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Thursday, December 08, 2016

The 15-Year Blogoversary

15 years and 1,213 posts! My first experience with the World Wide Web came in 1995, and by 1997 I had my own web page. The first web authoring tool I remember using was Composer, an HTML editor built into the Netscape Communicator suite. That helped me learn some HTML, and later I used Microsoft Word 97 and then FrontPage 98 and later Macromedia Dreamweaver to design more elaborate pages. Some of my FrontPage-built sites are still on the web. As I learned more about HTML standards and validation I wrote more HTML by hand, but I still wanted a way to make publishing to the web easier.

By 2001 I understood that (a) sites should be updated regularly and (b) FTP'ing sites and pages from my desktop to a server was a bit of a pain. I had heard about some early blogging platforms and chose one, Blogger, to try out. As you can see, I'm still here.

My receipt from Pyra Labs for Blogger Pro
My first post using Blogger came on December 8, 2001. A few months later I paid for Blogger Pro, which offered additional authoring tools, like spell checking. Yes, in 2002 spellcheck was something worth paying for because it wasn't built into browsers yet. In 2003, Google bought Blogger from Pyra Labs, which later freed up Pyra Labs's co-founder, Evan Williams, to go do other things (like make Twitter). All in all, Google has been a good steward of Blogger — although the platform doesn't get updated frequently, Blogger has been stable, relatively malware-free, and the BlogSpot hosting service is still free.

My second blog using Blogger was a classroom blog, "FHS Math," that I started in January of 2005 to list daily assignments for my students and to have a place to document my approach to standards-based grading. Looking back, I was ahead of the curve on both classroom blogging and SBG. I can't take too much credit, though, as I changed schools and stopped both classroom blogging and SBG. It didn't seem to fit the school culture or the resources available to students there, something I've written about in the past.

Along the way I used Blogger for a couple other short-lived blogs, and one link blog that gets new content in fits and spurts. I don't blog so much here anymore, on what is my "personal" blog. When I returned to graduate school in the Fall of 2009, I started a "professional" blog at blog.mathed.net. I've found plenty to write there in the past 7+ years, but I try not to ignore this blog completely. When grad school is finished I'd like to write more about photography and outdoor pursuits, which was the focus of downclimb.com from the beginning, and I know this blog will be there when that day comes.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Last.fm and Ten Years of Web 2.0

Ten years ago yesterday I scrobbled my first tracks to last.fm. What's scrobbling? On last.fm, scrobbling refers to automatic music track logging to the internet. For me, uploading a record of my music listening habits was my first real experience with "Web 2.0." Remember Web 2.0? It referred to websites of user-generated content that enabled virtual communities and interoperability. Now such sites are too ubiquitous on the web to warrant a special designation — they're just the web. But that wasn't true in 2006, and even though I'd been putting content on the internet since 1996, at the time it was enough to make me a little nervous. What did these strangers want with my data, and what was in it for me?

Ten years and 24,941 scrobbles later, I have my answer: I have a really cool record of all the music I've listened to the past 10 years! Well, not "all," technically: I've certainly listened to music in places and on devices that didn't have a last.fm audioscrobbler plugin. But I have tracked the vast majority of all music I've listened to at my computer (first with Amarok, then Clementine, then Google Music), on my smartphones, and on my home theater PC. Listening to 25,000 tracks over 10 years means averaging about 6-7 tracks per day, every day.

For many years I said in my last.fm profile, "My favorite instrument may be the female voice. Boys with guitars rarely impress me. Bass is often better hummed, not thumped." With that in mind, the artists I've listened to most shouldn't surprise you:

Favorite Artists




I've been a Tori Amos fan ever since seeing her on Letterman promoting Under the Pink in 1994, so I've had a lot of opportunities to listen to her. It helps that she's steadily put out new music over the 20+ years since. I've been a fan of Sia since 2001 when she was doing vocals for some Zero 7 songs. I've only been listening to Morcheeba and Skye Edwards for the past year or so, but I've caught up quickly. How did I miss them until so recently?

Favorite Albums



Sia takes the top two spots, and I have all the data I need to make "I listened to her before it was cool" brags. Tori's Night of Hunters album was the kind of album that begged me to listen to in its entirety, playing in the background while I worked, so it got a lot of plays in a relatively short amount of time.

Favorite Tracks



You see that I've only scrobbled 3,614 total tracks, which means I've listened to each of those tracks an average of 7 times. Except here an average doesn't tell a very accurate story, as I'm not shy about listening to a song I like over, and over, and over again. Number 8 above, Chic's I'll Be There, is a good example — I probably listened to it 80-90 times in the course of a week or two, leaving it on repeat as I worked on writing a paper. You might think that after listening to these songs so many times I'd have the lyrics memorized, but you'd be wrong. I might know some, but usually I'm not paying attention to the words. I pay more attention to the sounds and how they work together. Case in point, which I learned from last.fm: At one point long ago I noticed I'd listened to Stereolab's Miss Modular 37 times, making it one of my most listened-to tracks. It was a song from a compilation album and I didn't know anything about the group, so I decided to look them up. Only when I read about the band did I realize that Miss Modular is sung in French, not English. I'd never bothered to notice, and you can see I've listened to it many more times since.

So that's 10 years on last.fm and 10 years contributing to a Web 2.0 service. Honestly, it's luck that I chose a service that's still around after 10 years. Last.fm has changed hands in that time, and variously emphasized music recommendations, streaming radio, live concert promotions, and being a social network. I've mostly enjoyed the statistics, and I'm glad that feature of the site is still going strong.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016

Muhammad Ali died late last night. To say I saw this coming wouldn't tell the whole story. Several times, over the past few years, I found myself suddenly struck with the thought, "Ali will be gone soon." It was the kind of thought that hit me as I lie in bed, unable to sleep, but unable to focus my thoughts. I wasn't seeing the future, and I'm not particularly sentimental about the dead. But the fact that my subconscious would do this to me should give you an idea of what Muhammad Ali means to me.

Early Memories

As a young boy, I had a few pieces of sports equipment: a bicycle, an old baseball glove passed down from my dad, and a pair of boxing gloves, which I used to hit a heavy bag fashioned from my dad's old Air Force duffle bag. My interest in boxing was initially driven by the Rocky movies, but I remember the first Ali fight I ever saw: an ESPN replay of the first Ali-Norton fight, from March 31, 1973. I'm going to guess I was 11 or 12 years old when I saw it. I was at my grandfather's house, and my dad called me into the living room to watch with him. He said something like, "If you like the Rocky movies, you should watch the real thing. This guy is Muhammad Ali, and he said he was the greatest." My father went on to tell me about how Norton broke Ali's jaw early in the fight, yet Ali continued through the pain and lost the decision. I'm pretty sure my father would have been pulling for Norton in '73, but I sensed respect for Ali's career. Had my grandfather been in the room, he'd probably have made us change the channel to something featuring white people. I watched a lot of Hee Haw at grandpa's, but wasn't allowed to watch The Cosby Show. Maybe that added to the feeling that there was something special about what I was seeing, but this one fight, with its gritty realism replacing the Hollywood drama of the Rocky franchise, was enough to make me want to know more about Ali.

I loved reading biographies, and our middle school library had a couple about Ali. One was a very simple book, written for children, and the other was Ali's autobiography. The autobiography was published in 1975, just after the last Frazier fight, and while it was co-authored with Richard Durham, in hindsight I'm sure nothing in the book appeared without the approval of Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam. Understandably, then, the book focused more on Ali's rich political and religious narrative, from joining the NOI, to changing his name, to refusing the Vietnam draft. The book told me so much that the children's biography did not. It introduced me to Malcolm X, the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests, and Islam. By eighth grade, I read Malcolm X's autobiography (I had to get it through interlibrary loan), I read Roots, I learned about the race riots in Watts and Newark, and I read about Islam at the public library. It was the best self-guided history class I ever had. To study Ali was to study America.

I've collected a few books since, with the latest (Blood Brothers) arriving last Tuesday.

The boxing section of my bookshelf

Ali has said that turning his back on Malcolm X was one of his biggest regrets.

The Fights

In 1990, NBC ran a series called "The Greatest Fights Ever," and I recorded them on VHS and watched them over and over. Clay-Liston I. Ali-Frazier I. The Rumble in the Jungle. The Thrilla in Manilla. I bought an HBO/Sports Illustrated documentary and I can still hear the narration in my head. What was particularly great about the NBC series were the characters they brought in to help tell the stories, including Ferdie Pacheco, Angelo Dundee, Don Dunphy, Archie Moore, George Benton, and Eddie Futch. They became as familiar to me as Ali's rhymes.

Later I acquired more Ali footage on DVD, and when I first got access to ESPN Classic I built a digital video recorder and captured all the Ali footage I could. In one form or another, I now have over 100 hours of boxing footage in my library, most of it of Ali. By watching all these videos over and over, Ali is likely my most-watched sportsman of my lifetime, even though almost all his fights preceded my lifetime. I don't follow or watch the boxing of today, but I've watched some Ali fights dozens of times, like I did during a workout last week.
March 8 of this year was the 45th anniversary of the first Ali-Frazier fight. I recently noticed this fight wasn't in my digital library, and I didn't have a full version on DVD, either. Often called "The Fight of the Century," this meeting of two unbeaten heavyweight champions is much harder to find than other Ali fights, but I knew where I had it — in my VHS collection, on those old NBC recordings I made in the summer of 1990. Just a few nights ago I reconnected my VCR and made a digital copy of that broadcast, just so I could continue to watch it forever. Again, it's not like a had a premonition that Ali's death was imminent, although the possibility crossed my mind. It's just a reminder of how rare it's been in my life to not be watching or reading something about Ali.

I didn't even have to stage this photo, as these have been sitting on my desk now for several days.

I could say so much about Ali's fights, but I'll limit myself to some bullet points:
  • For the record, I believe Ali really did land that knockdown punch in the second Liston fight. But I also believe Liston did get paid and was fine turning the knockdown into a knockout. (Also, that was an embarrassing job of refereeing by Jersey Joe Walcott in that fight. Yes, I have a better-than-average ability to remember who the referees were in big Ali fights.)
  • The Cleveland Williams fight might exhibit Ali at his peak form, but it didn't help that Williams was recovering from gunshot wounds. Maybe I should watch the Zora Folley fight a few more times, as Ali was really good there, too.
  • There's something that fascinates me about the category of fighter that gave Ali trouble. Mildenberger, Chavalo, Bonavena, Frazier, and Norton all could come in quick and low, and do it awkwardly enough to throw off Ali's rhythm.
  • I understand why the rope-a-dope became famous in the "Rumble in the Jungle," but I wish more people remembered and talked about Ali's brilliant use of a right-hand lead against Foreman that night in Zaire. Just brilliant.
  • The Thrilla in Manilla is probably the best fight I've ever seen, but I hate that two men had to come so close to death for it.

Legacy

My relationship with Muhammad Ali has changed in the past five to ten years. I've long seen Ali as both an athlete and a civil rights figure, but following the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013 it struck me that Ali was likely the most prominent living civil rights figure in the world. Long lives for our civil rights figures are not something we can take for granted. While we were saddened to see Ali's health comprised by Parkinson's, I'm thankful Ali wasn't shot down like Malcolm, Martin, and so many others.

It's not just that Ali survived threats and health problems for so long. He outlived so many of his competitors, too. Take the book and documentary Facing Ali. The film came out in 2009 and featured Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes, George Chuvalo, Ken Norton, Sir Henry Cooper, Ron Lyle, Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers, Ernie Terrell, and George Foreman. Of those, Norton, Cooper, Lyle, Frazier, and Terrell all died between 2011 and 2014. I'm so glad that I heard their stories before they were gone. The same goes for Angelo Dundee and Bert Sugar, who both died in 2012. Boxing itself is a brutal sport, but its people comprise an amazing cast of characters that make the sport what it is. Many of these veterans of the sport told and retold the Ali stories, even as Ali lost the ability to tell them for himself.

An undergraduate student I taught a few years ago made a negative comment to me about Islam. It made me realize that for the majority of current college students, their first awareness of Islam came in the context of 9/11. How fortunate am I to have had such a different experience, and to have Muhammad Ali as my introduction to the Muslim world?

My relationship with Ali hasn't all been about lifting him onto higher pedestals. More recently, I've learned more and thought more about Ali's treatment of Joe Frazier. This was really highlighted by the book Ghosts of Manila and brought up more and more in documentaries and conversations since. I recorded a "Beyond the Glory" FOX Sports documentary about Frazier and watched it over and over, and my admiration and understanding of Frazier has grown immensely. So much so, when I was in Philadelphia for a conference a couple years ago, I felt no need to visit the Rocky statue until I first had an opportunity to visit a proper Joe Frazier statue in that city. As of late 2015, Philly now has a Frazier statue. I was just reading about it and the death of Joe Frazier earlier today, another reminder that Ali and his peers are often not far from my mind.

For the past few days, I've had the HBO documentary "Ali-Frazier I: One Nation Divisible" queued up in YouTube, waiting for me to watch it. I want to know more about how the personal tensions between Ali and Frazier reflected and were reflected by tensions within the American public, particularly within the Black community. So yet again, I'm getting another history lesson because of Muhammad Ali. It will surely lead to another, and another, and all that will be written in the coming days will give me plenty of new material to study. Just as I got so much from what Ali accomplished before my birth, I'll continue to learn from Ali after his death. You said you were the greatest before you knew you were, and you'll continue to be the greatest forever more.

Monday, July 20, 2015

RAGBRAI 2015: Fort Dodge

Chautauqua Park in Storm Lake
I made it to Fort Dodge and the mobile networks seem to be coping with traffic so far, so I'll add more to this post. Last night in Storm Lake I awoke to rain at about 2 am. I knew it was raining because I had purposely left my rain fly half-on and it didn't take much to secure it to keep me dry. I woke up around 5:30 to the sound of other people breaking down their tents, and I (slowly) followed suit, eventually rolling out of town at 7:15. Bathrooms, bottle filling, bag loading, etc. can all take a while with so many people doing it at once.

Storm Lake
I've quickly learned that while I might not be fast to get up, I'm decently fast on my bike. With about 3000 training miles in Colorado, I can keep a pretty fast pace without getting winded. I rode the first two hours today in the rain, which finally let up around the time I got to Manson.

Brunch in Manson
Some people come to RAGBRAI for the ride, some come for the party. Most balance the two, but I'm one of those who's here for the ride. I stop now and then to fill up with water or get something to eat, but I try to get back on the road quickly. Today I got water in Fonda (my 6th/7th grade math teacher's hometown), a sandwich from the Scouts in Manson, and my first slice of rhubarb pie at this great stand in Clare, the last big stop before Ft. Dodge.

Clare was a great last stop before Ft. Dodge
I got to Ft. Dodge just before noon, just in time to snag one of the camping spots with afternoon shade. If there's any reason to ride early, ride fast, or both, it's camping in the shade. I'm just south of Fort Dodge Senior High, the school where I did my 2-month high school student teaching placement. The middle school I worked at for 2 more months is just down the street.

A beautiful day in a shady spot in Fort Dodge.
A guy I talked to after arriving said that by the looks of downtown, Fort Dodge felt like a town with it's best years behind it. Maybe hes right. To me this is a mining town, where gypsum mining operations have fed the local economy for years. Like a lot of mining towns, there's something about this place that just feels a little tougher, a little harder, even if it's not prettier.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

RAGBRAI 2015: Storm Lake

What a beautiful day to ride a bike! The air was cool and (relatively) dry for July in Iowa and I couldn't help but push the pace today. Some riders surely got out before 6 am, but I didn't dip my rear tire in the Missouri River in Sioux City until 6:45. I left town slowly in a crowd, but as I passed people and skipped most of the many stops along the road, the number of riders around me shrunk considerably. I saw very few riders in the last 10 miles into Storm Lake, and I felt a little like a guest who showed up to an event well before it was scheduled to start. I couldn't find a place to fill with water, the food vendors hadn't finished setting up, and the volunteers at the bag pick-up were still getting the hang of things. Getting here early did have some advantages, though: I had my pick of tent sites, plenty of time to shower and rest, and for an hour or two, Verizon's network was still mostly functional. That last bit is certainly not the case now, so I'm leaving this post as a one-paragraph, no-picture update (which hopefully uploads), and I'll try again tomorrow from Ft. Dodge.