Two-Five-One

A little while ago, I explained the jazz tradition of quoting other songs during solos. One of the things I mentioned in that piece is that we do this to impress and amuse our fellow musicians, since we assume the audience doesn’t know enough about jazz to get the joke. Well, this comedian seems to agree:

And he has a point. A lot of jazz is pretty complicated. And to completely appreciate everything that is happening on stage or in a recording requires a lot of historical context. But there are some things in jazz that are actually pretty simple. And one of those things is the 2-5-1 chord progression.

Let’s start with the C major scale. CDEFGABC. If you number those C=1, D=2, and G=5. So for the key of C major, 2-5-1 is DGC. For any scale, the 2-5-1 means the second note, the fifth note, and then the first note (also called the “root”).

The first chord is 2, so we’ll start there. A D major scale has a F# and and C# in it. But we are going to bring those down a half step. So we are flatting the 3rd note (bringing F# down to F) and the 7th note (bringing C# down to C). In jazz, we call a flat third “minor” and we call a flat seventh “dominant seven.” We are going to play a Dm7 (D minor, dominant 7) chord. Why did we do all that flatting? Because we are lazy. Once you’ve done that to the D scale, it’s got the same notes as that C scale we started with. We’re just starting in a different place. DEFGABCD

The next chord is 5. A G major scale has an F# in it. Guess what we’re going to do to that pesky #. That’s right. Flat that sucker. So we are going to play a G7 (G dominant 7) chord. Again, this gets our scale back to the same notes as the C scale we started with. GABCDEFG

The final chord is 1. That’s plain old C, which we already covered.

So a C major 2-5-1 is: Dm7-G7-C. Let’s listen:

Drink Up! All you people!

Drink Up! All you people!

That is probably the most common chord progression in jazz. For example, the bridge in Angel Eyes is B♭m7-E♭7- A♭. B♭ is the second note of the A♭ scale and E♭ is the fifth note. (About the notation, in jazz -7 is another way to say minor dominant 7, and maj7 is another way to say plain old major scale.)

So why is it so popular? There are a few reasons, I think. First, it helps to understand that minor chords sound sad, and major chords sound happy. This progression starts at a really minor mood (flat 3 and 7), goes to a slightly minor mood (flat 7) and then resolves to a happy major mood. So it’s got a tension-release thing going on.

Another reason is that we are playing three different chords, but the actual notes of those scales are exactly the same. That makes it much easier on the soloists, because they can draw from a single scale for quite a while.

The last reason is that this progression is particularly easy on the piano player. To understand why, we need to cover something called voicings. I’ve been slipping back and forth between the words “scale” and “chord” as though they are the same thing, but they aren’t. A scale is all the notes of the key, whereas a chord is just some of the notes. There is no hard and fast rule which notes you should use. In church music, they always use the first, third and fifth note. Always. Boooooring.

In jazz piano or guitar, you choose which notes for your chord. And that set of notes is called a voicing. Let’s consider piano. What you are looking for in a voicing is to emphasize the notes that make that chord special. As you saw in our derivations, we tend to screw around with the third and seventh notes a lot, so let’s make sure we have those. We’ll stay away from the first note, since that’s the bass player’s job. 4 and 6 are just weird. So how about for the Dm7, we use F and C (3 and 7), and E and A (2 and 5).

For the G7, we use B and F (3 and 7), and A and D (2 and 5). See what I did there? Same voicing as we used for the previous chord.

And finally for C, we use E and B (3 and 7), and D and G (2 and 5). Same voicing again!

So we were really consistent with our voicings. Let’s look at the actual notes, in the order I played them in that video: CEFA, BDFA, BDEG. To get from the first chord to the second, I moved two fingers down one note and left two fingers where they were. To get from the second chord to the third, I—wait for it—moved two fingers down one note and left two fingers where they were. It’s like magic!

You can see how this is easy for the piano player. They are only moving a couple fingers each bar, and they don’t even need to move them very far.

So we have a progression with a tension-release feel, easy on the soloist, and easy on the piano player. That’s a great set of characteristics, so it became sort of the “go to” progression in jazz. It’s everywhere. And since it’s everywhere, it’s familiar, which is yet another reason to use it. Because people like songs that sound like songs they like.

So drink up, all you people. Order anything you see. And have fun, you happy people. The drinks, and the laughs on me. 2-5-1. So reliable, it even buys you drinks!

Advertisements

Fallen

My right hand on her hair, cascading over the pillow, a river of silk
My left thumb rolling on the dew that has formed on her breast
Legs tangled
Breathing synchronized

I feel her twitch, one muscle, then another, and another
I hold her tight, protecting her as she falls into dreams
Falling
I hold her tight, protecting myself from ever losing her
Fallen

That Stupid Lee Greenwood Song

On Friday I attended the Memorial Day pageant at my kids’ school. I don’t think they call it a pageant, but that’s basically what it is. The band and orchestra play a couple songs, the kids all stand in neat rows and sing and recite patriotic stuff. My daughter, the politician, introduced a couple numbers and absolutely nailed it. She’s a terrific public speaker. The whole thing was pretty cute. At the end some trumpeters played taps and then one 6th grader stood away a little bit, back to the crowd, and played the “echo taps.” And that’s where I tear up, probably as much for the bravery of that kid as for any other reason. But I teared up at the end of The Lego Movie, so there’s that.

It would have been perfect, except for one thing. The 6th graders sang that stupid Lee Greenwood song. I fucking hate that song.

I hate this fucking song, and you should, too

I hate this fucking song, and you should too

For those global readers who have not had the misfortune to hear this jingoistic piece of trash, you can watch it on YouTube. The full title is “God Bless the USA, and Fuck Everyone Else.” (The second part of the title is silent.) I recommend listening on a full stomach, because you will be vomiting later, and dry heaves are the worst.

It’s a simple song, following the standard pop music structure: mumbleverse, bridge, mumbleverse, bridge. The mumbleverse (that’s a technical term I just invented) is the part of the song that nobody knows the words to. It’s particularly easy to pick it out because the 6th graders sing that part at pianissimo, whereas the bridge they belt out at full forté. I honestly had no idea what was in the mumbleverse. I hated this song on the basis of the bridge alone. But I figured that if I was going to write a rant slamming this work of art, I should probably go look it up.

GM Factory in Flint

If you weren’t so damn proud, you could move to Mexico and get your old job back.

I was surprised to find that as much as I hate the bridge, I may hate the first mumbleverse even more. The gist is that if he lost all his worldly possessions, and just had his wife and kids, he wouldn’t move to another country. Because, you know, that’s a thing. Like when the GM factories closed in Flint, Michigan, and all the unemployed auto workers packed their bags and said, “Honey, we’re moving to Latvia!” Those damn pauper liberals are always emigrating to some socialist country. But not Lee! No, if a medical catastrophe strikes his family and leaves him penniless, he’s going to sit his bankrupt ass right there in his pickup truck and live on the streets of the good old US of A! His kids can sleep in the back of the king cab, and his other kids from his first marriage can sleep in the truck bed or something.

Wait a second. Maybe that verse isn’t about emigration at all. Do you think, maybe, he’s actually slamming immigration? Do you think, perhaps, he’s saying that those Mexicans who risk their lives fleeing to the USA, escaping abject poverty in their home country, just do it because they aren’t proud enough of Mexico? Of course! That’s why they stop speaking their native language and never, ever put up flags of their home country, and never watch soccer again.

The second mumbleverse is just a list of major metropolitan media markets.

So with that out of the way, let’s focus on that bridge:

And I’m proud to be an American,
Where at least I know I’m free.

What the fuck does that mean? “At least I know I’m free.” Seems there was another sentence he maybe forgot, to give us some context. Let’s guess what that sentence would be: “This country sucks. Unemployment is out of control. The government spies on us. We’re at war with somebody all the time. But, you know, it could be worse. I could be living in one of those other countries without freedom.” Do you suppose that’s what he was implying by “at least” he knows he’s free. Free to do what, exactly? To sing songs about how great the country is? I’ve got news for you, Lee: there ain’t a country on earth where you are going to be sent to jail for singing about how awesome that country is. One sign that you might be in a country that isn’t “free” is that all the songs on the radio sound just like this one.

Maybe he’s talking about freedom of religion. Or, as the founding fathers might have said, freedom from religion. If that was his intent, then I bet he would find it pretty darn ironic that schoolchildren are being forced to sing “God bless the USA.” You are free to practice whatever religion you want in this country, except atheism, of course.

And I won’t forget the men who died,
Who gave that right to me.

Not forgetting fallen soldiers is a good sentiment. I’ve got no issue with that. But our friend seems to be a little mixed up about basic human rights, and the principles spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. Here’s a refresher:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights

So nobody “gave” us the right to be free. That’s part of the standard package. What our fallen soldiers did was defend that right. Lately, for the most part, not for you. But for other people, which I suppose is more noble, provided the other people are into it.

The rest of the bridge is basically him volunteering to join the Army. Except he didn’t. But it’s the thought that counts, right?

I really have two big problems with this song. First, there’s that “At Least” line which implies that the country sucks except for the freedom. And I don’t like that sentiment. I think this country has a hell of a lot going for it other than just the freedom part, which frankly, isn’t all that special any more. It’s not like we’re the lone free country in a world filled with tyranny. The vast majority of the world’s population is “free” in the way this song is using that word. This is actually a Cold War song, and the Soviet Union was a pretty big deal back when it was written, so I’ll excuse the sentiment. But it’s not really applicable so much any more.

My second issue is that “Proud” thing. Given the religious overtones in the song, I find it kind of ironic that he’s leaning so heavily on the deadliest of the seven deadly sins. The wikipedia article on pride really nails it:

In almost every list, pride (Latin, superbia), or hubris (Greek), is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and the source of the others. It is identified as believing that one is essentially better than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, and excessive admiration of the personal self (especially holding self out of proper position toward God). Dante’s definition was “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbour”.

“Love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbour.” It appears Dante wrote the liner notes for this album!

When I was doing a little research on this post (mostly to see if someone else had done this same rant better than I was about to), I learned that a public school principal in New York City had forbade the use of this song at a Kindergarten graduation ceremony. She is black. I bet you can guess what kind of letters she received as a result of that decision. Follow that link to read some racist, ignorant bullshit that will make you fucking proud to be an American, dammit!

Hard Tweets Explained: Induction

Growing up in the 1970s, fondue was a thing. Not a frequent thing. But a thing. For example, I’m quite sure that we had it on New Year’s Eve at least once. (Although my memory says we had it every New Year’s Eve, I’ve learned from my kids that anything we do once is remembered as something we do every, so I don’t trust my memory on this one.) I’ve always loved the smell of wine boiling, and I’m a huge fan of cheese, so putting those two things together really triggers the sense memory for me.

All your cheese are belong to us

All your cheese are belong to us

So when my wife suggested that we should take the kids to The Melting Pot, which is a fondue restaurant chain, I thought, “that sounds like a great idea!” I live in the middle of nowhere and this was more than an hour drive, but the way things worked out, I was going to be driving the kids and meeting her there. And I kind of like driving with the kids, because we can be silly and we can crank the music really loud. So the travel wasn’t so bad. But I don’t think we’ll be going back.

There is a term in electrical engineering called an impedance mismatch. Suppose you have modern 8 ohm speakers, but your stereo amplifier was designed to drive old-fashioned 4 ohm speakers. Ohms (Ω) are a measure of resistance. And another name for resistance is impedance. So your 8Ω speakers and your stereo designed for 4Ω speakers have an impedance mismatch. Connecting them results in bad things happening, like your speakers getting overdriven to the point of destruction, or your amp turning into a bonfire. There is nothing wrong with the speakers, and there is nothing wrong with the amp—they just don’t go well together.

There is an impedance mismatch between youngish kids and fondue restaurants. Fondue restaurants are expensive. Kids don’t enjoy them enough to justify that expense. Fondue restaurants are slow. Really slow. No—slower than that. Kids are impatient. Fondue restaurants serve huge portions. My kids barely eat. Fondue restaurants have a panoply of wonderful rich smells. My kids are downright obnoxious when it comes to wonderful rich smells.

So as we are waiting in our booth, and waiting, and waiting, I decided to teach the kids about induction. Unlike the fondue pots of my youth that were heated by flaming cans of Sterno, these pots on our table were heated by an induction cooktop. I understand these are quite common in other parts of the world, but my kids had never seen one, and they are pretty magical. I could see them wince when I smacked my hand down onto the surface right next to the pot of boiling water. And then they each had to try it. Tentatively at first. Then with gusto.

WARNING: Descriptions of electrical engineering topics may induce drowsiness

WARNING: Descriptions of electrical engineering topics may induce drowsiness

The way an induction cooktop works is really neat. Below the surface there is a coil of wire. In that coil there is an alternating current. When electricity runs through a coil, it makes a magnetic field. So you can think of an electric coil as being just like a straight magnet. If you reverse the flow of electricity, the direction of the magnetic field reverses. So if + is going in on the left and – on the right, you might have north going up; and then if you put – on the left and + on the right, you would have south going up. Alternating current means the + and – are flipping constantly. Typically 60 times a second here in the USA. So that magnetic field is going north-south-north-south really fast.

Now put a ferrous metal (the kind of metal a magnet would stick to) near that alternating magnetic field. The atoms in ferrous metals like to line up with magnetic fields. So when you put them next to an alternating magnetic field, all the atoms in that metal are going to start flipping back and forth really fast. Another word for “atoms moving fast” is “heat.” So whatever is made of that metal is going to start getting really hot. And if that whatever happens to be a pot full of cheese and wine, you get fondue!

The magnetic field is inducing motion in those atoms. So the process is called induction. As so often happens with technology, it was discovered pretty much simultaneously by two different people, back in 1831: Joseph Henry in the USA, and Michael Faraday in Britain. Your rechargeable electric toothbrush uses induction. There is a coil in the stand, and there is a coil in the toothbrush. A current in the stand coil induces a current in the toothbrush coil, which then charges the battery.

Remember when MP3 players were new, and you had to stick this contraption into the cassette player in your car so you could get music from the MP3 player’s headphone jack into your car stereo? That was induction, too.

And those giant metal things on the poles outside your house that step current down from power line level to house levels? Induction.

This picture links to the site I stole it from

The circuit that matches fondue restaurants with young kids is a bit more complex

And now I’m going to blow your mind: an inductor is also a great way to solve an impedance mismatch between two circuits! See what I did there? Fine. Be that way.

With that, I think we’ve got enough background to explain the tweet. A good friend told me that she was going to be tied up with an Honor Society induction ceremony. And having just had this fondue experience, I immediately thought of a bunch of kids in caps and gowns standing around a big coil of wire. I’m weird that way. And that got us to the tweet.

When the illuminati (or whoever it is who decides what words we use for units of measurement) were deciding what to call the units of measure for inductance, they had Henry and Faraday to choose from, since they both discovered the effect at about the same time. They went with henry (in lowercase, because the illuminati are a bunch of elitist jerks or something). Faraday’s consolation prize was to be the units for capacitance (the farad).

Go read the tweet again. Henry. Check. Recoiled (like the coil in an inductor). Check. Induction. Check. Faraday. Check.

Homework: Go to a fondue restaurant chain and put your phone onto the cooktop surface and find out how much of your phone is ferrous metal.

Hard Tweets Explained: Correlation Coefficient

I honestly didn’t think this was a hard tweet, but someone asked me to explain it, so here we go!

I assume the text content of the tweet is not the tricky part. Music impacts mood, and mood impacts driving. Whether I meander along at just the speed limit, or go faster than that is driven primarily by what music is playing. But you got that part already.

The joke here lies in the (r=0.867, σ=2.6). If you’ve ever read a research paper, you might have seen a notation like that. r is the letter we use for something called “correlation coefficient” and σ (that’s a Greek lowercase s, or “sigma”) is what statisticians use for standard deviation.

There is a message here, but I can't quite put my finger on it

There is a message here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it

Imagine that you have a bunch of data points on a graph, and they seem to be falling along a line. For example, suppose on one axis we plot time spent on twitter, and on the other axis we plot the number of times your spouse sighs audibly or rolls their eyes. And suppose that we have a lot of samples, and we plot them on a graph. And we notice that people who spend only a little time on twitter get few sighs and eye rolls, but people who spend a lot of time on twitter get a lot of sighs and eye rolls.

So these dots on the graph kind of form a line. But data samples are noisy, so we want to know how well these two things correlate. That’s what the correlation coefficient tells us. I’ll spare you the method of computation, but it boils line-ish-ness down to a single number. 1 means all the points are exactly on a line (perfect correlation), and 0 means they aren’t on a line at all (no correlation). The coefficient can also go negative which means that as one thing increase the other decreases. -1 means perfectly correlated, just in the opposite direction.

Correlation coefficients are useful for letting you know whether one thing can be used to predict something else. For example, my father once did a study where he compared the SAT scores of black student athletes against how well those kids did in college. The correlation coefficient was negative: the worse you did on the SAT, the better you would do in college. The College Board was not a fan of my father’s work.

In real scientific studies, correlation coefficients are typically pretty small. Correlations as low as r=0.2 might be considered significant, depending on the number of samples.

Correlation doesn’t tell you about causation. It just tells you if two things are moving in lock step. Either might be causing the other, or some other thing might be causing both, or it could just be a complete coincidence.

So that’s r in the tweet. I’m saying that the music and drive time are highly correlated. Putting σ in there was just to make sure the people who read research papers would understand what I meant by r. It really makes no sense at all in this context.

Homework: Use your newfound knowledge of statistics to mock people on Facebook. Here’s an example:

Clean Your Room

My youngest has a very messy room. Part of the problem is classic hoarding. Whenever either of her siblings is ready to dispose of something, she volunteers to take it. And of course she gets her own toys at birthdays and holidays and whatnot, and never tires of any of them. So it all piles up. And she never puts anything away. She gets all this from her father.

The bedroom of my youth was a sight. It wasn’t a bedroom, so much as a laboratory. An electrical engineer, a chemical engineer, and a mechanical engineer walk into a bar, envious of the stuff I had in my room as a kid. My closet was huge. On one side, all my clothes. On the other side, my workbench. And shelves and shelves and shelves of raw materials. Switches and lights and wires and batteries. Transistors, capacitors, resistors and integrated circuits. Acid and other supplies for etching printed circuit boards. Erector sets and motors and wax and oil and springs.

No child's bedroom is complete without deadly voltage sources

No child’s bedroom is complete without deadly voltage sources

A retired electric can opener (which became a push-button automatic door opener, like the bad guy always had in Bond movies). A retired oil furnace transformer (which generated those “Jacob’s Ladder” lightning zaps like in Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein). And all the tools of the trade: soldering irons, 30,000 RPM drill, clamps, screwdrivers, lots of books on do-it-yourself projects and TTL integrated circuits, and one Playboy magazine I bought at a convenience store when I was six.

My mother gave up. She just asked me to keep my door closed. When I started going away to summer camp in middle school, she and my aunt would descend upon my room for an annual cleaning. They probably got rid of stuff, but I never really missed anything. I had plenty.

So as a result of this background, I’m very tolerant of my youngest’s room. Her mother, on the other hand, not so much. The toys and clothes and filth drive my wife crazy. So periodically, I will “help” my child clean. My technique is one that I learned from my sister when I was a kid.

We kids were supposed to clean our rooms every weekend. And before my mother had completely given up on my room, I was supposed to do this too. I found the whole exercise completely overwhelming. So my sister, who was just a year older than me, would come and sit on my bed and read a book while telling me what to pick up. Cleaning a room is incredibly hard, but executing simple instructions is not. After just a little while, my floor would be clear, and all my stuff would be back in the closet, and my room was good enough.

So that’s what I do with my youngest. I settle into a chair and I twitter, and I give her simple instructions. After a couple hours, her room is clean enough. Neither of us are wired properly to make a room actually clean. But we can both get to clean enough.

Last weekend was Mother’s day, and so 8 and I sneaked off to her room on Saturday and spent hours and hours and hours cleaning. We listened to awful pop music, and she picked up and sorted and even threw a few things away. And she didn’t complain even once. Significant progress was made. And by the end of it, she couldn’t wait until Mother’s day for the big reveal. So she got her mother to come to her room at bedtime (something my wife generally refuses to do, because of the mess), and showed off all her hard work. And there was happiness and joy and all was right with the world.

By Monday her room was back to its natural state: a complete disaster.

That’s my girl.

My Favorite Quote

My brother is a professional jazz musician. How cool is that? He decided that was his thing back in high school, maybe junior high even, and that is all he’s ever done. He went to North Texas State, which is one of two schools you can go to if you want to be a serious jazz player. He studied trumpet with the guy who taught Maynard Ferguson and Doc Severinsen. When he got out of school, he went to work on cruise ships. Imagine that. Good looking guy, fit, young, playing jazz on a cruise ship filled with lonely women. Lucky bastard.

Anyway, while he was on the cruise ships, they just played standards. “Standards” is jazz lingo for all the songs that everyone knows. “The Great American Songbook.” I introduced you to The Real Book back in my piece about the song Inchworm. It’s basically the songs in that book. And he told me that memorizing and playing every song, in every key, is the thing that taught him to be a great improviser. He is one of the best soloists you’ll ever hear. Amazing horn player.

One of the things that this encyclopedic knowledge of songs imparts is the ability to “quote” while soloing. I mentioned this before in my piece about Listen Here. The soloist plays a bit of a different song during his solo. If you listen to a lot of jazz, you hear this all the time. And if you listen obsessively, you not only recognize the quote, but know exactly what song it is quoting.

Here’s a simple example. First, the original:


Softly as in a Morning Sunrise
is a song from a pretty obscure 1928 operetta, but it’s a popular jazz tune. This clip is from Daniel Sadownick’s album There Will Be a Day.

Now listen to this bit of a solo by Brian Bromberg on from The Eclipse on his album Compared to That (which, by the way, is a really kick-ass album).


I hope you can tell that’s the same tune. Obviously, the tempo is different, and he’s playing around the melody a little, but that’s what a quote typically sounds like.

This practice goes way back in jazz. Here is a fun one. First the original:


This is Blue Monk by Thelonious Monk from the live Carnegie Hall recording he did with John Coltrane.

Now check out this solo from Straight No Chaser on Miles Davis’ ’58 Sessions album:


That’s Bill Evans on piano. The song Straight No Chaser was written, of course, by Thelonious Monk. Bill is quoting one Monk song in his solo during another Monk song. So this is kind of a little joke that Bill is making, to amuse the other band members.

That’s an important point to make about quoting. We don’t do it for the audience members, whom we assume probably aren’t going to get it. We do it for the other guys in the band, whom we assume totally are going to get it.

My brother has taken this to a high art, even going so far as to compose songs packing quotes from more than a dozen other songs in them. He has a brass quintet version of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas that quotes Puff the Magic Dragon, Pachelbel’s Canon, and the “hold the pickles” song from that Burger King ad in the ‘7os. Have I mentioned that he’s a fucking genius?

Anyway, that brings me to my favorite quote. First, some context. The best selling jazz album of all time is Miles’ Kind of Blue. The first track on that album is So What. Here’s the start of Miles’ solo on that:


That’s probably the most recognizable solo ever. Remember, that’s not part of the written music (“the head”), it’s just something Miles came up with on the spot during the recording session.

Now check out this bit of Branford Marsalis’ solo in The Ballad of Chet Kincaid, from his album Crazy People Music:


See what he did there? He quoted the second phrase of the solo in So What. And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear that somebody in the band actually laughed out loud when he heard it! Quoting another song’s head is one thing, quoting a solo is quite another, but quoting the middle of a solo — that’s some serious next-level shit right there. And you know that he didn’t plan that. It just occurred to him while he was playing. Damn.

So that’s why I’m giving Branford Marsalis the honor of my favorite quote ever. Pure fucking genius.

The “Fun” Committee

I work for a company that I co-founded back in 1996. It’s not a big company. Between 20 and 30 people. So, with the exception of a couple sales guys who live in the territories they cover, everyone interacts with everyone else in the company every day. So I’ve never quite understood why we need to have company events. But I’m the CTO, not the CEO. And the CEO thinks it’s something we need to do, and I trust his judgement.

I hate these events. I hate them with a passion.

Sometimes they will be in the middle of the work day, in which case I hate that they are keeping me from getting work done. It’s not like there is less work in the day because we are having this event. Just fewer hours in which to do the work that needs to get done.

Sometimes they will be after work, in which case I hate that I’m being kept from my beautiful wife and annoying kids and comfortable couch and a delicious cocktail.

The events are planned by the “fun” committee. I have to put the word fun in quotes for obvious reasons. Off the top of my head, I’ve had to suffer through bowling, company dinners, miniature golf, picnics, wine and cheese tastings, and apple picking. Fucking apple picking. So let’s examine some of these in more depth.

These are not bowling pins and that is not a bowling ball

These are not bowling pins and that is not a bowling ball

Bowling. We are based in Massachusetts. That means we get to suffer through an abomination of bowling called “candle pin.” This was invented back in 1880 in Worcester, MA by a bowling alley owner who wanted to cut back on the number of people he had to employ setting up pins between frames. You throw a small ball, the pins are skinny, they just leave the knocked-down pins in the way between throws, and there are three throws in a frame. No, I’m not making this up. When you talk to someone in MA about bowling, they think this is what you are talking about. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a fan of real bowling either. But at least that’s a game of skill. Candlepin “Bowling” is basically a carnival midway time-waster.

Company Dinners. Since we’re small, we can afford to go to decent restaurants, so I can’t complain about that. But the social dynamics of a small company are quirky. You basically have the young kids, who hang out together all the time anyway. And you have us old execs who have nothing in common with the young kids, and don’t really care about each other’s families and stuff. So what do we talk about? Work. What else is there? Sometimes I’ll regale them with tales of cocktails and infusions and stuff. But other than that, it’s all just work, work, work. Just what I want at the end of a long work day. More work.

Miniature Golf. I play this with my kids. My kids like it. I used to like it when I was a kid. Now it’s tedious.

Picnics. Basically this is just like the company dinner, except we have to drive someplace inconvenient, eat lower quality food, bake in the sun, and chew up perfectly good working hours so we just have less time to get our shit done.

This cheese is fucking awesome and you can't get it in the US because the FDA is a bunch of idiots

This cheese is fucking awesome and you can’t get it in the US because the FDA is a bunch of idiots

Wine and Cheese Tastings. OK, so this had promise. They went to a fancy cheese store in Boston and got a bunch of interesting hard and soft cheeses. And they bought some cheap-ass wine. I was engaged for like, maybe 15 minutes. Then I had tasted everything there was to taste, and I was stuck talking about — wait for it — work for the next hour as everyone in the room tried to figure out how much longer they needed to stay to meet the minimum social quota.

Why the fuck is this person smiling?

Why the fuck is this person smiling?

Apple Picking. Are you kidding me? Why is this a thing? You get to walk deep into an orchard in the hot sun along a dusty path, climb a ladder into a scratchy tree, and look for decent apples from picked-over trees. Who finds this fun? This tradition completely confounds me. Even my kids hate this, and kids like all sorts of annoying shit (see miniature golf, above). After you’ve filled the plastic bag they gave you, you get to hike back to the store for a cider donut and some cider. The cider donuts are awesome. But really, I could have just gone to the store and bought one and skipped all the rest of this nonsense, couldn’t I? Fucking apple picking.

I don’t know if I’m the only person who hates these events, or just the only person who has an anonymousish blog where they can vent about it. I’m pretty sure the “fun” committee isn’t having any fun coming up with these ideas. And doing everything they can to ensure everyone actually shows up. I’d feel sorry for them, except they really could just say no, and quit the damn committee, and then we wouldn’t have to do this stuff anymore because nobody would be planning it.

A boy can dream, can’t he?

I Fix Stuff

I just fixed my pool pump. Again. I fixed it at the end of last season, and I kind of figured that this particular repair will be an annual event. So I’m OK with that. The trick with a pool pump is that it needs to be a completely sealed system. Air is a lot easier to move than water, so if there are any leaks, the air will reduce the amount of water pressure significantly. And the biggest problem with that (other than little bubbles coming out of the jets, which is actually kinda neat), is that you cannot vacuum the pool.

When you cannot vacuum the pool, you invest in contraptions to help you get the junk out of the pool. I had a robot that would drive around the pool sucking stuff up and filtering it right inside. But the filters broke, so I reconfigured it so it had a long tube coming out the back that I could route into the pool skimmer. Frankenrobot. And I had a little thing that was basically an under-water dust buster. And it held a charge for about 20 minutes, kind of like an iPhone, so that was useful to clean a few square feet.

It’s absurd how long it took me to figure out that the bubbles in my jets were the reason I could never get a plain old pool vacuum (the kind with the long hose that you connect to the skimmer) to work. But after more than a decade of using various vacuum enhancing contraptions, it suddenly occurred to me that if I could stop the air leak, maybe that would help. So I studied all the plumbing, listened to the noises it made when I switched off the pump, and finally deduced that the leak was not in the pipe fittings at all.

Rather, there was a hairline fracture in the bottom of the plastic bowl that holds the water while it waits for the pump impeller to suck it up. And air was coming in through that fracture. I fixed it with a piece of tape. Since the problem is that air was being sucked in, the fact that tape cannot hold water is irrelevant. Water wasn’t coming out. Air was going in. So now a piece of tape was being sucked into the fracture. And tape is harder to move than water.

That piece of tape stopped the bubbles in the jets, and suddenly the vacuum became this amazing, effective pool cleaning device.

Home renovation tools for 8-year-olds, apparently

Home renovation tools for 8-year-olds, apparently

I’ve always been the one who fixes things. When I was a kid, I fixed everything. When mom wanted a switch added to the cord on a lamp, she asked me to do it. You know those little switch kits where you cut one of the wires in the pair leading to the lamp, and then just screw it on, and it vampire taps into the line. No? Well anyway, it’s easy enough for an 8 year old to do. Apparently. Except one time, I forgot to unplug the lamp first, and it was on. And when you cut a live wire with mom’s nice sewing scissors, it not only makes a loud bang, but it also puts a neat round hole right in the middle of the scissors. That’s how you get mom to buy you some proper wire cutters.

Another trick I used to do with lamps is fix the bottom contact. You know how a lamp will flicker, and if you fiddle with the bulb it will come on? That happens because the metal tab at the bottom of the socket is pressed down. So you reach down there with a screwdriver and bend it up a little, and then the bulb can make good contact. Again, it’s best to do this while you are not plugged in to the wall, otherwise you melt the screwdriver and get thrown across the room.


Every time I go home to visit mom, there is a long list of things that I need to fix. These days they tend to be more of the computer variety. But there are usually some smoke detector batteries to replace, or a squeaking hinge, or some other little thing that needs fixing. And I’m that guy.

In my own home, not only am I doing electrical work, but also small plumbing repairs, hanging pictures, putting up shelves, and doing lots of little carpentry tasks that a 176 year old house requires. And, of course, fixing the kids’ toys.


Even when that toy is an iPhone:


I’m not complaining, of course. I actually like doing this stuff. For multiple reasons. I like having time to myself with nobody asking me to do things for them, because, you know, I am doing things for them. And I like the feeling of satisfaction when I finish, and the thing that was broken is now working.

It makes perfect sense to invest hundreds of dollars on tools to fix free happy meal toys

It makes perfect sense to invest hundreds of dollars on tools to fix free happy meal toys

Sometimes I surprise myself at the gadgets that I’m able to bring back from the dead. Taking apart an iPhone is a ridiculously complicated process requiring a suite of fancy screwdrivers and detailed instructions and patience and care. And after all that when you button the thing back up, and it powers on and still works, it’s really pretty exciting. Even if the reason you took it apart (a crushed power button) turned out to be something you couldn’t actually fix without buying a part that would cost as much as a new phone.

A friend who knows me from twitter finds my handy, Mr Fixit thing incongruous with my cerebral nature. And I can see that. But my dad was cerebral. And he built things with his hands, and drove the tractor, and stacked railroad ties, and did manly stuff. So I guess it just seems natural to me that even us thinky types might be a little hands-on. And most of the physical labor I engage in is a puzzle in one way or another, and I’m good at puzzles. And if solving that puzzle means wielding a pipe wrench, so be it.

Will Someone Please Tell Dan Brown About Wikipedia?

Last weekend I had a romantic getaway with my lovely bride of 13 years, to celebrate our anniversary. We went to Newport, Rhode Island. If you have the opportunity to go there and stay in a lovely boutique hotel, eat at the finest restaurants, and enjoy the company of the love of your life, you should probably do that. Highly recommended.

I also brought along a book to read, since I had decided that it would be a twitter-free weekend. I asked my wife to just put some mindless Dan Brown I hadn’t read onto the Kindle, and she obliged with a book called “Digital Fortress.” You know Dan Brown. He’s the guy who wrote Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. Books that are full of interesting art history and geography lessons. I’ve learned quite a lot from his books. But now I wonder how much of what I learned was wrong.

Just after college, I had a subscription to Scientific American magazine. I loved that magazine. It suited my penchant for learning all sorts of cool sciency stuff. And then I read an article about computer science — my wheelhouse. And it was wrong. It was so, so wrong. Error after error after error. And I realized that if SA was printing such complete hogwash about a subject I know, why should I think that the articles about everything I don’t know are any more accurate? Being an atheist, this is about as close as one gets to a crisis of faith. I canceled my subscription.

So I’m reading “Digital Fortress,” which is about computers and cryptography and stuff like that. And I understand that it is a work of fiction. I’m fine with that. Remember the scene in Jurassic Park where the girl sits down at the computer and there is a rich 3D display, and she says “It’s a unix system. I know this.”


Unlike most computer geeks, I’m fine with that scene. It’s absurd, but it’s entertainment, and the fact is that a real unix system at that time would just have been a white $ on a black screen. The (somewhat clunky) 3D animation makes better story telling.

This JPEG could have a virus, hell for all I know Anna K could have a virus

This JPEG could have a virus. Hell, for all I know Anna Kournikova herself could have a virus

The primary fictional device that Dan Brown uses is treating data as code. An email is data. So if he says a “tracer” email sends a message back, that doesn’t really make any sense. But that’s OK. Because in fact, there are ways that something like that could happen. For example, several years ago one of Microsoft’s core libraries for displaying JPEG images had a bug that allowed executable code to be embedded. If you opened a carefully constructed JPEG in your mail program, it could run some code that could, for example, find your email address and send a message back to the sender.

So I’m not going to quibble with the fiction stuff. My problem is with the “fact” stuff. This author loves to tell little asides during the story. It’s one of the things I liked most about his other books. I like learning little factlets, such as that the word “quarantine” came from the practice of keeping ships in harbor for 40 days to ensure the people on them didn’t have plague. (I looked that up. It appears he got that one right.)

But, as with my Scientific American experience, I know the truth behind the little asides he’s relaying, and they are bullshit. He isn’t giving the reader bits of history. He’s repeating popular apocrypha.

[The internet] had been created by the Department of Defense three decades earlier — an enormous network of computers designed to provide secure government communications in the event of nuclear war.

Uh, no. My first job out of college was for a company called Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) which happened to be the the company that created the internet. And I’m on a mailing list of ex-BBN employees, many of whom are the actual guys who did it. So I know this one cold.

Republicans slipped ARPA the D every time they got into power

Republicans slipped ARPA the D every time they got into power

It was created by DoD (specifically, [D]ARPA; I put the D in brackets because that letter comes and goes on the name of the agency depending on whether it’s politically fashionable to be a hawk or a dove). So he got that right. The rest of the sentence is completely wrong.

ARPANET was never enormous. There were just a handful of nodes. It was never secure. The communications took place over plain old telephone lines connected with modems. It wasn’t intended for communications, the way most people understand that word. It was originally a way to let people using terminals in one place interact with computers in another place. Universities and government labs, mostly. And one at [D]ARPA. And it never, ever, ever had anything to do with Nuclear War.

The nuclear war myth probably started because the nature of the way the original ARPANET was assembled. It was fault-tolerant. Since each computer was connected to more than one other, and messages could be routed from their source to the destination multiple ways, it was resilient to computers going down or backhoes cutting telephone lines. Except it really wasn’t all that resilient, in my experience. But the perceived resilience led some people to think it would be resistant to nukes for some reason, which is pretty silly, because nukes would have wrecked the phone companies, and the T1 lines that connected all the computers to each other would have gone down.

But you don’t have to believe me, just look at this Wikipedia article about the ARPANET.

Here’s another example:

It seemed a moth had landed on one of the computer’s circuit boards and shorted it out. From that moment on, computer glitches were referred to as bugs.

Uh, no. The first sentence is true. There’s even a notebook with the actual moth at the Smithsonian museum. But the second sentence is bullshit. Computer glitches were always called bugs. That’s why the lab techs thought it was so funny that there was a moth that caused a problem. Using the word “bug” to describe glitches in systems goes way, way back. Edison used it.

But again, there is no reason to take my word for it. Just read the Wikipedia entry on Software Bugs.

There are other mistakes of a factual nature:

“…if the key is a standard sixty-four bit — even in broad daylight, nobody could possibly read and memorize all sixty-four characters.”

The woman who says this is established as a computer genius, so I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t confuse bits and bytes. Danny, though, seems like exactly the sort who might.

dd if=/dev/random bs=8 count=1 2>/dev/null | openssl enc -base64

Type this into a Mac terminal window to get 11 characters you can memorize

A bit can have one of two values: on/off, 1/0, true/false. Like that. If you have 5 of these, you can encode 32 values, which is enough for the alphabet. If you have 6 you can encode all the capital and lowercase letters (52 total), the digits 0-9, and have room for a couple pieces of punctuation like + and -. So if you need to encode a 64-bit key into something a person could read, you could do that with eleven 6-bit blocks. Each 6-bit block being represented by a capital or lowercase letter, a digit, or a + or -.

For example: BVtK4JXGQ2U

So our hero should have said “nobody could possibly read and memorize all eleven characters.” But, well, they could actually.

One more:

[debugging a computer program] was like inspecting an encyclopedia for a single typo.

It really isn’t anything like that, actually. If you wrote the code yourself (which she did in this case) it’s more like searching an encyclopedia for a wrinkled page where you already have a pretty good idea where to look, and then finding a big black ink blot on that page.

The really bad news is that I’m only halfway through the damn book. But at this point it’s like a bad information treasure hunt. I have to keep reading it to see which “fact” he’s going to bungle next.

Note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t read the book. As far as I know, the asides in the Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons were just as horrifically wrong, and that didn’t make the books bad. It’s just best not to read suspense thrillers about subjects you know. And it’s a good idea to take anything you learn in a Dan Brown book with a grain of salt.