Let's Talk About Country Music

by phildini on January 13, 2015

I make no bones of the fact that I'm not a big fan of Country Music. The closest I get to enjoying the genre is the fact that I love Johnny Cash, but I make a special exception for him in my head: "He's not country, he's like really good folk rock or something." And though I was blown away the first time I witnessed Garth Brooks stage presence (through a YouTube video, no less), I could not in good faith call myself a country music fan, and have often made and laughed at many jokes at the expense of the genre and those who like it.

Likewise, I was prepared to laugh and join in the fun-poking when I saw an article on Gawker about how all country songs sound the same. You should click through, and watch the video all the way to the end. It's background for the rest of this post, and entertaining as hell.

I reacted, as many of you may have reacted, with an amused smile followed be hearty laughter. How unoriginal those country artists are! How funny this compilation is! We were right to laugh at them all along!

Except. Spectacular, wildly popular art is often created when the artist is under some set of constraints. We respect well-made stained glass because of the constraints of the medium. We respect poetry because it is more constrained than prose. We admire Shakespeare in part because of what he was able to do in the restrained structure of iambic pentameter.

As I listened to the video above, and listened again, I noticed that while the instrumentals were almost identical, the lyrics and the stories being told were unique. Six songs, six stories, all constrained by the definition of the most popular country melody. I realized that the musical composition that has been consistent in popular country for years is the canvas that the artists paint their stories on.

And it's a hard constraint. The most popular country songs from the past few years are about the same length, with about the same structure, and about the same time given to lyrics as instrumentals. With the tiny bit of writing I've done, I can easily see how shoehorning the story the you want to tell into that structure would be quite a challenge.

This was a 'eureka' moment. Everything about country, from the audience to the marketing, to the songs, to the artists themselves is geared not around the musical composition, but around the story. Hell, popular culture even refers to the purveyors of the genre as artists more often than as musicians. They know they're story-tellers more than rock stars. (When was the last time you heard of a rock or rap artist?) They know their music is really about the stories they're telling, and they smile their kind genuine smiles waiting for those of us who turn up our noses to realize this.

As and aside: My wife grew up in an area where Country is King, and country's core audience knows that music is secondary to the story. They're waiting for the rest of us to get off our high horses too.

I'm not saying that Garth Brooks is the next Shakespeare, or that Taylor Swift is channeling Emily Dickinson. And I'll probably continue listening to the same eclectic mix of electronic, classical, and indie rock that I've listened to for the past decade.

But the next time I think or hear the phrase "Country music all sounds the same", I'll remind myself that it's so the story might flow.

Review: Redwall by Brian Jacques

by phildini on January 6, 2015

It has been more than a decade since I first picked up a Redwall book. I can't quite remember what pushed me to pick up that first volume of heroic mice and baleful rats, although I fancy that some well-meaning librarian recommended them to me. The result, of course, is that I tore through every volume the library had, reading Redwall, then Mossflower, then Mattimeo, all the way up to around the Triss-era. I fell out of the series around 2004, and didn't really pick up the following novels.

Since I've spent so much time recently trying to determine my literary roots and inspiration, I got it into my head that I should re-read some of the Redwall series, starting with the titular book itself.

Re-reading Redwall as an adult, with potentially hundreds of books and almost a dozen years between that first reading and now, was a simultaneously enthralling and disappointing journey. About fifty pages in, I realized that the writing was not at all what I remembered. Not necessarily bad, just overly simplistic, as though Brian is trying to talk down to his readers.

I give some credit to the fact that Redwall was the first, and by all accounts first novels are never as good as what comes after. I may dig into the later books at a later date to see if the writing improves, but there were whole sections of Redwall that seemed just too sappy and simple to have ever been believable.

Then again, maybe I'm just cynical, and jaded.

The balance to the at-times mediocre writing (and here I feel bad, damning the dead author and causing my inner child to cry a little) is the fantastic story being told. Redwall is a book whose characters are defined by their actions, not their words, and the actions of the humble band of woodland creatures that inhabit Redwall abbey in their fight against a horde of rats still make me race through the pages. It is a testament to the Jacques' quality as a storyteller that, even knowing the end of the story, there were times where I couldn't put the book down, couldn't wait to see what would happen to Matthias and Constance and Basil and Cluny the Scourge.

While the speeches Jacques' characters give can feel flat, the actions they take make them more real than some humans I've met.

I'll end by saying that as I've written this review, it has occurred to me that perhaps Redwall might be best experienced read aloud, and indeed it seems like a perfect book to make into a bedtime story. After a child has outgrown Peter Rabbit, perhaps their minds can feast on Matthias, champion of Redwall. Mossflower wood is waiting, and Redwall abbey is the gateway to a world of adventure.

Homage for the Holidays: Pobal - Twitter Link Aggregation

by phildini on December 16, 2014

I think this week's Homage for the Holidays solidifies my status in the Andy Baio fanclub. My card is in the mail, I'm sure.

Not too long after XOXO, I saw a link on Andy's twitter to this site called BELONG. I wasn't sure what I was looking at, at first. It looked like collection of interesting links pulled from twitter and aggregated. I got the impression that it was links from people Andy follows, but I've never really known anything about how it was constructed until I was researching this blog post. (The most Andy seems to have talked about it is in this Product Hunt listing.) BELONG is a collection of interesting things shared by people Andy thinks are themselves interesting.

Let's talk about what it does, or at least does for me.

BELONG shows me a set of viewpoints, lets me peek into world views that I'm not sure how else I would've been exposed to. Product announcements, interesting articles, discussions on race and class and gender and equality - BELONG mixes all of these into a half-daily-ish digest that serves me better than any 'social news' site I've seen. I've been turned off Reddit almost completely this year, the Hackernews echo chamber is wearing thin in some places, and once a week is about all I can deal with my Facebook feed. Yet I check my twitter, and BELONG, multiple times a day.

I began to wonder what my own twitter feed would look like if it were given the same treatment as BELONG, so I built one. It's called POBAL ( an Irish word for community) and you can find mine under my pebble.ink account.

Let's talk for a brief moment about what POBAL is, starting with some techno-babble. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph for a tl;dr. POBAL is a python script, a shell script, an html template, and a cron job. The POBAL script, triggered to run every hour by cron, pulls tweets from my twitter feed, figures out which ones have links, fetches the titles for the pages being linked to, and renders a nice list to html. The links are (currently) weighted by one-half the number of favorites plus the number of retweets. The algorithm may change as I play with it more. All of the code, minus the one line of cron, lives in the POBAL github.

So: POBAL is a collection of interesting links from my twitter.

You're welcome to POBAL it as you see fit. If you'd like to use this but don't want to do the setup, I'm hoping to get POBAL to a point this week where others can have their own easily. You're welcome to ask me for help, and I will lovingly take feedback (my design sense is probably atrocious, and the logo was generated from a Python art program). Pull requests also welcomed.

This is in many ways the project that really inspired Homage for the Holidays, and the one that I will probably use the most. There's something indescribable about seeing what your network is sharing with you. You begin to get a sense of the caliber of people you follow, what your network cares about, and by extension what you care about. I've been using POBAL for about 24 hours, and it's already prompted me to take a good hard look at who I'm following, and the quality of what they're adding to my life. I've followed some others, and unfollowed some dead weight (mostly corporate twitter accounts).

But the other thing about seeing all the best links from your twitter listed out is that they get harder to ignore. Social media isn't really ephemeral, in that nothing ever actually dies, but the way we consume it often is. Pulling the materials being shared out of the stream-of-consciousness context forces you to look at them more critically, to evaluate what normally drifts past your eyeballs. In the best case, it exposes you to thoughts that make you and those around you better human beings.

POBAL is not BELONG. The code is different, the algorithm is different, the design is different (way worse, most likely) but the spirit of gathering news from your network how you want is there. That makes it a decent homage, I think. If I'm feeling grandiose, BELONG is a facet of the new oral tradition we call social media, of which POBAL is an imperfect mirror. If I'm being more realistic, POBAL was just fun to build and a kick to use.

Hope you enjoy.

Homage for the Holidays: Pebble.Ink

by phildini on December 9, 2014

I'll admit, the next Homage for the Holidays post is kissing the line between "homage" and "abject copy".

Here's the backstory. A couple weeks after XOXO 2014, Internet's Paul Ford started a project called tilde.club. You should go read the original post about the project, but here's a quick tl;dr: Tilde.club is a delicious piece of nostalgia from the beginning of the world wide web. Every member gets shell access, email to other members, and small piece of web real estate.

I feel like "nostalgia" may not be the right word to describe tilde.club, because that word has become a little overloaded. The explosion of pixel-art games and the social conservative rhetoric of a return to simpler times has added a context to "nostalgia" that can leave a bad taste in the mouth. This is a little unfortunate, because things that are older are not necessarily bad. (see above re: pixel-art. Some fabulous examples there.)

A better word might be "ownership". Being a member of tilde.club means you have a little slice of the web that is yours, you can put whatever you want there, make it look however you like. While owning a chunk of the web may sound like no big deal, and in fact I would wager that most tilde.club members have their own dedicated web presence elsewhere, there's a fundamental difference.

Having your own space on the web, on a server you own or rent with your own domain name, is like having a massive plot of land a few hours outside of town. It's yours, you can do whatever you want with it, but you have to push people to come over and visit. Having a space in tilde.club is like leasing an apartment in the trendy new complex on the town square. You can still do almost anything you want with it, but your neighbors are all in shouting distance, they're probably really friendly, and you can see what their places look like as well. And, because the place is run by Internet's Paul Ford, a lot of people are always dropping by to visit.

That's the setup, here's the homage. I applied, and did not get into, tilde.club. This mildly bummed me out a bit, until I realized that I possessed the materials to build my own. So I did. I spun up the cheapest Digital Ocean box that they make, installed apache with user directories turned on, and opened it up to friends. It's called Pebble.Ink

Now, I want to open it up to. As of today, if you're a member of Pebble.Ink, you get shell access, email forwarding, and you're own little slice of the web to do whatever you want with. More features will be coming soon, including (possibly) the ability to run rich python and php apps.

If you've been paying attention to the tilde.club story, you probably noticed that other people had the same idea I had, and started their own versions. This put a damper on my plans somewhat, but I'm charging forward. I have not added Pebble.Ink to that list, although I plan to try and do so soon. I'm not using the official tilde.club puppet script, either.

I would be thrilled to have you along for the ride. Check out Pebble.Ink for more info, and watch this space for updates.

Homage for the Holidays: from Portland get XOXO

by phildini on December 2, 2014

This is the first Homage for the Holidays project. It may help to read the previous blog post for context.

Let's follow the logic train on this one. XOXO was awesome, and inspired me to want to do projects not for fame or money, but just because they were interesting to me and hopefully pushed the envelope in some way. I started by looking at what the organizers, Andy Baio and Andy McMillan, had done previous to and alongside XOXO for inspiration. Digging through Andy Baio's profile, I found his work with Inform 7, and Playfic.

Briefly: Inform 7, often shortened just to Inform, is a language and tool for creating and running interactive fiction. If you think you don't know what interactive fiction is, think back to really old text based games - "go north you are eaten by a grue" type stuff. Playfic is a site where you can run and play interactive fiction works in a web browser. Playfic was created by Andy Baio, because he wanted to -- well, I'll let him tell it:

Andy loves interactive fiction and wanted to make a game, but found it to hard to share his work-in-progress online. In an epic tale of yak shaving, he built Playfic before writing his first game.

From the PlayFic Website I deeply empathized with this level of yak shaving, and Playfic/Inform seemed like a great way give homage to one of the people who had inspired me. Additionally, in my head Inform and I had unfinished business. If my education had gone according to plan, I would have taken a course on interactive fiction (a subject that really excites me) and spent three months doing a deep dive into Inform. My school career didn't exactly follow a linear path, so I never got a chance to play with Inform.

Until now.

Here is what I have done, although started may be a better word. I have rebuilt, as much as possible, the XOXO 2014 experience in Inform 7, hosted on Playfic.

The project is called "from Portland get XOXO".

Is it finished? Nope, although I'll be working on it more this week, and posting updates when I can. What is there is the bones, including pretty much every major location and most of the events from the four days of fun.

What would I like to happen? Well, mostly I want people to play it. And have a reaction to it that hopefully isn't boredom. I also want people to change it, make it better, make it crazier, basically take what I've done as a base and push the limits of it.

So I've put the whole thing in a github repo, and I am actively soliciting issues and pull requests. Anyone who contributes will get my eternal thanks, and a call-out on twitter plus this blog.

Play it, have fun with, and make it your own.

Thanks, and look for more updates about the project this week, plus more Homage for Holiday posts in the coming weeks

There's No Place Like Homage for the Holidays

by phildini on November 30, 2014

Update 2014-12-08: Pebble.Ink, the second Homage for the Holidays post, is up.

Update 2014-12-01: The first Homage for the Holidays project is up.

Over the summer, on my first trip to Portland, I read the book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. If you do something that could remotely be considered creative, I highly recommend you check out the book, and his more recent Show Your Work.

Reading Steal Like an Artist, then returning to Portland for XOXO in September, helped drive home a lesson that my Game Design professors tried to teach me in college, but that I rejected: The best way to expand your creative horizons is to copy work you like, preferably with your own take on it.

When I was in school, I didn't see the value in trying to copy what someone else had done. That didn't sound 'creative enough' to me, partly from ignorance and partly from arrogance. Maybe more than partly from arrogance. It's also 100% possible that I just didn't care enough about games to try and emulate the ones that interested me.

So I graduated, started an engineering job, and was quickly exposed to the fact that those who are best at what they do often succeed because they've learned from the mistakes and successes of those who have come before them. And the best way to learn from someone is try and do what they've done.

I got a double helping of this when I tried to build my own Content Management System - basically a glorified blogging system - for The Adventures of Captain Quail, a webcomic run by myself and my incredibly talented artistic partner. I went into the project thinking that I'd have the whole thing together in a month, tops. A year later, there's still more I want to fix about it. Did I need to build a CMS? Is mine any better that what else is out there? Probably not. But the lessons I learned in building it I'm not sure I could have learned any other way.

This is where I've learned the value of building things that are directly or indirectly influenced by others: You get a tiny insight into what they've gone through, and can use that to make your own work better. I think this was, in many ways, a subtheme of this year's XOXO: That nobody produces great work in a vacuum, and the projects that seem most original or creative can be traced to specific influences from the creator's life.

So, reading Auston Kleon's book and going to XOXO and thinking about what I've discovered in the past year that really excites me, I'm embarking on a project I'm calling Homage for the Holidays. Every week, starting December 1st, I'll release a new project directly inspired by something I've seen this year that I thought was awesome. I'll be posting about them here, and right now the projects I'm planning to release will be available on the web. I'll try to document everything that happens with them, and the source materials for all of them will be freely distributed online.

Most of the projects I'm planning will be collaborative by nature, and I would be thrilled and grateful if people wanted to work on them with me, but I'd also love to see other people run their own homages. Tell me about them, and I'll link them here.

Thank you to everyone who's provided me with inspiration this year. I hope I can spread that to other people this month.

See you on the 1st!

XOXO 2014

by phildini on September 22, 2014

A sample of my badge collection.

I've gone to a lot of conferences. When I was 17 I lied on the registration for LinuxWorld and said I was 18, which was the minimum age requirement. I was pretty into Linux in those days, and having LinuxWorld in San Francisco was too good a chance to miss. As it turns out, I probably interacted with people at that conference who would end up being friends and co-workers more than 5 years in the future.

My early conference-going years, and I should point out this was before I was actually full-time employed in tech, were all about LinuxWorld and MacWorld. Those were the things I liked, because I was really weird in high school, apparently. In 2010 I discovered comic conventions with WonderCon. I was blown away with the realization that this whole world of comic-and-movie lovers existed, and I had only dipped my toes in it in comparison.

2012-2014 was filled with technical conferences and fan conventions. HTML5DevConf, PyCon, KrakenCon, AOD, APE, BigWow ComicFest. There was something that drove me to each of them, and PyCon sticks out as being full of friendly pythonistas. PyCon still ranks as my favorite technical conference.

Sometime through all this I realized that I enjoy going to conferences and conventions because I like hanging out with groups of people who are guaranteed to share at least one interest with me. The strength of that shared interest normally dictates how much I like the con.

Now we come to XOXO 2014. I will be forever grateful to Tom Cenzani, one of the many excellent people I work with at Eventbrite, for showing the videos from last year's XOXO Conf. As I watched Cabel Sasser, and Jonathan Coulton, and Maciej Cegłowski and all the other speakers talk openly and honestly about their successes, and failures, and fears in trying to build things, in trying to add something to the world while following their own path, I knew I had to be a part of that. The idea that there was a con, this thing that I already knew I loved, dedicated at least in part to being a creator, a thing I struggled with daily - how could I not want to be there?

Of course, I promptly forgot about this desire. The videos came out last fall, registration didn't open until the spring, and we lead busy lives. But when registration opened, I remembered watching those videos, and immediately went to sign up. And right from the beginning of registration I had a feeling I was in for something special.

We've established that I go to a lot of conferences, but most of them are technical, and therefore not deeply accessible to my wife. She's incredibly intelligent, but has chosen math and music over technology. I have, in the past, felt sad about not being able to share my joy at certain cons with her, because the common thread or theme was something that she didn't have experience with. So when I saw the blog post from XOXO about families, I paused for thought, and then realized I had finally found a conference that (maybe, hopefully) my wife and I could enjoy together. That in and of itself is an incredible notion, one that still brings me joy.

So I got her to sign up, and we went. Myself, my wife, and my cofounder. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, they were definitely not sure what to expect, but all of us saw enough interesting bits in the program that we were excited. And well we should have been excited. From the opening party Thursday night to the closing party Sunday night, XOXO 2014 was an experience that none of us were truly prepared for, and none of us will forget.

This is where writing this post gets tricky, for me. I could go into excruciating detail about every game, and musician, and speaker that we loved, but I think that would miss some of the true character of XOXO, for me. PyCon was the first convention where I heard about the concept of the 'hallway track' as a measure of how good a con is. The 'hallway track' is all the conversations and random meetings and excellent discussions you have between sessions, over meals, or generally outside the scripted part of the con. For cons like PyCon, the quality of the 'hallway track' is one of many factors used to determine how good a particular year's con was.

For XOXO, the 'hallway track' is the con. The spirit of XOXO may be distilled in speakers, and the musicians, and the games, and the films, but it lives and breathes and shouts with joy at the conversations and chance meetings that take up every spare moment. I thought I had found friendly groups of people at other cons - they don't hold a candle to the friendliness and warmth of the attendees at XOXO. I made what I hope are lifelong friends during that weekend in Portland. Out of <em>hundreds</em> of conversations, I can only remember one where I didn't come away feeling excited and so happy to have talked with that person.

For me, XOXO wasn't a huge 'BANG' of insight or revelation. It was a slow burn shared with a thousand perfect strangers and true friends who were there because they make things, and who wanted to share the reassurance that makers are not alone. If you look up a bit from the candle that you are desperately trying to keep burning, you'll see hundreds of others, all with their own candles, ready to lend a hand. It was the best four days of my life that I can remember, and the fact that I got to share that with my wife makes it all that much sweeter.

Now, the hardest part: I am privileged. I am a white, straight, twenty-something male who works as a software engineer for a startup in the San Francisco Bay Area. It would be really, really hard to be playing life on an easier mode than what I'm currently playing. I try, every hour of every day, to recognize my privilege and not let it drive my actions. I am surrounded by those less privileged than I, and I struggle with what I can do to help. I am not perfect, and never will be.

And because I recognize my privilege, and want to be a human being despite it, I applaud and support everything that the enthusiasm of Andys do to make XOXO a more diverse place. I don't think that the conference is for everyone (how could it be? how can anything with any focus be for everyone?), but I do think it benefits from having as diverse an audience as possible. Which means that, if there is another XOXO, it's unlikely I'll be selected to attend.  There is most likely someone far more deserving for the spot, and I am incredibly lucky to have been able to attend once. This is probably how the universe should work.

But I also desperately, desperately, desperately want another chance to spend four days in Portland with all the friends I have, and all the friends I haven't met yet. To be inspired together, laugh together, play together, sweat together, and remind one another that we are not alone.

Thank you, Andy, and thank you, Andy, for an incredible XOXO.


Weekly Words 3

by phildini on September 2, 2014

I'm working my way through a book of Jack Vance-inspired stories, and the vocabulary is thick as fog.

philtre - a magic potion (Wiki)

ague - a fever (Merriam-Webster)

whit - the smallest part imaginable (Merriam-Webster)

sortie - deployment of military forces from a strongpoint (Wiki)

ell - a unit of measure derived from the length of a man's forearm. (Wiki)

lictor - a bodyguard for Roman political leaders (Wiki)

nacre - another name for mother-of-pearl (Wiki)

cataphract - heavily armored cavalry (Wiki)

Weekly Words 2

by phildini on August 25, 2014

Another installment of "Words What I Looked Up This Week", defined for our mutual pleasure.

transon - transverse horizontal structural beam, normally over a door (Wiki)

loggia - exterior gallery support by pillars in facade (Wiki)

pilaster - ornamental fake column (Wiki)

sestina - fixed verse poen consisting of six six-line stanzas (Wiki)

villanelle - 19 line poem consisting of 5 tercets, followed by a quatrain (Wiki)

damask - reversible fabric of patterned silk (Wiki)

orpiment - deep orange/yellow arsenic sulfide mineral (Wiki)

roseate - rose-colored, optimistic (Wiki)

Weekly Words 1

by phildini on August 14, 2014

Howdy. On the recommendation of a really good book I picked up a couple weeks ago, I've started collecting words that are unknown to me. Here's the words I came across this week that I needed to look up, with my interpretation of their definition.

milieu - the general environment something takes place in, including natural and unnatural features, atmosphere, and culture (Wiki Milieu)

serge - a type of fabric, tightly woven, often wool, with a distinct pattern (Wiki Serge)

zweiback - twice-baked sweet toast from Germany. Literally means "twice baked" (Wiki Zweiback)

dramaturge - researcher and developer in a theater company. Kind of a meta-producer, responsible for meshing all the different creative visions with the source material (Wiki Dramaturge)

trinitite - glassy mineral residue left by the Trinity Bomb test (Wiki Trinitite)

Check back next week for more words!

On The Long Memory of the Internet

by phildini on August 13, 2014

Its common knowledge that anything you do online stays online forever. Once you publish something to the internet, it can never really be unpublished. I'm not saying my past weekend completely disproved this theory, but it definitely made me think hard about what actually lives and dies on the Great Wide Web.

This blog has been running in some form or another since 2008 or so. This past weekend, after discovering my long-running Wordpress setup was utterly borked, and seeing that I had a recent backup, I decided to blow away the Wordpress install, re-install Wordpress, and restore the backup.

This went smoothly enough, until I realized that what I had for a backup wasn't a Wordpress backup, but a SQL dump. After trying to look online for ways to restore that SQL dump into the new Wordpress installation, I gave up, and momentarily sat stunned at my loss.

Its not a complete loss, since I still have all the text and all data in that SQL backup, but it means that any links to anything I've written in the past 6 years no longer work. This was a bigger blow, since I'd like to fancy I have decent SEO for some of the things I've written.

And that train of thought led me to the idea at top: Nothing dies on the internet, right? Between the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine and the copies of the internet Google has cached, all my work is still accessible online, right?

The answer is "kind of". Yes, there are three snapshots of my site on the Wayback Machine (which is a bit of an ouch moment- so much for my importance online!). These copies are pretty much just text, and don't include any of the media in the posts. And there are probably cached copies of my posts in the Google archive, but good luck finding them. I could not.

Food for thought when deciding whether to host your own system, or host through a company that has some interest in your data always being accessible. I'm not proposing abandoning Wordpress and moving completely to Tumblr (or Medium or Svbtle or Posthaven), but it is making me consider one value of cross-posting: backup!

Well, Crap.

by phildini on August 7, 2014

Looks like I lost everything and have to start over on this blog.

I have a sql db, that I should seriously look at restoring in some meaningful way.

Until then, I'm starting over.