Journal tags: irish

11

sparkline

100 tunes

We got a headstart on the lockdown. A week before the UK government finally stopped dilly-dallying (at the expense of tens of thousands of lives), Clearleft became a remote-only company. At the beginning of this stay-at-home time, I started recording a tune a day. I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep it up, but I’ve managed to keep it going the whole time.

Yesterday I recorded my 100th tune.

It’s funny how small efforts can build up into a satisfying corpus. It’s not like I’m attempting anything ambitious, like Matthias, who is doing 100 days of writing. Recording one tune isn’t too much hassle. There are days when it’s frustrating and I have to do multiple takes, but overall it’s not too taxing. But now, when I look at the cumulative result, I’m very happy that I didn’t skip any days.

One hundred is a nice round number, so this could be a good time to stop. I could quit while I’m ahead. But I think I’ll keep going. Again, despite what the official line might be from the UK government (who have lost all trust), I reckon I’ll be staying at home for a while yet. As long as I’m here, I may as well keep playing. I have plenty more tunes to play.

At some point, the daily streak will end. But even then, I think I’ll continue to record tunes like this, even if it becomes more sporadic.

If you like these tunes, as well as being here on my own site, they’re all in a YouTube set. So …like’n’subscribe, or something?

Gormless

I sometimes watch programmes on TG4, the Irish language broadcaster that posts most shows online. Even though I’m watching with subtitles on, I figure it can’t be bad for keeping my very rudimentary Irish from atrophying completely.

I’m usually watching music programmes but occassionally I’ll catch a bit of the news (or “nuacht”). Their coverage of the protests in America reminded me of a peculiar quirk of the Irish language. The Black community would be described as “daoine gorm” (pronunced “deenee gurum”), which literally translated would mean “blue people”. In Irish, the skin colour is referred to as “gorm”—blue.

This isn’t one of those linguistic colour differences like the way the Japanese word ao means blue and green. Irish has a perfectly serviceable word for the colour black, “dubh” (pronounced “duv”). But the term “fear dubh” (“far duv”) which literally means “black man” was already taken. It’s used to describe the devil. Not ideal.

In any case, this blue/black confusion in Irish reminded me of a delicious tale of schadenfreude. When I was writing about the difference between intentions and actions, I said:

Sometimes bad outcomes are the result of good intentions. Less often, good outcomes can be the result of bad intentions.

Back in 2017, the Geeky Gaeilgeoir wrote a post called Even Racists Got the Blues. In it, she disects the terrible translation job done by an Irish-American racist sporting a T-shirt that reads:

Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.

That’s completely nonsensical in Irish, but the intent behind the words was to say “Blue Lives Matter.” Except… even if it made grammatical sense, what this idiot actually wrote would translate as:

Black Lives Matter.

What a wonderful chef’s kiss of an own goal!

If only it were a tattoo.

Photograph

Do you have a favourite non-personal photograph?

By non-personal, I mean one that isn’t directly related to your life; photographs of family members, friends, travel (remember travel?).

Even discounting those photographs, there’s still a vast pool of candidates. There are all the amazing pictures taken by photojournalists like Lee Miller. There’s all the awe-inspiring wildlife photography out there. Then there are the kind of posters that end up on bedroom walls, like Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss.

One of my favourite photographs of all time has music as its subject matter. No, not Johnny Cash flipping the bird, although I believe this picture to be just as rock’n’roll.

In the foreground, Séamus Ennis sits with his pipes. In the background, Jean Ritchie is leaning intently over her recording equipment.

This is a photograph of Séamus Ennis and Jean Ritchie. It was probably taken around 1952 or 1953 by Ritchie’s husband, George Pickow, when Jean Ritchie and Alan Lomax were in Ireland to do field recordings.

I love everything about it.

Séamus Ennis looks genuinely larger than life (which, by all accounts, he was). And just look at the length of those fingers! Meanwhile Jean Ritchie is equally indominatable, just as much as part of the story as the musician she’s there to record.

Both of them have expressions that convey how intent they are on their machines—Ennis’s uilleann pipes and Ritchie’s tape recorder. It’s positively steampunk!

What a perfect snapshot of tradition and technology meeting slap bang in the middle of the twentieth century.

Maybe that’s why I love it so much. One single photograph is filled with so much that’s dear to me—traditional Irish music meets long-term archival preservation.

A bit of Blarney

I don’t talk that much on here about my life’s work. Contrary to appearances, my life’s work is not banging on about semantic markup, progressive enhancement, and service workers.

No, my life’s work is connected to Irish traditional music. Not as a musician, I hasten to clarify—while I derive enormous pleasure from playing tunes on my mandolin, that’s more of a release than a vocation.

My real legacy, it turns out, is being the creator and caretaker of The Session, an online community and archive dedicated to Irish traditional music. I might occassionally mention it here, but only when it’s related to performance, accessibility, or some other front-end aspect. I’ve never really talked about the history, meaning, and purpose of The Session.

Well, if you’re at all interested in that side of my life, you can now listen to me blather on about it for over an hour, thanks to the Blarney Pilgrims podcast.

I’ve been huffduffing episodes of this podcast for quite a while now. It’s really quite excellent. If you’re at all interested in Irish traditional music, the interviews with the likes of Kevin Burke, John Carty, Liz Carroll and Catherine McEvoy are hard to beat.

So imagine my surprise when they contacted me to ask me to chat and play some tunes! It really was an honour.

I was also a bit of guinea pig. Normally they’d record these kinds of intimate interviews face to face, but what with The Situation and all, my chat was the first remotely recorded episode.

I’ve been on my fair share of podcasts—most recently the Design Systems Podcast—but this one was quite different. Instead of talking about my work on the web, this focussed on what I was doing before the web came along. So if you don’t want to hear me talking about my childhood, give this a miss.

But if you’re interested in hearing my reminisce and discuss the origin and evolution of The Session, have a listen. The chat is interspersed with some badly-played tunes from me on the mandolin, but don’t let that put you off.

Accessibility on The Session revisited

Earlier this year, I wrote about an accessibility issue I was having on The Session. Specifically, it was an issue with Ajax and pagination. But I managed to sort it out, and the lesson was very clear:

As is so often the case, the issue was with me trying to be too clever with ARIA, and the solution was to ease up on adding so many ARIA attributes.

Well, fast forward to the past few weeks, when I was contacted by one of the screen-reader users on The Session. There was, once again, a problem with the Ajax pagination, specifically with VoiceOver on iOS. The first page of results were read out just fine, but subsequent pages were not only never announced, the content was completely unavailable. The first page of results would’ve been included in the initial HTML, but the subsequent pages of results are injected with JavaScript (if JavaScript is available—otherwise it’s regular full-page refreshes all the way).

This pagination pattern shows up all over the site: lists of what’s new, search results, and more. I turned on VoiceOver and I was able to reproduce the problem straight away.

I started pulling apart my JavaScript looking for the problem. Was it something to do with how I was handling focus? I just couldn’t figure it out. And other parts of the site that used Ajax didn’t seem to be having the same problem. I was mystified.

Finally, I tracked down the problem, and it wasn’t in the JavaScript at all.

Wherever the pagination pattern appears, there are “previous” and “next” links, marked up with the appropriate rel="prev" and rel="next" attributes. Well, apparently past me thought it would be clever to add some ARIA attributes in there too. My thinking must’ve been something like this:

  • Those links control the area of the page with the search results.
  • That area of the page has an ID of “results”.
  • I should add aria-controls="results" to those links.

That was the problem …which is kind of weird, because VoiceOver isn’t supposed to have any support for aria-controls. Anyway, once I removed that attribute from the links, everything worked just fine.

Just as the solution last time was to remove the aria-atomic attribute on the updated area, the solution this time was to remove the aria-controls attribute on the links that trigger the update. Maybe this time I’ll learn my lesson: don’t mess with ARIA attributes you don’t understand.

Trad time

Fifteen years ago, I went to the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay:

I’m back from the west of Ireland. I was sorry to leave. I had a wonderful, music-filled time.

I’m not sure why it took me a decade and a half to go back, but that’s what I did last week. Myself and Jessica once again immersed ourselves in Irish tradtional music. I’ve written up a trip report over on The Session.

On the face of it, fifteen years is a long time. Last time I made the trip to county Clare, I was taking pictures on a point-and-shoot camera. I had a phone with me, but it had a T9 keyboard that I could use for texting and not much else. Also, my hair wasn’t grey.

But in some ways, fifteen years feels like the blink of an eye.

I spent my mornings at the Willie Clancy Summer School immersed in the history of Irish traditional music, with Paddy Glackin as a guide. We were discussing tradition and change in generational timescales. There was plenty of talk about technology, but we were as likely to discuss the influence of the phonograph as the influence of the internet.

Outside of the classes, there was a real feeling of lengthy timescales too. On any given day, I would find myself listening to pre-teen musicians at one point, and septegenarian masters at another.

Now that I’m back in the Clearleft studio, I’m finding it weird to adjust back in to the shorter timescales of working on the web. Progress is measured in weeks and months. Technologies are deemed outdated after just a year or two.

The one bridging point I have between these two worlds is The Session. It’s been going in one form or another for over twenty years. And while it’s very much on and of the web, it also taps into a longer tradition. Over time it has become an enormous repository of tunes, for which I feel a great sense of responsibility …but in a good way. It’s not something I take lightly. It’s also something that gives me great satisfaction, in a way that’s hard to achieve in the rapidly moving world of the web. It’s somewhat comparable to the feelings I have for my own website, where I’ve been writing for eighteen years. But whereas adactio.com is very much focused on me, thesession.org is much more of a community endeavour.

I question sometimes whether The Session is helping or hindering the Irish music tradition. “It all helps”, Paddy Glackin told me. And I have to admit, it was very gratifying to meet other musicians during Willie Clancy week who told me how much the site benefits them.

I think I benefit from The Session more than anyone though. It keeps me grounded. It gives me a perspective that I don’t think I’d otherwise get. And in a time when it feels entirely to right to question whether the internet is even providing a net gain to our world, I take comfort in being part of a project that I think uses the very best attributes of the World Wide Web.

Accessibility on The Session

I spent some time this weekend working on an accessibility issue over on The Session. Someone using VoiceOver on iOS was having a hard time with some multi-step forms.

These forms have been enhanced with some Ajax to add some motion design: instead of refreshing the whole page, the next form is grabbed from the server while the previous one swooshes off the screen.

You can see similar functionality—without the animation—wherever there’s pagination on the site.

The pagination is using Ajax to enhance regular prev/next links—here’s the code.

The multi-step forms are using Ajax to enhance regular form submissions—here’s the code for that.

Both of those are using a wrapper I wrote for XMLHttpRequest.

That wrapper also adds some ARIA attributes. The region of the page that will be updated gets an aria-live value of polite. Then, whenever new content is being injected, the same region gets an aria-busy value of true. Once the update is done, the aria-busy value gets changed back to false.

That all seems to work fine, but I was also giving the same region of the page an aria-atomic value of true. My thinking was that, because the whole region was going to be updated with new content from the server, it was safe to treat it as one self-contained unit. But it looks like this is what was causing the problem, especially when I was also adding and removing class values on the region in order to trigger animations. VoiceOver seemed to be getting a bit confused and overly verbose.

I’ve removed the aria-atomic attribute now. True to its name, I’m guessing it’s better suited to small areas of a document rather than big chunks. (If anyone has a good primer on when to use and when to avoid aria-atomic, I’m all ears).

I was glad I was able to find a fix—hopefully one that doesn’t negatively impact the experience in other screen readers. As is so often the case, the issue was with me trying to be too clever with ARIA, and the solution was to ease up on adding so many ARIA attributes.

It also led to a nice discussion with some of the screen-reader users on The Session.

For me, all of this really highlights the beauty of the web, when everyone is able to contribute to a community like The Session, regardless of what kind of software they may be using. In the tunes section, that’s really helped by the use of ABC notation, as I wrote five years ago:

One of those screen-reader users got in touch with me shortly after joining to ask me to explain what ABC was all about. I pointed them at some explanatory links. Once the format “clicked” with them, they got quite enthused. They pointed out that if the sheet music were only available as an image, it would mean very little to them. But by providing the ABC notation alongside the sheet music, they could read the music note-for-note.

That’s when it struck me that ABC notation is effectively alt text for sheet music!

Then, for those of use who can read sheet music, the text of the ABC notation is automatically turned into an SVG image using the brilliant abcjs. It’s like an enhancement that’s applied, I dunno, what’s the word …progressively.

100 words 084

Cobh really has become quite the tourist town. Today we—myself, Jessica, and my mother—took a boat over to Spike Island and enjoyed strolling around the fort and taking in the magnificent views. Then we went back across to town and had lunch where the White Star Line office used to be, sitting right next to the pier used to load goods and passengers for the Titanic.

We finished the evening in a pub listening to some great tunes (once the bodhrán player got the hint and left). Plenty of sunshine and plenty of pints. A really nice day.

The Session trad tune machine

Most pundits call it “the Internet of Things” but there’s another phrase from Andy Huntington that I first heard from Russell Davies: “the Geocities of Things.” I like that.

I’ve never had much exposure to this world of hacking electronics. I remember getting excited about the possibilities at a Brighton BarCamp back in 2008:

I now have my own little arduino kit, a bread board and a lucky bag of LEDs. Alas, know next to nothing about basic electronics so I’m really going to have to brush up on this stuff.

I never did do any brushing up. But that all changed last week.

Seb is doing a new two-day workshop. He doesn’t call it Internet Of Things. He doesn’t call it Geocities Of Things. He calls it Stuff That Talks To The Interwebs, or STTTTI, or ST4I. He needed some guinea pigs to test his workshop material on, so Clearleft volunteered as tribute.

In short, it was great! And this time, I didn’t stop hacking when I got home.

First off, every workshop attendee gets a hand-picked box of goodies to play with and keep: an arduino mega, a wifi shield, sensors, screens, motors, lights, you name it. That’s the hardware side of things. There are also code samples and libraries that Seb has prepared in advance.

Getting ready to workshop with @Seb_ly. Unwrapping some Christmas goodies from Santa @Seb_ly.

Now, remember, I lack even the most basic knowledge of electronics, but after two days of fiddling with this stuff, it started to click.

Blinkenlights. Hello, little fella.

On the first workshop day, we all did the same exercises, connected things up, getting them to talk to the internet, that kind of thing. For the second workshop day, Seb encouraged us to think about what we might each like to build.

I was quite taken with the ability of the piezo buzzer to play rudimentary music. I started to wonder if there was a way to hook it up to The Session and have it play the latest jigs, reels, and hornpipes that have been submitted to the site in ABC notation. A little bit of googling revealed that someone had already taken a stab at writing an ABC parser for arduino. I didn’t end up using that code, but it convinced me that what I was trying to do wasn’t crazy.

So I built a machine that plays Irish traditional music from the internet.

Playing with hardware and software, making things that go beep in the night.

The hardware has a piezo buzzer, an “on” button, an “off” button, a knob for controlling the speed of the tune, and an obligatory LED.

The software has a countdown timer that polls a URL every minute or so. The URL is http://tune.adactio.com/. That in turn uses The Session’s read-only API to grab the latest tune activity and then get the ABC notation for whichever tune is at the top of that list. Then it does some cleaning up—removing some of the more advanced ABC stuff—and outputs a single line of notes to be played. I’m fudging things a bit: the device has the range of a tin whistle, and expects tunes to be in the key of D or G, but seeing as that’s at least 90% of Irish traditional music, it’s good enough.

Whenever there’s a new tune, it plays it. Or you can hit the satisfying “on” button to manually play back the latest tune (and yes, you can hit the equally satisfying “off” button to stop it). Being able to adjust the playback speed with a twiddly knob turns out to be particularly handy if you decide to learn the tune.

I added one more lo-fi modification. I rolled up a piece of paper and placed it over the piezo buzzer to amplify the sound. It works surprisingly well. It’s loud!

Rolling my own speaker cone, quite literally.

I’ll keep tinkering with it. It’s fun. I realise I’m coming to this whole hardware-hacking thing very late, but I get it now: it really does feel similar to that feeling you would get when you first figured out how to make a web page back in the days of Geocities. I’ve built something that’s completely pointless for most people, but has special meaning for me. It’s ugly, and it’s inefficient, but it works. And that’s a great feeling.

(P.S. Seb will be running his workshop again on the 3rd and 4th of February, and there will a limited amount of early-bird tickets available for one hour, between 11am and midday this Thursday. I highly recommend you grab one.)

The Session

When I was travelling back from Webstock in New Zealand at the start of this year, I had a brief stopover in Sydney. It coincided with one of John and Maxine’s What Do I Know? events so I did a little stint on five things I learned from the internet.

It was a fun evening and I had a chance to chat with many lovely Aussie web geeks. There was this one guy, Christian, that I was chatting with for quite a bit about all sorts of web-related stuff. But I could tell he wasn’t Australian. The Northern Ireland accent was a bit of a giveaway.

“You’re not from ‘round these parts, then?” I asked.

“Actually,” he said, “we’ve met before.”

I started racking my brains. Which geeky gathering could it have been?

“In Freiburg” he said.

Freiburg? But that was where I lived in the ’90s, before I was even making websites. I was drawing a complete blank. Then he said his name.

“Christian!” I cried, “Kerry and Christian!”

With a sudden shift of context, it all fit into place. We had met on the streets of Freiburg when I was a busker. Christian and his companion Kerry were travelling through Europe and they found themselves in Freiburg, also busking. Christian played guitar. Kerry played fiddle.

I listened to them playing some great Irish tunes and then got chatting with them. They didn’t have a place to stay so I offered to put them up. We had a good few days of hanging out and playing music together.

And now, all these years later, here was Christian …in Sydney, Australia …at a web event! Worlds were colliding. But it was a really great feeling to have that connection between my past and my present; between my life in Germany and my life now; between the world of Irish traditional music and the world of the web.

One of the other things that connects those two worlds is The Session. I’ve been running that website for about twelve or thirteen years now. It’s the thing I’m simultaneously most proud of and most ashamed of.

I’m proud of it because it has genuinely managed to contribute something back to the tradition: it’s handy resource for trad players around the world.

I’m ashamed of it because it has been languishing for so long. It has so much potential and I haven’t been devoting enough time or energy into meeting that potential.

At the end of 2009, I wrote:

I’m not going to make a new year’s resolution—that would just give me another deadline to stress out about—but I’m making a personal commitment to do whatever I can for The Session in 2010.

Well, it only took me another two years but I’ve finally done it.

I’ve spent a considerable portion of my spare time this year overhauling the site from the ground up, completely refactoring the code, putting together a new mobile-first design, adding much more location-based functionality and generally tilting at my own personal windmills. Trying to rewrite a site that’s been up and running for over a decade is considerably more challenging than creating a new site from scratch.

Luckily I had some help. Christian, for example, helped geocode all the sessions and events that had been added to the site over the years.

That’s one thing that the worlds of Irish music and the web have in common: people getting together to share and collaborate.

The ugly American

I’m sitting in a big room at XTech 2006 listening to Paul Graham talk about why there aren’t more start-ups in Europe. It’s essentially a Thatcherite screed about why businesses should be able to get away with doing anything they want and treat employees like slaves.

In comparing Europe to the US, Guru Graham points out that the US has a large domestic market. Fair point. The EU — designed to be one big domestic market — suffers, he feels, by the proliferation of languages. However, he also thinks that it won’t be long before Europe is all speaking one language — namely, his. In fact, he said

Even French and German will go the way of Luxembourgish and Irish — spoken only in kitchens and by eccentric nationalists.

What. A. Wanker.

Update: Just to clarify for the Reddit geeks, here’s some context. I’m from Ireland. I speak Irish, albeit not fluently. I’m calling Paul Graham a wanker because I feel personally insulted by his inflammatory comment about speakers of the Irish language. I’m not insulted by his opinions on start-ups or economics or language death — although I may happen to disagree with him. I’m responding as part of the demographic he insulted. If he just said the Irish language will die out, I wouldn’t have got upset. He crossed a line by insulting a group of people — a group that happened to include someone in the audience he was addressing — instead of simply arguing a point or stating an opinion. In short, he crossed the line from simply being opinionated to being a wanker.