Free Love (With Every Purchase) on The Overcast

Shortly before Valentine’s Day, my short story Free Love (With Every Purchase), which is a revised version of Valet de cœur, was featured on The Overcast. I’ve always thought this would be a fun one to read aloud; indeed, I read it myself at the Short Story Conference in Vienna in 2014. It’s exciting to have it read aloud on a podcast. I was travelling when the podcast came out, without much chance to download or listen to things, but I finally had a chance to listen to it recently. I love the way J. S. Arquin reads it. He often reads it differently from how it was in my head, but that makes it more interesting to me; I’d already ‘heard’ the version that’s in my head. You can listen to it here:

or go to the episode page to find out ways you can discuss it with other Overcast listeners, or subscribe to or support The Overcast. Indeed, do support the podcast if you can; they do pay authors, and would like to be able to pay them more. Since circumstances have prevented me from earning much recently, the fee for this story provided the bulk of my meagre income for the month it was accepted. This, of course, means that for that month, at least, I was a freelance writer by profession.

In the author’s note at the end of the podcast I mention that each leap year I write (or otherwise create) something every week, inspired by my collection of souvenir playing cards. That’s true; I’ve done it twice so far. I should have started a new cycle of it three weeks ago, on February 29th, but I was recovering from JoCo cruise and getting ready to fly to Johnson Space Center, so I didn’t quite manage to post anything. For most of the last year and a half I’ve either been away from home or busy catching up on all the things I didn’t do while away from home. I’ve been to new places, bought new playing cards, and built up a stock of half-finished ideas to work on during this cycle, though. The good thing about writing inspired by playing cards is that even if I don’t post them exactly weekly, I’ll always know when I’ve done the full 52 (or 54 if I write jokers.)

Now I’m pretty much caught up with other stuff, so tomorrow will be a rest day consisting of snack food, catching up on xkcd, processing JoCo Cruise videos, taking out my cruise braids, and an online concert by Marian Call. Marian will also be playing in Vienna on the 26th; come along if you’re in the area! At Marian’s last online concert, I tipped enough to get a custom holiday card, so I asked for one celebrating leap day, particularly since I start a new year of Writing Cards and Letters every leapday. I started writing a post including pictures of the card on the leapday itself, but had to sleep, or leave for the airport, or somesuch… if only I’d had one more minute!

Here they are now, a little late; you can designate a different day to be Bonus Day if you like. Any day when your plans are cancelled and you unexpectedly have a free day. Any day when you deliberately don’t make plans because you need a free day. A day like today.

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Songs to Learn French to: Grammaire Song, part 2

This is part two in my explanation of the song ‘Grammaire Song’ by Chanson Plus Bifluorée. See the first lesson for the full lyrics and explanation of the first stanza.

Previous lessons in the ‘Song to Learn French To‘ series are Le ours et la hirondelle, part 1 and part 2

The first lesson only covered the first stanza; this one covers the next two.

Adjectif possessif : possession

Do you know all the possessive adjectives in French? They correspond to words like ‘his’ or ‘your’, but unlike ‘his’ and ‘her’, which depend on the gender of the person possessing the thing, French possessive adjectives depend on the gender and number of the actual items being possessed. They can also depend on whether the thing being possessed starts with a vowel (or an h muet) to avoid the hiatus that I mentioned in a previous lesson. The song lists some of the possessive adjectives you should know:

Mes, tes, ses, nos, vos, leurs, mon, tonson

Those are just some of the masculine and plural possessive adjectives; there are several others:

Ma, ta, sa, notre, votre, leur, ta

Actually, we don’t know whether the song says leur or leurs, since they sound the same, but the lyrics I found online had leurs, and that goes with the other plural possessive adjectives listed.

Next the song gives a confusing example which contains a lot of words that sound like possessive adjectives, but aren’t. I’ve put actual possessive adjectives in bold, and words that sound like possessive adjectives underlined, all colour-coded to match the possessive adjectives they sound like, if they appear elsewhere. I’ve tried to use a somewhat colourblind-safe palette, but sorry if you have trouble distinguishing some of the colours.

Exemple facile ; c’est son tonton
qu’est ton maçon, lui qui t’a bâti ta maison

Plurals (or should that be pluraux?)

Un cheval au pluriel c’est chevaux
Mais des batailles font pas des bateaux
Exception faite pour aller aux bals
Danser quels régals dans tous les carnavals

Do you know your French irregular plurals? A lot of French words ending in -al, and a few ending in -ail, be they adjectives (e.g. international), or nouns (e.g. cheval, journal, travail) change to -aux in the masculine plural (e.g. internationaux, chevaux, journaux, travaux). But many words that already end in -au or -eau (tuyau, bateau) also take an -x in the plural (tuyaux, bateaux), so if you only knew the plural forms you might be confused about the singular. Or maybe, like The Arrogant Worms possibly do in their song about Celine Dion (inasmuch as the French at the end of that song is decipherable), you get chevaux (the plural of cheval) confused with cheveux (the plural of cheveu) because they look so similar. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe this is all perfectly simple for you. In that case, don’t worry, there are some exceptions just for you. Some words ending in -al (e.g. balrégalcarneval) just take a regular -s in the plural.

That will do for this lesson. Even though I’d already written most of it, I still didn’t find the time to publish it after a week, as I’d promised. It’s hard to predict how much free time I’ll have when I’m away from home, and I lost some work a browser crash. Tune in next week or so to learn about agreement.

If you want to keep learning between lessons, then first of all, of course, buy the songs I’ve mentioned (or better, the albums they’re on) and listen to them while thinking about what you can learn from them. Also, try duolingo, and feel free to follow me. If you’re already fairly fluent, the regular exercises might be detrimental (as they train you to translate simple sentences rather than simply understanding and responding to them without going via your native language) so I recommend the ‘Immersion‘ section where you read and translate interesting real-world text. If you’re still learning the basics, the exercises are useful, but don’t be afraid to try a bit of translation as well. Start with a topic you already know a lot about — before I was at all confident with reading or translating German, I found German Wikipedia articles related to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy surprisingly easy to read.

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Welcome, McFly. Seriously.

I arrived in October 21 2015 about an hour ago, and Marty McFly should be arriving later. It seems a good time to recap a few things I’ve made and done relating to Back to the Future.

They chained off my car! I guess I’m stuck in 2015 now.

Firstly, here are some lyrics I wrote for a Back-to-the-Future-related parody of Moxy Früvous’s Gulf War Song. If I’d been in Vienna more this year I probably would have fixed the bit I don’t like (the heavy/light line that needs too much explanation) and organised for some of my musical friends to sing it at Open Phil, but alas, I’ve been away too much.

Secondly, here’s a video I took of a superconducting magnetic hover-scooter created by MaNEP several years ago and occasionally shown off at events at CERN. I’m not too happy about the way I deliberately decoupled the sound from the video at one point, but never mind. You can see me riding a hoverboard. I wrote a blog post with more information.

In the year 2015, I bought one of those holographic hats that everyone’s wearing here in the future, took it to the wax museum in Vienna, and took some pictures of wax figures wearing it. Here’s a guy who could help you solve any problems you might have caused with the spacetime continuum.

Einstein 2015

And this is Michael Jackson… Fox? ready to serve you at your nearest Cafe 80s.

Michael Jackson Fox.

Of course, Elvis never died; he just skipped a few decades.

Elvis 2015

Same goes for Freddie Mercury:

Freddie Mercury 2015

The Freud dude prefers to travel in time by phone booth, though.

Freud 2015

Gustav Klimt probably thought he knew how colour worked.


And here are Julia Roberts and Johnny Depp, just because.

Julia Roberts 2015

I don't recognise this guy, so it must be Johnny Depp.

Also, check out these songs other people wrote about Back to the Future. Like an Anvil by The Burning Hell (from the album ‘Flux Capacitor’) and one simply called Back to the Future by Insane Ian.

Have fun; I’ll be going to a screening of Jaws 19 (or is it Back to the Future I and II?) with my hat and my copy of the Back to the Future card game.

I look forward to seeing whether this tumblr continues as normal after it’s actually correct.

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Songs to Learn French to: Grammaire Song, part 1

This is the third in the ‘Songs to Learn French to‘ series. The first two are Le ours et la hirondelle, part 1 and part 2.

This is the first of what’s turning out to be far too many lessons about the song ‘Grammaire Song’ by Chanson Plus Bifluorée, which you can listen to below (from a well-hidden extracts page of the band’s website) and buy from epm musique or maybe from your electronic music retailer of choice. There’s so much in the song that this lesson only covers the first stanza. I’ll publish a new lesson every week until the song’s finished; it’ll probably be four lessons, though I’ve only written the first two so far, so it could end up longer.

The last song had an exercise attached, but this song doesn’t need any correction; it just lists and illustrates some grammatical concepts you should make sure you’re familiar with.

As before, I’ll assume you know French well enough to work out what the lyrics mean, but just need practice or ways to remember things. I’ll tend to link to other sites rather than explaining everything in detail. If you have any questions about the grammar or the meaning of the song, though, feel free to ask in the comments, and I’ll answer in the comments and maybe in a later post. Let me know if you spot any mistakes in my explanations or example sentences, too; I have a DALF C1 and half a Masters in linguistics, which doesn’t actually make me qualified to teach, whatever Tom Lehrer says.

Here are the words:

D’accord, c’est un peu rébarbatif
Le subjonctif en apéritif
Passons sur le mode impératif
Le plus-que-parfait, le pronom relatif

Adjectif possessif : possession
Mes, tes, ses, nos, vos, leurs, mon, ton, son
Exemple facile ; c’est son tonton
qu’est ton maçon, lui qui t’a bâti ta maison

Un cheval au pluriel c’est chevaux
Mais des batailles font pas des bateaux
Exception faite pour aller aux bals
Danser quels régals dans tous les carnavals

Avez-vous bien étudié la grammaire
Les règles littéraires, accordé l’auxiliaire ?
Avez-vous bien révisé le français
L’attribut du sujet, le complément d’objet ?

L’accent aigu remplace souvent
Un ancien “s” qu’on avait dans l’temps
L’accent circonflexe évidemment
mis pour une lettre qu’on écrivait avant

J’ai laissé mon épée à l’escole
Avant que d’estudier l’anatole
De l’anglais on garde le foot-ball
le gin, le pudding et puis le music-hall

Avez-vous bien étudié la grammaire
Les règles littéraires, accordé l’auxiliaire ?
Avez-vous bien révisé le français
L’attribut du sujet, le complément d’objet ?

“Tout” adverbe est toujours inchangé
Mais “tout” adjectif peut s’accorder
Quand “tout” est pronom, difficulté !
“Tout” c’est compliqué, on n’y est plus tout à fait

Bijou caillou chou genou hibou
Sans oublier tous nos vieux joujoux
Bijou caillou chou genou hibou pou
Mais où est donc or ni car, souvenez-vous

Avez-vous bien étudié la grammaire
Les règles littéraires, accordé l’auxiliaire ?
Avez-vous bien révisé le français
L’attribut du sujet, le complément d’objet ?

Avez-vous cherché dans le dictionnaire
Compris le questionnaire, écrit vos commentaires ?
Avez-vous bien étudié l’imparfait
L’attribut du sujet, le complément d’objet ?

Avez-vous résolu tous les mystères
De la conjugaison et du vocabulaire
Du temps où vous remplissiez vos cahiers
D’attributs du sujet, de compléments d’objet ?
D’attributs du sujet, de compléments d’objet ?

Okay, now what can we learn from this song? For starters (that is, en apéritif) how about the subjunctive.

Le subjontif

D’accord, c’est un peu rébarbatif
Le subjonctif en apéritif

The subjunctive is one of several grammatical moods of a verb, others including the imperative (see below) and the indicative. In English, the subjunctive is often similar enough to the indicative that we don’t know we’re using it, but it’s important that you know when to use the subjunctive in French. It usually comes after the word ‘that’ (in French, que.) In the phrase, ‘it’s important that you know when to use the subjunctive’, ‘know’ is subjunctive because I’m not saying you do know; I don’t know whether you do or not. I’m just saying it’s important for you to know. Whereas in ‘the subjunctive is often similar enough to the indicative that we don’t know we’re using it’, I am saying that we don’t know we’re using it, so I don’t need to use the subjunctive. Here’s the same sentence in French, using ‘on‘ for both ‘we’ and the general ‘you’ because I wanted to show how different the indicative and subjunctive forms of ‘know’ (in bold) are without even changing the pronoun.

En anglais, le subjonctif ressemble tellement à l’indicatif que l’on ne sait même pas qu’on l’utilise, mais il est important que l’on sache quand utiliser le subjonctif en français.

So maybe that gives you some idea of when and why you need to know about the subjunctive, but for the details, here’s an explanation of the French subjunctive and how to form the subjunctive, and the Subjunctivisor to help you decide whether you need it in a certain phrase.

There’ll be a whole song on the subjunctive later in this series, with an exercise, so if you don’t quite get it yet, look forward to that one.


Passons sur le mode impératif

Okay, let’s just gloss over the imperative. You use the imperative mood to suggest that somebody do something. (See that ‘do’ there? That was the subjunctive again. ‘To suggest that somebody does something’ is a different suggestion entirely.) For example, ‘let’s gloss over the imperative’ (or more literally, ‘let’s pass on the imperative’) or passons sur le mode impératif.

Let’s summarise these moods. In the command ‘use the imperative!’ (utilisez l’impératif !) ‘use the imperative’ is in the imperative mood, while in, ‘It is imperative that you use the imperative’ (il est impératif que vous utilisiez l’impératif), ‘use the imperative’ is in the subjunctive, and in ‘You use the imperative to suggest that somebody do something’ (vous utilisez l’impératif pour suggérer que quelqu’un fasse quelque chose), ‘use the imperative’ is in the indicative, while ‘somebody do something’ is in the subjunctive. Simple, right?

Le plus-que-parfait

If you had already learnt the last two things before reading this blog, you would be perfect, but if you’d learnt this one, you’d be more than perfect! The plus-que-parfait (a.k.a. the pluperfect) is the tense you use for sentences where you’d say you ‘had’ done them in English. To make the plus-que-parfait you actually use the imparfait (imperfect) version of être or avoir to translate the ‘had’, because being made out of imperfect things is what makes something perfect even more so. You’ll hear more about the imparfait later in the song.

Si vous aviez déjà appris les deux choses précédentes avant de lire ce blog, vous seriez parfait(e), mais si vous aviez appris celle-ci, vous seriez plus que parfait.

Le pronom relatif

Relative pronouns are the words that connect a noun you just mentioned with some more information specifying which one you’re talking about. They’re not just any words, they’re the words that connect a noun you just mentioned with some more information specifying which one you’re talking about. So, let’s say the noun you just mentioned is ‘words’, and you want to specify that the particular words you’re talking about connect a noun you just mentioned with some more information specifying which one you’re talking about, you’d use the relative pronoun ‘that’.

In French you’d use qui in this case, because ‘words’ is a subject, which means the words are the ones doing something (in this case, connecting a noun you just mentioned with some more information specifying which one you’re talking about.)

If you were talking about a noun that someone was doing something to, for instance, a noun you just mentioned (also expressed as a noun that you just mentioned), you’d use que, because that noun is being treated as an object.

Les pronoms relatifs sont les mots qui lient un nom que l’on vient de mentionner avec de l’information précisant duquel des noms on parle.

There are several other relative pronouns, in English as well as French; for instance, French has duquel, which doesn’t even have a one-word equivalent in English. However, I don’t have room for the general theory of pronominal relativity here, so here’s a website where you can learn about them.

That’s all for this lesson; tune in next week to learn about possessive adjectives, irregular plurals, and more.

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Reviews of Another Mid-air Movie Marathon

I flew to the other side of the world yet again a few days ago (some day I’ll get to stay home… some day), and I watched a whole lot of movies, and I’m going to give my impressions of them. Last time I flew from Austria to New Zealand, I watched seven movies; this time I watched nine. I actually jotted down a few notes this time, so what I remember for my movie reviews will depend less on how sleep-deprived I was at the time. I was flying Air China (a perfectly nice airline, except they don’t give you that little care package with sleeping socks, an eyemask and a travel toothbrush that I’d come to expect), whose in-flight movie guide isn’t loading for me right now, so I won’t put up their descriptions of the movies. I went straight for the ‘New to the Skies’ section, figuring that I’d had plenty of opportunities to see the others.


This movie has a lot of things I love in it. The future! Kennedy Space Center! (At least, it sure looked like one of the launch pads at KSC, though they called it Canaveral.) Robots! Hope! The neat thing was I saw this while on an amazing flying machine heading toward a land where it was in fact already tomorrow, and I started off wearing a Back to the Future cap from the future (the year 2015) and then switched to a NASA beanie. I’ve never had such appropriate headwear for a movie.

One of the movies in my last mid-air movie marathon also had ‘Tomorrow’ in the title. I guess it’s always good to watch where and when you’re going.


Relevant song. This movie also has a lot of things I like. A ball pit! Space! Cute aliens that talk in a mixture of lolcat and turns of phrase I could imagine Sheldon Cooper using! Partway through, I remembered seeing Jim Parsons’ name in the credits and realised that the main alien did in fact have Sheldon Cooper’s voice.

This movie was similar to Tomorrowland in many ways; it had the Eiffel tower as a great antenna (which is also true in the real world) surprisingly young girls who drive, and a world where only one young lady still has hope, hope which ends up saving the day. Also, I watched it while flying toward a place that some people say is my home, so that’s neat.

The Age of Adaline

This is a movie about a woman who miraculously stops ageing, so I don’t expect it to be believable, but two things about it seemed really far-fetched:

  • Defibrillating a heart which is, as far as I can tell from the preceding narration, not fibrillating. They could’ve used a more vague term such as ‘jump-start’ and we’d have believed that that worked in the magic situation in this movie, but instead they used a term which doesn’t even apply, because they figured the audience wouldn’t know what it meant.
  • A maths major who becomes a millionaire by doing mathematics. Okay, an Abel prize would almost do it, but real maths majors make their fortunes writing software for physicists.

Still, it was an enjoyable movie. It has libraries and secret identities, so it might appeal to Batgirl fans. There’s a joke in it that I still don’t get whose punchline is ‘Who ever heard of a horse pitching?’ There’s a man named Ellis. There’s the line, ‘They took the time to create the constellations’, which I challenge you to use as the first line in a story.

Dark Shadows

This had some things in common with the previous movie, in that it’s about someone (a vampire) who no longer ages, and love between the mortal and the immortal. It also includes a man named Alice. While there’s no ball pit, it has the biggest, most wonderful balls.

Black Swan

Just like Dark Shadows, in that it involves people in black and white makeup in destructive relationships, and blood. It’s as if all these movies were sequels to each other! Only this one seems to have been the result of a challenge to get the most kinds of disturbing into one movie. I lost count of the trigger warnings I intended to put in this review; dermatillomania was one. Probably not the best movie to watch just before a 17-hour layover when I’m already about tired enough to hallucinate.


17 hours in Taipei, which I might write up in a separate post. There was ice cream.

Winter’s Tale

I kept seeing this in the list but skipping over it because it seemed a bit too much like another boring love/destiny story, but there was also some amnesia and later in the trailer which I thought might add some interest. It wasn’t so bad… another one about love and mortality and people being alive without aging for far longer than they’re supposed to. I must have microslept for the part where he actually ‘learns that he has the gift of reincarnation’ as it said in the description. There doesn’t seem to be any reincarnation in the movie at all, unless ‘reincarnation’ means ‘long after you die, someone else is born with the same fairly common hair colour’.

One of the movies in my last mid-air movie marathon also had ‘Winter’ in the title. In this case I actually was heading toward winter.


I saw this on offer during the last mid-air movie marathon, but didn’t watch it, and then wished I had when I saw that the sequel was out in theatres when I arrived. This time I could watch the sequel immediately on the same flight, so I figured I might as well. I thought it might be just another one of those movies about how great it is to be different, special, well-rounded, and to not fit in, just like everyone who’s viewing it. It turned out to be all those things, but also about how useful lucid dreaming can be.


The sequel to Divergent. I watched them back-to-back and don’t recall where one movie stopped and the next one started. I enjoyed them, even though the ending was pretty predictable.

Several short documentaries comprised of even shorter segments

There wasn’t quite time for another movie on this flight, so I learnt about how artists’ canvases are made (in Taipei, as it turns out!) how stinky tofu is made, how refillable Dutch beverage bottles are processed, what happens when we dive, and a weird rolling bamboo thingy to explode land mines, among other things. I’m a little confused as to why they take care to fix up discoloured patches on the canvas before covering it in two layers of white paint.


An hour or so in Sydney while they refuelled the plane.


Relevant songs. Last flight; last movie. By this point I was watching any movie I vaguely remembered hearing something about. I remembered this one being mentioned in an article about the way ‘female’ AIs are so often sexualised. I couldn’t remember what the article said, but I remember thinking that although ‘female’ AIs (like female humans) may well be sexualised in a lot of movies, this isn’t a movie about AIs, it’s just a movie about the troubles of interspecies relationships, or yet another angle on relationships between mortals and immortals. When it’s a movie about relationships, not a movie about AI technology, it’s okay to treat the AI as a romantic partner. It’s actually better than a lot of relationship movies because you know that the human male character, and indeed, the viewer, is interested in her personality rather than her looks or genitalia. I did wonder if the same thing would have happened if he had chosen a male voice for it, assuming he identifies as straight.

I think the article might have been this one.

 “Her is playing on the fact that the audience knows what [Scarlett Johansson] looks like,”

Well, okay, then. I didn’t know who the voice actress was, though I did note that she had a very nice voice. While the name ‘Scarlett Johansson’ does indeed bring to mind people drooling over how sexy she is, I don’t personally know what she looks like. I just did an image search, and she didn’t even look familiar; from the name, I’d been imagining a brunette for some reason. I guess I’m not the part of the audience that Her is playing on.

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Unintentional Haiku in New Scientist’s Medical Frontiers: The Movie

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?I’ve made a new version of Haiku Detector. The main changes are:

  • Performance improvements
  • Tweaks to which haiku are identified when punctuation is pronounced differently depending on line breaks and other factors (this includes a workaround for the ‘all numbers pronounced as zero’ bug I found in the speech synthesiser.) In my test data the list of haiku identified is better now.
  • Bug fixes.

To celebrate the new release, I fed in the text from the latest New Scientist ‘Collection’ issue, on medical frontiers. The funniest haiku arose when the last sentence of one article joined up with the headline and byline of the next. For example, this looks like the tagline of a movie about an underappreciated superhero, fighting to save anti-vaxxers from diseases of yore:

They will not thank you.
Small shot, big impact

After the opening credits, we see our hero Dan Jones in his lab, and the subtitle announcing his first challenge.

DRUG: Chlorotoxin
SOURCE: Deathstalker scorpion

His superpowers come, of course, from vaccines:

Some vaccines seem to
provide us with a host of
extra benefits

But not everybody is happy with that:

Several groups have been
trying to develop drugs
that block these signals.

These groups spread propaganda:

Half an hour or
so later, you’ll feel a lot
better. Or will you?

They work around rules:

“Because we use cells,
not field-grown plants, we don’t come
under the same rules.”

And they target humanity by zapping the very microorganisms they’re made up of. Here’s a quote from the evil mastermind:

There are more cells in
your body than there are stars
in the galaxy.

These cells can then be
killed using a laser that
penetrates the skin.

And just when Dan thought he had the solution, the problems compounded to the point of suspension of disbelief, precipitating a crisis. The mastermind had cooked up her own microbial minions:

Those microbes can be
in the environment or
a vaccine syringe.

To make matters worse,
there is a shortage of new

The sequel, which may or may not be a Doctor Who crossover, features a heroine who will live forever:

“Just endless.” Helen
Let’s get physical

Yep, it’s definitely a Doctor Who crossover. Here’s a quote from that movie:

“I’m the doctor. I’m
going to tell you what your
feelings really mean.”

She discovered that time, and specifically time travel, is the best cure for a broken heart:

If we can’t fix hearts
with stem cells there might be an
even better way

As the animal
was slowly warmed, it began
to return to life.

But however clever the TARDIS is, there’s one thing Helen Thomson isn’t sure she can do:

But can we ever
turn the clock back to a world
without HIV?

It turned out, weirdly enough, that the answer was in making sure there was enough shelf space for one’s awards. So she went home to Britain to save the Officers of the British Empire:

On her return home,
she applied those lessons in
British hospitals.

So far, two patients
have had OBEs, but neither in
a room with a shelf…

While we’re making sequels, let’s revive an old favourite, which never had any sequels:

The matrix holds a
dazzling array of future

But what is the matrix?

Normally, matrix
is harvested from human
or pig cadavers.

I guess you have to see it for yourself.

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Video: Journey Into the Dishwasher

Dishwashers. They sure seem like they’re on our side. But what are they really after? What do they really do behind those closed doors? I sent my waterproof camera and waterproof torch to find out.

Okay, so maybe I was trying to figure out why my dishwasher didn’t wash very well and the relative positions of the camera and torch didn’t lead to any useful data. But I think the result still looks interesting, up until the torch turns off, and it sounds pretty cool too, from about 1:40 onward. I wonder if it would be pleasing to people who experience ASMR, or supremely annoying for people with certain kinds of misophonia. Or perhaps it’ll just be good ambient sounds for relaxing.

The music at the beginning is part of something I was working on a while ago in order to experiment with weird chords. Eventually I’ll probably turn it into a ‘song’ about space shuttles.

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Snack Bar (Black Star parody)

You might recall that I was a fan juror on the Logan Whitehurst Memorial Awards for Excellence in Comedy Music this year. Well, the winners were announced at FuMPFeST, as I watched via video stream. The winner of ‘Outstanding Parody Song’, after a tie with Weird Al Yankovic was broken by Dr. Demento, was Devo Spice (featuring Power Salad) with the song ‘Snack Bar‘. That song is a parody of ‘Thrift Shop‘, by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, but the first thing I thought of when I saw the title was Radiohead’s ‘Black Star‘. So the day after the awards, I wrote a Black Star parody about the temptingly-convenient yet unhealthy snack bar that I heard was available at FuMPFeST. It’s probably about time I posted it. I haven’t recorded it, because singing isn’t really a thing I do, but here are the words:


I have to admit that after con I’m not as fit as what I
think I might’ve been.
I know that the food I eat does not have lots of vitamins.
Look at the plight I’m in.

Look horrified, I mean.
Blame it on the snack bar.
Blame it on the processed food.
Blame it on the multitude of junk at hand.

A snack in mouth, and a snack in hand, I try to understand what I’m eating for.
I know that I am full, but I still treat myself, my self that I am treating poor.
I eat not needing more.
I can’t fight greed anymore.

Blame it on the snack bar.
Blame it on the processed food.
Blame it on the pulchritude of starch and fat.

I get in the line and I just stand about now that food is made for me.
I see it displayed and I just salivate; I want the food pureed for me.
Is it too late for me?
I’ve gotta cut down.

Blame it on the snack bar.
Blame it on the processed food.
Blame it on the pulchritude of junk at hand.

This is killing me
This is killing me

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Another Haiku Detector Update, and Some Observations on Mac Speech Synthesis

Screenshot of Haiku Detector

I subjected Haiku Detector to some serious stress-testing with a 29MB text file (that’s 671481 sentences, containing 16810 haiku, of which some are intentional) a few days ago, and kept finding more things that needed fixing or could do with improvement. A few days in a nerdsniped daze later, I have a new version, and some interesting tidbits about the way Mac speech synthesis pronounces things. Here’s some of what I did:

  • Tweaked the user interface a bit, partly to improve responsiveness after 10000 or so haiku have been found.
  • Made the list of haiku stay scrolled to the bottom so you can see the new ones as they’re found.
  • Added a progress bar instead of the spinner that was there before.
  • Fixed a memory issue.
  • Changed a setting so it should work in Mac OS X 10.6, as I said here it would, but I didn’t have a 10.6 system to test it on, and it turns out it does not run on one. I think 10.7 (Lion) is the lowest version it will run on.
  • Added some example text on startup so that it’s easier to know what to do.
  • Made it a Developer ID signed application, because now that I have a bit more time to do Mac development (since I don’t have a day job; would you like to hire me?), it was worth signing up to the paid Mac Developer Program again. Once I get an icon for Haiku Detector, I’ll put it on the app store.
  • Fixed a few bugs and made a few other changes relating to how syllables are counted, which lines certain punctuation goes on, and which things are counted as haiku.

That last item is more difficult than you’d think, because the Mac speech synthesis engine (which I use to count syllables for Haiku Detector) is very clever, and pronounces words differently depending on context and punctuation. Going through words until the right number of syllables for a given line of the haiku are reached can produce different results depending on which punctuation you keep, and a sentence or group of sentences which is pronounced with 17 syllables as a whole might not have words in it which add up to 17 syllables, or it might, but only if you keep a given punctuation mark at the start of one line or the end of the previous. There are therefore many cases where the speech synthesis says the syllable count of each line is wrong but the sum of the words is correct, or vice versa, and I had to make some decisions on which of those to keep. I’ve made better decisions in this version than the last one, but I may well change things in the next version if it gives better results.

Here are some interesting examples of words which are pronounced differently depending on punctuation or context:

ooohh Pronounced with one syllable, as you would expect
ooohh. Pronounced with one syllable, as you would expect
ooohh.. Spelled out (Oh oh oh aitch aitch)
ooohh… Pronounced with one syllable, as you would expect
H H Pronounced aitch aitch
H H H Pronounced aitch aitch aitch
H H H H H H H H Pronounced aitch aitch aitch
Da-da-de-de-da Pronounced with five syllables, roughly as you would expect
Da-da-de-de-da- Pronounced dee-ay-dash-di-dash-di-dash-di-dash-di-dash. The dashes are pronounced for anything with hyphens in it that also ends in a hyphen, despite the fact that when splitting Da-da-de-de-da-de-da-de-da-de-da-de-da-da-de-da-da into a haiku, it’s correct punctuation to leave the hyphen at the end of the line:


Though in a different context, where – is a minus sign, and meant to be pronounced, it might need to go at the start of the next line. Greater-than and less-than signs have the same ambiguity, as they are not pronounced when they surround a single word as in an html tag, but are if they are unmatched or surround multiple words separated by spaces. Incidentally, surrounding da-da in angle brackets causes the dash to be pronounced where it otherwise wouldn’t be.

U.S or u.s Pronounced you dot es (this way, domain names such as are pronounced correctly.)
U.S. or u.s. Pronounced you es
US Pronounced you es, unless in a capitalised sentence such as ‘TAKE US AWAY’, where it’s pronounced ‘us’

I also discovered what I’m pretty sure is a bug, and I’ve reported it to Apple. If two carriage returns (not newlines) are followed by any integer, then a dot, then a space, the number is pronounced ‘zero’ no matter what it is. You can try it with this file; download the file, open it in TextEdit, select the entire text of the file, then go to the Edit menu, Speech submenu, and choose ‘Start Speaking’. Quite a few haiku were missed or spuriously found due to that bug, but I happened to find it when trimming out harmless whitespace.

Apart from that bug, it’s all very clever. Note how even without the correct punctuation, it pronounces the ‘dr’s and ‘st’s in this sentence correctly:

the dr who lives on rodeo dr who is better than the dr I met on the st john’s st turnpike

However, it pronounces the second ‘st’ as ‘saint’ in the following:

the dr who lives on rodeo dr who is better than the dr I met in the st john’s st john

This is not just because it knows there is a saint called John; strangely enough, it also gets this one wrong:

the dr who lives on rodeo dr who is better than the dr I met in the st john’s st park

I could play with this all day, or all night, and indeed I have for the last couple of days, but now it’s your turn. Download the new Haiku Detector and paste your favourite novels, theses, holy texts or discussion threads into it.

If you don’t have a Mac, you’ll have to make do with a few more haiku from the New Scientist special issue on the brain which I mentioned in the last post:

Being a baby
is like paying attention
with most of our brain.

But that doesn’t mean
there isn’t a sex difference
in the brain,” he says.

They may even be
a different kind of cell that
just looks similar.

It is easy to
see how the mind and the brain
became equated.

We like to think of
ourselves as rational and
logical creatures.

It didn’t seem to
matter that the content of
these dreams was obtuse.

I’d like to thank the people of the xkcd Time discussion thread for writing so much in so many strange ways, and especially Sciscitor for exporting the entire thread as text. It was the test data set that kept on giving.

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Haiku Detector Update

I’ve been sitting on some improvements to Haiku Detector for a while, and it’s about time I released the new version. I had been planning to put this version on the app store, but I’m waiting to hear back from somebody about an icon for it. So for now, you can download it without going through the store. It should work on Mac OS X 10.6 or later.

This version finds haiku made up of multiple sentences rather than only those made of 17-syllable sentences. I also fixed the bug which caused it to crash occasionally when dealing with very long texts. To celebrate, I’ll go through some of the same texts I did when I first released Haiku Detector, and see what new haiku are discovered. To start with, John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War. This version of Haiku Detector finds 304 haiku in it. Sometimes, sentences can be included in more than one haiku:

“I’m sorry. My sense
of humor was surgically
removed as a child.”

“My sense of humor
was surgically removed as
a child.” “Oh,” I said.

“Oh,” I said. “That was
a joke,” she said, and stood up,
extending her hand.

Here are some of my favourites of the multi-sentence haiku:

She asked, still without
actually looking up
at me. “Pardon me?”

“Okay,” I said. “Mind
if I ask you a question?”
“I’m married,” she said.

“Well, she doesn’t have
to live with you, now does she.”
“How was the cookie?”

“Our friend Thomas would
make it to mile six before
his heart imploded.”

This one sounds like it could be a metaphysical statement about what consciousness is in general:

Your consciousness is
perceiving the small time lag
between there and here.

“I would not presume
to assume, Master Sergeant!”
‘Presume to assume’?

My wife’s out here, sure.
But she’s happy to live her
new life without me.

“Let me see.” Silence.
The familiar voice again.
“Get this log off him.”

“The question now is
what is really going on.”
“Any thoughts on it?”

I think this one is my favourite:

I can just be me.
But I think you could love me
if you wanted to.

I found a lot of new haiku in the CMS paper announcing the discovery of the Higgs boson, but they were all combinations of names from the stupendous author list. Since I included some from New Scientist last time, here are some from the issue of New Scientist that I am currently reading, a special issue on the human brain:

Imaging techniques
are allowing us to see
the brain in action.

The sound waves broke up
the synchronous firing,
ending the seizure.

Thought experiments
Sometimes an experiment
is impossible.

The ancient Greeks knew
about thought experiments
in mathematics.

These two go together:

Does that mean we should
revise our definition
of intelligence?

Until recently,
the same one had been used since
the 1950s.

I have many ideas for improving Haiku Detector, and I’d still like to see if I can detect the best-sounding haiku using linguistic tagging, but before that I’m thinking of rewriting the whole thing in Swift as a learning exercise. Since I don’t have a day job at the moment, I have a bit of free time if I strategically ignore sections of my to-do list. Actually, on that note, here are some particularly obvious haiku from the Mac OS X and iOS Human Interface guidelines:

At a minimum,
a menu displays a list
of menu items.

A picker displays
a set of values from which
a user picks one.

That will do for now. I hope you enjoy playing with the new version of Haiku Detector.

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