Friday, July 9th, 2021
Thursday, June 3rd, 2021
Two decades of thesession.org
On June 3rd, 2001, I launched thesession.org. Happy twentieth birthday to The Session!
Although actually The Session predates its domain name by a few years. It originally launched as a subdirectory here on adactio.com with the unwieldly URL
That incarnation was more like a blog. I’d post the sheetmusic for a tune every week with a little bit of commentary. That worked fine until I started to run out of tunes. That’s when I made the site dynamic. People could sign up to become members of The Session. Then they could also post tunes and add comments.
That’s the version that is two decades old today.
The last really big change to the site happened in 2012. As well as a complete redesign, I introduced lots of new functionality.
In all of those incarnations, the layout was fluid …long before responsive design swept the web. That was quite unusual twenty years ago, but I knew it was the webby thing to do.
What’s also unusual is just keeping a website going for twenty years. Keeping a community website going for twenty years is practically unheard of. I’m very proud of The Session. Although, really, I’m just the caretaker. The site would literally be nothing without all the contributions that people have made.
I’ve more or less adopted a Wikipedia model for contributions. Some things, like tune settings, can only be edited by the person who submitted it But other things, like the track listing of a recording, or the details of a session, can be edited by any member of the site. And of course anyone can add a comment to any listing. There’s a certain amount of risk to that, but after testing it for two decades, it’s working out very nicely.
What’s really nice is when I get to meet my fellow members of The Session in meatspace. If I’m travelling somewhere and there’s a local session happening, I always get a warm welcome. I mean, presumably everyone would get a warm welcome at those sessions, but I’ve also had my fair share of free pints thanks to The Session.
I feel a great sense of responsibility with The Session. But it’s not a weight of responsibility—the way that many open source maintainers describe how their unpaid labour feels. The sense of responsibility I feel drives me. It gives me a sense of purpose.
I’m 50 years old now. The Session is 20 years old. That’s quite a chunk of my life. I think it’s fair to say that it’s part of me now. Of all the things I’ve made so far in my life, The Session is the one I’m proudest of.
I’m looking forward to stewarding the site through the next twenty years.
Sunday, April 11th, 2021
I played a lot Lords of Midnight (and Doomdark’s Revenge) on my Amstrad 464 when I was a kid. Turns out there’s a dedicated labour of love to port the games to modern platforms. I just downloaded the OS X port, so there goes my weekend.
Thursday, June 11th, 2020
I wrote a while back about one of my favourite photographs but this might just give it a run for its money.
It was only near the end of the 19th century that shutter speeds improved, as did emulsions, meaning that spontaneous moments could be captured. Still, smiling was not part of many cultures. It could be seen as unseemly or undignified, and many people rarely sat for photos anyway.
Sunday, May 17th, 2020
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.
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.
Monday, April 20th, 2020
Saturday, April 4th, 2020
A bit of Blarney
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.
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.
Saturday, August 10th, 2019
Myself and Jessica joining in some reels and jigs.
Tuesday, July 16th, 2019
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.
Saturday, March 31st, 2018
Sunday, May 22nd, 2016
A fascinating thought experiment from Ted Chiang:
So let’s imagine a world in which Chinese characters were never invented in the first place. Given such a void, the alphabet might have spread east from India in a way that it couldn’t in our history, but, to keep this from being an Indo-Eurocentric thought experiment, let’s suppose that the ancient Chinese invented their own phonetic system of writing, something like the modern Bopomofo, some thirty-two hundred years ago. What might the consequences be?
Thursday, February 11th, 2016
An examination of how sites like The Session are meshing with older ideas of traditional Irish music:
There is a very interesting tension at play here – one that speaks directly to the design of new technologies. On the one hand, Irish musicians appear to be enthusiastically adopting digital media to establish a common repertoire of tunes, while on the other the actual performance of these tunes in a live session is governed by a strong etiquette that emphasizes the importance of playing by ear.
There’s an accompanying paper called Supporting Traditional Music-Making: Designing for Situated Discretion (PDF).
Thursday, August 13th, 2015
Sunday, August 2nd, 2015
Salt of the Earth
It’s Summertime in England so Jessica and I are eating the bounty of the season. Now is the perfect time for lamb. Yesterday we went to the Open Market and picked up half a leg of lamb (butterflied) from Tottington Manor Farm. This evening, we marinated it with rosemary, thyme, garlic, olive oil, and lemon and then threw it on the barbecue.
While we ate, we listened to a podcast episode. This time it was a documentary about salt from my Huffduffer feed. It’s an entertaining listen. As well as covering the science and history of salt, there were some interesting titbits on salt-based folklore. There’s the obvious one of throwing spilt salt over your shoulder (in to the eyes of the devil, apparently) but there was also one that neither of us had heard of: that offering someone salt at the dinner table is bad luck and warrants the rebuttal “pass me salt, pass me sorrow!”
Well, you live and learn.
Then we started thinking about other salt-based traditions. I have something in the back of my mind about a new year’s eve tradition in Ireland involving throwing bread at the door and sprinkling salt in the doorway. Jessica remembered something about a tradition in eastern European countries involving bread and salt as a greeting. Sure enough, a quick web search turned up the Russian tradition: “Хлеб да соль!!” ( “Bread and salt!”).
This traditional greeting has been extended off our planet. During the historic Apollo-Soyuz docking, crackers and salt were used as an easy substitute. But now when cosmonauts arrive at the International Space Station, they are greeted with specially-made portions of bread and salt.
We finished listening to the podcast. We finished eating our lamb—liberally seasoned with Oregonian salt from Jacobson. Then we went outside and looked up at the ISS flying overhead. When Oleg, Gennady, and Mikhail arrive back on Earth, they will be offered the traditional greeting of bread and salt.
Sunday, January 4th, 2015
Like an Enid Blyton adventure for the 21st century, James goes out into the country and explores the networks of microwave transmitters enabling high-frequency trading.
If you think that London’s skyscraper boom is impressive – the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin – go to Slough. It is not height that matters, but bandwidth.
Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
The Session trad tune machine
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.
Now, remember, I lack even the most basic knowledge of electronics, but after two days of fiddling with this stuff, it started to click.
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.
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!
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.)
Sunday, May 5th, 2013
A really nice short film about the Willie Clancy Summer School. It makes me want to get back to Miltown Malbay this July.
Sunday, March 3rd, 2013
I remember a talk and discussion at SxSW a few years back about trying to improve the efficiency of trade networks by making them more web-like: there are ships full of empty cargo containers, simply because companies insist on using the container with their logo on it. I really, really like the idea of applying the principles of packet-switching to physical networks.
But here’s the hard part:
The technology is not a problem. We could do it all in 10 years. It’s the business models and the mental models in people’s minds.
Saturday, June 30th, 2012
The trailer for a documentary on flutemaker Patrick Olwell. The film should be done later this year.
Sunday, April 10th, 2011
In his talk at the Lift conference last year Kevin Slavin talks about the emergent patterns in trading algorithms, the bots that buy and sell with one another occasionally resulting in events beyond our comprehension. It’s a great, slightly dark talk and I highly recommend you watch the video.
This is the same territory that Daniel Suarez explored in his book Daemon. The book is (science) fiction but as Suarez explains in his Long Now seminar, the reality is that much of our day to day lives is already governed by algorithms. In fact, the more important the question—e.g. “Will my mortgage be approved?”—the more likely that the decision will not be made by a human being.
Kevin Slavin mentions that financial algorithms are operating at such a high rate that the speed of light can make a difference to a company’s fortunes, hence the increase in real-estate prices close to network hubs. Now a new paper entitled Relativistic Statistical Arbitrage by Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer has gone one further in mapping out “optimal intermediate locations between trading centers,” based on the Earth’s geometry and the speed of light.
A marginally intelligent voicemail virus masquerading as an IRS auditor has caused havoc throughout America, garnishing an estimated eighty billion dollars in confiscatory tax withholdings into a numbered Swiss bank account. A different virus is busy hijacking people’s bank accounts, sending ten percent of their assets to the previous victim, then mailing itself to everyone in the current mark’s address book: a self-propelled pyramid scheme in action. Oddly, nobody is complaining much.
High in orbit around Amalthea, complex financial instruments breed and conjugate. Developed for the express purpose of facilitating trade with the alien intelligences believed to have been detected eight years earlier by SETI, they function equally well as fiscal gatekeepers for space colonies.
The damnfool human species has finally succeeded in making itself obsolete. The proximate cause of its displacement from the pinnacle of creation (or the pinnacle of teleological self-congratulation, depending on your stance on evolutionary biology) is an attack of self-aware corporations. The phrase “smart money” has taken on a whole new meaning, for the collision between international business law and neurocomputing technology has given rise to a whole new family of species—fast-moving corporate carnivores in the Net.