Entries from August 2003

The Sounds of Summertime

The mosquitos are back in full force now, after many blissful weeks of bug-free summering. They're getting so bad Renée and I could feel their bodies bouncing off of us as we rode home from the park this evening. Not a lot of talking and riding for these cyclists, less there be an accidental indulgence in a buggy buffet. Yeech.

I've been trying to stay away from the computer as much as I possibly can this summer, to spend more time just living and enjoying the weather. It's been a warm, wet summer so far this year, but not an uncomfortable one, and besides the minuscule threat of West Nile virus, or another embarrassing celebrity-sighting in the local paper[1], it's been enjoyable.

Michael BerrymanThe biggest pain in the ass so far has been all of the bikers that roar down the street that runs in front of our apartment. It's like having Michael Berryman stomping through our living room every night, like he did in Weird Science - but not as cool. I'm sure bikers can be smart people if they want to be, but I don't understand their reluctance to embrace modern muffler technology.

This, coupled with the unfortunate sound of people arguing and screaming gut-renching expletives while using the public phone right outside our window (many Winnipeggers don't do cellular) has made for a rather immersive urban experience this summer. I think half of the city has fought with, bellowed at, and broken up with their girlfriend or boyfriend on that goddamn phone. As much as people try to downplay it, Winnipeg has its share of loogans, and they all seem to hang out in our neighbourhood.

But, it's not all headaches and rampant noise violations around here. Late at night, when I'm sitting in the reading room / office enjoying a really great book (Banvard's Folly, by Paul Collins), and the grues have wandered off to terrorize other areas of the city, I can hear the high-pitched keen of the CN railroad cars off in the distance, and the sound of crickets and other late-night folks chatting away the evening. Sometimes the living really is easy.

How's your summer going?

[1]I kid you not: Richard Gere Peed Here, read a recent cringe-worthy headline, with accompanying photo. Oh, we are such hicks. ^

Spem in Alium

Possibly one of my favourite art pieces that I had the chance to experience in person is Canadian Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet. Janet Cardiff's work is really fascinating, and exactly the kind of art that I like; organic, immediate without being superficial, and involving. Her work requires you to participate in some way, whether it's mentally, physically, emotionally, or all three.

Last year when I was visiting Montreal with my friend Paul (photos here), there was a large collection of Janet Cardiff's work at the Musée D'art Contemporain de Montréal. The centrepiece of the exhibition was the Forty-Part Motet, which is based around a choral piece by composer Thomas Tallis entitled Spem in Alium.

cardiff.jpgThe piece is set in a very large room, with seating and mats directly in the centre. At the periphery of the room and encirling the seating are forty high-quality speakers, each one on a speaker stand which raises it to head level.

Just before Spem in Alium begins, you can hear each of the forty singers warming up, coughing, and talking. The beauty of the piece is that Cardiff has separated each singer into their own speaker, so you can walk around the room and focus in on one single voice, step back and listen to a small section of singers, or sit in the middle of the room and take in everything at once.

Spem in Alium starts off as a simple, quiet piece, but slowly becomes more and more multi-layered as more voices join in counterpart, repeating the same prayer, until the piece nearly overwhelms you in wave after wave of sound. By itself, it's an astonishingly beautiful, emotional piece of music. In the context that Cardiff presents it in, it's devastating. I'm not a deeply religious person, but if anything can communicate what it feels like to swoon in the sense of god, it's this.

Before you read any further, listen to an except from the piece.

Cardiff's work in this piece seems to have honed and clarified the emotions of Spem in Alium. The singing lasts for around 15 minutes, and by the end the overlapping voices build to such a crescendo that it is almost orgastic in its emotional impact. When Paul and I heard this piece, a large percentage of the people listening were in tears at the end. The sound was loud, bone-shaking, and arrestingly clear.

Some people lay on the floor and closed their eyes as they listened, while others sat. Paul and I walked around the room, focusing in on one single speaker, and one single voice, and then moving back into the centre of the room to immerse ourselves in the full spectrum of the sound.

Forty-Part Motet is more than just a gorgeous piece of music, or a fascinating way of working with sound: it is a perfect example of collaborative beauty. I've been thinking a lot about how experiencing this piece affected me, and how I seem to return to the memory of this experience again and again. If you ever get the chance to partake of Cardiff's work, and Forty-Part Motet, don't hesitate.

absolutely black

My blackout story goes something like this:

I was standing in the Plugin Gallery here in Winnipeg, taking in an exhibition entitled Art of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or as I’d like to think it was unofficially called, “Mao: Red like yo mama”.

Just as I took this photo, the curator’s small, old school portable radio (I think it was a Radio Shack special), started on about how power was failing across the Northeastern US and Canada. I believe she was listening to the CBC.

That’s about it.

My good buddy Dan’s tale, however, is more interesting and much more eloquent than mine. He recounted it to me in an email he sent the day after the power died, and has kindly allowed me to quote from it here.

… And at about 4:10, the lights went out.

I think they should make this a regular event. All my immediate neighbours were talking with us, endless streams of people walking up the street. I regret that I didn’t cycle downtown to see the scene, but apparently it was quite amusing. Street cars immobilized everywhere. Major ice cream sales. Cars running out of gas everywhere…

But the best was watching the twilight come on, and everything just darken and darken. We sat in the backyard and looked up at the sky, drank wine and listened to the CBC. Saw shooting stars, constellations, satellites - but very few airplanes, which was vaguely 9/11ish. But who’s been able to look at stars like that in Toronto in the last fifty years?

And of course the sound changes completely. Even in our area, you hear city roar all the time, but last night as it went from early evening to dusk, the sound just got quieter and quieter, leaving only sirens — although there were plenty of those. Voices of neighbours in other yards that couldn’t be seen were heard - singing, talking, a few radios, but all tuned to news. No trains, except one or two.

At about 1 AM we went out into the road, which was blue and quiet and absolutely dark except for the moonlight, which was really strong. There was something about the purity of the colour that you forget about. The way the shadowed side of trees and buildings are absolutely black. Thinking back, it’s like the base of the night paintings of Edward Hopper, who is painting cities just beginning to be invaded by light - where the artificial light doesn’t reach, the same light we had last night dominates - like a page from Jimmy Corrigan, World’s Smartest Boy. And of course even better, hanging in the sky just beside the moon was Mars, huge and red and glowing.

We somehow found the binoculars in the pitch black house and hauled them out and looked at Mars, and the craters on the moon….”

Thanks, Dan.

Various Mac nuggets of note

There's been quite a few updates released recently for some excellent Mac OS X software. Just because I don't post about geek stuff too often, indulge me for a moment as I run down a list of a few of the more interesting releases:

Mailsmith 2.0.1

Barebones, the purveyors of software that "doesn't suck", has released a maintenance update for their email client. With this release, this comes very close to fulfilling what I would consider the perfect email client. It's fast, stable, and surprisingly powerful, and the changelog for this release is miles long and comprehensive.

Biggest beefs: no support for IMAP (a deal breaker for me), and the search capabilities are great, but still need some improvement. Still, this is getting more and more worthy, and may be worth buying once IMAP support is baked in.

DEVONthink 1.7

I stumbled across this application while searching for a way to deal with multiple PDF files. I have folders filled with PDF manuals, and it was kind of annoying that I couldn't search through them without opening each one in a PDF reader. DEVONthink looked like a good solution.

According to the application's web site it's a lot of things: it's "a notepad, outliner, scrapbook manager, information manager, freeform database, archive, bookmark manager and image database. Your personal supplementary brain". Bad grammar aside, from fooling around with the application for a bit, I think these claims may not just be marketing hyperbole.

DEVONthink is, for all intents and purposes, a search-enabled content storage bin. It holds all kinds of files (PDF, text, word documents, images of all kinds, web pages, movies, etc.), allowing you to group and categorize them, search through them, organize them, and generally helps keep content assets arranged in a easy-to-access way. It looks pretty powerful, and might be the ticket for people who work with lots of files and information.

EasyFind 2.8.2

(scroll down a bit to find the info): Since I mentioned DEVONthink, it only makes sense to also point out EasyFind. This freeware application is a easy-to-use search tool which allows you to quickly search your files and folders, and comes from the same developers as DEVONthink. The big difference between this and the built-in search feature in Jaguar? You can do content searches (searching the contents of files) without having to index your files first. In fact, EasyFind works without having to index your system whatsoever, which is a real timesaver. And did I mention it's free?

WeatherMan Extras 3.3.0

WeatherMan Puts the weather, and a whole lot more weather-geek information into your menubar. Now that the freeware Meteorologist has been dropped by its developer due to lack of time and inclination, this is probably the best weather application out there. It's closely followed in the rankings by Glu's WeatherPop, but WeatherPop suffers from infrequent poor data problems. WeatherMan Extra is cheap ($7 US), accurate, and well-supported by its developer.

DVBackup 1.1

I haven't actually tried this, but the concept is so ingenious that it bears mention. DVBackup is a small application ($30 US) that allows you to do full, incremental, and compressed backups to a large number of firewire camcorders. According to the documentation, you can also schedule backups, store full table-of-contents listings for each tape, and other handy archival info.

Because you can fit a lot of information on DV tape (up to 10gb per hour of tape, or 15gb in LP mode), and because DV tape is generally pretty cheap, this sounds like a great option for folks who cannot afford the more expensive tape backup options. Speaking as someone who has gone through the horrors of losing everything in ill-fated hard drive crashes, I can solemnly say: if you don't back up your files, you deserve all of the agony you will no doubtedly endure when your turn rolls around. Backup!


This summer, I didn't work to make the world a better place. I irresponsibly avoided serving slightly warm soup to hungry vagabonds at the local soup kitchen. I neglected to cook more than once a week, and when I did, it usually was something fast, cheap, and uninspired. I put off writing that killer pop song that I can't get out of my head. I forgot to partake in deeply moving cultural events that reminded me of why it is good to be alive. I still don't know why Everybody Loves Raymond. I refused to expand my horizons. I renounced my stomach exercises every night. I refrained from performing large tracts from Peer Gynt every time I saw Jon Stewart on television. I denied myself the luxury. I opposed the urge to get busy with yo mama. I repudiated the sphincter-clenchingly sweet music of the ice cream truck. I annulled like it was 1999.

As of yesterday I'm back at work. Where the hell did the summer go?

Zany updates

I've updated the instructions and the stylesheet for the ad blocking with CSS entry. The new and improved stylesheet incorporates the excellent wildcards found at the Mozilla Firebird page, hides form reset buttons (which are responsible for more than a few curses and scowls from being mistaken for submit), and improves the iframe and flash filters.

The other site-related nugget: what the heck is going on with the comments on the Dean Kamen Profile page? This rather uninspired article (that I wrote a couple of years ago when I worked at Sympatico) seems to consistently get more comments than any other post on this site.

The strangest thing is, people seem to think that they're communicating with Dean Kamen himself. One such person wrote:

"Dear Mr. Kamen, I heard about you from 60 minutes II with Dan Rather. I must say to you that I was highly overwhelmed."

People are strange. wink

(Edit: That explains a lot: the page in question is #1 at Google for dean kamen profile.)

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