Internet-Free Home Media Setup

So recently COX Communications has decided to just have a 3-day internet outage because they’re awful. As a result, I was quite glad that I have spent a fair bit of time digitizing my DVD collection and organizing it all on a home PLEX server on my local network, so I decided to settle in for a movie marathon until the internet was restored.

Lakeside Campfire with Relaxing Nature Night Sounds (HD ...

Buuut it turns out that my PLEX server running on my NVidia Shield wouldn’t let me connect to it without phoning home over the internet to the PLEX website. Awesome.

So then I decided to give Kodi a try, but their app is awful and although I was able to get it to stream media from my NAS on Windows, it simply wouldn’t work on Android.

At this point I did some research and figured out a solution that is working (internet’s still out, by the way – I’m writing this on my phone) and figured I’d share it.

Enter DLNA

After some research, I found out that DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) is a standard designed for sharing streaming media content – including on the same home network via UPnP. What’s more, it is supported by PLEX but is disabled by default. So you simply need to turn it on once you have your PLEX server set up (I already did – setup is easy if you have internet.)

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Once this is done, PLEX will begin broadcasting its availability via DLNA on your home network, and devices on the same network which support UPnP can discover it automatically.

Now How Do We Watch It?

The PLEX viewer is great, but it’s primarily designed assuming you will have internet access. Having to tether two devices to my phone just so they can hit the open internet to log in and discover that they’ve been 5 feet apart this whole time is a pain, and you’ll have to do it for every device, not to mention remembering and typing your login on each one. Not an ideal experience.

So I decided to ditch the PLEX viewer entirely and discovered that VLC Media Player supports UPnP. Not only this, but they have nice Android and iOS apps as well. On Windows the setup is trivial: simply open the Playlist view and select Universal Plug’n’Play:

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Once this is done, you should see your PLEX server in the list of DLNA devices broadcasting on your network. Select it, and then you will be able to browse its contents in a folder-like structure.

What About Mobile Devices?

I’ve been using VLC’s Android app which seems very nice. But there’s one big gotcha: for me I couldn’t detect any DLNA content on my home network while connected to my mobile data network. I guess it sends all of your traffic to your mobile network rather than wifi when the wifi doesn’t have internet. Normally this is convenient, but in this case we want to send our traffic locally.

To turn off mobile data on Android, go to Settings > Network & Internet > Mobile Network > Mobile Data > Off. Now the only network we’re connected to is the Wifi that our PLEX servers is broadcasting our DLNA content on, and VLC should find it no problem.

Simply open VLC, then in settings select “Local Network”

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Then after VLC searches your local network, you should see your PLEX server as one of the results:

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Now select your server and you should be able to browse your media via the virtual folders.


It took a surprisingly particular setup to really get what I want, but I’m now quite happy with my home media setup. There’s lots of DLNA servers and viewer apps out there, but for me, the duo of PLEX and VLC ended up being the simplest of quite a few setups I tried.

Hopefully if you’re looking for a very simple, offline-friendly media server setup for sharing your own media over your local network with several devices, this may be just what you’re looking for!

Now I’m gonna go marathon movies while I wait for COX Communications to stop being a disgrace and restore my internet…

Suitcase Dancer Turns One!

On August 2nd of 2018, I committed the first code to the Suitcase Dancer repository! Since the project has now been going on for over a year, I thought it would be a good time to stop and reflect on how far it’s come in a year. And since I’m a programmer, what better place to start than with numbers?

The Numbers:

While I’ve only been doing SEO for about 5 months, the website has appeared in more than 11,000 Google searches, and these search results have been clicked 179 times.

In the last year, 859 users have visited the site, and viewed more than 7,100 pages.

In addition, despite being only two weeks since its launch, the Suitcase Dancer mobile app has been downloaded by more than 100 people!

Who Uses Suitcase Dancer?

We’ve had visitors from 38 different countries! So far, about 72% of the site’s web traffic has been in the United States. Canada is tied with Germany for the second most visitors with just shy of 3% of our traffic. About 19% of the site’s traffic comes from Europe, and I’m pleased to see more than 3% from Asia! こんにちは〜 여보세요!

How Do People Use Suitcase Dancer?

A whopping 45% of visitors view the Suitcase Dancer website on phones or tablets. I had a feeling this would be the case when building the site, and took a lot of care to try to create a good mobile experience! I hope you’ve found the website to be easy to use, and things will only become easier as the mobile app becomes more polished!

What’s Next?

I have a million ideas, and I try to avoid listing them all to avoid propagating vaporware – software that sounds exciting but never ends up actually existing. Instead, I try to keep quiet about my ideas and rely on user feedback to determine what to work on first.

The nature of the app I’m building is that it has very strong network effects – the more people who use it, the more useful it becomes. Thus I try to respond to user feedback quickly and build what people are most excited about. As of late, there seems to be a lot of excitement around the release of the mobile app – people want more features in the app, and an easier experience posting local dances so that they can use the mobile app as a tool for promoting their local dance scenes.

So I’m prioritizing some features I’ve had in mind for a while now regarding local dances  (such as using a phone’s GPS location to filter local dance results to your area) in the hopes of making Suitcase Dancer the best way to find out about West Coast Swing dances anywhere in the world!

You

While I’ve done all of the coding myself, I haven’t done this all alone! There’s lots of dancers who have supported the project in many different ways – from testing the website and mobile app, to helping me design logos, requesting cool features, recommending it to friends, and just generally being supportive! We have such great people in the WCS community!

Thank you all so much for the tremendous support you’ve shown this project. I hope that as Suitcase Dancer becomes more mature and more features are released it will become an even better tool for discovering opportunities to dance wherever you happen to be!

On the End of Game of Thrones

Boy. That sure was an ending, huh? The fans sure seem to think so:

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So the ending wasn’t popular – but was it bad? To quote George R. R. Martin: Yes and no. And yes. And no.

In order to determine whether the ending of Game of Thrones made sense, we have to evaluate it not as a season, but as the end of a decade-long series. This means we need to be looking at the overarching symbolism and meaning of the series, and I think that in that regard (and only that regard) it is actually quite good. Let me explain:

[Warning: this blog post is literally all spoilers. Like the whole thing. You’ve been warned.]

Let’s start with Ice and Fire

The series itself is called A Song of Ice and Fire. Let’s begin there: the dichotomy of hot and cold, North and South, Ice and Fire runs the entire length of the series. The Night King and the army of the undead threaten the Seven Kingdoms from the North, while Daenerys Stormborn, her dragons, and her army of Dothraki threaten it from the deserts and wastelands of Essos.

Ice, cold, and the North are used throughout the series as symbols of death and despair. Conversely Fire, warmth and the South are used as symbols of passion and destructive energy. This extends to the lands of Westeros as well. Dorne, in the south, is a place of passion, lust, and vengeance. While the Northmen of Winterfell and beyond are people of grit, discipline, and honor – ready to withstand the despair of a long winter. “Winter is coming” are the stark words, and rightly so.

The Game of Thrones

Conveniently, Cersei Lannister spells this one out for us very explicitly in this scene from Season 1: “When you play the Game of Thrones, you win, or you die. There is no middle ground.”

This is demonstrating the very fatalistic view of the will to power that seems to be common among the lords and ladies of Westeros: if you want power, you either kill your competition, or you are killed by them. Even the throne itself is a symbol for this.

The Iron Throne, the Seven Kingdoms, the Iron Price

Iron is used in the series as a symbol for brutal conquest – imposing one’s will on others by force. The iron throne is forged from the swords of the conquered: “The breath of the greatest dragon forged the Iron Throne…the swords of the vanquished, a thousand of them, melted together like so many candles…” – Viserys Targaryen.

In the books, Aegon I even says that the throne was made of swords on purpose: a reminder that one should never sit easy on the throne. Those who have conquered can yet become the conquered. The fact that Westeros is referred to as the Seven Kingdoms is itself a reference to the fact that the nation was forged through conquest.

And the symbolism of Iron is reiterated once more by the Ironborn of the Iron Islands, who believe that one should not own anything except if it has been bought with the Iron Price – taking it from its previous owner by force.

So What Does it All Mean?

Hopefully the extensive use of symbolism in the series is beginning to become clear – this was very deliberate and Martin has explained in interviews that the main plot points of the story, including its ending, were determined back in the 1990s. So we can expect that if we take the series as a whole, a lot of over-arching themes will emerge.

It seems to me, that if we marry the symbolism of the books, with the events of the series, and the symbolism of the ending, the series’ meaning becomes pretty clear. It is about the social transition from a Machiavellian world of brutal power struggles, into an age of reason and law. And furthermore, it is about how individual humans are complicit in, and experience the horrors of, the former.

Robb Stark and Daenerys Targaryen

Robb’s Rebellion and Daenerys’ ascent to power both symbolize one dynamic of cultural and political power struggles: the cult of personality. While Robb wasn’t the utopian idealist Dany was, he still chose a path of meting out justice by force. Handsome, young, and brave – he rallied all of the north behind himself and was crowned King in the North by merit of the enthusiasm of his followers. Yet Martin seems to take a poor view even on those who seek justice through force – showing that even the brave and dangerous Robb could be butchered by the cowardly Walder Frey and his men during the Red Wedding.

Likewise, Daenerys’ rise from simply being the Stormborn, to the Unburnt, the Mother of Dragons, the Breaker of Chains. Dany symbolizes the ends-justify-the-means idealist. People who believe that the utopian future yet to come will do so much to alleviate suffering that if it takes a little suffering to get us there then, well – so be it.

This aspect of her character becomes writ large during the final episode when she explains why she burned King’s Landing – to show that Cersei’s attempt to use Dany’s mercy against her could not thwart her plans to “break the wheel” of oppression and “free all the people of the world.”

The Unsullied and the Dothraki

The two armies that march alongside Daenerys symbolize the fanatic supporters of idealists.

The Unsullied are slaves, downtrodden, mutilated and even killed for pleasure and profit by the slavers of Astapor. They are the hopeless subjects of a cruel system – and eternally grateful to Daenerys for freeing them of their bonds.

The Dothraki were never slaves – nor even subjects to a crown. They don’t need a Breaker of Chains – they follow Daenerys because they delight in destroying the unworthy. They “sail across the poison water to kill the men in iron suits and knock down their stone houses.” They follow Daenerys not out of a sense of justice or gratitude, but to participate in the destruction of those they deem unworthy. They’re just in it for the blood sport.

Robert, Joffrey, and Tommen Baratheon

The three unfit rulers. These characters each embody reasons why putting absolute monarchical power in the hands of anyone is a recipe for disaster.

Robert is a brawler, more than a king. Fond of wine and wenches, he reminisces to Ned Stark about their glory days as killers and conquerors – too fat to don his own armor – even as his kingdom languishes further into debt. His character symbolizes the fact that the ability to seize power doesn’t indicate the ability to wield it.

Joffrey is a petulant brat. He inherited his power and wields it only to satisfy his own sadistic desires. Despire Cersei, Tywin, and Tyrion’s attempts to keep him in check, he grows older, bolder, and more cruel as he ages. His eventual death is one of the series’ most welcome ones – let us be grateful that we don’t live under a monarchy where we would be subject to kings like him.

Tommen is a weak child. Too young to really wield power, he is controlled and used as a pawn first by his mother, later by his wife, and eventually by the High Sparrow. He has no real will or ability to use the power given to him, even when the fate of his wife is on the line. He eventually commits suicide after witnessing the consequences of his own inaction: doing nothing as his wife and mother are tortured and tried by the fanatical followers of the High Sparrow, indirectly leading to the deaths of Margaery and the High Sparrow – the two people he most admired.

Jamie Lannister and Theon Greyjoy

Looking back, I can’t actually remember if these two characters ever met one another – but the parallels between them are clear.

Jamie Lannister, the Kingslayer, is one of the most dangerous swordsmen in the Seven Kingdoms. Fighting battles for glory by day, and nurturing a forbidden tryst with his cruel sister by night, he embodies a fatalistic “you only live once” approach to life. His plans for glory as one of the realm’s deadliest swordsmen are cut short when his sword hand is cut off by a band of Bolton bannermen.

Theon Greyjoy spent his childhood as a ward/political prisoner of the Starks, and looks forward to an adulthood as the heir to house Greyjoy. Upon being freed from his wardship, he makes an aggressive attack on Winterfell in order to prove himself a true Ironborn, but is eventually captured and tortured by Ramsey Bolton. His castration at the hands of Ramsey end his hopes to become heir to the Iron Throne.

Both men spend much of the series broken and despairing – having had their identity and futures taken from them by the petty cruelty of minor characters – bastards and footmen of lesser lords. The two characters spend the rest of the series searching for a new identity for themselves. Theon disappoints us all along the way – refusing to flee when Asha mounts a rescue attempt, and jumping ship rather than fighting for her when Euron takes her captive. Conversely, Jamie seems to be kindling a sense of morality and honor in his relationship with Brienne.

Yet in the final hour, both men march North to Winterfell to subvert our expectations. Theon dies fighting to protect Bran – the boy he had once pretended to murder. And Jamie beds Brienne – a good woman who truly loved him, before deciding that he doesn’t have the will to choose honor over love and marches south to die at the side of the cruel Queen Cersei.

Their arcs symbolize the fact that it is never too late to change for the better – or worse. Each day is a new day, and one to reinvent ourselves, for good or ill, regardless of our past.

The Children of the Forest, Night King, and Army of the Dead

The Children of the Forest are symbolic of innocence. They inhabited Westeros before the First Men arrived, representing an untouched continent. Yet eventually they found themselves beset by the cruelty of men – symbolic of a loss of innocence. In order to survive the cruelty of the world of men, they created the Night King himself by plunging a shard of darkness(dragonglass) into the heart of a man.

The Night King, then, represents a sort of nihilism. Beset with the horrors of death and mortality, the Night King embraces death and makes it his ally. As he travels, he brings icy chills and despair in his wake, and those he kills do not simply die – they rise to fight alongside him as he grows ever more powerful.

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The Night King is an exploration of the idea of despair turned to bitterness. Of humanity not only acknowledging our own mortality, but becoming embittered by it and choosing to cheer for it, to bring it to others and to welcome our own eventual oblivion.

Arya Stark, and Sandor/Gregor Clegane

For a more human example of the bitterness mentioned above, one need look no further than Sandor Clegane – aka the Hound. He is a grizzled veteran, crass and cruel. When we meet him early in the story he seems to treat killing as a mere pastime in his service to the Lannisters.

His cruelty eventually lands him on the kill list of Arya Stark – a character whose arc takes her along a a very circuitous exploration of death. It begins with her training with Syrio Forel, who teaches her what to say to the God of Death: “Not today.” Later, as she becomes more bitter and begins saying her list of names to kill like a bedtime prayer each night, she crosses paths with Jaquen Hagar whose life she saves, and he returns the favor by killing some of the men on her list for her.

Jaquen (if one may call him that) gives her one of the Faceless Men’s iron coins (note the symbolic metal) and teaches her the words that will take her to Bravos: “Valar Morghulis” – all men must die. Upon arriving in Bravos, she gains entry to the house of the Many-Faced God (the god of death) and serves with the Faceless Men there first as a janitor, then as an embalmer, later as a spy, and finally as an assassin-in-training.

During her training, she is taught to become nameless – referred to only as “a girl.” This is a symbolic death of the self, and Arya’s walk down this path parallels the death of innocence that the Children of the Forest once experienced – turning to death in response to the world’s cruelty.

Eventually, Arya is sent to assassinate an actress – and told not to question the task. “Does death come only for the wicked and leave the decent behind? […] A servant (of death) does not ask questions.” Here we once again see characters fatalistically embracing the inevitability of death. Yet Arya eventually passes her first test in overcoming bitterness – by deciding only to avenge herself against the wicked, and not become an unfeeling killer of wicked and decent alike as the Faceless Men do.

Eventually, her path leads her to King’s Landing, where she passes her final test. The Hound’s character is one of bitterness, driven by a lifelong desire for revenge against his brother, Gregor. His face is scarred from having been pushed into a fire by his brother as a child (remember fire is a symbol of passion – in this case for vengeance) and he seeks to kill his brother. In their final scene together, the Hound stops Arya in her tracks by very pointedly asking her: “look at me! You wanna be like me?” She recognizes that, as much as she looked up to Sandor as a warrior and father-figure, his desire for revenge had brought him nothing but misery and pain. So she abandons her quest to kill Cersei, and instead turns to trying to help the survivors of King’s Landing.

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Ravens and the Three-Eyed Raven

Ravens are messengers in the Seven Kingdoms – used to pass information from one part of the land to another. In this sense the symbolize they spread of truths, both good and ill. “Dark wings bring dark words.”

Thus, the Three-Eyed Raven symbolizes a character who can see all of the truth about everything. So once Bran becomes the Three-Eyed Raven he learns the truth of everything, including Jon’s birth.

Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion’s character symbolizes self-aggrandizing intelligence and rationality. With them, “a small man can cast a large shadow.” He constantly outwits and outsmarts those around him, cracking jokes and drinking wine all the while. He is also a good man – seeking what is best for the common people in a mostly-selfless manner.

Yet he is also rather prideful, and this gets him into trouble on many occasions. Often when he is outsmarted, it’s because he underestimated his opponent. He also overestimates his ability to keep Daenerys’ brutality in line during her ascent to power.

With Tyrion’s character, Martin seems to be making a jab at the idea of philosopher kings – the concept that sufficiently wise and learned men could become perfect rulers. Despite his wits, Tyrion is frequently unable to best the scheming courtiers, nor to win the love of the common people.

The High Sparrow

The spiritual heart of the series, the High Sparrow and his fanatics fill the role of a religious political organization. While they preach kindness and humility that the rulers of King’s Landing lack, we see how quickly power can be misused in their hands as well during their persecution of Ser Loras and Margaery Tyrell.

Reminiscent of the Catholic Church during the middle ages, the Faith Militant symbolize the union of church and state. When zealots wield political power, and politicians cut deals with priests in back rooms. The High Sparrow comes across as a genuinely humble and faithful individual. Yet we see that even in his earnest hands, power can become brutal, and justice can be swayed by political caprice.

Jon Snow

A vital character on both a narrative and a symbolic level, Jon is a man of great ability and honor, yet with no ambition. He willingly forsakes his right to a wife and lands to join the Night’s Watch. And every time he is offered a position of power – Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, King in the North, and even King of the Seven Kingdoms, he shrugs it off.

His primary motivation seems to simply be to do good – to protect the weak. This leads him to appeal to Daenerys for help stopping the Night King, and later to join her on her quest to break chains and free the Seven Kingdoms from the clutches of Queen Cersei.

So What About the Ending?

In the end we see a lot of these threads of symbolism come together. Daenerys exposes the dark side of the idealist leader – the grisly means that are justified by her selfless ends. We also see in Grey Worm one of the many dangers of this mindset, as he butchers the Lannister prisoners – sometimes people find that they rather enjoy the killing that is meant to lead to the utopia.

So Jon, with some encouragement from Tyrion, kill Daenerys. Upon discovering her dead body, Drogon melts the Iron Throne – if Daenerys can’t have it, then no one will (remember that the throne was also forged by dragon fire.) The end of the throne symbolizes that the Game of Thrones has come to an end. There is no one left with a large army and grand ambitions willing to kill for power.

In the end, Tyrion, who symbolizes intelligence, finally realizes his own inability to think and scheme his way to a good outcome and realizes that a laying down of arms is in order. He suggests that the lords and ladies of Westeros select a king in order to hand down justice.

Sam suggests democracy at this point, but is scoffed at – the writers don’t want us to think they’ve gone soft, and an idea like democracy takes some warming up to. But what we see next as the lords elect Bran to be their king, is the birth of the Republic – a government where power is limited by agreed-upon rules. Sansa also points out that Bran cannot father children – this is important since it means that the idea of inheriting political power is being put to rest.

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But let’s remember what Bran represents: the world’s memory. History. In essence, by electing Bran to be their king, ushering in the Republic, and doing away with absolute monarchy inherited by birth or conquest, the lords of Westeros are choosing to place their memory of the horrors of the past ahead of their own ambitions. They could strive for power, yes. But over the last 8 seasons both we the viewers and the inhabitants of Westeros have seen where the Game of Thrones leads – to death and destruction and sorrow.

Crucially, when Sansa announces that Winterfell will not bend the knee to the new government, no one objects. Throughout the series, we have seen everyone from Cersei Lannister to Daenerys threaten the North with war if they didn’t submit – but the spirit of conquest is gone and the people of the North are able to peacefully leave and look to their own affairs.

Yeah But I Didn’t Like It

Yeah. Season 8 was definitely the weakest season in my opinion. While all of this great narrative structure was there, it just didn’t feel like things were being given time to breathe. Crucially, events in the final episodes seemed to be driven mostly by a desire to wrap things up in this particular way, rather than by the characters and their motivations – a critical flaw since the rest of the series was so deeply character driven.

But in the defense of the writers – this series has been on air for a decade now. With such a massive and talented cast, continuing to contract everyone season after season is challenging. Furthermore, many of the show’s stars have been catapulted to celebrity status by the show, and are no doubt looking to sink their teeth into new roles and ventures.

A show that is as popular and well-funded as this one is was always going to be on a time limit – if an actor of a critical character was hired away to act in another movie or show, they’d have to be replaced, and we all know how weird that would be. Furthermore, the series’ primary writers are about to begin work on an upcoming Star Wars movie, and let’s face it: the series would probably have had an even worse ending if it suddenly got new writers in the final seasons.

So it was a bit rushed, but hey – we still have 3,000 pages of the books to look forward to, which will give Martin all the time in the world to tell this story right.

A Nomenclature for Musicality

I think that one of the big impediments to learning musicality is that many people lack the language to verbalize music. Over the years I’ve picked up various techniques and terms for this that help me to think about the structure of music, talk about it, and yes, even dance to it.

So to aid other dancers who may not yet be familiar with these very useful musical terms: here they are.

Tempo

Tempo is how “fast” a song is – in other words, the number of beats of music per minute (BPM.) This is an easy one, since as a dancer it also determines how many steps you will take per minute. Importantly, it is possible for a song with a fast tempo to nonetheless be pretty low energy, and conversely songs with a slow tempo can be high energy (think dubstep.)

This relates to dance since we have to dance differently to fast songs than slow songs. In particular, to fast songs you have more movements to complete in less time, so you can accomplish this by taking smaller steps and making smaller movements overall.

For my Westie friends, the standard BPM range for West Coast Swing songs is between about 80 and 120 BPM.

Saying a Rhythm Aloud

This is actually a surprisingly important skill across multiple dance disciplines. Ever wonder if a song is a Rumba or a Cha-cha? The rhythm is what makes the difference.

There’s volumes about this in music theory, but as dancers the skill we really want is the ability to count sixteenth notes, since that is about as fast as you can dance in a partner dance.

Most of us will be familiar with counting quarter notes: “one two three four.” And most dancers also know that they can stick an “and” halfway between the numbers to count eighth notes: “one and two and three and four and.” But did you know that you can also take this a step further and count the notes halfway between the “and” and the numbered notes?

It goes like this: “one-e-and-a-two-e-and-a-three-e-and-a-four-e-and-a”. For this concept, sheet music can help to visualize it, and this video gives an excellent overview:

So why does this matter? Well, in ballroom, the rhythm is what makes a song “be” a certain type of dance. As one example: cha-chas all have the rhythm “one two three four-and-one.” The “cha-cha-cha” of the dance falls on the “four-and-one” triplet in the song’s major rhythm. Similarly, Sambas are danced to songs with a “one a-two three a-four” rhythm.

And since I’m a Westie, you probably guessed that this would eventually relate back to West Coast Swing. A common term we hear in the WCS world is “Blues Timing” or “rolling count” – but some people aren’t familiar with what this actually IS.

Since we now have a way of describing rhythm, we can describe it as well: Blues Timing is when we change the timing of our triple steps by taking the second step (which would normally fall on the “and” beat) a tad later later, on the “a” beat. We use this and other techniques such as kick-ball-changes in order to represent music which is itself emphasizing the “a” beats, as in: “a-one a-two a-three a-four.”

In WCS this is one of the defining characteristics of the blues songs we hear in competition, so it’s an important technique to know! They aren’t playing the blues songs “for the old people” as a friend put it once – they’re playing them so the judges can see if you know Blues Timing and blues phrasing (covered below.)

As one example, listen to “Wild Turkey 101 Proof” by Kenny Wayne and try counting it “one and two and three and four and” – you’ll find that it just doesn’t feel quite right because of the emphasis of the bass guitar on the “a” sixteenth notes, rather than the “and” beats that are more prominent in contemporary music. Then try counting it “a-one a-two a-three a-four” and you’ll find it fits the music much better:

Staccato versus Legato

Staccato and legato are musical terms which describe the character of a given note. In particular, it describes whether a given note in the music is isolated from the notes that come before and after it, or whether it flows smoothly into the next note.

An example of a staccato note in a song would be a drum hit, or clapping sound. After it occurs, there’s a period of silence before the next note by the same instrument. Conversely a legato sound would be something like a long violin note or a singer singing a melody without pronounced pauses between the notes.

These can be useful cues for the musicality in our dance. Short, Staccato notes lend themselves to body isolations and rapid changes in speed. Legato notes in turn lend themselves to longer, flowy movements without quick stops and starts. This is a great place to start on your musicality if you’re not sure how to dance to a song: simply find the most prominent instrument, and determine whether it is playing staccato or legato, then dance accordingly.

Measures/Bars

Another important thing to note is the number of beats in a phrase. Music is generally written in 4-beat measures (or bars.) That’s the same intervals we were counting above, and you’ll notice that it doesn’t go all the way to 8! This is one of the ways that dancers differ from musicians – musicians like to count to 4 since that’s how long a measure is, and how sheet music is structured. Dancers like to count to 8 because… well, we’re not usually done with our pattern after just 4 beats! We don’t want to start over in the middle!

This is the reason some top pros (Robert Royston is a prominent one) are advocating that dancers start counting in fours rather than in eights – it helps keep your mind on the music and put dancers back in sync with the music and musicians.

Time Signature

A song’s time signature is a quick way of describing how the song’s repetition is structured. The time signature of a piece is often written as a fraction, and the most common is 4/4 time. The top number refers to the number of notes in a bar/measure. While the bottom number represents the size of those notes. So, 4/4 time means: 4 beats to a measure, with each being a quarter note.

While 4/4 time is the most common time signature, all sorts of them exist. But other common ones include 3/4 for waltzes, and 6/8 for Viennese waltz.

Bonus: if you’re ever DJ’ing and want to really troll a room full of dancers, find a song in 7/8 time and put it on at the end of the night. Everyone will be off time and think they’ve suddenly forgotten how to count music!

Phrasing

Phrasing is another of those terms that is thrown around a lot, but often not actually defined. Simply put a phrase is a complete unit of repetition, and could be played as a self-contained musical segment without sounding “incomplete.” Importantly, when a phrase ends, it is very common to change the music in some way, by increasing or decreasing the song’s energy level, changing the lyrical structure, or adding/removing one or more instruments to the piece.

As dancers, phrasing is crucial. By definition, music is repetitive – without repetition, music is just called “noise.” But the phrase changes are the moments where something new is introduced to the song – and as dancers we aim to express the song through our bodies, so it’s important that we introduce something new to our dancing as well, to reflect the song we’re dancing to.

In most modern music there are 8 measures to a phrase, for a total of 32 beats in a phrase. This means that you could actually count to 32 over and over and nail the phrase change every time! I don’t recommend this, since as we dance we need to be focusing on more than just counting in our heads… but this is a great exercise to do on your own while driving and listening to music!

It’s also important to know that in 12-bar blues there are 12 bars to a phrase! So as Westies when we dance to a lot of blues songs, there will actually be 12 bars of 4 beats each for a total of 48 beats in a phrase. As an example, try counting along with the first 48 beats (33 seconds) of Creeper Returns by Mark Hummel and notice how the last 8 beats of the phrase are a buildup before the end of the phrase:

Song Parts

Now that we know what a phrase actually is, we can start to talk about the song as a whole by giving names to the phrases! For instance, a typical song might look something like this:

  • Intro
  • First Verse
  • First Chorus
  • Second Verse
  • Second Chorus
  • Bridge
  • Outro

Let’s define these terms:

Intro

The intro is, put simply, the song’s introduction. It is often not repeated again later in the song, is musically distinct from the first verse, and may be anywhere from 16 to 64 beats long, depending on the song. A good example is the beginning of Secret by Maroon 5 – notice how much time in the song is spent even before a repeating melody is introduced, and how much more before the vocalist begins singing the first verse about 1:34 into the song:

As a dancer, the intro is an important opportunity to “groove” to the song before it’s really gotten started. For most songs, musically, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to start throwing dips and spins into our dancing. Rather we will usually want to keep it simple, focus on connecting to our partner, and getting ready for the first verse.

Verse

The verse is what could be thought of as the “main” part of the song. in songs with lyrics, this is where most of the song’s story is told. Verses are generally very similar to one another in terms of instrumentation, but the vocals will almost always be different. As an example, consider the lyrics for the first verse of Don’t by Ed Sheeran:

I met this girl late last year
She said, “Don’t you worry if I disappear.”
I told her I’m not really looking for another mistake
I called an old friend thinking that the trouble would wait

And compare this to the lyrics of the second verse:

And for a couple weeks I only wanna see her
We drink away the days with a take-away pizza
Before a text message was the only way to reach her
Now she’s staying at my place and loves the way I treat her

We can see that not only are they different words, but they also tend to make up chapters in the songwriter’s story. Bonus tip: the “knock knock knock on my hotel door” that you want to hit while you’re dancing is at the start of the third verse. This is why having terminology to describe these things is useful!

Chorus

The chorus generally contrasts with the verse by being higher energy, and containing lyrics which are repetitive – often both within a single chorus, and also between multiple choruses in the same song. This is also often where the song’s “hook” is in pop music – the catchy bit of music paired with the memorable lyrics that makes the song stand out in people’s minds. It’s also often where the lyrics that the song’s title comes from are sung.

Bridge

A song’s bridge is a part that comes in the middle of the song, and is often used as kind of a “break” from the repetition between verse-chorus-verse. This is often where instrumental solos will happen, and the bridge usually isn’t repeated.

A good example of this comes at 3:07 in the song Madness by Muse, as the third verse ends and the electric guitar comes in, carrying us into the fourth chorus (notice also that this song starts with a chorus instead of the first verse – this is why having names for things is useful!):

Pre-Chorus

Some songs will have a pre-chorus, sort of a “bonus” chorus – usually 16-32 beats that immediately precede each chorus, while having a slightly lower energy level than the chorus, while still being higher energy than the main verse. These provide sort of a “build up” or transition between the verse and chorus, and are usually repeated before each chorus of the song.

One good example of a pre-chorus is in the song Gibberish by MAX. Notice how the first verse wraps up about 28 seconds into the song, then the pre-chorus slowly raises the energy level for 32 beats before the chorus kicks off at 51 seconds in. You’ll also hear the pre-chorus again before the second chorus starting at 1:25 in:

Outro

Just do a dip or whatever.

Just kidding, but the outro is pretty self-explanatory – it’s a piece of music that, like the intro, is not repeated anywhere else in the song, but comes at the end. Not all songs have outros – some just end after a verse or chorus is done, but others do, so it’s nice to have a term for it.

Conclusion

Music, as with all forms of art, can’t always be boiled down to categories we can put names to. There’s exceptions to each of the rules and categories I’ve laid out above. But due to the highly structured nature of music, it lends itself to being named and categorized.

I hope you’ve found this blog post useful. As a pretty analytical person and a lover of language, I really enjoy having terms to use to refer to the things I’m thinking off, and have found the terminology defined here very useful.

I also have no way to know for sure, but I strongly suspect that knowing these things has helped me become a better dancer. It helps me remember and make sense of things I’ve been taught in lessons. And when I make a mistake in my musicality, it also helps me make sense of what went wrong it later so that I can improve!

How to Type Non-English Characters on an English Keyboard (in Windows)

Occasionally for one reason or another, someone asks me how I type special characters such as accent marks in a “normal” keyboard (ex: Me gustaría ir a Cancún este año.) Leaving aside that U.S. keyboards are no more or less normal than any other country’s keyboards, it’s a pretty good question without an obvious answer. There are two main ways I use to type these sorts of characters:

Alt Codes

This method works on any Windows computer with a standard keyboard and requires no setup. Simply hold down the alt key and then type numbers on the number pad (if you don’t have a number pad on your keyboard, check out this article for instructions.) Example: alt+164 creates the ñ character.

Seriously, you can try it right now! Open Notepad and start holding alt and then typing 2-3 digits on the numpad! You can create all sorts of interesting characters this way. ♥♪♫♀☼§☺⌂

Unfortunately this requires memorizing the appropriate alt codes for the characters you want to type, but many languages only use 5 accented vowels plus a handful of other characters, so learning them isn’t too onerous. You can use online resources like those at altcodeunicode.com to find the ones you want for a given language.

United States – International Keyboard

This requires you to customize the language settings for your operating system, but is my favorite method of writing non-English characters for its ease and versatility.

To get started, open your “Region & Language Settings” and select the options for English (United States):

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Then Add a keyboard:

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Then select the United States-International keyboard:

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Now Windows recognizes two different keyboard layouts. You can switch between them by clicking on the new keyboard selector which will appear on your taskbar when you have multiple keyboard layouts, or by pressing Windows Key + Spacebar.

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Once you have United States-International selected, now you can type right-leaning accent marks my typing an apostrophe followed by any vowel. As an example: ‘ + a (Ex: á.) You can combine all sorts of punctuation with characters this way:

  • Backticks (`) become left-leaning accent marks: à
  • Apostrophes (‘) become right-leaning accent marks: á
  • Quotes (“) become umlauts: ä
  • Tildes (~) combine with many letters like n: ñ
  • Carets also combine with vowels: â

And if you want to type one of these characters by itself, either follow it with a character that it can’t combine with, or simply hit spacebar if you’re not sure. Overall I find that this keyboard layout gives me a pretty straightforward way to type characters in most of the other languages I’ve learned, while still being able to type in English as I normally would.

For more information, check out Microsoft’s Support article on the United States International Keyboard.


Hopefully if you have found yourself attempting to write in another language, but stumped by how to get your keyboard to type the right characters, this will help!

My Favorite Programming Blogs

I maintain a list of programming blogs which have had made a big impression on me, so that I can go back and read them once in a while. I recently realized that there’s probably people who would also like to go through them, so… here they are!

No Deadlines For You! Software Dev Without Estimates, Specs, or Other Lies

This is one of my favorites, because it deals directly with connecting dev work with business value – a gap that is both very important, and very challenging to bridge:

The core idea is: put uncertainty and risk at the center of a conversation between the developers and the rest of the business (instead of everyone pretending such nasty things don’t exist). Doing so allows the entire business to tackle those genuine challenges together.

6 Reasons Users Hate Your New Feature

The truth is that users will often ask you for a solution when it would really be more helpful to tell you that they have a problem. […] Sometimes users will tell you that they want a toaster in their car, when what they really mean is that they don’t have time to make breakfast in the morning.

Blameless PostMortems and a Just Culture

We need to avoid [the cycle of blame]. We want the engineer who has made an error give details about why (either explicitly or implicitly) he or she did what they did; why the action made sense to them at the time. This is paramount to understanding the pathology of the failure. The action made sense to the person at the time they took it, because if it hadn’t made sense to them at the time, they wouldn’t have taken the action in the first place.

What the Heck is a Relation? From Tables to Cartesian Products to Logic

This is a great blog about relations from a mathematical perspective, explained very well in layman’s terms, which I found really helpful in creating a mental model for why relational databases are so darned good at modeling real world things.

Say NO to Venn Diagrams When Explaining JOINs

It wasn’t until I first read this article that I realized why the Venn Diagrams for JOINs are hard to remember: because they’re wrong. Rather, this article explores using JOIN diagrams to explain JOINs, which is a much better way to think about them.

The Little Mocker

A great blog by Bob Martin on various types of test dummies, doubles, and mocks. A good read if you’re into TDD.

Why Most Unit Testing is Waste

While I’m a big fan of automated testing and TDD, it’s important to understand the counterarguments. This blog makes a great case for balancing the cost of creating, running, and maintaining a test suite against the amount of risk it helps you mitigate.

So when they wrote their first function for this project three years ago they wrote a unit test for it. The test has never failed The question is: How much information is in that test? That is, if “1” is the passing of a test and “0” is the failing of a test, how much information is in this string of test results:

11111111111111111111111111111111

There are several possible answers depending on which formalism you apply, but most of the answers are wrong. The naive answer is 32, but that is the bits of data, not of information. You could be an information theorist and say that the number of bits of information in a homogeneous binary string is the binary log of the length of the string, which in this case is 5. But that isn’t what I want to know: in the end I want to know how much information I get from a single run of this test. Information is based on probability. If the probability of the test passing is 100%, then there is no information — by definition, from information theory. There is almost no information in any of the 1s in the above string. (If the string were infinitely long
then there would be exactly zero bits of information in each test run.)

The Codeless Code

A collection of fictional stories – each of which is a metaphor for a programming lesson or problem, written in the spirit of Zen kōans. Some of my favorite entries are The Tool-Shed and The Hidden Variable.

Never Heard Of It

An article about learning to be honest about not knowing things, and in a profession characterized by constant change and learning, how to know which things are worth knowing.

As I surveyed the patterns in my daily information bombardment, one dichotomy appeared rather quickly. Boiling it down to a quick litmus test: some things can be easily Googled for when needed, and some things cannot. This is a useful barometer, a differentiator between things to reference versus concepts to know.

Programmer, Interrupted

“A programmer loses X minutes of productivity when you interrupt them” is a common phrase that is bandied around in the programming industry – universally acknowledged, but tough to communicate to non-programmers and rarely backed up with research. This blog does exactly that: explains some research that demonstrates this to be true.

Joel on Software

Joel Spolsky was a very well-known blogger on programming and software design topics before co-creating the little-known website Stack Overflow. I thought about picking one article, but honestly the blog is filled with many gems and in my opinion any career programmer should read through it at least once. Even when I disagree with him, he explains his point well and in an entertaining way. Some highlights:

Programming Sucks

A humorous article that makes fun of the programming industry with a mix of metaphor and hyperbole.

“Double you tee eff?” you say, and start hunting for the problem. You discover that one day, some idiot decided that since another idiot decided that 1/0 should equal infinity, they could just use that as a shorthand for “Infinity” when simplifying their code. Then a non-idiot rightly decided that this was idiotic, which is what the original idiot should have decided, but since he didn’t, the non-idiot decided to be a dick and make this a failing error in his new compiler. Then he decided he wasn’t going to tell anyone that this was an error, because he’s a dick, and now all your snowflakes are urine and you can’t even find the cat.

The Wisdom of James Mickens

Also known as “the funniest man at Microsoft Research” – his articles and presentations are unfailingly humorous, and he manages to mix his absurdist humor with pointed jabs at the state of the industry as a whole.

In some way that I don’t yet understand, I’m glad that theorists are investigating the equivalence between five-dimensional Turing machines and Edward Scissorhands. In most situations, GUI designers should not be forced to fight each other with tridents and nets as I yell “THERE ARE NO MODAL DIALOGS IN SPARTA.” I am like the Statue of Liberty: I accept everyone, even the wretched and the huddled and people who enjoy Haskell. But when things get tough, I need mission-critical people; I need a person who can wear night-vision goggles and descend from a helicopter on ropes and do classified things to protect my freedom while country music plays in the background. A systems person can do that. I can realistically give a kernel hacker a nickname like “Diamondback” or “Zeus Hammer.” In contrast, no one has ever said, “These semitransparent icons are really semi-transparent! IS THIS THE
WORK OF ZEUS HAMMER?”


More coming soon ™ – as a find new blogs or remember ones that I think should be included, I’ll add them here. Enjoy!

Navigating the Facebook App Review Process

Attempting to get a Facebook app approved for a new permission can be a very frustrating process. Despite my best efforts, I recently found myself waiting for 15 days and had to reapply no fewer than 6 times in order to get permission to link to users’ profiles from my Facebook app.

I found Facebook’s documentation – while voluminous – to be very disorganized which made it difficult to find exactly what I needed to move forward. Furthermore, the review process itself feels very opaque and bureaucratic, which was frustrating. But now that I’ve survived the process, and finally had my application approved, I wanted to offer some guidance to future developers attempting to get their App Reviewed.

Know What You Need

First and foremost, any permissions your app uses must be granted to your app when the user logs in initially. For a full list of permissions you can request during login, check out the Facebook Login Permissions documentation.

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The documentation gives guidance about valid use cases for each permission – so read up on the permission you hope to use and make sure your use case is allowed by Facebook before applying for App Review.

Also note that some permissions require Business Verification – this will not be available to Individual app developers and will require a Business profile to be associated with your app account, and you will have to sign a contract with Facebook attesting that you will not abuse your app permissions, and will comply with their information privacy rules etc.

Where to Ask for Help

Facebook has an official Facebook Developer Community group in which you can ask questions and gather feedback. This group is monitored by Facebook staff, and while I didn’t get an answer to every question I asked there, one of Facebook’s staff was able to help me past one very confusing roadblock that might have had me stumped for days otherwise. If you get stuck, consider asking a question in that group.

Double Check Your Business Use Setting

According to a Facebook staff member I spoke with in the group above, if you have your app configured for a business-to-business use case, then Business verification will be required for any permissions you request – even those permissions which would not normally require Business Verification.

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This one caught me off guard since it wasn’t clear based on the Business Use options that individual developers not representing any business are meant to select “Support my own business” here. Selecting “Provide services to other businesses” indicates to Facebook that your target use-case is business-to-business which requires Business Verification.

Know About Test Apps

This one is crucial – the first time I applied for the user_link permission, I simply described how the permission would be used. There was no way for my app to request the permission, even from my Test Users, so I was surprised to have my application rejected saying that I must show a live demo of the feature – at first I really wasn’t sure how to even go about fulfilling this request.

It took me quite some time to find, and Facebook’s documentation doesn’t really point you toward it, but Test Apps are the solution to this issue. You can create a Test App associated with your app account. Test Apps can never be set to Live mode – meaning that real Facebook users will never be able to actually use them. But they can be used by your test users, and have access to every permission which allows you to use the App ID and Secret for your Test App to create a live demo of any permission you wish to request, and allow Facebook to test it in a live environment during app review.

Don’t Ask the Reviewer to Post Data to Your Website

Despite clear instructions to do so, I had my app rejected 4 times without much explanation when I asked the instructors to create a new post on my website using a test user which would have included the test user’s name and a link to their profile. You get very little feedback when your app is rejected – usually just “we couldn’t see how the permission is being used” with no further explanation.

Sometimes you’ll be lucky and they will include a screenshot. I’ve concluded that the reviewers are not allowed to submit data to the websites they are reviewing – which were key steps in my instructions to them. It seems that once they got to steps they weren’t allowed to do, they simply ignored my instructions and clicked around the site a bit, hoping to find the permission in use, and then gave me a cookie-cutter rejection notice, occasionally with a screenshot of the wrong page or logged in as the wrong user.

During the final review, I simply created an event on the website myself and shared a link to it, demonstrating that my user’s name linked to their Facebook profile, and my application was approved upon verifying that the link worked.

Be Explicit About Which Test App/User the Reviewer Should Use in Your Instructions

In one of my rejections, I was given a screenshot of the error page that a user sees when attempting to follow a profile link issued to a Test App when logged in as a real Facebook user. This indicates that the reviewer was testing with a real Facebook account, and that they had ignored the selection in the App Verification pane where you can provide a Test App name.

This may be in part because the UI of that page is broken – the Test User field autocompletes with test user names, but only from your main app, and not the selected Test App. Since Test Users of your live app can’t use your Test App, I’m not sure exactly how this was meant to be used. But in my application which was accepted, I simply indicated which Test App and Test User should be used in the step-by-step instructions I provided, and that seems to have done the trick.

Conclusion

I hope that these tips help ease the experience of anyone else attempting to get a Facebook App Reviewed for a new permission. Ultimately the experience was extremely frustrating for me and ended up spanning more than two weeks from when I first applied to when my app was approved. But hopefully by following these tips and reading the linked documentation, things will go smoother for you!