Things I Didn’t Know: Liberal Arts

Why is a “Liberal Arts degree” is called “Liberal”. I had wondered if and how it might be related to political liberalism. It turns out, it’s not.

According to the Wikipedia, the Liberal Arts are so called because:

In classical antiquity, the liberal arts denoted the education proper to a free man (Latin: liberus, “free”), unlike the education proper to a slave.

I did not know that.


Have You Heard?

In order to hear a phone message, I get the following four prompts; Every time.

  • You have one unheard message.
  • Check unheard messages, press 1-1.
  • The following message has not been heard.
  • First unheard message.

Save the Day on This American Life

In addition to enjoying a new album each month (March has been Postdata), I’ve also been listening to This American Life.

The first act of the most recent episode, entitled Save the Day, is a remarkable story, well told:

James Spring had hit his late 30s, and found his life utterly unremarkable. He needed to do something big. So James decided to try to rescue two kids who had been kidnapped by suspected murderers, and taken to Mexico.


Chile quake measured in Virginia well

A well in Virginia (yeah, the one in the United States) measured a 2-foot drop during the Chilean earthquake in February. Apparently, the “regular sine-wave variations are due to the effect of lunar tides on the Earth’s crust”. I find that almost as intriguing as the quake effect.

Water level chart

See other peculiar side-effects of the massive earthquake.


Musical Updates

A few music updates:


iPad Reactions

Peter Rukavina on the iPad :

The power of the net for me has always rested in its utility as a vehicle for freely producing, sharing, mashing-up and distributing stuff, not in its utility for allowing me to watch re-runs of LOST more easily.

I agree completely.

Also, see Andrew Leonard on the iPad for

Apple’s deal has always been that in return for giving up some freedom, the company will provide a fabulous user experience.

I’m loathe to comment on a device I’ve yet to try, but based on my experience with a (now bricked) iPod Touch, I can imagine this being a great device. I just can’t get excited about a device that keeps the control over what you can do with it in the hands of a private company.

One positive aspect is that it does focus around a web experience, and the web itself remains open.


12 Albums

It’s easy to romanticize the medium of our youth. I’m too young to miss vinyl; for me vinyl means Nana Mouskouri’s Christmas album. No one really misses cassettes; except maybe for mix tapes, which we mostly loved because of how much work we put into them. CDs are also hard to lament. They were never very portable; it seemed to take 10 years to develop a portable CD player that didn’t skip. Mostly, though, they were digital. There is really no difference between CD audio and a similarly configured audio file on any other digital medium.

When technology advances, we often realize that we miss the things that were flaws in the previous generation of devices. We miss the warm crackle of vinyl. We miss the sense of accomplishment from hours spent painstakingly crafting the perfect mix tape.

Now that we are awash in the glut of availability of digital music, I’ve come to realize that I’m missing one of those flaws. When I could only afford to buy one CD, I was stuck with it. I would listen to it until I knew every word and every chord.

Now that I have so much music at my disposal, even when I do find music I enjoy, it’s often enjoyed on “Random” or while I work, where my attention is spread far too thin. As a result, I seldom get to the level of familiarity with an album that I did ten years ago. I might get there with a single song, but seldom an entire album.

I do not assume that listening to the same album until it’s burned into your head is inherently better than a more cursory listen to a broader selection. However, familiarity is one of the fundamental elements that makes music something more than just sound. Our brains are good at spotting patterns, and we like completing patterns. Great artists use familiarity as one of their instruments to hack the brain into thinking notes, chords, and rhythms are playful, unexpected, or satisfying.

The deeper you know a piece of music, the greater the opportunity to enjoy it. Each note means something different when you know its coming.

So, I’m trying to artificially re-create a limitation that caused me to get to know a limited number of albums deeply. The limitations used to be accessibility and (mostly) cost. This year, I’m creating my own limitation. Each month, I’m choosing one album to focus on. It won’t be the only thing I listen to, but it will be the first thing I go to each time I start up some music. I’ll also listen to the entire album, in order, each time I’m looking to listen to a long stretch of music.

I’m curious to see if there is any more joy to be squeezed out of music by concentrating on a small set of albums this way.

Last year, without any such regime, I did end up enjoying a few albums this at this level: Fantasies by Metric, Far by Regina Spektor, Welcome to the Night Sky by Wintersleep, Three by Joel Plaskett, Into Your Lungs by Hey Rosetta!, Read Less Minds by Mardeen, and a few others.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan

The albums I’ll choose for each month won’t be the best albums of the year (many I might not have heard at all before I choose them, as was the case when buying albums 10 years ago). For January, I have chosen the album Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan.

It’s a good way to start the experiment. It’s a good album, but not something I would count among my all time favourites. If it had been one of a dozen albums I was listening to, I would never have gotten as much enjoyment out of this album as I have in the past few weeks.

I have eleven more albums to go this year. I will certainly include the upcoming release from Wintersleep. Suggestions for other albums are welcome.


The Pretty Future (of Firefox)

Stephen Horlander over at Mozilla is doing great work on the visual appearance and functionality of future versions of Firefox. See his latest Windows Theme/UI Update.

Comparison of Firefox 3.5 and 4.0 interface mockup

Pixel nerds may remember Stephen from his significant contributions to Firefox 1.0 with the Winstripe and Pinstripe themes.


“Ska music is like a romantic comedy…”

Quoth George Stroumboulopoulos on The Strombo Show:

“Ska music is like a romantic comedy, unless it’s genius, it’s terrible.”

He goes on to say that “[a]verage, middle-of-the-road Ska is some of the worst music you’re ever going to hear in your life.”

The Strombo Show is George Snuffalupagus’ new 4-hour radio show on CBC Radio 2. A recent playlist included enough music from my own life (Radiohead, Catherine Wheel, the Doughboys, etc.) and classics (Neil Young, The Clash, the Ramones, etc.), to keep me listening to music I haven’t heard before (Sea Wolf, MIA, etc.).

Unfortunately, the show isn’t podcasted by the CBC due to music licensing issues. At least for now, though, Episode 5 (referenced here) is available online.


Search Stories

I’m just linking to an ad campaign (and I’m not sure why Google even has to advertise), but Google’s Search Stories ads are nicely done.