Archive for the 'Geek' Category

Academic frustrations

January 26, 2016

From time to time I am asked why, following my doctoral work, I decided not to pursue an academic career in elementary particle physics. Part of the reason is that I didn’t want to end up like this fellow:

(Caveat spectator: some vulgar language in the subtitles. And it won’t be as funny if you speak German.)

The clip comes from Downfall, a rather good film.

iTunes 11 annoyances

December 1, 2012

I upgraded to iTunes 11 tonight, and I am not impressed. This is not a tech blog, but I know that some people who read this blog also use iTunes.

There are some real annoyances:

Search and filter: Apple has “upgraded” the behaviour of the master search-and-filter box. It now generates a drop-down menu showing songs, albums, and artists matching one’s search term.

  • First problem: it is far too slow. Mine churns away for ten or twenty seconds before showing me results matching the first letter of my search term; it is too slow even to catch the subsequent keystrokes. My library is over 500 GB, so this feature may work better with smaller libraries.
  • Second problem: it shows only results matching songs, albums, and artists, not composers. So the new search function is unable to find all of one’s music written by a particular composer. This is absurd. The “Composer View”, which was present in iTunes 10 and would have allowed one another route to that music, is also gone. The search box has an option to search by composer; it doesn’t work. Apparently no-one at Apple cares about classical music.
  • Third problem: the new search box is a global search, not a filter. If one is viewing a particular playlist, or even just looking at all of one’s songs, entering a search term will not filter those results to show matches, as it used to do. It starts from scratch every time, churning away while it searches through all the music for the first letter of whatever search string one tried. Useless.

Solution: Happily, I found a solution to this problem. If one opens the search box options, one can disable something called “Search Entire Library”. This causes the functionality of the search box to revert to what it was in iTunes 10; namely, a context-specific filter. It becomes possible once again to search the “Composer” field. (And, yes, it is odd that one has to turn off the “Search Entire Library” feature to enable searches of the entire library.)


Cover Flow is gone: Cover Flow was a really nice feature of iTunes that allowed one to see both detailed information about tracks and album art in one view. It is gone. It was especially useful when adding new music to one’s library: one could sort the music by date added — so as to conveniently see the new music — and view the artwork while reviewing the other tags associated with the new files.

Now, however, it seems that one can either sort by date (in the list view) or see the artwork (in the grid view), but not both. Annoying.


Grid View useless. ‘Grid View’ shows one a view of one’s library by tiling the album art across the screen. It is a nice way to see a lot of albums at once. In iTunes 10 one could click on the album art to drill into the details: to pick a particular track, for instance, or to see what composer’s music was on that album. No more. Now clicking on the album art simply starts playing the album. Annoying.

Overall, I am not very happy with the upgrade.

Applied physics

April 18, 2012

A friend sends a story about a professor who used physics to get out of paying a traffic ticket.

The paper outlining his argument is available here. I like the abstract (“The paper was awarded a special prize of $400 that the author did not have to pay to the state of California.”), and the paper itself (pdf) is a fun read. The physics involved is not beyond a high-school level.

Online clock-punching

February 17, 2012

I would like to have a way to keep track of the time I spend doing certain tasks. The work will be done now and then, and here and there, but I will usually have access to a computer — though not always the same computer — so ‘punching the clock’ online would make sense for me.

Can anyone recommend, or even suggest, an online service for this sort of thing? Cheaper is better, obviously, and free is best, but I am not completely averse to paying. A service that tracks the actual hours of the day that I punch, rather than just keeping a running total, would be nice.

I am sure this sort of thing must exist. In fact, a quick search turns up quite a few options, but recommendations are always appreciated.

Corporate taxes

February 1, 2012

When the topic is economics I tend to keep my mouth shut; I know that I don’t know. But there is one question that has, from time to time, been a bother to me: why do corporations pay taxes?

I can understand citizens paying taxes: there are certain goods — defence, transportation infrastructure, garbage collection — that we all benefit from, and we contribute money with which those goods can be acquired. It seems to me that the fairest sort of tax is a flat tax — the same number of dollars from each citizen goes into the pot — although few people advocate that, and maybe for good reasons that I haven’t thought of.

But it is odd to me that individuals, who are already paying taxes, should pay more taxes — that is, corporate taxes — just because they have decided to work together on something. What is the rationale for that (apart from a simple cash grab by the government)?

Anyway, I air these half-baked thoughts today because I came upon an article, at Public Discourse, which advocates abolishing corporate income taxes. The author, Thomas Haine, gives a few reasons why doing so might cause problems — reasons I, naturally, had not thought about — but concludes that they are not insurmountable. Indeed, he thinks abolishing such taxes would be a bi-partisan winner, at least at a grassroots level. (Politicians, I understand, are rarely in favour of tax reductions.)

It is all very interesting, in a perplexing and foggy kind of way, and I wish I had a clue as to whether it made any sense.

The Caecilia Project

November 23, 2011

St. Cecilia’s feast passed earlier this week without comment from me, but now I have an opportunity to make amends.

I have just learned of The Caecilia Project, which aims to make the music of the Gregorian propers for the Sundays of the Church year available on the web, for free. The plan is apparently to post the propers on a week by week basis, starting on the first Sunday of Advent. By the end of the year, the full cycle will be complete. To get an idea of what they look like, take a look at the first set.

This is a great idea. Although very few parishes currently sing this music on anything like an ordinary basis (including mine), there is a definite push in this direction coming from some Church authorities, including of course Pope Benedict XVI. Moreover, hope is a virtue. Making the music available, for free, is a good step toward promoting its use. Together with the Saint Antoine Daniel Kyriale that I mentioned a few months ago, these two sources will provide all the music a parish needs in order to sing chant throughout the year.

The Caecilia Project is the work of Andrew Hinkley. Thank you, Andrew.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this project is that the chant is being typeset with LaTeX! Apparently there exists a notation, called gabc, for representing Gregorian chant with ASCII characters, and someone has written a LaTeX package, called Gregorio, to convert gabc code into a musical score. The result is really quite beautiful.

Read more at The Chant Café.

PC or Mac: Decision time

August 30, 2010

A couple of people have wondered about the outcome of my computer-purchase deliberations.  I am happy to say that this past weekend I placed an order for one of these sweethearts:

I haven’t got it yet, but it should arrive in a week or so.  What finally pushed me toward Apple was the fact that we got the “educational discount” on account of my wife’s being a student.  It’s only a small discount, but we also got several hundred dollars worth of free stuff that I can turn around and sell.  (Anybody want an iPod Touch or a printer?) That brought the price down far enough to make it feasible.   I am still a little worried that I spent too much, but, at the end of the day, financial problems are not insurmountable.  There are always options.

My thanks to everyone who offered advice as I was trying to make up my mind.  I appreciate it.

PC or Mac

August 20, 2010

Over the past 3 or 4 months our home computer has been falling apart. First one of the internal drives died, then one of the CD drives failed. An intermittent burning smell makes me suspect a problem with the power supply. Our Windows XP desktop sometimes lapses into a cheap-looking imitation, as though the graphics processor can’t manage to render everything properly, and the networking card fails from time to time for no apparent reason. Basically, the whole thing is dying and it is time to get a new one.

Over the past few weeks I have been doing some research on available systems. The last time we bought a computer was five years ago, so pretty much everything is new and improved. Passing over the fine details, I can see that I face two basic decisions: whether to get a desktop or a laptop, and, more portentously, whether to get a PC or a Mac.

As to the first of these dilemmas, my default position is to get a desktop, simply because that is what I have always done. I notice, though, that the laptops that are available today are far more powerful than our current system, and perhaps a laptop would be convenient: when I am working at my desk it can be connected to a larger monitor, but when I am not at my desk it can be moved around. On the other hand, a desktop system of the same price as a laptop system is a much faster and more powerful machine. So that question remains unresolved.

The PC vs. Mac question is vexing. I would not buy a laptop from Apple — they are simply too much money for too little computer — but the iMac is tempting. With everything integrated into the monitor, there would be no cables other than the power cable, and that would make for a very clean desk. This is attractive because my desk in our new house is quite a lot smaller than my old desk, and I am finding that with my monitor, wireless receiver, three speakers, and two external drives it is rather crowded. It would be great to sweep all that aside — well, all but one of the back-up drives — and replace it with a single, sleek, white monitor.

I am also told by all the Mac owners to whom I have spoken that they are sweet machines. They run well, are fast (after all, they don’t have to run Windows), and have fewer security issues. Also, they are cool.  On the other hand, Mac owners can be smug, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to me.

The main trouble with Apple is that their things are too expensive. The iMac that I would want is listed at $1600. I can get a PC with the same specs for half the price. Having a nice clean desk would be nice, but I am not sure it would be that nice.

This is just me thinking out loud. If you’d like to offer an opinion on either of the questions over which I am deliberating, I am happy to hear it.

Sunday night crab canon

September 20, 2009

This is one of the neatest things I’ve seen in a long time.  It’s a visualization of a two-part canon from Bach’s Musical Offering.  The canon in question exhibits both retrogression and inversion — that is, the theme harmonizes with an upside-down and backwards version of itself.  A relationship that complicated can be difficult to hear clearly, so it is really helpful to see it visually as well.  Anyway, have a look:

Twenty awfully good writers

August 18, 2009

Alright, I will try.  Last week I posted a list I found of the “100 Greatest Writers of All Time”, and then proceeded to criticize this and that aspect of it.  That was fun, and then a few other people criticized it too, and that was even more fun.  And then somebody said I should draw up my own list, purged of the errors that marred the other, and then somebody else said the same thing.  I am really not equal to the challenge — the perils of presumption lie everywhere underfoot — but I can try.

This list names twenty writers whom I judge, based on my own reading, to be the best.  They are not necessarily my favourite writers, but they are the ones whose achievements I consider to be truly and surpassingly praiseworthy.  They are all great; this list should be considerably less tendentious than that other.  I am attentive to specifically literary achievement here — language, craft, character, imagination, originality — not influence or “importance” or, needless to say, sales.

I can have no sound opinions about writers, be they ever so great, if I have not read anything they wrote, or if I have read but little.  This is true of more great writers than I would like to admit; a partial list includes Goethe, Joyce (the major works have been sitting there on the shelf for years), Proust, Whitman, Dickinson, Euripides (!), and others.  In consequence, I couldn’t put them on the list.  Also, like many people these days I have a blind spot with poets, especially Shelley, Keats, Byron, and their ilk.  I am told that they are great, and I believe it, but I don’t see it myself.

This list is ranked, sort of.  I have grouped the writers into tiers, but I won’t say where the divisions between tiers lie.  Maybe it will be fairly clear.  I also have not added commentary, because I simply haven’t time.


1. William Shakespeare
2. Dante Alighieri
3. Jane Austen
4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
5. Charles Dickens
6. Miguel Cervantes
7. Geoffrey Chaucer
8. Virgil
9. Thomas Mann
10. François Rabelais
11. T.S. Eliot
12. John Milton
13. Herman Melville
14. Leo Tolstoy
15. Gerard Manley Hopkins
16. William Blake
17. Bob Dylan
18. Jorge Luis Borges
19. Vladimir Nabokov
20. William Wordsworth

What did I get wrong?