Friday Random 5: Snowed in edition

One of those annoying winter storms today—not a real blizzard, just messy enough to cancel the kids’ school. So here I am working at home and watching the woods fill up with snow. Time for a Random 5!

  1. Cowboy BootsMacklemore & Ryan Lewis (The Heist). Let’s not judge, okay? I grew to appreciate Macklemore during his many live in-studios on KEXP, and there’s something homey about hearing him rap about the passage of time—though the chorus about urban cowboys on Capitol Hill is a little annoying.
  2. Sarah AnneDaniel Bachman (Jesus I’m a Sinner). It’s not fair, the talent of this kid, who comes across as the second coming of John Fahey. This is a strong track from what’s ultimately a journeyman album compared to his epic River, but still mesmerizing.
  3. Last TimeBlack Dub (Black Dub). A disappointing track that buries the old gospel song in layers of drums and reverb, along with the stylistically unsuited (if strong) voice of Chris Whitley’s daughter Trixie. I expected better from Daniel Lanois.
  4. SuperheroJane’s Addiction (Strays). Okay, Shuffle, I guess the theme of today’s Random 5 is “regret.” As in, regret that I picked up this reunion disk 13 years ago. At least the playing is as tight as Perry’s lyrics are lame (“I’m not your average guy”? Really?).
  5. Like a VirginMadonna (Celebration). This is where I’m supposed to dump on Madonna like I did when I was 12 years old, right? Can’t do it. Incredible track, and her still-hiccuppy vocals sell the song in a way that her more mature voice couldn’t have done years later. I’m reminded of the joke in Sting’s “Nothing Like the Sun” tour program, where they did capsule bios of each band member—including Branford Marsalis, Minu Cinelu, and the late great Kenny Kirkland—and asked them about their musical guilty pleasure. “Madonna’s backing band” came up about four times.

The ironic battle over crypto

Bruce Schneier: Security vs. Surveillance. As the dust finally settles from the breach of the US Office of Personnel Management, in which personal information for 21.5 million Americans who were Federal employees or who had applied for security clearances with the government was stolen, I find it unbelievable that other parts of the federal government are calling for weakening cryptographic protections.

Because that’s what the call for law enforcement backdoors is. There’s a certain kind of magical thinking in law enforcement and politics that says we should be able to have things both ways—encrypt data to keep it safe from bad guys while letting us in. It doesn’t work that way. If the crypto algorithm has a secret key, it will be found. Or stolen, if OPM tells us anything about the state of security in the federal government.

I’d like a presidential candidate who calls for stronger, not weaker, encryption, and who starts by demanding it of federal software systems.

Columns for microscale Lego buildings

As my cryptic post the other day hinted, I’ve gone full on AFOL – that is, Adult Fan of Lego. It started slowly, with a few Star Wars sets and some of the modular buildings, but over time I got drawn in more and more. One of the big things that pulled me in was the Lego Architecture line. The simplicity of the projects combined with exposure to some advanced building techniques was a great way to learn

As teased last week, my current obsession is applying what I’ve learned about Lego architecture to landmarks that I know well. Without giving away the whole game, let’s say that an important part of the project is building convincing columns in Lego. There are several good how-to resources available for building medium scale columns (a Flickr pool, a couple of YouTube videos, some more elaborate and authentic tutorials focused on Greek and Roman styles, some really elaborate stuff on the Corinthian order specifically), but not a whole lot summarizing the options for building Architecture-scale columns. By Architecture-scale I mean miniature models such that the scale might be 1 brick height = 5, 10, or even 20 feet, as is the case with some of the moderate size models in the line.

Fortunately the Architecture line itself provides a pretty good set of options, and there are a few others that might be worth your consideration. Let’s explore!

Note: There’s a whole ‘nother topic on capitals. We’ll come back to that another time.

Cylinder bricks

lego cylinder columns

The humble cylinder brick (aka Brick 1 x 1 Round, #3062a or #3062b), which I first encountered in trans yellow and green in the classic Space days, has both advantages and disadvantages for building columns. Pro: you can stack it to create whatever height you like. Cons: if all you have is the common grooved model (as opposed to the older variant with no bottom lip), the groove can be distracting.

Bars

legoBarColumns

This approach combines the Bar 3L (#87994, also available in 4L version) with the Plate 1×1 Round with Open Stud (#85861). You simply push the bar down into the open stud and off you go. Bars are versatile for columns, as you can also use them with clips (e.g. #4085) to hold them to a façade. I’ve topped the columns with simple round 1×1 plates (e.g. #4073), but see my note about capitals above.

Telescopes

legoTelescopeColumns

The minifig telescope (#64644) provides surprisingly ornate, if small, columns, as seen on the Lego Architecture Louvre set. Here I’ve paired them with #4073 again.

Fences

legoFenceColumns

There are a couple of fence-type items that make good, if plain, columns. The spindled fence (#30055) is probably the most straightforward.

Arches

legoArchColumns

For cases where columns combine with arches, using an arch part (like this Arch Panel, #90195, also known as a “castle window”) can work just fine.

Handle bricks

legoHandleColumns

If you’re building in a really small scale, the Brick with Handle (#2921) can do the trick. The disadvantage is that you have to raise the brick, since the handle extends the full height.

There are probably more options, and I’ll probably figure out a few more as I build, but I thought I’d start this list and see if anyone else has additional ideas.

N.A.D.D.

Rands in Repose: N.A.D.D. I somehow managed to make it this long without reading this seminal essay (which Rands linked back to yesterday). My current attention stack:

  1. Writing this blog post
  2. Updating internal wiki page
  3. Updating internal BI dashboard
  4. Listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play “Song of Joy”
  5. Watching Slack
  6. Working on slides for a webinar at noon
  7. Double checking my shopping app to replace the shirt whose elbow tore on me yesterday
  8. And Bricksmith waits in the dock for when I have a spare moment
  9. And I’m sure I’m forgetting something.

(Aside: what is it with men’s dress shirts and elbows that tear? I’m losing track of the number of good dress shirts (thankfully, not the bespoke ones) I’ve had to dispose of because of elbow wear.)

So yeah, I’ve got full blown N.A.D.D. The good news is that I can also hyperfocus when necessary. Now to go off and find the thing that’s going to trigger the hyperfocus today…

“Well, God is in his heaven, and we all want what’s his…”

Somehow in the past fifteen years I’ve been blogging (!), I missed writing about “Blind Willie McTell.” Ever. This despite the fact that the song made the playlist of one of the first mixtapes I ever made back in 1991. And I don’t know that I ever connected the dots on the song’s meaning, in all that time, beyond the vague sense of prophetic dread conveyed by the slowly more intense vocal and piano performance.

It’s twenty-five years since I put that mix tape together, and I’ve spent the last few years feeling as though “this land is condemned.” If the response to the Obama presidency has taught me anything, it’s that slavery was the original sin of this land, and that its repercussions still play out today. So on the heels of writing about the Underground Railroad in my town, about misattribution of black collegiate spirituals by white a cappella performers, about the bureaucracy of slavery, of carefree use of the symbols of the Confederacy a hundred (or 150) years after the end of the Civil War, and of minstrelsy, listening closely to the song again bears dividends.

And I am left feeling that amid revival tents, amid the attempts to dress up the past betrayed by cheap hooch, and despite the otherwise redemptive charge of the blues, we are left with this: an arrow in the doorpost, the ghosts of slavery ships, and the promise of our life in these United States undercut by power, greed, and the inevitable corruption and decay of our descendants.

Friday Random 5: far afield edition

Returning for another edition of the newly resurrected Friday Random 5, here’s what’s on my personal music channel this morning:

  1. DisorderJoy Division (Unknown Pleasures). Great start to an undercaffeinated Friday morning. There’s something about the starkness of this early Joy Division song: the extremely dry studio production, the guitar all fifths and fourths, the great Peter Hook bass line moving frenetically around the guitar in sixths, and the way the song completely comes apart with Ian Curtis’s frantic “I got the spirit.” I could listen to this song all day. And have.
  2. Grandma Brackbill Dec. 1978 w/Ralph Homsher (track 4). This is an odd one, but a cool one. It’s an interview with my great-grandmother Esta Leaman Brackbill when she was 91 years old, conducted by my great-uncle Ralph, that our family recently digitized. Not a lot of revelations, but a fun retelling of the story of the man who got drunk and tried to burn down Uncle Frank Leaman’s barn and was caught on the porch of my great-grandmother’s house while she and the other children were inside and their parents were off somewhere. Good stuff.
  3. I Will Be ThereVan Morrison (Saint Dominic’s Preview). I went deep down the rabbit hole on Van Morrison a few years ago (ten? geez) on discovering Astral Weeks, and picked up this album and a few others. Of course, nothing else is like Astral Weeks, but Van doing traditional blues is fantastic, even with the tossed off line “Gonna grab my suitcase, and my toothbrush, and my overcoat, and my underwear”!
  4. Pieces of SkyBeth Orton (Comfort of Strangers). Beth Orton’s Central Reservation was on constant repeat for me for about a year, and the followup Daybreaker accompanied more than a few road trips, but her subsequent albums haven’t worked as well for me. This song might be an example of why: the production (courtesy Jim O’Rourke) has just the right amount of emotional restraint but she disappears into it, and the song feels unfinished—it ends too soon.
  5. Messe basse (Fauré): SanctusChoir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, George Guest conductor (Fauré: Requiem, Cantique de Jean Racine; Duruflé: Requiem, Quatre Motets). A brief movement for choir and organ from a lesser known Fauré work. He jointly composed a full mass setting with his pupil André Messager providing the Kyrie and the O Salutaris; the Fauré movements (Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) were subsequently published stand-alone as the Messe basse. It’s a brief but effective setting of the Sanctus for treble and alto voices with organ; I want to go back and listen to the rest.

Democracy inaction: review of the Lessig presidential race

Larry Lessig in the New Yorker: Why I Dropped Out. This was the second part of a two-part essay about Lessig’s presidential bid. The first part, Why I Ran for President, reads like the first page of a thesis of political science. Sadly, the second part is much shorter and details Lessig’s major misstep—his distracting promise to resign from the presidency once he passed a package of reform aimed at eliminating corruption in the federal government.

Lessig shows two types of unfortunate naïvety in this narrative, one of which he acknowledges. He calls the promise to resign “an albatross that would ultimately sink the campaign,” and notes the inability of the press to explain it in a soundbite, the confusion of the voting public, and other factors that contributed to sinking the campaign. But I think he misses an important point. Another reason that this promise sank the campaign was the insight it provided into Lessig’s more serious naïvety: his belief that the culture of American federal-level politics could be fixed in one term via legislative fiat.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned over eight years at Veracode trying to convince enterprises, software suppliers, and individual software developers to take security seriously is that you don’t change culture overnight. You don’t do it with a law. You don’t do it with economic incentives. You do it, at least in part, by changing norms – what people will and won’t accept – and by showing people what “good” looks like. You can’t do that by passing legislation and then leaving in the middle of the night.

Winter Song

Speaking of eight years in, I missed a day of posting yesterday due to the Veracode sales kickoff, so I’m going to do a two-fer today to make up.

With the past weekend’s killer storm in DC and Charlottesville (as well as most of the rest of the mid-Atlantic), I couldn’t help but thinking about ice gnomes. One of the great fun songs of my Virginia Glee Club days was singing “The Winter Song,” an odd little tune that… well, look at the lyrics:

jHo, a song by the fire;
Pass the pipes, pass the bowl.
Ho, a song by the fire
With a skoal, with a skoal.
Ho, a song by the fire;
Pass the pipes with a skoal,

For the wolf-wind is wailing at the doorways,
And the snow drifts deep along the road,
And the ice gnomes are marching from their Norways,
And the great white cold walks abroad.

But, here by the fire, we defy frost and storm;
Ha, ha we are warm, and we have our heart’s desire.
For here, we’re good fellows, and the beechwood and the bellows;
And the cup is at the lip in the pledge of fellowship.

I had always wondered about the tune, so did a little research. Turns out “The Winter Song” is a collegiate song, but it originally comes from Dartmouth, not Virginia. The poetry collection Dartmouth Lyrics prints the poem “Hanover Winter Song” by Richard Hovey, who in 1898 convinced his college friend Frederic Field Bullard to write the music.

The tune lived on in Dartmouth fraternity singing, until that tradition died away, and in Dartmouth singing groups such as the Aires. But it took John Liepold to bring it to the University of Virginia, where it’s become a favorite of the Glee Club.

Eight years in

Today is the eighth anniversary of my first day at Veracode. It’s something I don’t talk as much about here, primarily because it keeps me so busy that I can’t write here very much. But it’s interesting to step back and understand how much things have changed—and how much they haven’t.

Here’s one of the first things I wrote about Veracode, a few days after I started. What hasn’t changed is the fallacy of trying to stop exploitation of application layer vulnerabilities by going after the network, or as Chris Wysopal said, “doubling the number of neighborhood cops without repairing the broken locks that are on everyone’s front doors.”

What has changed? Well, we were a tiny, scrappy little company when we started. But we just picked up senior sales and marketing leadership with pedigrees from RSA and Sophos, and we’re a lot bigger than we were eight years ago. It’s a fun day to be at Veracode, realizing just how rapidly we’ve grown.

The return of the Friday Random 10 … er, 5

It’s been over five years since I did a Friday Random 10 post. When I was last blogging daily, these posts started out as a group blogging challenge, a fun way to talk music and other stuff. After a while they became mechanical and they stopped along with my other blogging. Now that I’m three full weeks into my resolution to blog every weekday, I thought it might be time to resurrect the format, but with some changes. Namely, I’m not just going to post a list of tunes, I’m also going to write a little bit about each one, and so I’m shortening it from a Random 10 to a Random 5.

Otherwise the rules are the same: turn on your music player, hit shuffle, and list the first 5 tunes that come up… no cheating. I hereby swear to blog about it even if it’s embarrassing.

So here we go:

  1. What Is Your SecretNada Surf (The Weight is a Gift). A favorite band ten years ago, I need to go back and revisit some of their later albums which didn’t stick as much with me. But The Weight is a Gift and its predecessor, Let Go, are in my top 100 albums list, and even a lesser song like this is still a great listen for the harmonization.
  2. Song That Made Us What We Are Today (Demo)Red Hot Chili Peppers (Mother’s Milk). I’m not the biggest Chili Peppers fan in the world but I do love their earlier, edgier stuff, and this instrumental track is all bristly funk.
  3. Oh CarolinaVirginia Glee Club (Songs of Virginia). I’ve written about this track before and it’s still funny. What I didn’t write about is the musical form. A lot of these football songs were written for the spectators to sing at a football game and never had harmonizations, so when the Glee Club went to record this one they had to come up with a new arrangement for it. It’s a fun combination of traditional harmonization and multi-octave voicing that I hope we do as an alumni song someday.
  4. Like the 309Johnny Cash (American V – A Hundred Highways). In the aftermath of David Bowie’s death, it’s interesting to revisit Cash’s. Where Bowie’s was, in retrospect, a premeditated surprise managed for maximum artistic impact, Johnny Cash’s had all the inevitability of Revelations—the public awareness of his health problems, the death of June, the elegiac tone of the last few albums. In that context, his first posthumous release is both moving and comforting, with the bluesy shuffle of “Like the 309” a good representation of the tone.
  5. Above ChiangmaiBrian Eno (Ambient 2 – The Plateaux of Mirror). I went back to find the other albums in Eno’s Ambient series the other week, and was glad I did. This one is mostly composer Harold Budd on piano responding to “tones” introduced by Eno, who otherwise contributes mostly sound textures to the recording. The track “Above Chiangmai” is a soundscape in itself, sounding as though the piano is heard through the bones of the skull rather than the ears, and is hypnotic in its simple melodic improvisation. A little Satie, a little Cage, and all Eno.

Lonely hill: Apple’s stand on encryption

Rich Mogull of Securosis writing in TidBITS: Why Apple Defends Encryption. Great article summarizing the forces that drive Apple’s defense of encryption and resistance to introduction of a back door (briefly: their business model does not rely on compromising privacy, they understand that there is no such thing as a back door that cannot also be used by attackers, and it may be a personal issue for Tim Cook).

Rich’s analysis, which I agree with, aligns with another recently published article about the disparity in ranged weapons adoption in Europe in the Middle Ages. The question: why did it take the French and Scots nearly a century to adopt the cheaper, easier, and more effective longbow, instead continuing to rely on the more challenging crossbow? Answer: precisely because those technologies were cheaper and easier to adopt, they were blocked by the rulers of less politically stable states, who feared arming citizens with the weapon might lead to revolution. Only in more politically stable England was the longbow adopted.

There’s a clear analogy between restricting access to longbows and the current state desire to insert backdoors into consumer encrypted communications. What’s striking is the political difference in who’s doing the restrictions on crypto technology. It’s not just failed or unstable states (though there are plenty of those who seek to circumvent crypto), but also major global powers like the United States and India. I’m not sure whether that says more about the threat posed by crypto, or about the United States.

Lexington, Massachusetts and the Underground Railroad

I mentioned a year ago in passing that our new house in Lexington, Massachusetts was on the site of the old Robbins house, rumored to be a former Underground Railroad station. This week as I thought about the Civil Rights movement, I wondered about the Underground Railroad in Lexington and did a little more research.

Judging from the National Park Service’s list of sites on the Underground Railroad by state, there aren’t any NPS-listed sites in Lexington on the UR, though Concord’s Wayside House was. In fact, the town’s historic places brochure only lists the Robbins House as an Underground Railroad site.

The stronger, historically verifiable association is between Lexington and abolition. The grandson of Minuteman John Parker, the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, lived at the Parker homestead, formerly located at 187 Spring Street; he was not only outspoken on abolition but was one of the Secret Six who funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. But my immediate neighborhood has a strong claim to being an epicenter of abolitionism in Lexington. The Stone Building, located two doors down Mass Ave from us, often hosted speakers on various topics, including abolition. Next door, Follen Church, whose first minister was the abolitionist Charles Follen, frequently hosted abolitionist messages from the pulpit.

So there may be no firm documentary evidence of an Underground Railroad site in Lexington, on my property or not, but there is certainly plenty of evidence that I live in a historic hotbed of  abolitionist thinking.

Disillusionment™, the official emotion of the 40s

Peter Gabriel: Peter and Sting Tour 2016. I am not the most rabid fan, any more, of either Peter Gabriel or Sting, the first decade of the 21st century helping to temper my enthusiasm for their projects. (See my 2006 review of Sting’s “Songs from the Labyrinth” and my note in 2010 on the “Scratch” project for examples of tempered enthusiasm.) But the fifteen year old boy in me wants to see these shows, very badly.

Given where I am in my life almost thirty years after getting exposed to both artists, I think I owe it to myself, and them, to forgive them for aging, for losing the intensity and edge they had in their respective youths, and to see what they’ve found in its place. After all, God knows I’ve lost some intensity and edge too.

Ride the Chariot and Yale: a study in misattribution

I took my daughter to her first a cappella concert yesterday, to see the Yale Redhot and Blue (as well as the women’s group from our town’s high school, the Lexington High Euphoria. As expected from a group of Redhot and Blue’s reputation, their set was excellently performed and jazz heavy (“Fly Me to the Moon” and Cole Porter’s “Redhot and Blue” were solid, “Angel Eyes” was spectacular and a welcome surprise). But they closed with an “old Yale song.” Which turned out to be, essentially, the William Henry Smith arrangement of “Ride the Chariot,” which I sang in the Virginia Glee Club in the early 1990s. More precisely, the Smith arrangement was used unmodified by the group, while the soloist improvised his own line around Smith’s melody.

I asked a member of the group about the Yale attribution after the show, and he said, “It’s an arrangement that’s done a lot at Yale. Each group has their own version of it and that’s ours.” A quick Google confirms the performance practice; the Whiffenpoofs do the same thing to the arrangement, as does the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus. Even the Yale Alumni Chorus gets in on the act, though they sing the SATB arrangement as written.

The attribution is a lot more dubious. The Whiffenpoofs’ repertoire page does not credit William Henry Smith for the arrangement at all, listing it as “trad. Yale”; other groups simply say “traditional.” Given that the arrangement is not only clearly Smith’s but that it was likely in copyright at the time it was adopted by the Yale groups (it was copyrighted in 1939, and if renewed by the publisher does not pass into the public domain until 2034), the Yale groups owe Smith a credit at the very least.

There’s also a matter of appropriation. While little is known about William Henry Smith (1908–1944), we do know that he was a professor at historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, known for graduating civil rights leader James Farmer, and that he directed the Wiley College choir, touring with them in the years before his sudden death. To claim authorship of a work published and copyrighted by a prominent black musician is unfortunate if done through ignorance, unforgiveable if done deliberately.

It’s unbecoming for the Yale vocal groups, even in ignorance, to claim “trad. Yale” authorship for Smith’s arrangement of “Ride the Chariot.” The various groups should correct this historical error and give Smith the credit he’s due.