Jul 24, 2016

Ensemble… and Trumpets

Sometimes, in a quiet moment, I’ll try to deconstruct all the influences which helped to form my socio-political views on how society should endeavour to function. My mother’s progressive outlook during the Mulroney years was one of those influences. Star Trek was a huge one - the United Federation of Planets permanently cementing into my mind the ideals of a sharing, multicultural, pluralistic, civil society. The friends I have had growing up, and continuing into adulthood, both in terms of their own political outlooks and their diverse natures. But there is one thing that, only recently, I have realized had a huge influence, one that you might not expect.

Band class.

From grade 8 onwards, I was a band geek. Tuba at first, and later trombone as well. Concert and jazz bands defined my social circle during high school. I have fond memories of band trips to various not-so-far-away places. After graduation I stuck around for an extra year, just to be in band and really figure out what I wanted to do. In the end, I chose to attend college and university for the bachelor of music program. All together, that’s almost a full decade of my life where I was regularly part of a large music ensemble.

What kind of impression has that left?

When you’re playing in a large ensemble - like a concert band - there is no room for ego. Oh sure, occasionally a piece of music will have a lovely solo melody for a particular instrument, but for the most part, the ensemble is a single organism. You give yourself over to service a larger entity, almost as if you become an organ (obviously, that would be the biological kind, not the musical). You learn to sense things like tuning, timing, dynamic blending. You learn to help keep the greater whole in balance.

Anyone who has listened to a world-class symphony orchestra knows the ultimate manifestation of ensemble. Symphonic music is unequivocally unlike any other aural experience humans have produced. It is music that is intensely moving. It can be powerful or delicate, with an enormous dynamic range. But perhaps what is most amazing about symphonic music is that it’s made up of around a hundred individual musicians acting, literally, in concert - in perfect harmony, to bring to life a piece of music conceived in the mind of a single person.

That, to me, borders on magical.

And that’s why harmony, ensemble, is such an essential approach to how I interact with the world around me.

When I, in my very Canadian way, hold the door for someone a couple of steps behind me, they benefit, and may in turn hold the door for the next person. Perhaps next time they’ll hold the door for me. Sometimes we don’t make eye contact, or say thanks. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that we moved in unison, we harmonized. And through that harmony of movement, people continually benefit. My approach is the same on a crowded train or bus. Be mindful of my surroundings, move when someone needs to get up, or get to the door. We learn to move in harmony, and over time, everyone benefits. We coexist peacefully, and we reinforce eachother.

When someone releases a door early to let it swing back in my face, or bang against my anticipating, outstretched palm, well, it’s not the end of the world. But I am nonetheless annoyed on a fundamental level. It feels like someone in the clarinet section came in too early, or too late, or with an awkward HONK. We’re all going to try to keep playing together, but you’re going to get an annoyed sideways glance.

Some may think I’m arguing for authoritarianism, or uniformity. That’s not possible in an ensemble. I mean, for practical purposes, a conductor is usually the boss - either a professional superior or a teacher. On the podium though, even a conductor has to move with their orchestra. A conductor doesn’t always maintain perfect control, they too must make adjustments based on what the ensemble is doing. A conductor would like you (either the musicians or the audience) to think that they make the rules, but at the end of the day, the composer of the music makes the rules, and the conductor makes very strong suggestions.

As for uniformity, that’s not possible because the instruments of an orchestra are intrinsically different. A flute, for example, will never be able to play as loudly as a clarinet, and neither will ever be as loud as a trumpet. But a flute can play a melody more sweetly, if the rest of the music is quiet enough for the audience to hear that flute.

When you’re in a high school band, one of the many strong suggestions that the teacher-conductor gives their students is for the brass to quiet down a bit. “There’s a woodwind melody here kids, and I can’t hear them. You trumpets are just harmonizing during this part, so pianissimo, please.”

It becomes necessary to give this particular suggestion quite strongly, and quite often, for several reasons. Reason one is that it’s easy to play loudly on brass (and somewhat harder to play very quietly). Reason two is that it’s fun to play brass loudly. Reason three is because those loud trumpets are usually being played by equally loud, straight, teenage boys who give exactly zero fucks whether or not anyone can hear the woodwinds.

Maybe you’re starting to see where I’m going with this.

There are plenty of nice trumpet players out there, I know several. In high school though, and in early college, there are also lots of - shall we say - “trumpet bros”, who are devotees of the mantra, “MORE BRASS! LOUDER BRASS!” The truly successful brass players, the ones who make it to more prestigious music schools (like universities), they are the soft-spoken types. They understood the importance of playing quietly. The importance of ensemble.

I will concede: sometimes rules need to be broken. Sometimes you need to step out and take decisive action for the greater good. But that greater good is the ensemble: you should not be taking such action out of selfishness. Nonetheless, everywhere I look, players break the harmony for selfish reasons. People block sidewalks, bus corridors, and hallways so that they can chat with their friends. They take dangerous risks on the road so that they can get where they’re going very slightly quicker. They cut into lines. They talk about what’s best for minority groups, despite not being a member of those groups. They don’t care about you, they don’t see you, and they don’t hear the ensemble. All they perceive are obstacles to finishing their trumpet solos.

Ooh, how this infuriates me.

A soloist trumpet might think that they can ignore the ensemble. Maybe an Ayn Rand quote is circulating in the back of their skull telling them to just reach for that next justifiably-selfish objective. Bullshit. We’re all a part of the community around us whether we like it or not. We’re a part of a civil society and our planet and we depend on both to survive. No one is an island (unless they live on an actual deserted island).

Occasionally, in that high school band, our teacher would be forced to ask a trumpet player to leave. Between his blastissimo dynamics and his incessantly interrupting jocularity with his fellow brass-bros in the back row, he became disruptive to the ensemble as a whole, and needed to be ejected until he could learn to behave himself. The same goes for our larger lives outside of bands or symphonies: occasionally, someone needs to be given a time-out until they can learn to interact with the world and communities around them in a constructive manner.

A brash trumpet must learn the importance of ensemble.

And if they can’t, please don’t try to promote them to conductor.




trumpet image courtesy of wikimedia commons

Jul 15, 2016

The Parable of the West-Rose Bakers

Author's Note: I was frustrated, so I wrote a thing. It may be a euphemism for real life frustrations.


Once upon a time there was a bakery: West-Rose Bakers. This bakery made the most delicious bread you could ever imagine: a round, old-style, poppyseed sourdough, baked in traditional wood-fired ovens. The crust was just the right amount of crispy, the insides were soft and tasty, and cracking open a fresh-baked loaf produced such a maddeningly-yummy smell that no mouth could resist watering.

The bakers that made the bread didn’t have a store: rather, they operated in a small warehouse. To sell their bread, they partnered with a grocery-delivery business, FoodTube, which brought groceries to customers’ homes by truck.

The problem was that, to get West-Rose bread delivered to their homes, customers needed to meet a “minimum order” with FoodTube, which meant buying a lot of other things those customers didn’t necessarily want or need. The fruits and vegetables FoodTube provided weren’t the freshest, nor were the meats and fish. Nevertheless, the delivery company turned a great profit, because they knew that the only way for the customers to get West-Rose Bakers was through their grocery delivery.


May 27, 2016

Digital Deadbolts Part 2: How to Protect your Security and Privacy Online

Hello readers! This is the first article in a series of articles I'm doing in collaboration with digital-issues advocacy group OpenMedia. You can also read this article on their website. Enjoy!


Last week, I talked about some different methods that you can and should use to protect your privacy and security online. 

One of the key takeaways from that discussion is that each of you  need to assess your own specific security requirements. A good deadbolt will stop most people from entering your home without your consent, but it won’t stop a skilled individual with a set of lockpicks, and it certainly won’t stop a battering ram. Likewise, the tools I discussed last week will protect most of us from most threats we face online, but they won’t necessarily stop sophisticated hackers with sophisticated tools. 

Most of the time, you don’t need to worry about sophisticated attacks. Higher profile targets are people like journalists, dissidents, and political activists, who are less able to count on their data being safe, or their communications being private. 

While investigating the Panama Papers, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists knew that they couldn’t take any chances with their digital security. There are a number of groups that would be interested in compromising that investigation, including powerful politicians, big business, and criminals. Such parties are formidable adversaries, and may have the ability to hack into email servers, or demand e-mail content from service providers via warrant. 

So even with basic digital diligence, not everyone will  be able to fend off hackers. In such cases, we need to go the extra mile with digital security practices. Once again, let’s dig in.

May 19, 2016

Digital Deadbolts: How to Protect your Security and Privacy Online

Hello readers! This is the first article in a series of articles I'm doing in collaboration with digital-issues advocacy group OpenMedia. You can also read this article on their website. Enjoy!


The front door of your home has a lock on it – and chances are, you use it. That doesn’t make you an elitist who thinks that you’re better than the people outside, nor does it make you paranoid. Rather, a lock on your door is regarded as common sense. It keeps unscrupulous people from stealing your stuff, or from walking into your house and looking at you in the shower.

Security doesn’t end at your front door. You might have windows with stops on them. If your neighbourhood doesn’t always feel safe, you might consider an alarm system. The same goes for your computer, and your online presence. The Internet, as a whole, is kind of a rough neighbourhood. For good or bad, we are all connected to that entire neighbourhood, and some of the residents aren’t so savoury. 


Apr 12, 2016

Collaboration with OpenMedia

Hello good readers!

I am excited to announce that this spring and summer, I'll be embarking on a collaboration with OpenMedia. I've mentioned OpenMedia on the blog several times, they're fierce defenders of internet freedom and accessibility here in Canada and abroad.

As a volunteer content creator, I'll be writing some articles (and possibly creating other materials) for the OpenMedia website about online security/privacy, digital rights, and other tech-political issues. Don't worry though, all that stuff will be cross-posted on this blog as well, so you'll be able to read them wherever you prefer.

As I said, I'm super excited to be collaborating with these folks. Watch this space for updates!

Mar 17, 2016

#0000FF or Lament of the Print Designer Who Loves Blue

Ah, #0000FF.

It's known to most of you as "blue", but that designation doesn't nail it. After all, people say that the sky is "blue", or that their pale, bluish business shirt is "blue", or that navy uniforms are "blue". So there's no point in me saying "blue", because you won't get what I really mean. What I mean is #0000FF.

For those of you who don't know, "#0000FF" is a way of expressing colour on a computer, using the RGB colour space. Your computer monitor has pixels with red, green, and blue components (hence, RGB). A pixel can add RGB in equal, maximal amounts to create white, expressed as "#FFFFFF". Without going into too much detail, "FF" is 255 in the hexadecimal number system, used frequently in computer programming. The six digits represent the red, green, and blue attributes respectively. Thus, #FF0000 is pure red, #00FF00 is pure green, #0000FF is pure blue, and "#000000" (the absence of any colour value) is black.

#0000FF is an amazing colour. It's the colour of the classic cobalt blue pigment used by painters and glassmakers. It smacks of polished lapis lazuli. It's rich and deep, simultaneously inflaming and calming the senses. Some statistics show that "blue", broadly, is the favourite colour of a majority of people. Well, #0000FF is my favourite colour, by far.

Unfortunately, there's a problem: You can't print #0000FF... not really.

At this point a lot of people will be scratching their heads in confusion and disbelief: "Huh? Of course you can print blue!" Meanwhile, the designers in the audience will be rolling their eyes: "Oh, here we go, another rant about the CMYK gamut range". You are correct, designers. Go have a coffee while I explain this to the muggles.

Here's the thing: computer monitors add RGB light together - and the aggregate makes white; but when you're printing, you add cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (aka CMYK) inks together - and the aggregate makes black. We call RGB additive (more colours means lighter), whereas process CMYK is subtractive (more colours means darker).

The difficulty with a subtractive colour scheme is that it's inherently more restrictive than just adding different kinds of light together. You can make a colour lighter by simply adding less ink (since the paper is already white - this is called half-toning) but it's never perfect. The reasons for this are complex and have to do with a myriad of factors, including how the inks reflect and absorb various wavelengths of light (and provide the end colour that you observe) and the physical absorption of the inks into the printing medium (usually paper stock).

We call the range of colours that can be produced by any given colour schema its "gamut". Like CMYK, RGB also has a limited gamut compared to "real-life" colour, but for most practical purposes, RGB is capable of producing the vast majority of colours that most humans can see. CMYK... not so much.

The component inks of CMYK have been formulated to be able to cover many, but not all, colours. CMYK is not super great at reproducing #FF0000 red. It's kinda bad at #00FF00 green. But the worst, by far, is the coverage of #0000FF blue. Just take a look at this RGB to CMYK conversion simulation by Wikipedia:

Okay, I'll just convert to CMYK and YYEEEUUCCCHHHH

The CMYK spectrum looks different here and there, but blue in particular looks washed out and grey-ish. It's almost like the CMYK colour-space (first conceived of in 1906, and later codified by colour-matching-juggernaut Pantone in the 1950s) was designed by people for whom pure blue and purple represented only fear and sadness.

Life is meaningless

I disagree: Blue is Joy (or at least Joy's hair).

But wait, there's hope! You see, mixing cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks isn't the only way to print. We also have what are called spot colours. A spot colour is a premixed ink - in contrast to blending CMYK inks on paper using halftones. The aforementioned company Pantone is best known for the eponymous colour swatches which list various colours that can be pre-mixed by printing companies for precise colour results. Spot colours are important when you're printing large areas of single, flat colours (eg: white text on a solid orange background), because the halftoning dots of CMYK process become a lot more obvious. Spot colours can also be used to make certain colours (like #0000FF) "pop" more, especially when they don't look good in the CMYK gamut range.

Unfortunately, there's another problem:

One of the best inks for producing (something close to) #0000FF is known in the Pantone scheme as Reflex Blue. It's not perfect, but it's saturated and has a vitality that the CMYK equivalent lacks... and many printers HATE it. Naturally, every colour is created using different chemical pigments, and the pigments in Reflex Blue take twice as long to dry as anything out there. Many printers say that it needs to be coated with special treatments because it never fully dries. I can attest from experience that blue projects tend to come back from the printers feeling a bit tacky, and they smear and stain surfaces more readily.

When desktop publishing first started rolling in the 80's and 90's, designers were generally much more aware of the CMYK gamut restrictions. In today's world you're less likely to have print ads, brochures, and promotional folios, and more likely to be focused on in-browser ads, websites, and promotional PDFs. The prominence of digital media means that designers can often design in RGB. It also means the amateurs are more likely to be shocked when their designs fall (chromatically) flat in print.

Professional designers and printers have been dealing with this for a long time and have come up with lots of tricks for working around gamut limitations. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, using #0000FF in complex designs is considered a no-no. We could come up with a new, better process scheme by adding additional inks (as some have tried), but it seems unlikely that any new scheme will enter the common usage.

However, as we increasingly move towards a paperless - and thus inkless - world, I'm filled with hope. So I will continue to design with #0000FF blue. It's a beautiful colour, unfairly slighted by the process gamut. Raise a cobalt-blue glass with me and toast: to #0000FF, the best colour of them all.


Top Image Composed of:
Wow by LTerraC, Creative Commons 2.0
Blue as in Blue by Alan Levine, Creative Commons 2.0
Polished Lapis Lazuli by MarcelClemens, Shutterstock


Feb 24, 2016

How Encryption Works, and Why it Can't be Backdoored

It's time to learn about encryption.

I am blessed to know a lot of smart and politically astute people. You are (by in large) rational and progressive folks who enjoy learning new things. Encryption is something we use everyday, when we connect to Facebook or Google or Twitter. We absolutely depend upon it when we log into our bank accounts online, our PayPal account, or the website of the Canada Revenue Agency to submit our taxes. For all these things, we're using HTTPS. You might know that "HTTP" stands for "HyperText Transmission Protocol". The "S" stands for "Secure" or "SSL", whichever you prefer. You also probably know that this protocol keeps your data safe from spying eyes.

You probably don't know the nitty-gritty of how HTTPS works. If you're curious, and you have a little patience, and you're willing to accept a slightly simplified version of the process, then I'd love to explain it to you.

Some Validation

On this blog and social media, I've been trying to push the label of "Science Denial" onto the current encryption debate. When a plurality of experts say something isn't possible/feasible, and politicians refuse to listen to that, what you have there is science denial.

Sadly, no one really picked up that ball and ran with it. I was starting to fear that what I thought was a powerful piece of rhetoric in this argument was just hubris.

Thankfully, Cory Doctorow's latest piece in the Guardian today validates the argument:
There’s precedent for this kind of contradiction, where something urgent is considered a settled matter in expert circles, but is still a political football in policy circles: climate change. Denialism is a deadly feature of 21st-century life.

I recommend a full read through for everyone. Doctorow has taken all the most powerful arguments and distilled them into a potent tonic. Magnifique.

Feb 17, 2016

The Line in the Sand: iOS Encryption

By now, anyone who cares to read this article probably knows the background, but here's the short-short version:

Apple has been compelled by a court order to comply with an FBI demand to circumvent security on the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Specifically, the FBI wants Apple to create a custom version of iOS that bypasses data protections, which could be loaded unto the phone to break the passcode and/or encryption. Apple has refused this order, and an open letter by Apple CEO Tim Cook has explained why following this order would be disastrous for computer security and have broad-reaching repercussions.