bird!” at a Florence Henderson concert as a joke.

Whether it’s an opportunity to make a request, or done as a gag, every band seems to have it’s “Free Bird.”

I was at a CD release show for Nickel Creek’s Why Should the Fire Die? The band played each song from the album, in order (a neat concept for a release party), then took requests. A couple requests in there was one of those uncomfortable pauses and someone in the band said “It doesn’t even have to be one of our songs!” Everybody got a laugh out of it, then Chris Thile added “I know there’s one guy out there dying to yell ‘Free Bird’ right now. Don’t. That stuff isn’t funny.” There was a brief chuckle, then someone asked for “American Pie” or something else completely ridiculous and the band nearly choked from laughter.

At the Mike Doughty show the other night, and pretty much every one of his shows, there’s someone that yells “Firetruck!” between every song until it gets played. This time around Doughty said “Dude, if I promise to play ‘Firetruck!’ will you stop screaming for it?” Then a long pause and “In fact, if anyone shouts ‘Firetruck’ for the rest of the show, I promise never to play it at any show ever again. You’ll ruin it for everybody.” He said it with a huge smile on his face, but I wonder if there wasn’t just the tiniest bit of truth to it.

Even my favorite band, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers has a “Free Bird” in the form of “Mekong.” It’s a song from Rogers days heading The Refreshments. At every show there’s a guy hollering for “Mekong” practically every song. Finally at one show Roger laughed and asked “Have you ever been to one of my shows where we haven’t played Mekong? It’s coming later.” For Roger to skip “Mekong” at a show would be like the Rolling Stones not bothering to play “Satisfaction” – it would quite possibly start a riot.

There you have it, the next time you’re at a concert, you’ll be ready to spot the Aves Liberticus and see for yourself.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Bruce Parens is up for a seat on the OSI (Open Source Initiative) board. You can read more about them at http://opensource.org/, but the short version is that they help educate and advocate the benefits of Open Source. They also act as a standards body to maintain the Open Source Definition — basically the traits that make up what Open Source is.

Please read up on the subject, then go sign the petition so that he may be elected to the OSI board.

Thank you!

Monday, 17 March 2008

As a child I was never good at waiting for Xmas, and I’m no better now.

I want to rebuild my laptop and my work desktop. They both run Ubuntu, the desktop is 6.10 and the laptop is 7.04. Ubuntu 7.10 is the current version, but 8.04 is on the way — unfortunately not until 24 April according to the schedule.

I’ll wait it out at this point, but it’s frustrating. I’ve got some time to rebuild the laptop right now, but by the time I get it set up the way I like, 8.04 will come out the week after. It’s too close to not wait, but so far as to be maddening.

I do take some solace in 8.04 being an LTS (Long Term Support) version, so when I build the new server at home it will be stable for 3 years minimum. Actually, Ubuntu supports LTS Server for 5 years, but how often does hardware actually last that long?