Miskatonic University Press

Julian Opie soundtracking his shows

art john.cage listening.to.art

A Brush with … Julian Opie is a good episode of The Art Newspaper’s “A Brush with” podcast. I knew nothing about Julian Opie before, but enjoyed browsing his web site and hope to see a show one day.

There’s some talk about what Opie listens to when he’s working. He likes spa music, nature sounds, that sort of thing … Ben Luke, the interviewer, helpfully mentions ambient music, Brian Eno and John Cage.

Opie then talks about some music he’s made to be played at his shows:

I’ve made some soundtracks, and I played them in a museum show I made in Tokyo last year. One was a computer program that my clever assistant came up with that translates the sound of a blackbird into a piano note. I’m not the first person to do such a thing, but what maybe hasn’t generally been done quite so much before is to make an algorithm from that. We took the various tweets of the blackbird, looked at that as a set of algorithms, took the notes, and turned that into piano sounds and ran it as a constant random algorithm that plays throughout the time that you’re in the exhibition. Part of my reason for doing that was that I noticed when I went to look at the museum that everyone was going around clicking their camera at the exhibition (not mine, the previous one) and it made this constant sound: kssh kssh, kssh-k-kssh. Plus the click of high-heeled shoes, and I thought, that’s kind of interesting, but it’s not very much to do with me. I didn’t control that. I’d rather write my own soundtrack, so I did that with the blackbirds. And I did some more, and I may well be, you’ll see, if you come and see this exhibition at Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, whether I am thinking of maybe doing something similar here in order to animate the spaces here, and to give a sense of atmosphere, which music can do like nothing else. But it won’t be a piece of music, it’ll be something more like some kind of an algorithm that will play constantly and be evocative.

It’s striking that he was aware of and attentive to the sounds people were making in the exhibit (at least, cameras and heels), but thought, “It’s not very much to do with me. I didn’t control that.” So he made his own soundtrack, imposing his own music on the space and the visitors.

Double-grepping to solve a crossword puzzle

puzzles unix

Puzzlebomb is a monthly puzzle page made by Katie Steckles and Paul Taylor. I recently subscribed and am enjoying having the sheet up on my fridge so I can work away at it.

There’s a “G _ P W _ R D” puzzle in the current issue: a crossword where some of the letters in the clues are missing, and you learn what they are by filling in the grid. As they put it, “Solve the clues to determine letters to write in the grids to fill in the gaps in the clues in order to put the answers in.”

It may be hard to understand it all without showing the grids, but here’s how I solved one (two) clues that had me a bit stuck. Once I thought about this way of solving I had to try it.

The clue is a word with a missing first letter:

x I T C H

And I know from the grid that the first letter of the clue is the first letter of the answer:

x _ A _ N

There are just a few options for the first word, but many more for the second. This shell script goes through all the words in /usr/share/dict/words, finds the ones that match the first pattern, picks out their first letters, then finds any words that match the second pattern.



grep -E -i "^..a.n$" $dict | while read -r word
    grep -E -i "^${init}itch$" $dict | while read -r clue
     	echo "Does $clue mean $word?"

With the options to grep, "^..a.n$" means “do a case-insensitive search for any word that is exactly five letters long where the third letter is A and the fifth is N.”

Does bitch mean Brain?
Does ditch mean Deann?
Does ditch mean Diann?
Does bitch mean brain?
Does bitch mean brawn?
Does ditch mean drain?
Does ditch mean drawn?
Does pitch mean plain?
Does pitch mean prawn?

There we are: DITCH and DRAIN. Solved!

(I used to do for word in $(grep foo $dict), but shellcop told me to do it with while read, so I’m trying that out.)

Analyzing the structure of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, Series 9

john.finnemore r radio

I said before that “John Finnemore is doing something incredible with the new series of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme.”

I don’t know how Finnemore’s going to end it, but I’m certain it’s going to be good. I think he’s doing something incredible here, and when it ends it will be not just some of his finest work but a radio series that will last forever.

It is. It’s one of the finest things I’ve ever heard on radio. If you haven’t heard it: go listen!

Structurally, it’s six half-hour episodes about an extended family, focusing on five members: mid-thirties parent Russ, his mother Deborah, her father Jerry, his mother Vanessa, and also Uncle Newt, who’s not really an uncle but has been attached to the family for decades. Each episode has scenes that go in reverse chronological order, and the first five episodes move back through the family from Russ to Newt. The sixth is different.

This structure (which really clicks into place with episode three) lets Finnemore tell the story of the family in a delightful way, where we hear unusual sayings or odd family customs long before (to us) we learn how they started. A lot of the show is about this familect. The structure (and how Finnemore chooses the scenes) also means there is no tragedy, because when we learn someone is dead, we know that in a few scenes they will be alive again. This doesn’t mean there is no sadness—there are some heartbreaking scenes—but we don’t follow someone’s life through to their death and then they’re gone, we see fragments of their lives that show how they are made up (sometimes unknowingly) of previous generations and how they in turn shape future generations.

The show doesn’t require repeated listenings, but it does deserve them. It’s not meant to be hard to put the pieces together, and it isn’t—Finnemore said on Twitter he didn’t mean it to be a puzzle—but there is a great pleasure that comes from realizing in a later episode what a small thing in an earlier episode actually meant. Many listeners made their own timelines to better appreciate all this. I did too, and put it all together into a spreadsheet. Then I wanted to see it visually, so I made some charts. Here’s one:

Scenes in time
Scenes in time

Listen to the six episodes first, then have a look at Analysing the Structure of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, Series 9 (PDF). It’s twelve pages long and includes a lot of code, but you can just look at the charts.

About the show and its structure:

Some background on a few things, none of which is necessary to know on first listening:

(UPDATED 18 June 2021 with the “Jawbone” point.)

Galleries index on Listening to Art


I’ve added a gallery index to Listening to Art, which makes it easy to listen to all the recordings made at a given gallery.

Volume nine number two was published today: New York City by Piet Mondrian, recorded at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, in Paris.

Pretty symbols in Ruby in Emacs

emacs ruby

Ruby scripts in Emacs can look nicer with prettify-symbols-mode, which is now built in to ruby-mode. With symbol prettification enabled, symbols are made prettier to the eye. For example, this is a Ruby script. Note the >=, <= and lambda (a lambda function is a special thing in computer science).

if 2 >= 1
  puts "Two is greater than or equal to one."

foo = lambda { |i|
  if i <= 0
    puts "#{i} is equal to or below zero"

With symbols prettified, this will appear like so, even though the real characters are actually there:

if 2  1
  puts "Two is greater than or equal to one."

foo = λ { |i|
  if i  0
    puts "#{i} is equal to or below zero"

I’ve been prettifying R for seven years, and it’s nice to be able to do it in Ruby now. I use it in Org and AUCTeX, too. In my Emacs configuration I make it work so:

(global-prettify-symbols-mode 1)
(setq prettify-symbols-unprettify-at-point 'right-edge)

I’m very happy to say this got in place because I submitted my first patch for Emacs. What I sent in was actually unhelpful and misleading, but a few people looked at it, thought about it, made it better, and updated the code. Many thanks to them! If you run Emacs from the development source you can see this in place now; others will wait until version 28 comes out officially.

While I’m at it, let me thank Keith Browne for introducing me to Emacs. One day in 1994 at Internex Online (Toronto’s first commercial dial-up internet service provider), I was looking at Keith’s screen—he was probably working on the billing system, which he’d named Funes—and asked what editor he was using. It was Emacs. I said I’d heard about Emacs, but it seemed really complicated to learn. He asked what I used. I said Pico. He pointed out that Pico had about six keystrokes, so all I had to do was learn their equivalents in Emacs, and then after that I’d have the whole rest of Emacs to grow into. This made perfect sense, so I switched and have been a happy Emacs user ever since. Wherever you are, Keith, thank you.

UPDATE (01 Jun 2021): Fixed where I said ≤ is just less than, not less than or equal to.

John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme

john.finnemore radio

John Finnemore is doing something incredible with the new series of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme (start with episode one and move on; episode four came out yesterday and there will be two more; get them quick before they go off the BBC site).

Cast photo
Cast photo

I’ve mentioned Finnemore before because he did Cabin Pressure, one of the best radio comedies ever. The Souvenir Programme has run as a very good, sometimes marvellous, sketch comedy show, until this current series, where the pandemic made him work in different ways, with no audience.

The first episode opens with a family having a Christmas dinner over Zoom. It moves back in time, scene by scene, following Russ, a young father who is in the call with his mother, grandfather and others. The second episode opens with Russ and his mother Deborah talking over Zoom about how they’re both secretly enjoying the changes the pandemic has brought, then follows Deborah back in time, scene by scene, through her life. Listen for yourself to find out how the third and fourth episodes go.

I don’t know how Finnemore’s going to end it, but I’m certain it’s going to be good. I think he’s doing something incredible here, and when it ends it will be not just some of his finest work but a radio series that will last forever.

YFile feature on Tim Knight


YFile, York University’s news and events site, ran a piece on my friend and colleague Tim Knight: My Secret Life: Osgoode associate librarian finds ‘rhythm’ during pandemic. He released an EP on Bandcamp, Why I’m Here, which so far has only been bought by me and another librarian at York, but word will spread.

First vaccination shot


I got my first vaccination shot just over two weeks ago. It was the Oxford-AstraZeneca, which the province stopped using a few days ago, but hell, I’m happy to have one shot of anything, and I’ll be happy with whatever next one I get.

Photo of a masked cheerful me
Photo of a masked cheerful me

I’m very much not happy with Ontario premier Doug Ford or his cabinet, who have done a staggeringly bad job of handling the pandemic. A combination of stupidity, incompetence and corruption led to the deaths of thousands of Ontarians and the sickness of many, many more. All of this is on their hands, with Ford bearing ultimate responsibility.

The process behind getting the shot was ridiculous. I’d signed up at various pharmacies but had no hopes anything was going to happen soon. My sister was watching @VaxHuntersCan on Twitter and saw one day that a Shoppers Drug Mart in Vaughan had openings the next day. I followed the link immediately and was able to book. I was also lucky enough to be able to take time off work and rent a car so I could drive forty-five minutes there and forty-five minutes back in the middle of the afternoon. Everything about that process is wrong.

About my mask: that’s my fancy mask for special occasions. It was made by David Dunkley, a milliner who started making masks last year. They are great, and he made me several bespoke masks, with fabrics of my choice, made larger to suit my head size and beard. I plan to get a hat from him when things are more normal. He usually makes women’s hat, but as he said, “I can make any hat you want.” He also adjusted my deerstalker, which was a size too small, and now it fits perfectly. I highly recommend him for anything about hats! He’s an expert and does outstanding work.

Private investigator


Last week I obtained my private investigator’s license.

I expect I’ll be writing about aspects of private investigation fairly regularly now. I’ll start by explaining how I got the license, which took about seven months but would have taken five without the pandemic. Then I’ll mention some other librarian-PIs, some famous investigators, and link to some PI podcasts.

In Canada PIs are licensed by the province or territory. In Ontario the Private Security and Investigative Services Act, 2005 sets out the basic framework for what PIs and security guards do, how licensing works and how complaints about them are handled. Here’s how it defines the job:

Private investigators

(2) A private investigator is a person who performs work, for remuneration, that consists primarily of conducting investigations in order to provide information.

(3) Examples of the types of information referred to in subsection (2) include information on

(a) the character or actions of a person;

(b) the business or occupation of a person; and

(c) the whereabouts of persons or property.

An interesting point in the act is that PIs are forbidden from using terms that imply they are police:

No private investigator, security guard or person who engages in the business of selling the services of private investigators or security guards shall use the following terms or variations of them:

  1. Detective or Private Detective.

  2. Law enforcement.

  3. Police.

  4. Officer.

Ontarians can find everything they need to know to get started on the Ministry of the Solicitor General’s Private security and investigative services pages, including the application process.

There are two stages to getting the license. First, a mandatory training course. Second, a certification exam.

Cover of the syllabus
Cover of the syllabus

The training course will follow the provincial training syllabus for private investigators (PDF). I took LAWS 247: Private Investigator Training at Fleming College (which I always think of as Sandford Fleming, named after the remarkable engineer), which was done online (of course) through Ontario Learn, a very interesting consortial online instruction system. It was taught by Alex Fishbein of Symmetry Services, and cost about $450. The course ran from September to December; each week there were course notes to read and a multiple choice test, and sometimes there were other small assignments. The workload was not onerous. It would be far more interesting to do the course live, because there are so many questions one wants to ask the instructor, but this was done asynchronously except for one live Zoom session when we prepped for the final exam.

Meeting the minimum mark requirement on that exam gets the student a Training Completion Number, and the information is passed on to the government. With that done, one moves to the second step: the exam.

Cover of test prep guide
Cover of test prep guide

The certifying exams are administered by Serco, who handle all sorts of things for Canadian governments (and in the UK made a lot of money out of the pandemic). Normally they’re done in person, and I thought I’d have to wait a while before I’d be able to write the test, but I was happy to discover I could do it online. Test-takers need to run Zoom with their camera and mike on, and pan around to show there are no papers on the table, but there’s no requirement for invasive surveillance technology like Proctorio. The exam has sixty multiple-choice questions and candidates have 75 minutes to write it, but I doubt anyone needs the whole time. The Fleming course had prepared me well for it. Reviewing the Private Investigator Test Preparation Guide will give a good sense of what the test covers.

Meeting the minimum mark for that test got me another number, and now I could apply for the license. This is done through ServiceOntario and is all online. Applicants need to show proof of citizenship and that they can work in Canada (scans of a driver’s license and passport cover that) and have a signed form from a guarantor confirming all this is legit. They also need a recent passport-quality photo. Once I had all those it didn’t take long to set up an account, go through the process, upload the documents and pay the $80 fee. Someone somewhere did a criminal check on me and approved the application in about a week. I got a digital license (a fancy name for a PDF of a temporary document) immediately and the real one will come in the mail soon.

Spade and Archer written in window, reversed
Spade and Archer written in window, reversed

So now I’m a licensed private investigator … but that doesn’t mean I can work as one and get paid. I’d need to work for a licensed agency. That would mean working for an existing agency or getting a license for a sole proprietorship, which would cost $700 (plus I’d need insurance). The first I have no intention of doing, and the second is too expensive. And anyway, I have no plans to change my job. I enjoy being a librarian. Who knows what the future may bring, though.

There are a number of librarians who are PIs. Locally I know Marjan Farabaksh, who runs FSO Research. A quick search also turned up Marcy Phelps and Xhenet Aliu (who went the other way: PI turned librarian).

Another librarian turned PI is Cynthia Hetherington, a major name in open source intelligence (OSINT; I must clarify the open source here is not as in FLOSS, though there is CSI Linux). I’m looking forward to learning more about OSINT and how that kind of investigative work overlaps with library work: both involve online research, assessing the validity and authority of information, citing sources, scraping data, and so on. (See OSINTcurio.us or Toddington or OSMOSIScon for more, and be amazed at what Bellingcat is doing.)

I found a great quote by legendary San Francisco PI David Fechheimer (who didn’t have a Wikipedia entry, so I made one).

I’ve always felt that the people best prepared to be private investigators are former graduate students, who know how to use the library.

Shame he overlooked the librarians who run the library.

Cover of Gumshoe
Cover of Gumshoe

Fechheimer (who dropped out of grad school to become a PI) was part of a set of great San Francisco investigators with Tink Thompson (who was a tenured philosophy professor, but quit to be a PI), Jack Palladino (“He gave me my first job as a private investigator,” tweeted Errol Morris), Sandra Sutherland and Hal Lipset (both of whom deserve Wikipedia articles). They all had incredible careers. Fechheimer and Thompson were great admirers of Dashiell Hammett, the private investigator who became a novelist. I am too. Sherlock Holmes and the Three Investigators, and later Sam Spade, the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe, are probably the ultimate causes of me getting licensed.

Finally, three podcasts I follow. They’re usually interviews with one person, and cover all sorts of PI work. Even the ads are interesting, because they’re for things aimed at PIs, such as databases of information about people, case management tools, or gear.

Francie Koehler and some of the women she’s interviewed opened up a new view on the PI world to me: it’s not all men who used to be cops. There’s an awful lot of that: tough hombres with gravelly voices saying they had twenty-five years in law enforcement, working in narcotics and homicide, seeing horrible things they hope you never have to see.

But there are people like Fechheimer and Thompson, who got into it because they loved The Maltese Falcon and everything about private investigations. And there are others, mostly women, who were working in some related field and discovered they were really good at finding things out, and they liked doing it, so they turned professional. All these seem to be the ones who do pro bono work for the wrongfully convicted and similar projects to help people who have nowhere else to turn, which is a really interesting sector of the work to see.

I’m very happy to have my license, and looking for forward to learning more about private investigation.

Framework 756


I’m delighted that an introduction I recorded for Framework Radio was used for the beginning of episode number 756.

Screenshot from Framework Radio
Screenshot from Framework Radio

The train going by was a very long freight train heading west on the CP North Toronto Subdivision tracks, and I caught the end of it while sitting in a park near Dupont and Ossington.

Aside from my intro there are twenty compositions mixed together into the show! It’s another great Framework episode from Patrick McGinley, with his usual juxtapositions and overlays (for example, the last two minutes of my intro are mixed with Carlo Patrao’s recording made during his mandatory post-vaccination 15-minute wait). Follow the links in the track listing to listen to the pieces on their own.

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