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.

The Grass-Hopper Cantata


Every now and then, in the course of researching the Virginia Glee Club’s history, I find myself following up loose threads that take me to some unusual places. This week I paged through old issues of the Madison Hall Notes, the weekly journal of the University of Virginia YMCA. The journal was published from around 1905 through about the start of the first World War, at the height of the Y’s influence over the student body, and contain a wealth of information about student life—including the Glee Club.

During this period, the Glee Club ebbed and flowed, but during three of its most active years (1905-06, 1910-11, and 1915-16) it was closely associated with the YMCA, and actually rehearsed in Madison Hall. As a result, its rehearsals and performances were listed in the Madison Hall Notes. I learned about a few concerts in Lynchburg and at Sweet Briar and Hollins… and about the Grass-Hopper Cantata.

Seems that in April 1911 the Glee Club did a joint benefit for the King’s Daughters (a hospital charity) and the UVA General Athletic Association, and performed the “Grass-Hopper Cantata.” What the heck is that? Apparently an 1878 takeoff on Italian opera by Innes Randolph, which was still being performed thirty years later… There’s a copy in the University of Virginia Library for those who feel inclined to dig deeper; I am just amazed to learn such a thing existed.

“A modern art—this mixing of drinks”

Inside front wooden cover and title page of Here’s How: Mixed Drinks, published in Asheville in 1941.

Speaking of primary artifacts of history…

As I learn more about the fine art of mixology, I’ve been slowly acquiring interesting cocktail books. As the books get better, so do their bibliographies, and so I’ve started to poke my nose into the rabbit hole of vintage cocktail books.

A friend gave me a copy of the Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual—highly recommended even if you never make a drink in it for the thoroughness of the historic research and the slightly breathless biography of the NYC bar’s owner and bartender. In an aside, an early chapter mentions a punch recipe that was cited in a book called Here’s How, published by Three Mountaineers in Asheville, NC in 1941.

A cocktail book published in Asheville? In 1941?

Of course, Asheville had been a resort destination during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but I had no inkling that it had a cocktail culture. But, one eBay acquisition later, I can attest that editor W.C. Whitfield knew his stuff. The hillbilly illustration and wood-and-leather binding aside, the contents are impeccable, with a brandy crusta recipe I will be trying this weekend, and three different variations on a mint julep.

I can’t figure out who Whitfield is, nor his connection to Asheville, but the publisher Three Mountaineers was a furniture and home furnishings maker founded in 1932 (hence the wooden covers, presumably). Maybe my Asheville relatives can find out more…

The machinery of slavery

Out of the Box: Virginia Untold: Certificates of Importation. Out of the Box, the blog of the archives of the Library of Virginia, has consistently been one of my favorite reads for the windows it offers into the state – er, commonwealth – of my birth. And, honestly, into the past of our nation. Today’s post, by Greg Crawford, is a good illustration of why.

What is both fascinating and revolting about the history of slavery (and its descendants, white supremacy and institutionalized racism) is the level of legal, statutory, bureaucratic, and judicial machinery required to keep the enslavement of human beings “orderly” and “civil.” The example in this post, certificates of importation, were a bureaucratic invention that sought to ensure compliance with the law barring importation of slaves for sale into Virginia. Said law was enacted in 1778, not for humanitarian reasons, but apparently to ensure that England and British ships would not profit from the slave trade during the Revolutionary War.

(It’s worth noting that the original draft of the bill would have explicitly linked the barring of importation of slaves to the suppression of slavery more broadly. The final language of the bill contained no such linkage.)

An exception in the 1778 law permitted slave owners permanently relocating to Virginia to import their slaves to the commonwealth, provided they swore an oath that they did not intend to sell any of them. The oath became part of a legal document, the certificate of importation, that provided names, ages, and physical descriptions of the slaves, where they were acquired, and from where they were being relocated. The certificate was filed in court. (The Library of Virginia is in the process of digitizing these court documents, and they’ve made a spreadsheet of the digitized records.) If a slave was illegally brought into the commonwealth, they could sue for their freedom; the presence of the certificate of importation was a closed door to a slave seeking to escape an unfair master, but failure to file the paperwork gave the slave grounds to file a freedom suit.

To summarize: slaves imported into Virginia had to have paperwork documented by a local magistrate containing an oath from their owner and filed in their county courthouse so that they were in compliance with a Revolutionary War era law preventing British profiteering, and the absence of such paperwork allowed a slave to sue for freedom. The amount of bureaucracy devoted to the peculiar institution, of which this is only a small piece, must have been completely mindboggling. And it gives me a renewed appreciation for the artifacts of history.

Missed opportunity

The New Yorker: David Bowie and the Return of the Music Video. Good article that stops short of what it could have done, which is to point to the role that YouTube videos for ★ and “Lazarus” played in building anticipation for Bowie’s final album.

Or, put another way, just watch these. After watching the video for the lead single, “Blackstar,” how could you not want more? And the video for “Lazarus” became, posthumously, the key piece in Bowie’s in-plain-sight revelation of his fatal illness.

On rebuilding old habits


Honoring my New Year’s resolution—to get back on the daily blogging train—is hard.

About eighteen months ago, I shifted roles at my day job from a position where I had a lot of daily/weekly meetings, a lot of realtime decisions that needed to be made, a position of high blood pressure and email overload, to a new role where I had to produce creatively. As in, write.

I quickly learned that in the years in my old role, I had developed a sort of hyper-evolved ADD. The instinct to stay alert and always be on top of the latest thing that crossed my path served me very well in the old role, but it was a serious roadblock to getting any substantial work done. I practically had to isolate myself and make myself put on blinders so that I could get anything done at all.

Getting back to daily blogging feels a little like undoing the work that I did to focus my attention. It’s not really that, but it does require some thought about when. I used to be able to cook along, have a thought, stop and blog it, and go on my business. Now if I don’t do it first thing in the morning it eats at my attention all day until I have to stop and get it done so I can get anything else done.

This is very strange, and not at all what I thought would happen when I got back to daily blogging.

Maybe it’s just what happens when I don’t have anything to write about? Writing yesterday was a lot easier….