Journal tags: music

42

sparkline

Nice

Yesterday was Wednesday. Wednesday evening is when I play in an Irish trad session at The Jolly Brewer. It’s a highlight of my week.

Needless to say, there was no session yesterday. I’ll still keep playing tunes while we’re all socially distancing, but it’s not quite the same. I concur with this comment:

COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.

It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.

But it’s not the same though, is it?

I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”

Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:

It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.

Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.

I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”

41 hours in Galway

It was my birthday recently. I’m a firm believer in the idea that birthday celebrations should last for more than 24 hours. A week is the absolute minimum.

For the day itself, I did indeed indulge in a most luxurious evening out with Jessica at The Little Fish Market in Hove (on the street where we used to live!). The chef, Duncan Ray, is an absolute genius and his love for all things fish-related shines through in his magnificent dishes.

But to keep the celebrations going, we also went on a weekend away to Galway, where I used to live decades ago. It was a quick trip but we packed in a lot. I joked at one point that it felt like one of those travel articles headlined with “36 hours in someplace.” I ran the numbers and it turned out we were in Galway for 41 hours, but I still thought it would be fun to recount events in the imperative style of one of those articles…

A surprisingly sunny day in Galway.

Saturday, February 29th

The 3:30pm train from Dublin will get you into Galway just before 6pm. The train station is right on the doorstep of Loam, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you’ve made your reservation. Enjoy a seven course menu of local and seasonal produce. Despite the quality of the dishes, you may find the overall experience is a little cool, and the service a touch over-rehearsed.

You’ll be released sometime between 8:30pm and 9pm. Stroll through Eyre Square and down Shop Street to the Jury’s Inn, your hotel. It’s nothing luxurious but it’s functional and the location is perfect. It’s close to everything without being in the middle of the noisy weekend action. The only noise you should hear is the rushing of the incredibly fast Corrib river outside your window.

Around 9:30pm, pop ‘round to Dominick Street to enjoy a cocktail in the America Village Apothecary. It’s only open two nights a week, and it’s a showcase of botanicals gathered in Connemara. Have them make you a tasty conconction and then spend time playing guess-that-smell with their specimen jars.

By 10:30pm you should be on your way round the corner to The Crane Bar on Sea Road. Go in the side entrance and head straight upstairs where the music session will be just getting started. Marvel at how chilled out it is for a Saturday night, order a pint, and sit and listen to some lovely jigs’n’reels. Don’t forget to occassionally pester one of the musicians by asking “What was that last tune called? Lovely set!”

Checked in at The Crane Bar. Great tunes! 🎻🎶 — with Jessica

Sunday, March 1st

Skip the hotel breakfast. Instead, get your day started with a coffee from Coffeewerk + Press. Get that coffee to go and walk over to Ard Bia at Nimmos, right at the Spanish Arch. Get there before it opens at 10am. There will already be a line. Once you’re in, order one of the grand brunch options and a nice big pot of tea. The black pudding hash will set you up nicely.

Checked in at Ard Bia at Nimmos. Black pudding hash and a pot of tea — with Jessica

While the weather is far clearer and sunnier than you were expecting, take the opportunity to walk off that hearty brunch with a stroll along the sea front. That’ll blow out the cobwebs.

Galway bay. Galway bay.

When the cold gets too much, head back towards town and duck into Charlie Byrne’s, the independent bookshop. Spend some time in there browsing the shelves and don’t leave without buying something to remember it by.

By 1pm or so, it’s time for some lunch. This is the perfect opportunity to try the sushi at Wa Cafe near the harbour. They have an extensive range of irrestistable nigiri, so just go ahead and get one of everything. The standouts are the local oyster, mackerel, and salmon.

Checked in at wa cafe. Sushi — with Jessica

From there, head to Tigh Cóilí for the 2pm session. Have a Guinness and enjoy the tunes.

Checked in at Tigh Cóilí. Afternoon session — with Jessica

Spend the rest of the afternoon strolling around town. You can walk through the market at St. Nicholas Church, and check out the little Claddagh ring museum at Thomas Dillon’s—the place where you got your wedding rings at the close of the twentieth century.

Return the ring from whence it came!

If you need a pick-me-up, get another coffee from Coffeewerk + Press, but this time grab a spot at the window upstairs so you can watch the world go by outside.

By 6pm, you’ll have a hankering for some more seafood. Head over to Hooked on Henry Street. Order a plate of oysters, and a cup of seafood chowder. If they’ve got ceviche, try that too.

Checked in at Hooked. with Jessica

Walk back along the canal and stop in to The Salt House to sample a flight of beers from Galway Bay Brewery. There’ll probably be some live music.

Checked in at The Salt House. 🍺 — with Jessica

With your appetite suitably whetted, head on over to Cava Bodega for some classic tapas. Be sure to have the scallops with black pudding.

Checked in at Cava Bodega. Scallops with black pudding — with Jessica

The evening session at Tigh Cóilí starts at 8:30pm on a Sunday so you can probably still catch it. You’ll hear some top-class playing from the likes of Mick Conneely and friends.

Checked in at Tigh Cóilí. 🎶🎻 — with Jessica

And when that’s done, there’s still time to catch the session over at The Crane.

Checked in at The Crane Bar. 🎶🎻 — with Jessica

Monday, March 2nd

After a nice lie-in, check out of the hotel and head to McCambridge’s on Shop Street for some breakfast upstairs. A nice bowl of porridge will set you up nicely for the journey back to Dublin.

If you catch the 11am train, you’ll arrive in Dublin by 1:30pm—just enough time to stop off in The Winding Stair for some excellent lunch before heading on to the airport.

Checked in at The Winding Stair. Lunch in Dublin — with Jessica

Getting there

Aer Lingus flies daily from Gatwick to Dublin. Dublin’s Heuston Station has multiple trains per day going to Galway.

2019

So that was 2019. Quite a year.

Looking back, there were some real highlights for me…

Then there were the usual benefits that come with speaking at international conferences like An Event Apart and Beyond Tellerrand. I got to visit interesting places, eat excellent food, and meet good people.

Not everything was rosy. There were some sad life events for friends and family. And of course the whole political situation here in the UK has been just awful in 2019.

So onwards to 2020. I need to remind myself that many things are going well in the world but it can be hard to keep that in mind. At a local—nay, parochial—level, there’s a good chance that 2020 will deliver a hard Brexit. I have no faith in the competence or motivations of the current government to do otherwise (I keep reminding myself that I don’t have to stay in this country if it falls apart). And at the global scale, our attempts to mitigate the climate crisis are proceeding too slowly.

That’s something I need to take more personal responsibility for in 2020: fewer plane journeys, more trains, and more carbon offsetting.

Ultimately, it’s a fairly arbitrary moment in time but I do like to pause for a moment and look back at the year that’s just been. For all its faults, I have happy memories. I’m healthy. I played lots of music. I ate well. I spent time with friends and family.

I look forward to more of that in the third decade of the 21st century.

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.

Songs I liked from 2018

Food and music

Going from Iceland to Greece in a day gave me a mild bit of currency exchange culture shock. Iceland is crazy expensive, especially given the self-immolation of the pound right now. Greece is remarkably cheap. You can eat like a king for unreasonably reasonable prices.

For me, food is one of the great pleasures in life. Trying new kinds of food is one of my primary motivators for travelling. It’s fascinating to me to see the differences—and similarities—across cultures. In many ways, food is like a universal language, but a language that we all speak in different dialects.

Herring. A feast of lamb.

It’s a similar story with music. There’s a fundamental universality in music across cultures, but there’s also a vast gulf of differences.

On my first night in Reykjavik, I wound up at an Irish music session. I know, I know—I sound like such a cliché, going to a foreign country and immediately seeking out something familiar. But I had been invited along by a kind soul who got in touch through The Session after I posted my travel plans there. Luckily for me, there was a brand new session starting that very evening. I didn’t have an instrument, but someone very kindly lent me their banjo and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time playing along with the jigs and reels.

As an added bonus—and you really don’t get to hear this at most trad sessions—there was even a bit of Icelandic singing courtesy of Bára Grímsdóttir. I snatched a little sample of it.

A few nights later I was in a quiet, somewhat smokey tavern in Thessaloniki. There was no Irish music to be found, but the rembetika music played on gorgeous bouzoukis and baglamas was in full flow.

Audio I listened to in 2017

I huffduffed 290 pieces of audio in 2017. I’ve still got a bit of a backlog of items I haven’t listened to yet, but I thought I’d share some of my favourite items from the past year. Here are twelve pieces of audio, one for each month of 2017…

Donald Hoffman’s TED talk, Do we see reality as it really is?. TED talks are supposed to blow your mind, right? (22:15)

How to Become Batman on Invisibilia. Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller challenge you to think of blindness as social construct. Hear ‘em out. (58:02)

Where to find what’s disappeared online, and a whole lot more: the Internet Archive on Public Radio International. I just love hearing Brewster Kahle’s enthusiasm and excitement. (42:43)

Every Tuesday At Nine on Irish Music Stories. I’ve been really enjoying Shannon Heaton’s podcast this year. This one digs into that certain something that happens at an Irish music session. (40:50)

Adam Buxton talks to Brian Eno (part two is here). A fun and interesting chat about Brian Eno’s life and work. (53:10 and 46:35)

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on Kreative Kontrol. This was far more revealing than I expected: genuine and unpretentious. (57:07)

Paul Lloyd at Patterns Day. All the talks at Patterns Day were brilliant. Paul’s really stuck with me. (28:21)

James Gleick on Time Travel at The Long Now. There were so many great talks from The Long Now’s seminars on long-term thinking. Nicky Case and Jennifer Pahlka were standouts too. (1:20:31)

Long Distance on Reply All. It all starts with a simple phone call. (47:27)

The King of Tears on Revisionist History. Malcolm Gladwell’s style suits podcasting very well. I liked this episode about country songwriter Bobby Braddock. Related: Jon’s Troika episode on tearjerkers. (42:14)

Feet on the Ground, Eyes on the Stars: The True Story of a Real Rocket Man with G.A. “Jim” Ogle. This was easily my favourite podcast episode of 2017. It’s on the User Defenders podcast but it’s not about UX. Instead, host Jason Ogle interviews his father, a rocket scientist who worked on everything from Apollo to every space shuttle mission. His story is fascinating. (2:38:21)

R.E.M. on Song Exploder. Breaking down the song Try Not To Breathe from Automatic For The People. (16:15)

I’ve gone back and added the tag “2017roundup” to each of these items. So if you’d like to subscribe to a podcast of just these episodes, here are the links:

100 word 096

It was another beautiful day in Sussex and the other Clearlefties made full use of it by going on a cross-country hike culminating with a well-earned beer’n’food stop in a pub.

I couldn’t join them though because I had band practice: three hours of hammering out Salter Cane songs. This time though, the hammering was a touch lighter. We’ve got a gig in The Greys pub coming up on Saturday, July 11th—come along!—and it’s not the most spacious of venues (to put it mildly) so we tried practicing a bit quieter than we normally would.

Still sounded great.

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.

100 words 075

Today was a Salter Cane practice day. It was a good one. We tried throwing some old songs at our new drummer, Emily. They stuck surprisingly well. Anomie, Long Gone, John Hope …they all sounded pretty damn good. To be honest, Emily was probably playing them better than the rest of us.

It was an energetic band practice so by the time I got home, I was really tired. I kicked back and relaxed with the latest copy of Spaceflight magazine from the British Interplanetary Society.

Then I went outside and watched the International Space Station fly over my house.

100 words 063

Brad is visiting Brighton this weekend after his stint at UX London. I’ve been showing him around town, introducing him to the finest coffee, burgers, and beers that Brighton has to offer.

We travelled out to Lewes yesterday evening to partake in Jamie’s birthday celebrations. There followed a night of dancing to a wonderfully fun punk covers band, complete with guest vocal appearances from the extended Freeman family: Jamie doing Elvis Costello, his brother Tim doing The Sex Pistols, his other brother Martin doing The Jam, and his cousin Ben doing The Stranglers.

Ah, so much nostalgia and revisited youth!

100 words 061

I had band practice with Salter Cane today. It’s been ages since the last rehearsal. Our drummer, Emily, has been recovering from surgery on her foot, hence the hiatus.

I was sure that this practice would be a hard slog. Not only had we not played together for a long time, but we’re trying out a new rehearsal space too. Sure enough, there were plenty of technical difficulties that arose from trying to get things working in the new space. But I was pleasantly surprised by how the songs sounded. We were pretty tight. One might even say we rocked.

100 words 009

Last year at An Event Apart in Seattle I was giving a talk about long-term thinking on the web, using The Session as a case study. As a cheap gimmick, I played a tune on my mandolin during the talk.

Chris Coyier was also speaking. He plays mandolin too. Barry—one of the conference attendees—also plays mandolin. So we sat outside, passing my mandolin around.

Barry is back this year and he brought his mandolin with him. I showed him an Irish jig. He showed me a bluegrass tune. Together we played a reel that crossed the Atlantic ocean.

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.)

ABC

When I finally unveiled the redesigned and overhauled version of The Session at the end of 2012, it was the culmination of a lot of late nights and weekends. It was also a really great learning experience, one that I subsequently drew on to inform my An Event Apart presentation, The Long Web.

As part of that presentation, I give a little backstory on the ABC format. It’s a way of notating music using nothing more than ASCII text. It begins with some JSON-like metadata about the tune—its title, time signature, and key—followed by the notes of the tune itself—uppercase and lowercase letters denote different octaves, and numbers can be used to denote length:

X: 1
T: Cooley's
R: reel
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: Edor
|:D2|EBBA B2 EB|B2 AB dBAG|FDAD BDAD|FDAD dAFD|
EBBA B2 EB|B2 AB defg|afec dBAF|DEFD E2:|
|:gf|eB B2 efge|eB B2 gedB|A2 FA DAFA|A2 FA defg|
eB B2 eBgB|eB B2 defg|afec dBAF|DEFD E2:|

On The Session, a little bit of progressive enhancement produces a nice crisp SVG version of the sheet music at the user’s request (the non-JavaScript fallback is a server-rendered bitmap of the sheet music).

ABC notation dates back to the early nineties, a time of very limited bandwidth. Exchanging audio files or even images would have been prohibitively expensive. Having software installed on your machine that could convert ABC into sheet music or audio meant that people could share and exchange tunes through email, BBS, or even the then-fledgling World Wide Web.

In today’s world of relatively fast connections, ABC’s usefulness might seemed lessened. But in fact, it’s just as popular as it ever was. People have become used to writing (and even sight-reading) the format, and it has all the resilience that comes with being a text format; easily editable, and human-readable. It’s still the format that people use to submit new tune settings to The Session.

A little while back, I came upon another advantage of the ABC format, one that I had never previously thought of…

The Session has a wide range of users, of all ages, from all over the world, from all walks of life, using all sorts of browsers. I do my best to make sure that the site works for just about any kind of user-agent (while still providing plenty of enhancements for the most modern browsers). That includes screen readers. Some active members of The Session happen to be blind.

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!

There’s one little thing that slightly irks me though. The ABC notation should be read out one letter at a time. But screen readers use a kind of fuzzy logic to figure out whether a set of characters should be spoken as a word:

Screen readers try to pronounce acronyms and nonsensical words if they have sufficient vowels/consonants to be pronounceable; otherwise, they spell out the letters. For example, NASA is pronounced as a word, whereas NSF is pronounced as “N. S. F.” The acronym URL is pronounced “earl,” even though most humans say “U. R. L.” The acronym SQL is not pronounced “sequel” by screen readers even though some humans pronounce it that way; screen readers say “S. Q. L.”

It’s not a big deal, and the screen reader user can explicitly request that a word be spoken letter by letter:

Screen reader users can pause if they didn’t understand a word, and go back to listen to it; they can even have the screen reader read words letter by letter. When reading words letter by letter, JAWS distinguishes between upper case and lower case letters by shouting/emphasizing the upper case letters.

But still …I wish there were some way that I could mark up the ABC notation so that a screen reader would know that it should be read letter by letter. I’ve looked into using abbr, but that offers no guarantees: if the string looks like a word, it will still be spoken as a word. It doesn’t look there’s any ARIA settings for this use-case either.

So if any accessibility experts out there know of something I’m missing, please let me know.

Update: I’ve added an aural CSS declaration of speak: spell-out (thanks to Martijn van der Ven for the tip), although I think the browser support is still pretty non-existent. Any other ideas?

That was my jam

Those lovely people at the jam factory have reprised their Jam Odyssey for 2013—this time it’s an underwater dive …through jam.

Looking back through my jams, I thought that they made for nice little snapshots of the year.

  1. : Meat Abstract by Therapy? …because apparently I had a dream about Therapy?
  2. : Jubilee Street by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds …because I had just been to the gig/rehearsal that Jessica earned us tickets to. That evening was definitely a musical highlight of the year.
  3. : Atlanta Lie Low by Robert Forster …because I was in Atlanta for An Event Apart.
  4. : Larsen B by British Sea Power …because I had just seen them play a gig (on their Brighton home turf) and this was the song they left us with.
  5. : Tramp The Dirt Down by Elvis Costello …because it was either this or Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead! (or maybe Margaret In A Guillotine). I had previously “jammed” it in August 2012, saying “Elvis Costello (Davy Spillane, Donal Lunny, and Steve Wickham) in 1989. Still waiting.”
  6. : It’s A Shame About Ray by The Lemonheads …because Ray Harryhausen died.
  7. : Summertime In England by Van Morrison …because it was a glorious Summer’s day and this was playing on the stereo in the coffee shop I popped into for my morning flat white.
  8. : Spaceteam by 100 Robots …because Jim borrowed my space helmet for the video.
  9. : Higgs Boson Blues by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds …because this was stuck in my head the whole time I was at hacking at CERN (most definitely a highlight of 2013).
  10. : Hey, Manhattan by Prefab Sprout …because I was in New York.
  11. : Pulsar by Vangelis …because I was writing about Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
  12. : Romeo Had Juliette by Lou Reed …because Lou Reed died, and also: this song is pure poetry.

I like This Is My Jam. On the one hand, it’s a low-maintenance little snippet of what’s happening right now. On the other hand, it makes for a lovely collage over time.

Or, as Matt put it back in 2010:

We’ve all been so distracted by The Now that we’ve hardly noticed the beautiful comet tails of personal history trailing in our wake.

Without deliberate planning, we have created amazing new tools for remembering. The real-time web might just be the most elaborate and widely-adopted architecture for self-archival ever created.

Radio Free Earth

Back at the first San Francisco Science Hack Day I wanted to do some kind of mashup involving the speed of light and the distance of stars:

I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant light cone idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner…

At this year’s San Francisco Science Hack Day, I came back to that idea. I wanted some kind of mashup that demonstrated the connection between the time that light has travelled from distant stars, and the events that would have been happening on this planet at that moment. So, for example, a star would be labelled with “the battle of Hastings” or “the sack of Rome” or “Columbus’s voyage to America”. To do that, I’d need two datasets; the distance of stars, and the dates of historical events (leaving aside any Gregorian/Julian fuzziness).

For wont of a better hack, Chloe agreed to help me out. We set to work finding a good dataset of stellar objects. It turned out that a lot of the best datasets from NASA were either about our local solar neighbourhood, or else really distant galaxies and stars that are emitting prehistoric light.

The best dataset we could find was the Near Star Catalogue from Uranometria but the most distant star in that collection was only 70 or 80 light years away. That meant that we could only mash it up with historical events from the twentieth century. We figured we could maybe choose important scientific dates from the past 70 or 80 years, but to be honest, we really weren’t feeling it.

We had reached this impasse when it was time for the Science Hack Day planetarium show. It was terrific: we were treated to a panoramic tour of space, beginning with low Earth orbit and expanding all the way out to the cosmic microwave background radiation. At one point, the presenter outlined the reach of Earth’s radiosphere. That’s the distance that ionosphere-penetrating radio and television signals from Earth, travelling at the speed of light, have reached. “It extends about 70 light years out”, said the presenter.

This was perfect! That was exactly the dataset of stars that we had. It was a time for a pivot. Instead of the lofty goal of mapping historical events to the night sky, what if we tried to do something more trivial and fun? We could demonstrate how far classic television shows have travelled. Has Star Trek reached Altair? Is Sirius receiving I Love Lucy yet?

No, not TV shows …music! Now we were onto something. We would show how far the songs of planet Earth had travelled through space and which stars were currently receiving which hits.

Chloe remembered there being an API from Billboard, who have collected data on chart-topping songs since the 1940s. But that API appears to be gone, and the Echonest API doesn’t have chart dates. So instead, Chloe set to work screen-scraping Wikipedia for number one hits of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s …you get the picture. It was a lot of finding and replacing, but in the end we had a JSON file with every number one for the past 70 years.

Meanwhile, I was putting together the logic. Our list of stars had the distances in parsecs. So I needed to convert the date of a number one hit song into the number of parsecs that song had travelled, and then find the last star that it has passed.

We were tempted—for developer convenience—to just write all the logic in JavaScript, especially as our data was in JSON. But even though it was just a hack, I couldn’t bring myself to write something that relied on JavaScript to render the content. So I wrote some really crappy PHP instead.

By the end of the first day, the functionality was in place: you could enter a date, and find out what was number one on that date, and which star is just now receiving that song.

After the sleepover (more like a wakeover) in the aquarium, we started to style the interface. I say “we” …Chloe wrote the CSS while I made unhelpful remarks.

For the icing on the cake, Chloe used her previous experience with the Rdio API to add playback of short snippets of each song (when it’s available).

Here’s the (more or less) finished hack:

Radio Free Earth.

Basically, it’s a simple mashup of music and space …which is why I spent the whole time thinking “What would Matt do?”

Just keep hitting that button to hear a hit from planet Earth and see which lucky star is currently receiving the signal.*

Science!

*I know, I know: the inverse-square law means it’s practically impossible that the signal would be in any state to be received, but hey, it’s a hack.

dConstruct music

If you were at dConstruct last week (lucky you!), you will have heard this music during the breaks. All of these tracks are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

Yes, that last one is from my band—a little bit of audio nepotism.