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Category Archives: The Home Front

Antisocial Media

So there was this thing our neighbours did this month.

As someone (possibly Pierre Trudeau?) once remarked, when you’re in bed with an elephant, you sleep very lightly indeed. Well, the elephant’s been breakdancing lately, and there’s been a lot of concern about it. (How’s that for allusion?)

As a result of the venomous nature of the discourse on social media, I have not logged into my accounts since the latest pachyderm convulsion, except for business purposes. I decided that I have more important things to do than to watch an algorithm attempt to enrage me (hm, given what I’m studying right now, there’s some irony there, but we’ll get back to that in a bit…).

But, unsurprisingly, I still have Things I Want To Say. You probably don’t want to hear them, so here’s what I think is an excellent compromise! I’ll say those things here on my blog, where I’ll only bore a small number of people to death, and use an auto-posting plugin to serve them to the Book of Faeces and Bitter, and (in theory) comments will come back here, and everybody will be happy. Except of course for Mr Zuckerberg’s algorithmic army, but I’m ok with that.

In short: I do miss some people on social media, and I hope they join me here. But the stress of looking through the rest of the chaff, and getting sucked into the whirlpools of fermenting excrement, is just too great for me to want to venture back there.

Come to the dark side! We have snark!

I Dream In Anagrams

In my dream last night I was introduced to a new term: looes, for a certain kind of hair selfie. It’s an anagram of e-solo, of course, which makes sense for “selfie” – if you’re the kind of person who dreams in anagrams. It was in connection with Justin Bieber (there’s an anagram for “watt”…) and his apparent penchant for selfies about his hair. Whether or not he does, I’ve no idea.

But then my subconscious former English teacher stepped in and cleared its metaphorical throat. First it took down one of the copies of the Compact OED from the shelf (what, you don’t have more than one? Pity.) It looked up “looes” and said there was no mention of it; no surprise there. But then it grabbed the full OED (which I no longer have… sigh) and found an obscure reference in the works of Mallory and one in Pope. Of course it did!

And then the geographical part of my subconscious pointed out that clearly I was thinking of “loess”, a form of sedimentary rock formed from airborne micro-particles. Very fine, those particles, apparently like Mr Bieber’s hair. What, asks Subconscious English Teacher, the hell do you know about Mr Bieber’s hair? Geographer-subconscious shrugs, mutters something about Instagram, and wanders off to put sandals on over its socks.

At this point, Sir Sh*ts-A-Lot, one of my catsitting victims, begins bazooka-barfing on my shoes in the real world and my anagrammatic cryptic-clues dream draws to a merciful conclusion.

Why can’t I just dream about running uphill or being naked in front of the boardroom like a normal person?

Head of the GNU gnu

Old-School Coder

I have friends (no really! I do!) who poke fun at me for being so old-school with my text editor setup (I’m looking at you, Pyke). I make no attempt to conceal my affection for emacs. I have it nicely customized, just the way I like it – in fact I probably put more time and effort into customizing my editor than I do into customizing my living quarters. But I just realized today that I’m genuinely old-school in my coding. I code in *pen*.

I’m sure that my upbringing has something to do with this. My father was in senior management at Northern Telecom, back in the ’80s (back when they existed!), and before that he was a coder himself (in PL/1, APL and Fortran… *shudder*). I remember him bringing many of his employees to our house for dinner, and some of the earliest dinner discussions I can remember are about core leaks and stack overflows and such. And I remember one programmer in particular; I’m sure there’s one like him in every company, the oldest and smartest guy in the room, who more or less does his own thing until people find a completely intractable problem and bring it to him, whereupon he looks at the problem for a minute, tilts his head to one side, and writes out the solution on a napkin. The difference with Des, though, is that he would write out fully implementable (and commented!) code on that napkin. So that’s what I grew up thinking a “proper” programmer looked like.

Well, I’m certainly not a “proper” programmer. I *like* programming, and I sure do a lot of it, but I’ve got zero training in it (I took one computer class – “Fortran To Wash Out Wannabes”, I suspect it was called, and it worked!), and I’m the first to admit that I know diddly-squat about coding. But I really enjoy it. I like languages (both human and computer), I like math, and I like puzzles, and coding is the intersection of those three sets. But I don’t know enough about *any* programming language to just sit down at the keyboard and bang out a program. So what I do is, I think about a problem for hours or days at a time, and then I get out my pen and I write my code. The code is generally wrong, and will get crossed out and scribbled on repeatedly, but I still do this almost every time. Only when it looks reasonable on paper do I enter it into emacs and then try to run it. (That’s when the weeping and wailing and gnashing of compilers happens, of course.)

What I *don’t* do, is code by “Googling StackExchange”. Sure, I spend a fair amount of time on StackExchange looking things up, but since I’m not coding for a “real job”, but rather for the fun and challenge of it, I want to know why each bit I find works, and how to make it bend to my will and do what I want it to. And since I have no computer programming training, that means having to take apart every line, every clause, every idiom, to see what makes it work. I’ve written a set of routines for emacs to make this easier (essentially tools to uncompress commonly compressed web code), but when I really want to see how something works, I write it out in pen. Then I can go at it just like I would parse a difficult bit of Latin, by circling parts, drawing arrows to other parts, crossing things out, writing superscript notes… and eventually constructing my own sentence to make sure I understood it. All in pen.

Needless to say, this doesn’t get me invited to a lot of hackathons. What young, lean, agile code-bro has the patience to put up with the old guy who uses *actual books*, and is busy scratching away in pen trying to figure out what the program is supposed to do before he even starts up his IDE? I mean, he probably doesn’t even have any Reputation on StackExchange!

The funny thing is, when I’m writing a blog post, I actually *don’t* write in pen. I suspect that’s because when I write code, I have to write slowly, which forces it to be almost legible, whereas if you have any doubts that I’m a highly-educated person, well, you should try to read my handwriting. When I’m actually writing prose, my handwriting is beautiful and elegant and completely illegible. There are a few people out there who can read my writing, but most days I’m not one of them. So right now I’m writing this (of course) in emacs. I can tell you’re surprised 😉

So if you started reading this post wondering what I code, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you on that score… until another time, that is. Well, for the intensely masochistic among you at least.

Ben Plays Viola - Yonge Dundas Square - 1000 Strings

The Great Impostor

Last night I got a chance to tackle one of my biggest fears head-on, which is the way I like to do it.

Most of you know that I play a lot of instruments. What you might not know about being a multi-instrumentalist is the nagging feeling that you’re not very good at any of those instruments, and the problem with being a producer is that you pay attention to everything musical and realize exactly what your own weaknesses are. When you add these things together, you get a potent recipe for impostor syndrome – the feeling that you’re not a real musician. And rock/pop/folk/etc musicians often feel (needlessly) inadequate around classical musicians, which doesn’t help. When you put these things together, what do you get? In my case, the feeling that I couldn’t cut it in a “real” orchestra.

I’ve played in orchestras before, but always in pit orchestras for musicals, generally playing guitar or electric bass or other “alternative” instruments. As the old joke goes, “how do you get a guitarist to play ppp? Give him charts.” My first orchestral experience, back in the 90s, was much like that – the quietest electric guitarist you can imagine, hopelessly at sea, trying to sight-read a fairly dense score (Gdim7flatwhatnow? Key of how many sharps?) and keep an eye on the conductor and hide behind my guitar, all at the same time.

So when the opportunity came up to join a local amateur pops orchestra, I thought, “What the hell, why not?” For the first time in 11 years, my touring schedule allows me to make most of the rehearsals (if not the concerts), and the fees aren’t too exorbitant, and the orchestra has some good outreach and educational ideas, which is appealing to me. And last night was the first rehearsal.

I decided to play viola in the orchestra. I could have played violin, but I figured there are a million violinists out there, and very few violists. (I could have played double bass, but I didn’t feel like biking 6km each way with the bass on the handlebars!). A good chance to keep my viola chops up, right?

We get the music. Bizet – no problem. There’s an alligator in the charts 😉 Ravel – well, I listen to a lot of Iron Maiden, so that’s pretty similar. Dugga dug dugga dug dugga dug dug dug… And – oh wait, Beethoven’s 5th. Which everybody knows but nobody tries to count (gee thanks Karajan). On go the headphones, pop over to YouTube, practice along with the Vienna Phil for a bit. OK, I think I see how this is going to work.

Driving to the rehearsal I fire in a Motörhead CD. That helps, a lot. If there’s anybody in the world who can reassure you that you can Damn Well Do This and take on your fears head-on (with possibly a little Jack Daniels etc) it’s Lemmy. I didn’t have the Jack Daniels, but that’s probably for the best as I was driving 😉

I get to the rehearsal, acutely self-conscious. I feel like I’ve got a sign with “FRAUD” written on my head. The first person I meet, though, is the conductor, who remembers me from my (somewhat non-traditional) bio. I figure the best thing to do is to confess immediately. He’s totally fine with it. Even though I haven’t read alto clef in years, and have never played in the string section, he figures I’ll do fine (insert obligatory viola joke here). That helps. Then I meet some of the other players. The 2nd violins – well, let’s just say I would have done fine in the 2nd violin section. The other violists – there’s another double bass refugee there, and a music teacher who hasn’t been in an orchestra in 15-20 years. So far so good! Although there are only 3 of us (as compared to the 20+ violinists – my assessment was accurate, nobody wants to play viola.) We grouse a bit about the scores, and a bit of anticipation builds up. The brass starts to warm up, and they sound good – well, I think they sound good, anyway; I think they blew out my eardrums with their first rip. The cellos start to warm up, and they’re not the terrifying, distant prodigies I have somehow expected them to be (even though I work with Betsy Tinney all the time, who while terrifying and prodigious is anything but distant). Maybe this will be OK.

Up goes the baton. Now I know I’m toast. Which end of this chart is up? What do those funny squiggles mean? What do you mean we’re at bar 87, I thought we were at bar 30! But somehow we make it through the William Tell without too much blood on the floor. The conductor knows his business, he starts us off at a good spot to build up confidence, and has kind words even when we sound like 45 people playing 45 different pieces of avant-garde atonal “music”. But by the second time through, it’s even mostly identifiable as the William Tell Overture. Kind of him to start with the one I’d woodshedded the least, too.

And up next is the Bizet. It’s difficult to play this piece without stalking around the stage with an alligator mask on, attempting to devour SJ Tucker. But somehow I restrain myself. This one passes without a hitch, including the the position shifting for the arco passages. Hey, I might get through this alive!

Then the Beethoven. Four notes of really excellent stuff, and then… um… well, there were a lot of ba-da-da-duhhhhhhwhat? moments. From pretty much everybody. But we bashed away at it for a while and it went ok for a first rehearsal. Whew! That’s all we had on the docket for tonight! I’ve survived!

Wait. What is this package of music you’re handing out? Pops scores? And we’re supposed to sight read them? HISSSSS! BOOOO! Everyone in the orchestra responds pretty much the same way. That, at least, is very comforting. At least I’m not alone in being horrified at the prospect of sight-reading these things cold. We start out with a John Williams medley. I’ve seen all of these movies, generally when they originally came out (most of the violin section hadn’t been born when the “new” Star Wars movies came out, let alone E.T.!) so that helped. Moving on to Skyfall, and the conductor realizes he needs a piano player. A struggling cellist’s hand shoots up. “I play better piano than cello!” she exclaims with some relief, and proceeds to sight-read the piano solo perfectly. Dang. And we make it through the whole thing, with some extra slurring over the slurred bits (“that starts on a G and goes to… um… somewhere up there. Waggle the fingers!”) Then a bit from Some Damn Musical I’ve Never Seen. Markings were basically “passionately”, “more passionately”, “even more passionately”, and possibly “attempt to have sex with your instrument”. (For the record – NO. No thank you. Splinters.) Got through that though.

And wait. We’re done? We’ve made it all the way through? There is a general feeling of relief. The supposedly terrifying musical machines around me were all sweating and faking it just as much as I was. Huh. Turns out that this gig might go better than I’d feared, even though it does involve the alto clef (aka “Satan’s Ball Clef”). My ears are throbbing today (next time I wear earplugs, those brass lunatics are loud) but I’m looking forward to the next rehearsal already! Maybe I’m not the Great Impostor I thought I was. Maybe I was just playing the Great Impostor. Maybe I’m a fake fake, a fraudulent fraud, an impostor Impostor… uhoh. I think I may need therapy now 😉

Slight Change To User Registration

Because of a wave of spam registrations that can only plausibly be attributed to (poorly coded) bots or (really stupid) spammers or (highly optimistic) hackers (if only they knew the lack of financial value here!), I’ve disabled registration for anyone that isn’t a Customer first. If this has an impact on your life in any way, drop me an email and we’ll discuss. If you want to comment on articles, I’m happy to set you up with an account! (Not you, d.a.nn.y.m.eka.l.a@gmail.com, or any of your squintillion other versions of your address, you’re not even very good at being a bot.) And yes, this means I’m happy to receive an email from Pyke explaining why he’s behind this wave of spam but it’s for the good of the galactic lizard people. He’s quite creative, he’ll come up with something fun 🙂
Oh and if I accidentally nuked your account in the Great Spammer Massacree of 2015, let me know and I’ll reinstate you. When I’m done wiping the blood off my Mighty Axe of Justice, that is.

Notes From The Secret Laboratory

Where have I been? This is a question that keeps coming up, isn’t it?

This time, it’s pretty straightforward. As you probably know, at Amphis Music we’ve got a lot of projects going on at the moment; we’ve just sent the new album, Imagineer, in to the factory. Actually, it’s been printed and is available for sale, but only if you’re at Pennsic, and so I haven’t even seen it yet. We’re also just weeks away from filming Queens of Avalon, which is both exciting and terrifying, and I’m not just talking about the budgeting…

So have I been making any music? Well, three of the songs on Imagineer are mine, which is pretty cool (including the title track! How cool is that? Although due to a problem with the liner notes, you wouldn’t know it to see…) There’s also the soundtrack/score for Queens of Avalon, of course. And a ton of experimental work that hasn’t seen the light of day yet, simply because it’s not ready. I’ve been working with ChucK and Csound and Max/MSP to generate new and strange sounds. That’s been a ton of fun. There is a new collaboration with an old collaborator, Kev Perry (of Xoo and Assassins fame/infamy), which has received fewer hours than it deserves, and a number of sessions that are ahem not moving as quickly as they ought, but I’m hoping to put some more time in with them this week.

I’ve also been doing a lot of mundane, boring work. I want to have the Heather Dale Store back up and running before we officially release Imagineer, and that requires a bunch of challenging but frustrating MySQL work, for which I am completely untrained, but when have I ever let that get in my way? The new look of the store – and the rest of the site – I’m quite proud of, actually. And as is always the case when I work on a project like this, I get to learn more about my favourite editor, emacs, and the cool things it can do. Actually, I’ve been using emacs for almost all the projects I’ve been working on. It turns out that emacs has an excellent major mode for ChucK, which allows me to code live music inside my editor, which is damn cool if you ask me. Which, by now, you probably know better than to do, because it has become apparent to most people that I’m just a very tall gnome with a laboratory of things that go gurgle and klonk and occasionally blow my eyebrows off. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

I’m also working on some very interesting video projects at the moment. Using Max/MSP/Jitter, I’m developing a framework for live video in our concerts; this will include (I hope) playback of pre-made video, live cameras, and generative video responding to the music & the crowd. Will it all explode? Oh, it’s exploded many times already. But my metaphorical eyebrows grow back quickly. Will it be cool? I surely hope so. Will we be able to afford it? Well, that’s sort of the complicated part at the moment, as live video requires projectors and screens and lighting and computer hardware and stuff, so I’m going to have to put on my scavenging hat and see what I can find. I’m also privately nursing the hope that I can make videos for every song on the new Heather Dale album, and while I’m doing that, sneak in some songs from my solo material – including one song that some of you have heard in an unofficial capacity, but which I haven’t released yet, because it so desperately needs a video. Suffice to say, I sometimes have nightmares about buying a white Toyota.

OK, I’d better get back to doing that stuff they pay me the big bucks for (in this case, ruining databases left and right). See you all soon!

Project Management

Thinking about project management at the moment, as I stare down a year that is rapidly accumulating fascinating but time-consuming gigs. I’ve tried all manner of project management software, and loathed them all – the only thing I use, software-wise, for project management these days is Evernote!

Mostly I use paper… I’ve moved back to a paper calendar & day-timer for the first time since 2006 or so, which I’m finding immensely useful (it should be noted that this is the first time since 2004 that I’ve been home often enough to need one… when I’m touring 8-10 months/year, having a day timer is pretty pointless – wake up, drive to next gig, set up, play gig, tear down, drive to hotel, repeat…). I’ve still got stacks of paper that I’m going to have to photograph and put into Evernote, especially from the past week, where the parameters of one of my major projects (the Celtic Avalon DVD release) just shifted dramatically, necessitating a profusion of phone calls, a mass of emails, and torrents of texts.

So I think that part of tomorrow will involve Evernote, my phone camera, and a certain amount of cursing and swearing. I might see about backing up some files too… I’m pretty sure I don’t need to recall the analogue mix settings for the 2013 Heather Dale album on zero notice. In fact, if I do, I’m in deep trouble, because I’d have to find all the outboard gear that I used on that album… and see if I can get those AD/DA converters back…

I’m never going to sleep again, am I?

Spam picture

Re-Enabling Comments

Since my last post (Coding) generated quite a few thoughtful responses by email and by Twitter – and because, having cautiously backed away from Facebook but still auto-posting to it, I can’t see any comments posted there – I’m cautiously re-enabling comments on my blog. Because of the nature of WordPress blogs, I’ve had to fight with spammers before (Akismet takes care of the majority of spam comments, but I’ve yet to find a reliable way to automate dealing with spam signups – but without allowing signups it’s hard to allow comments. But I’m hopeful that, since there are actually people who have useful things to say, the signal-to-noise ratio will be OK. I mean, aside from Pyke, but he’s just a fact of life & force of nature 😉

And don’t forget to check out the reinstated Music page, where you can hear many strange and wonderful things, and maybe even buy something! That would make my day 🙂


It may surprise some people to hear that computer science and coding are hobbies of mine. It’s particularly amusing since so many people who buy my* records and see me* in concert are programmers and computer scientists, who play music for a hobby. It’s kind of a nice mirroring, I think.

This is not to say I don’t get paid to code. I’ve run a number of websites, in whole and in part, over the years, so I’ve written my share of code – but that no more makes me a “professional coder” than the fact that I’ve written quite a number of contracts makes me a lawyer. It’s just one of those things you have to do when you run your own shop.

This past month or two has come very close to damaging my enjoyment of coding… security breaches will do that. Having to spend my time rebuilding stuff I’ve already built is about as much fun as having to re-record an album whose masters were destroyed. Not that I’d know anything about that… Ugh.

But it did get me thinking about what I enjoy about programming, and what I don’t enjoy about it. I enjoy the interesting, experimental parts of it – I dislike the parts that seem like work. No surprise there! Software engineering – bleargh! Trying to get someone else’s CMS or framework doing what it’s supposed to do, but doesn’t? Ack. Wrestling with libraries and documentation to try to find the exact syntax for someone’s stupid code? Yigh. Looking at needless boilerplate? Barf. If I’m going to do something that other people get paid for, I might as well have fun with it!

In some ways, what I enjoy is broken down by language. Java, PHP, Perl, C#, .NET? These all feel like languages & environments I should be paid (handsomely) to read, let alone write. PHP gives me hives. Perl makes me run for my flamethrower. Java & .NET make me think of Office Space. I’d rather write TPS reports than do that. No, really, I would. Ask me some time about the TPS reporting system I had to design for Canadian Tire. Argh. Yeahhhhhhh, I’m going to have to ask you to go ahead and kill me now.

But Python can be fun, for quick and dirty sketching of things, and writing occasional little utilities. JavaScript has its good parts, even though for the most part it feels like I’m sitting in a room full of hipsters trying not to punch them. C? I actually enjoy C, for some godforsaken reason (probably because Kernighan and Ritchie are such fabulous writers). Assembly language is fun, in a psychotic way, and I never felt like I “got” computers until I wrote my first boot loader & primitive operating system for a 386. (Until then I had no reason to believe it wasn’t just magic and imps in a box). And there are domain-specific languages that are fun – Max/MSP, PureData, Processing, CSound, LilyPond… there are obvious reasons why I like them.

But the one language (language family?) that I’m actually passionate about is Lisp. I remember the first time I found a copy of “ANSI Common Lisp” in a library. I looked into it and it looked like the code wasn’t even code, like it just said
  (do stuff (stuff)
    (do-it now
      (do-it right-now)))
And since the only programming language I’d used at that point was BASIC, my brain said “That’s not even possible! Where’s the code?” I was hooked. I love the elegance of the language; I love the syntax – or lack thereof – because I find I can never remember the niggly details of a language’s syntax; I love the feeling of taking a problem that would take hundreds of lines in another language and solving it in a handful of concise, easy-to-read lines of lisp. I’ve tried Clojure – which seems to me to be Java dressed in lisp clothing – and Scheme – which is super fun but not quite perfectly aligned with my way of thinking. For the moment I’m mostly working with Common Lisp, which has some rough edges (but then so do I) but is all around an amazing language. I’m trying to resist the temptation to re-implement everything in Common Lisp. Including WordPress…

I’m a tinkerer by nature. None of my instruments are stock, they’ve all been modified in one way or another. I like everything to be just the way I want it… and I never know what that will be, or whether it will change in a second. As a result, OSS, emacs and lisp are a natural fit for me. Besides, I’m a middle-aged recluse with a long greying beard, what the hell do you expect?

(*Obviously I mostly mean “me” in the sense of “me with the Heather Dale Band” and “my records” in the sense of “records I make with Heather”)

(**Dear gods my habit of parenthetical writing is getting worse the more I use Lisp (although of course it was pretty bad before (before what, you may ask!))).

A Walk In The Park

Today we went for a splendid walk, with our lovely new camera lens (a Canon EFS 55-250, iirc) – I managed to take some good shots of The Girl’s latest crochet work, against a background of High Park. Then on the way home I stopped to get a few extra books from the library. And now maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a very well-deserved nap 🙂