music: the Isley Brothers

3 + 3 > 5, ergo The Isleys were more talented than the Jacksons, QED.

On “The Highways of My Life” brother-in-law Chris Jasper is immortal on piano and ARP synthesizer. Wikipedia says Stevie Wonder was making Innervisions down the hall at the Record Plant at the same time and both worked with visionary synth engineers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil! Soul/R&B ruled 1973 (Court and Spark came out January 1974).

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eco: immediate action, disaster much later

We Have Five Years To Save Ourselves From Climate Change, Harvard Scientist Says

This is true, as is “We have 12 years to avoid catastrophe” and every other prediction of doom, but it is really hard to explain. We definitely won’t have 3 meters of sea level rise in 5 years or even by 2030. The climate, and shoreline, will likely be a bit worse than it is now. But without exceptionally rapid and drastic action now (that is, stop burning all fossil fuels in the next 5-12 years) we have locked in warming that will take us to that ultra-disaster of underwater cities and 200,000,000+ climate refugees in several steadily-worsening decades, and no one is sure when. At this point doubters conclude “They’re just fear-mongering liars, apocalypse is not actually going to happen in 5 years or even 12 years, nobody can really say, Algore said it would be awful years ago, still hasn’t happened.” The worse crisis is always about the apocalyptic climate N decades from now, unless we take drastic action that we should have started a decade ago. That’s a perfect recipe for defeatism and delay.

Children understand the problem, but a lot of well-meaning adults don’t 😢. Bill Nye swearing and blowtorching a globe isn’t going to change them, they’ll change when the present gets bad enough, when it will be far too late.

I tried to find models of the climate beyond 100 years from now. There aren’t any, because it’s so different from what we have now that the models don’t work. 😱 We don’t even know the current rate of warming because the climate zig-zags upwards. We’ll know in 20 years if it was 0.1 or 0.25°C per decade. Either will have been a disaster.

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web: the unparalleled genius of Sir Tim

It is 30 years since the invention of the World-Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee stood on the shoulders of giants, but the Web wasn’t just an amalgamation of existing ideas. He and Robert Cailliou created:

  • A HyperText Markup Language, human-readable but easy enough for machines to parse and generate. A web page is a complete HTML document.
  • A means of referencing HTML pages across the Internet, called Uniform Resource Locators. But a URL can refer to any kind of resource, not just web pages but also plain text, pictures, other files, and even notions like “the last 7 blog posts by skierpage.” (And actually URLs are a specialization of Uniform Resource Identifiers, that let you refer to other protocols, e.g. mailto:skierpage@example.com?Subject=hello .)
  • A specification of the protocol by which a client requests a URL from a server computer and the server responds with the document requested, called HyperText Transfer Protocol
  • Free open source software that implemented all this:
    • a software library implementing the protocol
    • software for an HTTP server, called httpd (hypertext transfer protocol “daemon”)
    • software to display and edit HTML pages; we now call the display part a “web browser.”

Nothing new here?

As this great 30-year summary makes clear, there was a ton of prior art.

Markup languages weren’t new

HTML identifies blocks of text as<P>(paragraph), <H1> (heading level 1), etc. and spans of text as <B> (bold), etc. The idea of marking up blocks of text instead of inserting typesetter codes for a particular printer wasn’t new, and HTML was a simplification of the existing SGML.

Hypertext wasn’t new

Hypertext wasn’t new. In fact in a related article John Allsopp says “Tim Berners-Lee proposed a paper about the WWW for Hypertext ’91, a conference for hypertext theory and research. It was rejected! It was considered very simple in comparison with what hypertext systems were supposed to do.” This is a fantastic historical footnote, and the conference organizers weren’t stupid!

The moment you put technical information on a screen, it is completely obvious that the reader should be able to jump to an explanation of a technical term, to jump from an entry in the table of contents or index to the section that’s referenced, and to jump from the phrase “See How to Install the Widget 9000” to… the How to Install chapter. In a former life writing technical documentation printed on paper I looked at electronically publishing manuals using hypertext systems like Folio and OWL. The programs that displayed hypertext resembled web browsers, they even had conventions like underlines for links and as I recall a back button to go back after following a link.

wish I had a screenshot of the help system itself

Yet another protocol…

Protocols to access remote computers over the Internet weren’t new. There was File Transfer Protocol to transfer files, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol to retrieve your new emails, and even a Gopher protocol to browse information on that computer. (Many people using the Internet at the time thought Gopher would be the glue linking between computers.)

At nearly the same time, “Wide Area Information Server (WAIS) is a client–server text searching system that uses the ANSI Standard Z39.50 Information Retrieval Service Definition and Protocol Specifications for Library Applications” (Z39.50:1988) to search index databases on remote computers.”

So what was new?

In a nutshell, linking within hypertext to another computer system, to possibly get more hypertext, blew people’s fragile little minds.

Those hypertext systems I mentioned operated within a local file. You opened Widget9000Setup.NFO in the viewer program and happily jumped around between sections, index, and paragraphs, but there was no “jump to manufacturer’s server on the Internet for latest service bulletins,” there was no “Here’s a hypertext list of other hypertext files on the Internet about Widget 9000 customizations.” The companies selling hypertext authoring software probably fantasized about getting thousands of people to buy their proprietary software to author their own parts of a federated set of hypertexts, but they didn’t have the vision, and a single commercial vendor would have really struggled to establish their file format as a network standard.

A server is hard but powerful

Because links in HTML can go to other computers, the Web requires a separate program running on that remote computer to respond to requests (although you can open local files on your computer in your browser without involving a server). The hypertext software makers must have laughed. “So in addition to our hypertext viewer program running on the user’s computer, you have to get the I.T. department to install and run an extra software daemon to respond to all these requests for bits of hypertext? That is the stupidest and most overkill approach imaginable! Just give people the file with all 70 pages and illustrations of our Widget 9000 instruction manual in it.” Remember, by definition there were no manufacturers’ web sites yet, and people and computers communicated over slow modems. Making requests to other computers was theoretically useful, but not just to get the next little chunk of hypertext.

Because everything Sir Tim developed at CERN was open source, and because the HTTP protocol was relatively simple, and because Unix was very common on servers, it turned out that having to run an HTTP server wasn’t a big barrier.

Uniform/Universal/Ubiquitous Resource Locator

The URL itself is genius. There were computers on the web that you could contact, mostly run by computer companies and universities and labs like CERN. Many of them supported File Transfer Protocol so you might be able to get a list of public files to download. Some of them even supported the Gopher and WAIS protocols I mentioned above that presented a friendlier list of files. But mostly if you connected to a computer, it was to login and type computer commands. You could imagine a hypertext page having a “check for Widget 9000 availability” link that would connect to the company’s server as a remote terminal and maybe even simulate pressing C(heck for inventory) then typing Widget [Tab] 9000 [Enter] – all the pecking away at keyboards that staff used to type when you asked for a book at the library or checked in to a flight. But the poor hypertext author would have to write a little script for every single computer server. A URL can encode the request as a single thing that fits into the HTML page, it’s like a hypertext system’s “Jump to the Troubleshooting section” link but infinitely richer.

It’s human visible

The Widget 9000 availability URL is probably quite complex, maybe http://acmecorp.com/coyote/stock check.asp?part=widget9000 . But you can see it in your browser’s location field, it probably makes sense, and is irresistibly tempting to fiddle with it, aka hack on it: what if if I substitute “ferrari355” for “widget9000”?

Similarly, you can view the source “code” of an HTML page. I taught myself the rudiments of HTML just by guessing or recognizing what tags like TITLE, P, A HREF=, etc. did. You could write the markup for something simple by hand; the home page of my web site and some other sections are still prehistoric hand-written HTML.. (Those golden days are gone now that most web pages are generated on-site by over-complex content management systems and each loads 10 JavaScript libraries and 7 ad networks and Like this on Facebook / Tweet this / Pin it buttons.)

The Web could subsume other systems

Because the client (usually a browser under the command of a person) makes requests to a server program, the Web can subsume or impersonate other systems. A simple computer program can output a Gopher category list or a directory listing as a basic HTML page with a bulleted list of links (more on this). As the Web gained mindshare among developers, people built the bridges to all the other protocols, and so a browser turned into a do-anything tool, and URLs became the lingua franca for any kind of request across the Internet. Thirty years of innovation built upon the simple clear underlying ideas of the Web.

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music: how to contribute scanned lyrics to the web

Lyrics are everywhere on the web, yet I regularly come across popular songs whose lyrics are nowhere to be found. Sometimes I have a CD or LP on the shelf with the missing lyrics printed in it! Time to make a little more of the sum of human knowledge available… Here are my notes on the process.

Where to contribute lyrics?

Many sites let users contribute and update lyrics. Ideally there would be a non-commercial user-supported über repository of lyrics, but if there is I can’t find it. All lyrics sites seem to be ad-supported (I don’t see the ads because I use the uBlock Origin ad-blocker). The worst are the sites which optimize their pages to fake out Google search so they show up high in search results for e.g. “Linx You’re Lying lyrics,” but when you visit them the page’s only content is just “Be the first to contribute the missing lyrics of You’re Lying by Linx! Kthxbye.

LyricWiki? (No)

The obvious contender is lyrics.wikia.com. It uses the same underlying MediaWiki software as Wikipedia, but it’s on the ad-supported Wikia platform that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales created. It has a genuine community trying to do a good job. I made many cleanup edits and added a few songs in 2008-2011. The problem with Lyric Wiki is nothing is created for you, you really have to create each page after page with wiki text. So (using the example of adding the lyrics of Max Tundra’s Mastered by Guy at The Exchange album): first you have to add a bit of fiddly markup to the band’s page for the album:

==[[Max Tundra:Mastered By Guy At The Exchange (2002)|Mastered by Guy at The Exchange (2002)]]==
 {{Album Art|Max Tundra - Mastered By Guy at the Exchange.jpg|Mastered by Guy at The Exchange}}
# '''[[Max Tundra:Merman|Merman]]'''
# '''[[Max Tundra:Mbgate|Mbgate]]'''
...

then you have to create the album’s page with more fiddly markup listing each song all over again:

{{AlbumHeader
 |artist    = Max Tundra
 |album     = Mastered by Guy at The Exchange
 |genre     = Electronic
 ...
 }}
# '''[[Max Tundra:Merman|Merman]]'''
# '''[[Max Tundra:Mbgate|Mbgate]]''
...

then you have to create a page for each song that points back to the album with even more fiddly markup, and then you provide the actual value, the lyrics themselves:

{{SongHeader
 |song     = Merman
 |artist   = Max Tundra
 |album1   = Max Tundra:Mastered By Guy At The Exchange (2002)
 |language = English
 |star     = Bronze
 }}
<lyrics> 
I'm feeling flirty
Must be you heard me
My knee is hurty
...

Even if you’re fluent in MediaWiki markup and templates, it is pointless error-prone duplication to keep repeating the artist, album, and track name on every page. Instead, adding a lyric should be a single database action that automatically adds the song to the artist’s page and the album’s page.

So Genius!

Genius came out of annotating rap lyrics. It has a nice interface for adding song lyrics to albums, a solid community, and lets people comment on songs and individual lines. So I went there.

Scanning and converting to text

On my all-in-one printer I scanned the record sleeves and CD booklets with the lyrics at high resolution and saved them as PDFs. Then I used gImageReader-qt5 for Linux to do optical character recognition. This works impressively well! It handled blue on pink text, it automatically identifies each block of text. Then delete the blocks you don’t want recognized, such as image captions and “Thanks to Kev and Fender guitars”. Then trigger OCR and it gives you a big chunk of recognized text.

Case conversion

Some lyrics that I scanned were printed entirely in UPPER CASE. There are many ways to convert case, but the wrinkle is I want the first sentence of each line to remain capitalized; also a bit of smarts about proper names, the word “I”, and such would be nice. I found the web page https://convertcase.net does the right thing in its Sentence case mode; it saved me hacking my own tool. The other nice thing about web-based converters is the textarea with the converted text is in the browser, and Firefox highlights many misspellings due to mis-recognition, such as “allbi” instead of “alibi.”

De-Unicode-ization

Genius wants simple ASCII for lyrics: simple quotation marks, hyphens not em-dashes, no ligatures like fi, etc. Unfortunately gImageReader doesn’t have an option to only output simple ASCII. To find the problematic characters, I used this command line to search for any character that isn’t ASCII.

LC_ALL=C rg '[^\x00-\x7f]' *lyrics.txt

(LC_ALL=C turns off any localization that might mess around with output, and rg is ripgrep, a better text search program than the venerable grep.)

My IQ goes up, the kudos roll in

To keep us unpaid suckers working, Genius has gamified (horrible word) contributions in the form of “IQ points.” When you add a wanted song, you get points. When you identify the song parts (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) you get more points. More points give you more rights – I can now add a new song and edit a track list, but I still can’t add an entire new album or state that Peter Martin is aka Sketch.

One of the problems I had with the lyrics for the band Corduroy is Genius already listed other songs by “Corduroy” that are by a Korean singer 코듀로이 (which translates to Corduroy) and a wannabe band that reused the name. Renaming artists is very tricky and way above my IQ level, but the forum participants are very helpful. “I have to say I am really impressed with the research you have done here. I will disambiguate the artists to fix this.” Awww.

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art: Jhane Barnes inspires

I’ll pull out a Jhane Barnes shirt I haven’t worn in a while and I’m Ricky Fitts in American Beauty: “I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.”

Jhane Barnes shirt, fabric woven in Japan

(This and black pants, perfect)

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web: when it comes to paying, backward USA! backward USA!

Someone asked me to donate to the Center for Youth Wellness, a worthy cause. Give Lively, a free fundraising system, organizes the donations at https://secure.givelively.org/donate/center-for-youth-wellness/friends-name . The donation page’s “Suggested donation method” is “Donate by bank account” because “We get more from your donation when you pay via your bank account.”  The web page draws my bank’s logo and asks me to enter my bank username and password, but I am not on my bank’s web site.

WTF? y’all have got to be kidding me!

What’s actually happening is a third[*] company called plaid.com (never heard of ’em, some tech bro fintech startup), actually displays the form, technically within an <IFRAME> in GiveLively’s page. I don’t care what security promises plaid.com makes, they are completely insane if they think asking for my bank username and password on their (nested) web site is acceptable. Basic web security: never ever enter your username and password for one web site on another web site. If the browser’s location field doesn’t display yourbankname.com with a padlock icon, don’t do it! But much the same way every company says don’t trust links in our name that go to other web sites, until they send you a survey or ad that links to crappyThirdPartyMarketingCompany.com and hope you ignore their own advice, somehow it’s OK to fake customers out because it’s for a worthy cause.

It’s nobody’s fault, though Plaid sure has some chutzpah. Neither the worthy charity nor I want PayPal and some credit card company delaying funds and skimming off money from my charitable donation. Give Lively doesn’t have the in-house expertise to organize a bank transfer so they hand it off to Plaid. Plaid undoubtedly got frustrated trying to organize bank transfer with every stodgy bank under the sun, so they decided to present like my bank, ask for my login, and then order a low-cost Electronic Funds Transfer by impersonating  me.

But what makes no sense is why can’t I give my bank the same transfer instructions, the ones Plaid wants to make by impersonating me? Well, if I could then there’s less need for Plaid to be working away in the background. In every other developed country, you just log in to your bank and tell it to give money to any person or organization and It Just Works without any third parties or handing out your credit card details to strangers. I’m not sure why the USA makes it so complicated, to no one’s benefit but middlemen. There’s PayPal’s Venmo (big fees) and more banks are supporting Zelle but it feels that the USA is a decade behind.

Obviously I’m not the only person freaked out by this, see e.g. this Hacker News thread. To its credit Plaid has an open bug tracker on GitHub in which issue 68 is this “privacy/security concerns.” Huffington Post has an entire article about whom you should trust with your banking sign-on. That article says “[Plaid is] a system used by most personal finance apps, like Venmo, Robinhood and Acorns. Plaid, in turn, is trusted by a long list of banks and credit unions.” GiveLively responded on Twitter “Plaid is a secure & trusted industry-leading service that allows donations via bank account. Your bank is on the Plaid platform—like most US-based banks—because it trusts Plaid.” But I don’t see any indication on my bank’s site that it actually trusts Plaid. I just have to hope that if my bank didn’t trust Plaid (or more likely stopped trusting Plaid), it would revoke whatever API authorization it gave Plaid so transfers would fail. And again, a company using a third party that uses my credentials to ask my bank to do some transaction for me is completely back-assward . It only works this way because everyone involved is too ^%$#@! lazy to do the right thing which is: I go to my bank, authenticate myself, and tell my bank to give someone money using the bank details they gave me.

One other thing: Give Lively/Plaid’s interface defaults to making a monthly donation. If you don’t pay attention Plaid will be taking money out of your account forever even if that wasn’t your intent. Because you are not in the driver’s seat, the organization wanting your money is, and their temptation is overwhelming to tweak the system to maximize the amount you donate, including defaulting to monthly giving.

[*] Update: I was wrong, there’s a fourth company. Give Lively uses Stripe, Stripe takes 0.8%, Stripe uses Plaid. Crazy.

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software: how electronic medical records could be better

On an Ars Technica story on AI in hospitals, “goofazoid” commented

There are so many things that have set this environment up, mostly having to do with hospitals attempting to save money (nursing is usually the largest expense in a budget) by having fewer nurses. This has been compounded by data systems (like CHCS/Alta, Meditech) that are not user friendly and take longer to document in than a paper record would, while having lower fidelity than a paper record would.
I think that every nursing unit should probably have at least 2 more nurses/shift, and if you want really good documentation… switch to a tablet type device that can do many time saving things:
-use a smartcard and pin to log in
-use the camera to scan the pt armband so that you don’t have to search for your pt’s records
-use the camera to scan medication bar codes to document
-use the camera to scan blood products bar codes for safety and documentation (either two nurses with two different devices would scan to complete the documentation or the second nurse could scan their badge and type a pin)
-sync vital signs from the device measuring them to the chart
-gives lab results as soon as they are available, and uses the minimum number of alerts to minimize alarm fatigue
-uses the NFC to do things like program IV pumps (directly from the orders), collect amount infused, etc
-has a low power laser range finder to be used in conjunction with the camera to take pictures of wounds, dressings, drainage etc. (the range finder allows a 1x1mm grid to be accurately superimposed on the image)
-has the ability for nurses to use a BT headset to dictate notes rather than typing
on top of all of that, there needs to be a requirement that physicians use a system that is similar- NO F***ING PAPER! If orders are written on paper they must be transcribed and errors can then occur; same goes for phone orders. There is no reason that the MD/NP can’t put the orders in from a handheld device, even when offsite.
-have it set up so that if there is a lab out of range, it messages the provider who can then enter an order (triggering an alert for the nurse)
-have it set up so that nurses can text providers about issues that need addressed less than urgently
-allow diagnostic images to be viewed (EKG, x-ray, CT scan, MRI, Echo-cardiograms, sonograms etc)
The whole concept is to make the system user friendly, interconnected and safe…

My response:

Why aren’t Electronic Medical Records companies throwing money and resources at you to make all this happen?!!!

I recently read the great Atul Gowande’s Why Doctors Hate their Computers and it is so depressing how far these systems are from helping doctors do a better job: zillions of automatic alerts that everyone ignores, people Select all – Copy – Paste entire reports into fields instead of writing a summary, the choice to spend precious time with a patient staring at a screen or to spend hours at home doing data entry, … (He concedes the systems are benefiting patients who review their records.)

Here’s my idea. instead of every data entry field being a chore it should be a just-in-time avenue for understanding. If it’s a multiple choice, every previous entry in that field should be shown in a cloud showing the history and most common ones for this patient; if it’s a number, show a sparkline graph of previous readings that highlights diversions from typical results. Etc. It’s stupid to rely on doctors reviewing previous records, instead in real-time the systems should be showing trends and alerting non-standard data as people enter it.

And obviously, blockchain!

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music: Look Now, a great Elvis Costello album

Slate’s Carl Wilson said it well “Elvis Costello’s New Album Is His Best This Century”

Yes it is. Look Now has the horns and backing vocals of Punch the Clock, more Bacharach collaborations like Painted from Memory, varied production that echoes (faintly) Imperial Bedroom. Those are great albums, so approaching their heights is excellence.

After the fed-up nihilism of 2008’s Momofuku (definitely missing a ‘c’) in a music biz where a popular album sells 15,000 copies and is guaranteed not to make back its production costs unless you recorded it in your bedroom, fans assumed we’d forever have to settle for hit ‘n’ run collaborations from Elvis. This is a bloody miracle!

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music: Corduroy transcends Acid Jazz

I somehow found out about Acid Jazz in 1992 entirely through a few compilation CDs.

One of them (100% Acid Jazz) contained an effervescent funky pop song called “Mini” by Corduroy, about… the Mini car.

I like the way your eyes light up in the dark, I like the way it don’t take much for you to start. Mini! No one takes me further than you

(The song cries out for a music video,and there was one, but sadly the Internet only has a partial poor quality capture.)

Who is Corduroy? What else did they record? At the time the internet couldn’t tell me, and they had no albums in my local record stores.

Friends’ adventures with their Mini reminded me of the song, and now of course obscure bands aren’t so obscure. It turns out Corduroy is a strong English band with an intriguing mix of retro soundtrack style and acid jazz chops. “Mini” is from the 1994 album “Out of Here” on the Acid Jazz label (talk about pigeonholing!). Other tracks are also strong, but some are so tight they’re airless. The title song is a gentle getaway song with a perfect piano solo from Scott Addison.The End of the Rainbow” has a killer intro they smartly repeat for the bridge, then lays out into a weak funky jam. “January Woman” borrows the opening chords and guitar sound of Steely Dan’s “Green Earrings” off The Royal Scam to fine effect.

The next album, 1997’s “The New You!“, is even better. Less constrained by tight funkiness and with better songs. Most songs start with an atmospheric intro then head in a different musical direction. Their lyrics still aren’t the best, but the songs have allusive phrases – “Season of the rich”, “This is supercrime and it happens all the time” (a song about trying to get a refund for a broken hi-fi!), “The hand the rocks the cradle rules the world,” “Tomorrow you will be a designosaur,” “Be an evolver!” etc. The instrumentals are good too, “Data 70” sounds like a 1970 caper movie soundtrack, ending with the same explosive riff as the Mission Impossible theme song, all bongos and horns wailing. In particular “Fisherman’s Wharf” is fantastic, a loving homage to Mike Post’s cop theme songs “Hill Street Blues” and “The Rockford Files.” It has police radio chat and sirens to start, seagulls near the beach, and even a faux NBC logo sound at the end. But it’s not kitsch, it’s just great.

The band returned after a 17-year break with the wonderful title “Return of the Fabric Four”, more of the same but not as magic.

So the one hit wasn’t just a flash in the pan. This makes me want to redouble my efforts to track down other B-sides and mystery artists, like Cooly’s Hot Box from another acid jazz compilation, Giant Steps Volume One, and the legendary Radio Arabesque.

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Minox James Bond off-hours camera

Minox 35GL and case

A mini-classic

Minox was moderately famous for making a tiny spy camera using 16mm film. But they also made the smallest 35mm camera in the world (100 x 61 x 31mm or just 2.4″ tall), and I owned several as each broke or Minox made small improvements.

The original flash wasn’t too bad, but it ate through batteries. The second-generation flash took four at a time and is bigger than the camera! So to carry the pair with me I used a purse (!). LEDs are an incredible breakthrough in so many ways.

Minox 35 GL and various flashes

So L.A. with all the flash

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