Pronounce THIS, Fourth Yeast Urn!

I just noticed that I have had a WordPress setting enabled for the entire lifetime of my blog that prevented search engines from indexing it.  I have just disabled that setting, so a little catch-up is in order for the unwashed e-masses (iMasses? I’m typing this on a Mac) that will inevitaly be banging at my humble Internet front door.

I am going to school to get a second bachelors degree in Music Education.  My first bachelors degree is in Computer Science from the University of Michigan (keep this in mind, it is important at the end of the story).  I am working on this second bachelors at a school that I will call (for the purpose of protecting the identities of the parties involved in the following story) Fourth Yeast Urn University.  What follows is a true account of an argument that I had with an instructor there; let’s call him ‘P. Ompu Sass’ .  I don’t know what kind of yeast was in the first three urns, but due to professor Sass, there will soon be nothing left in the fourth to activate the glorious rising of freshly educated urban minds.  Fourth Yeast Urn will be left only with minds that are flat, crackery, and stale like that matzah that you have sitting around in your cupboard from Passover three years ago when you swore that you were going to go the whole seven days without eating anything leavened but then you moved it to the top shelf in shame after the first day when you couldn’t resist the Krispy Kreme donuts that that irritating guy in marketing brought to work as penance for making everyone stay late the week before to nail down the changes to that mailer when he just ended up going with the original one anyway.  Wow, you’re still reading this?

As part of my degree, I have to take a class called Voice and Diction.  Not Diction for singers, which might actually be useful in my future carreer as a music teacher, but Voice and Diction as in “you will learn how to pronounce words correctly.” I swear to god that’s it. Nothing else.  Not even public speaking stuff.  Just pronunciation.  For this, I have to pay an ungodly amount of money and sit in classroom saying “sherbet. library. arctic.” over and over again until I really have no confidence in how to correctly pronounce the word at all anymore because of that thing that happens when you say the same word over and over and over and over again and it starts to sound weird and foreign.  Try it: Electrical.  Electrical.  Electrical.  Electrical.  Electrical.  Electrical.  Electrical.  Electrical.

That, e-masses, is the word that started it all. We had just taken an exam and were going over the answers in class.  For one portion of the exam, we had to transcribe English words into their ‘standard’ International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) equivalents.  IPA is a set of symbols that (relatively) unambiguously represent all of the phonemes, or individual sounds, that make up all spoken language in the world.  This is very helpful when discussing pronunciation, because, for example, while ‘phlegm’ and ‘Flemish’ each start with different letters, they both start with the same phoneme, which is represented in IPA as [f].

We were going over this exam, and one of the words that we had to transcribe was ‘electrical’.  I had written [ɪlɛktrɪkəl] down on my paper , and professor Sass had marked it wrong.  I was somewhat surprised, but I figured it was becuase of a minute difference in one of the vowel sounds.  It turns out that out text book listed the transcription as [ɪlɛtrɪkəl].  The English aproximation of that would be ‘eletrical’.  Notice the first ‘c’ missing before the ‘t’.  Professor Sass explained this to the class, who had almost all gotten the question marked wrong.  I couldn’t believe it.  Not only had I never in my life heard of anybody in any dialect or with any accent pronouncing that word ‘eletrical’, but we had discovered numerous other errors in the book over the course of the semester.  So I raised my hand.  ”Professor Sass, are you sure that ‘eletrical’ is, in fact, the standard pronunciation of that word, even though we have discovered a bunch of other errors in this book, some when going over this very test,” asked I.  ”Yes, I remember learning it that way in Harvard drama school,” said he.  Well, OK, thought I, having been reminded yet again of his academic pedegree, maybe he’s right.

Though just to be sure, I checked with Merriam Webster, the source that our textbook used as the reference for what was ‘standard’ English.  Sure enough, [ɪlɛktrɪkəl].  No missing ‘c’.  And then, just to be double sure, because Harvard is pretty intimidating, I checked with the guy that teaches that singer’s Diction class, thinking that he may have heard that odd pronunciation from his own dealings with the stage…  Nope, never heard it in his life.

The next day in class, I raised my hand again.  ”Professor Sass, I checked Merriam Webster and it lists the pronunciations as [ɪlɛktrɪkəl],” said I.  ”Oh, Merriam Webster?  No one really puts much faith in them [well, except our textbook...].  I’ll look it up just to be sure and let you know next class,” said he.  At this point, I really thought he was kidding, but as we go through this story, I think I can safely say that he was lying.  At this point, he has lied directly to my face twice.  Once when he said he learned that pronunciation in drama school, and twice when he said that nobody pays any mind to Merriam Webster.

At the beginning of the next class, he told us that he looked it up, and yes, it is actually [ɪlɛtrɪkəl], no ‘c’ sound.  I raised my hand again.  ”Where did you look it up,” asked I.  ”The Oxford English Dictionary,” said he.  Fine, said I (to myself).  I don’t know why he would be looking in a British dictionary for standard American pronunciation, but fine; if it’s in there, then… fine.

But just to be sure, I looked it up in the OED.  Yep, [ɪlɛktrɪkəl].  That’s three lies to my face.  Luckily, he was walking by the bench that I was sitting on when I was looking up the word, so I flagged him down.  ”Professor Sass,” said I, “look at this, the OED is also showing [ɪlɛktrɪkəl] as the correct pronunciation.”  ”Oh, well, why don’t you google ‘IPA association’ and see what they say,” said he (Wait a second… the IPA association?  What on Earth is the IPA association?  There is no such thing.  There’s the International Phonetic Association, which gave us IPA, but there is no ‘IPA Association’ that maintains an updated list of the ‘standard’ way to pronounce every word in every language in the world.  Back to the story…) Of course, we couldn’t find the IPA Association’s standard way of pronouncing ‘electrical’.  So professor Sass said that he would ask his colleagues what they thought.

The next day in class, professor Sass delivered the final verdict.  ”I asked two other professors,” said he, “one said that [ɪlɛktrɪkəl] was in fact the correct pronunciation [the one that every god-fearing blue-blooded apple-pie-eating calvin-pissing-on-the-ford-logo-sticker-having American uses], but the other said that [ɪlɛtrɪkəl] was the way that he learned it too [the no 'c' on that they teach at Harvard drama school, apparently].  So that’s it.  We both win.  There’s no dictionary in which I can verify hearsay.  It’s over.

But of course, it wasn’t.  I emailed this other professor; let’s call him professor Please Tell The Rest Of The Department About This Guy Because I Just Want To Get My Degree And Get Out Of Here And I Don’t Want to Deal With This Crap.  I emailed him and I asked him for a source of this ridiculous pronunciation.  Any dialect, any accent, just point me to something that’s written down and published that says that [ɪlɛtrɪkəl] was ever a pronunciation used by anyone on the planet Earth at any time in history for any reason at all, wrote I.  And of course, professor This Crap didn’t recall having any such conversation with professor Sass, and he verified in both the Kenyon and Knott Dictionary of Pronunciation and the NBC Pronunciation Guide that [ɪlɛktrɪkəl] is and always was the only correct way of pronouncing the word ‘electrical’ (at least regarding that first ‘c’ sound).  Lie number four.

Unless I hear from professor Sass, this is where the story ends.  Four lies directly to my face.  It is infuriating to be lied to by anyone.  It is more infuriating to be lied to by a teacher.  It is MOST infuriating to be lied to by a teacher who you are basically PAYING TO NOT LIE TO YOU.  Which leads us to the moral of this story:  the University of Michigan kicks Harvard’s ass.

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The Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival

goat…really gets my goat.  The festival itself contains none of the above; no bluegrass and no blues.  Now, they’re sponsoring a stage at the Metronome Celebration this weekend, also without any bluegrass or blues.  I’ve been known to sternly point and wave my finger to and fro while whining “That’s not bluegrass! That’s not bluegrass! That’s not bluegrass!” at any band that doesn’t sound like the Paisleys or whose members don’t have a combined age of 350 years and a combined weight of 1500 lbs (100 lbs from mustache hair), but this stuff isn’t even close.  I’d even call the Yonder Mountain String Band bluegrass before anything at this stupid festival or anything on the stage that it’s sponsoring this weekend (although if you ever tell anyone that I even thought about calling YMSB bluegrass, I will erase your number from my phone and de-friend you on facebook and de-follow you on twitter and do anything else it takes these days to no longer be in contact with you at all ever again).

Are they from another planet with some weird parellel language where ‘Bluegrass and Blues’ means ‘Shit-rock and alt-country’?  Is there a difference between shit-rock and alt-country on that planet?  Because, for the most part, there sure isn’t here on Earth.  Usually, with any genre of music with a hyphen in the name, you can get a much better sense of what it actually is by replacing the leftmost word with ‘shit’.  Try it:  ‘alt-country’, ‘post-hardcore’, ‘folk-rock’, ‘smooth-jazz’, etc…

But I digress.  The real purpose of this post is to announce my own foray into the music festival business with the ‘Chicago Reggae and Rockabilly’ festival.  This is going to be a great festival, including performances by Napalm Death and the recently reunited Anal Cunt who will perform their grindcore — er, I mean rockabilly hit ‘Foreplay With a Tree Shredder’.  I look forward to seeing all you roots-rockers and rastafarians there!

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Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos

Just to be sure we’re all on the same page: if you really care about what happened with this past weekend, you will do something besides post an update on Twitter.  The internet is a wonderful and amazing thing for raising awareness about a problem, but beyond just raising awareness, it really can’t be used to do a damned thing about solving it.

Unless it affects Amazon’s bottom line, Amazon does not care about what you do or say.  Amazon doesn’t care how much rage and disgust you pack into a 160-character Twitter update that you post from your iPhone while you’re waiting in line at the Earwax Cafe.  Here are some things that you can do that Amazon does care about:

  1. Cancel an order or return a product for a refund. This is the big one.  Yeah yeah, everyone said they were going to do this, but if everyone followed through on every idealistic vow they made out of civic disgust, then I’d have been living in some barely-inhabited fishing village in northern Canada for the past eight years because all of the metropolitan centers of that country would already have become overcrowded with other disgruntled American liberals.  But I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people who said they would didn’t even follow through on the tiny act of protest of canceling their current Amazon orders.  All it would take is one click of the mouse (maybe more; do they have a patent on One-Click-Cancellation also?), but then you would have to go to another site and fill out the whole order form at that site, and then you would have to wait a few extra days for the order to arrive.  Taking five seconds out of your life for a Twitter post is one thing, but waiting a few extra days for your softcore Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgendered-Intersex-Queer-Questioning-Once-I-Accidentally-Saw-My-Best-Friend’s-Penis-In-The-Shower-After-Gym-Class-In-The-Seventh-Grade-So-Does-That-Count porno?  No way.  Maybe I’m wrong; it would be very interesting to see some actual data on whether or not cancellations increased during this whole thing.
  2. Write an actual paper letter. No, not an email, a letter on paper with an envelope and a stamp and stuff.  Amazon is paying somebody to open that letter and read it and then they’re actually paying for paper and postage to respond to you, even if it’s a form letter response (trust me, they will respond).  Sure if you’re the only one that writes a letter then who cares, but imagine if everyone who posted a Twitter update wrote a letter.  It would take you fifteen minutes.  That’s it.  From the time you decide to write the letter to the time you have a sealed, addressed envelope.  But that’s 18,000% longer than it takes you to tweet (FINE, I’ll use that term), so that’s clearly out of the question.
  3. Call customer service. Amazon is actually paying that guy in Bangladesh to listen to you complain.  Even it it’s only 2.4 cents an hour.  Again, if you’re the only one that calls, who cares.  But again, imagine if everyone that tweeted (is that even the correct conjugation?  Tweeted? Twote? Tw…… umm…) also called.

Here is a link to the phone numbers and addresses that will enable you to perform actions two and/or three above. I think it’s very cool and amazing how quickly this whole thing escalated into the (nerdy) public conciousness.  All I ask is that you don’t say you care about this issue at all if ALL YOU DID WAS BITCH ABOUT IT ON THE INTERNET.

Posted in Customer Service, The Internets | 1 Comment

The Library is a Hostile Piece of Shit

Librarian - QUIET!Apparently, I’m not the only one without a job in the city of Chicago.  For one, the sixty-year-old woman and her 100+-year-old mother who live below me never leave and blast Celine Dion so loud that I can actually recognize through the floor/ceiling that it’s Celine Dion just from the quality of her voice because I only know that one Celine Dion song from Titanic and they never blast that one, thank God…  Then, the 30-something single niece-of-the-landlord that lives above me apparently never leaves either, but she sure as hell gets up early–apparently her morning exercise regimen is to repeatedly beat the floor above my bed with a hammer from 6:30AM to 10:00AM.  Finally, there is an entire army of stay-at-home moms filling up my coffee shops between the hours of 9:00AM and 6:00PM so that I can not get a seat during those hours.

A few blocks down Lincoln is the public library.  What better place to study than the library?  Apparently, EVERYWHERE is a better place to study than the public library.  I went in with a cup of coffee and was severly admonished by a heavy-set stern looking woman who had her hair pulled back so tight that I can’t fathom how she even saw my coffee in the first place through the thin angry slits that occupied the space on her head where her eyes should have been.  Apparently, I was “not going one step past the checkout desk with that cup of coffee.”  That’s the first time I’ve set foot in a public library in about five years, and probably the last for at least another five.

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James McMurtry

By Ann Woodall

By Ann Woodall

My iPod is broken for the 7th time (god’s honest truth) and I’ve been using a loaner Nano for the past few weeks (tough life; I know).  Since I don’t have to worry about some random Red Allen tune coming up every third song (why oh why did I import that five-CD Red Allen set??), I’ve been listening to stuff on shuffle.  I’ve got three James McMurtry albums on there, and every one of his tunes that comes up lately just kills me dead.  He writes some of the smartest lyrics that I’ve ever heard but I never even notice it because they works so well in just about every context.

Take ‘Pocatello’: from Childish Things:

Picked you up in Pocatello
In some truck stop parking lot
Out beside that burned up Volvo
With the smoking engine shot
And you just left that Volvo lying
You never gave it half a thought
Faithless, fine and gone

You said you came from Randolph
Up across the Wasatch Range
You kept talking clear to Salt Lake
Liked to drove us all insane
But now I’m flying down that four lane highway
Screaming out your name
Faithless, fine and gone

Batten down the hatches I can hear my grandma say
Boy you like to play with matches
Gonna burn yourself someday

I’m gonna haul on back to Denver
Just as soon as I get through
And I’m burnt down to smoldering embers
But I guess I can make do
And now I hear some guy that used to manage some band I never heard of
Is trying to manage you
Faithless, fine and gone

I was just going to pick one verse, but they’re all so good.  Every single one has a little detail in it that makes it different than your average… well, your average ‘picked up a hitchhiker and fell in love with her’ song.  There’s the Volvo, the Wasatch range, and some guy that used to manage some band I never heard of.  There’s also a whole story there, though.  How does he write such a detailed and complete story in three short verses?  It’s pretty amazing.  And surprisingly enough, the music in this tune is just as good (more on this later).  It just seems to fit the lyrics perfectly.  This is the tune that got me into him in the first place.  If you’re sick of all your music, grab this.

Contrast this with ‘Choctaw Bingo’, an eight-and-a-half minute long song about a family reunion in Texas.  It’s a bunch of character sketches rather than a story like ‘Pocatello’, but it never gets boring, no matter how many times I listen to it.

It’s almost doing him a disservice to quote parts of his songs because, for the most part, all of his songs are so complete and each line or couplet has even more meaning when taken in context with the rest of the song.  But he’s got some great one-liners too, like these from ‘Fast as I Can’:

He was a drinkin’ man with a guitar problem

I don’t know if he wrote that one, but that’s the first time that I’d heard it.  Also in that tune:

She’d take the path of least resistance / Right to the point of no return

Usually, the only cliche phrases in his songs come out of the mouths of his characters but here he strings two together and comes up with something extremely clever and completely original.

One more, from ‘No More Buffalo’, a tune about (I think) getting stuck while the rest of the world moves on without you:

Don’t go chasing after shooting stars, trying to make yourself a name
You could joust at windmills with that old Fender guitar, you’d probably do about the same

Again, it works even better in context.  I wish I could post the lyrics to all of my favorites here, but half the fun is hearing them yourself for the first time.  While a lot of other songwriters that write about these kinds of characters and subjects manipulatively beat you over the head with how ‘authentic’ they are, McMurtry just seems to be concerned with the richness detail of the the story and characters.  Whether these songs are ‘authentic’ or not is a side effect, not the end goal.  Plus I’m the least qualified person in the universe to judge the authenticity of songs about Texas…

Finally, he rocks.  When I saw him, he came with Daren Hess on drums and Ronnie Johnson on bass and the three of them put out a fuller sound than a lot of four and five piece groups that I’ve seen lately.  He had about a million guitars with him, and most of them were tuned to some non-standard tuning that gave everything a unique sound.  Even though they don’t play them much differently, some of the tunes come off differently live than they do on the albums.  I didn’t really get ‘Ruby and Carlos’ (off of his newest, ‘Just Us Kids’) until I saw him do it at that show.  Maybe it was the fact that it silenced a whole club full of drunken fans, but for whatever reason, it was incredibly moving.

I’m actually not too familiar with his early stuff, except on a Sugar Hill best-of album, which is great.  I do have his two newest albums, and they’re both great too.  I’d recommend any of those three albums to start with.  Just toss them in the rotation and listen to a tune or two every once in a while, they’ll grow on you.

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Brendan Halpin Is My Hero!

teacher-doris-dayThank God for Brendan HalpinLosing My Faculties is one of the best and most enjoyable books about teaching that I have ever read.  There’s a lot of self-righteous crap flying around in my ed classes; it’s very refreshing and re-energizing to read a book about teaching by someone that actually likes the job itself and who doesn’t think that he’s God’s gift to the universe, or that his new educational theory is going to change the world IF ONLY EVERYONE WOULD JUST FOLLOW IT, or that you, as a teacher, should aspire to create a perfect and equal democratic society in which everyone goes to college and becomes a famous scientist and discovers the cure for cancer and wins the Nobel prize and reduces global warming and creates clean and sustainable energy that powers the new international union of countries for ever and ever and no one ever has to bag groceries again.

I like music and I like teaching.  That’s why I want to be a teacher.  Isn’t that enough?  In two different classes this semester, I’ve had to expand that thought to fill a whole page (twelve-point font, double spaced), and both versions just sound trite and ass-kiss-y.  Perhaps I’m taking a much more pragmatic view of this whole thing than I should be.  Although, when I got my Computer Science degree, I didn’t have to write a page on “Why I Want to Be A Computer Scientist”.  That just sounds ridiculous.

This book is so good and so inspiring because it’s actually about the job of teaching.  Halpin gives an honest description of all the bullshit involved in the actual job, and then goes to show that he still likes it (I’m assuming; maybe he quits in disgust at the end).  For me, this works so much better as a motivator than a book or article about some grand ideal of education that is at best so vague as to be almost totally inapplicable and at worst deliberately manipulative.

If you want to change the world, being a teacher is not the way to do it.  Hell, being academically involved in education in any way at all isn’t the way to do it.  There are shelves and shelves of education books written by lots of smart people that say things that are painfully obvious to some of us and will continue to be completely ignored by the rest of us no matter how many of these books they are in.  Things like: “Poor people get the bum end of the stick in the USA” and “Minorities get the bum end of the stick in the USA” and… actually, that’s about it.  You can talk and write about this stuff until the cows come home, but if you really want to do something about it, put yourself in a position where you can have some kind of concrete effect on national policy, or on local policy, or even on school policy at one school.  Be a lawyer, be a congressman, be a lobbyist, be a principal, but for God’s sake, don’t be a teacher.

Oh, and I want my summers off.  So sue me.

Posted in School | 1 Comment


In the previous post, please replace all references to “playing music” with “drinking whiskey.”  Thank you.

Posted in Music | 1 Comment

Thank God I Am A Mediocre Musician

mongolian_musicianI am in the middle of one of the worst weeks of my adult life.  The short version: I worked very hard as a software engineer for six years and ended up with a great job and a clear and concrete path toward a great career.  Since for some reason that I haven’t figured out yet I am incapable of being happy, I gave it all up and cashed in my entire life for a chance to get a music ed degree.  Today, I had to withdraw from a class due to scheduling error I made that put me into a situation where it would have been impossible to complete an integral class project.  Regardless of the context and other circumstances and how irrational it may seem, I feel like a complete and total failure (even though I was getting a B in the class (I think; we weren’t told our grades or given any individual feedback on some assignments because they were peer-evaluated and the teacher didn’t want to embarrass us or something like that, I’m not really sure… but that’s another topic for another post)).

Thank God I had a dobro gig tonight.  It was a trio with a couple of guys I play with a few times every couple of months.  It was a very fun gig, lots of different styles and songs that I don’t know until we play them.  We played to an empty bar for most of the night.  I probably spent more on dinner and gas than I made at the gig.  But while I was playing and hanging out with the other musicians and the bartender and the odd one or two guys that wandered in throughout the night, these horrible all-consuming feelings of guilt and failure completely disappeared.  They weren’t even in the back of my mind, they were just plain not there at all.  And that’s always how it always is with playing or teaching.  Even though I’ve recognized this effect, even though my mind is consciously aware that it happens, by some miracle it still always happens.  I can ALWAYS escape even my most horrible thoughts and feelings by playing a gig or teaching a lesson or teaching a class, for as long as the gig or lesson or class lasts.

I think this is because I am, in the grand scheme of the universe, a mediocre musican.  I probably have a higher natural musical aptitude than the average person, but my natural musical aptitude is probably much lower than the average musician’s.  Playing music is not effortless for me.  I have to concentrate very hard and actively think about playing, even when I’m playing relatively simple tunes in a bar with no audience.  To keep up, my brain has to use every resource that it has.  Whatever part of it was thinking about how I may have flushed my entire life down the toilet gets re-purposed to the task of making sure I play an E minor instead of an E major when the B part of the tune comes up again.

When I am playing music, that music is all that there is in the universe.  In a way, music has no past and future; the only thing that exists is what I am playing at this moment and the next and the next and the next… Playing music for me is such a pure and unselfish act untainted by any other thing in the world.  Music doesn’t mean anything else but music.  It is a sustained series of Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ moments.  I am so lucky that I have access these experiences on a regular basis.

Posted in Music | 4 Comments

There’s No Such Thing as ‘Above and Beyond’ in the Real World

ie3630491As I’m sure that all two of you reading this know, I recently started going to school full time at Northeastern Illinois University to earn a second bachelor’s degree in Music Education.  It is great.  Northeastern is great.  I love it.  All of my professors are great.  All of my classes are great.  If you are from school and have any impact on my progress there, please don’t screw me in any way after reading this.  That said, I forgot about ‘Above and Beyond.’  For those of you that also may have forgotten, Above and Beyond is an undefined and mysterious set of expectations that you have to meet to get an A on certain assignments.

In school, the requirements for a paper may be specified very clearly, but if you meet them perfectly, you’ll get a B.  To get an A, you have to go Above and Beyond.  What exactly does that mean?  Who knows.  Maybe it means citing more sources than the requirements state.  How many more sources?  Who knows.  Maybe it means having some extra slides in your group PowerPoint presentation.  How many extra slides?  What should go on them?  Who knows.

In the real world, if you ever are in a situation where you don’t know what to do to best do your job, something is seriously wrong.  If I’m sitting in with a band, and they call out ‘Wheel Hoss’, and they start playing it in the key of A instead of G without telling me, I may end up sounding incompetent.  It is the band’s JOB to tell me that they play Wheel Hoss in A even though every other person in the Western world plays it in G.  That said, it is my JOB as a musician to adapt and play it in G if that is the expectation that has been set by the leader of the band with whom I am playing.  Even though I’ve practiced it for hours and hours in G, it is not going Above and Beyond for me to play it in A.  As long as that expectation has been clearly set, playing it in A falls under DOING MY JOB as a musician.  Similarly, if I’m building software and one of the requirements of that software is to work with a poorly documented external API, it may be a ton of grueling miserable work for me, but because this is the real world, it’s still just DOING MY JOB.  Just because it’s hard and miserable doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be done.  It is only  miserable because the writer of the API didn’t DO HIS JOB and document it well.  In the real world,  there is no such thing as going Above and Beyond.  There’s just Doing Your Job, and if everyone simply did that, the world would be a much better place.

In fact, in the real world, going Above and Beyond will usually screw things up, as it means that you will be doing something or causing something to happen that someone else won’t be expecting as they are Doing Their Job.  When I’m on stage playing music, it is my JOB to play the best that I can.  There’s no such thing as going Above and Beyond.  What would that possibly mean?  Playing a few extra measures when everyone else is done?  Playing a million notes over whoever is singing?  Those things are BAD with a capital ‘You’ll Never Get Called Again’.  If I’m building software, it is my JOB to build exactly to the requirements.  It is also my JOB to write the cleanest, most understandable, most efficient code that I can in the time that I have; none of those things count as Above and Beyond.  What would the parallel Above and Beyond be in the software engineering case?  Adding features that no one’s expecting?  That is BAD with a capital ‘You’re Fired’.

We should stop encouraging students to go ‘Above and Beyond’ in school and start teaching them to meet expectations, clarify expectations when they are not clearly defined and define clear expectations themselves.  With Above and Beyond, we’re teaching them that working hard is something extra.  I’m not saying getting an A on an assignment should be easy; I’m just saying making it hard because of unkown expectations is both unfair and unrealistic.

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VIM+ctags: The Whole Is Just As Irritating As The Sum Of It’s Parts

No Safe Word

No Safe Word

I use VIM.  It is the mental equivalent of being strapped naked to the rack and whipped repeatedly with barbed wire by an obese leather-clad high school lunch lady in places that I can’t mention here if I ever hope to get a job as a teacher (assuming I didn’t just blow that anyway).  To each his own.

VIM has built in support for ctags in that it can read a generated tags file and use it to let you jump around all of your files by function name, class name, etc.  That’s pretty cool.  But:

  1. You have to manually specify the tags file.  Sure, you could put it in your .vimrc, but what if you use VIM to work on more than one thing?*
  2. Anytime you add a new function/class/whatever, you have to manually regenerate the tags file if you want to be able to jump to it.

That’s two irritations too many, and I can’t imagine that anyone actually does both of those things (especially #2).  As usual, this leads me to believe that there’s some simple way around both of them that everyone in the world has found.  And as usual, I’ve spent way too much time coming up with a very fragile solution.

If I want to use the vim ctags features in a project, I’ll go to the top directory of the project and generate a tags file named ‘tags’ (by running ‘ctags -R *’).  I wrote a VIM plugin that sets the ‘tags’ option (which specifies the tags file to use) to the first file named ‘tags’ in any directory starting from the current directory and working up.  Problem #1 solved; I can start VIM from anywhere in my project and have working ctags functionality.  If such a tags file is found, it is regenerated every time any file is saved.  That takes care of problem #2 (thanks to this post on  Here’s the plugin code:

let ctags_filename = 'tags'
let ctags_file = findfile(ctags_filename, '.;')

if strlen('ctags_file')
    let chop_index = strlen(ctags_file) - strlen(ctags_filename)

    let ctags_file_path = strpart(ctags_file, 0, chop_index)

    " If the tags file is in the current working directory, then we don't get
    " the full path, just the name of the tags file
    if !strlen(ctags_file_path)
        let ctags_file_path = getcwd() . '/'
        let ctags_file = ctags_file_path . ctags_file
    let ctags_path_arg = ctags_file_path . '*'

    let &tags = ctags_file

    " Update the tags file every time we save anything.  This obviously doesn't
    " work for large projects, or uses of vim where you want to work on
    " something else in the same instance, or basically working any other way
    " than the way that I work.
    let ctags_cmd = '!ctags -o ' . ctags_file . ' -R ' . ctags_path_arg

    if !exists('ctags_autocommand')
        au BufWritePost * silent! exe ctags_cmd
        let ctags_autocommand = 1

Obviously, there are some problems with this.  If the project you’re working on is big, it will take too long to generate the tags file on every save.  And if you want to do work on something else unrelated to your project in the same instance of VIM, or work on another project, you’d be out of luck; you’d have to start another instance.  And I’m not even 100% sure that it works at all; it seemed to after some trivial testing though.  But hopefully it’s useful, or it inspires someone to do it right, or it inspires someone to post the one-line-in-the-vimrc solution that I’ve obviously missed.

* If you actually get anything useful out of this blog, you’re probably not at the point in your programming journey where you’ve had to edit that second file.  Hang in there; that day will come.

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