Working around Pidgin’s mis-designed certificate error dialog

The Pidgin developers apparently haven’t thought things through very well when it comes to TLS/SSL support because, if you want to connect to a network which uses a self-signed cert, they’ll present you with a permission dialog every time you connect (no “remember” option) and, last time I reported this, they considered it “WONTFIX: self-signed certs are a bug”.

They seem to think that it will force network operators to get proper certificates but, in reality, they don’t have that kind of leverage when every other IRC client allows you to ignore cert errors, so it just forces people to either turn off SSL or desensitizes them to the warning dialogs.

This is especially problematic for me because one of the networks I connect to is encrypted-only, managed by someone who doesn’t trust Let’s Encrypt and, if the Pidgin SSL handshake times out, it remembers the failure rather than re-displaying the prompt on reconnect. Because I have no idea how long the timeout is but it always seems too short, that trained me to punch “allow” on the annoying dialog as quickly as possible without wasting time reading the prompt… never a good sign.

So, today, I’m going to teach you how to get the best of both worlds: How to use stunnel to trick Pidgin into using self-signed SSL without complaining. (And, as a bonus, stunnel makes it easy to verify a self-signed cert without adding it to the system-wide cert store, so it can actually be more secure than the certs the Pidgin developers want you to use.)

First, install stunnel and set it to run on startup. On Debian-based distros like Ubuntu and Mint, this is as simple as running sudo apt-get install stunnel and then setting ENABLED=1 in /etc/default/stunnel4.

Next, we need to write a config file so that, when your client connects to a stunnel server on localhost without encryption, it will make an encrypted connection to the IRC server in question.

The key lines are as follows:

; Maximize security
; NOTE: See the manpage or sample config file for implications
chroot = /var/lib/stunnel4/
setuid = stunnel4
setgid = stunnel4

; Needed for stunnel to work properly
; (Prefix the contents of the chroot line if not using chroot)
pid = /

; Disable support for insecure SSLv2 protocol
options = NO_SSLv2

; Define the actual proxy service
client = yes
accept =
connect =

Now, at this point, you’ve matched what you got from putting up with Pidgin’s security dialog:

  1. Put those lines into /etc/stunnel/whatever_you_want.conf
  2. Start stunnel (sudo /etc/init.d/stunnel4 start if you’re on Ubuntu 14.04 LTS or older)
  3. Set Pidgin to connect to the address in the accept line.

Pidgin will think it’s connecting to an un-encrypted IRC server and the connection will be encrypted between stunnel and the server.

However, we can do one better. If we can get the server certificate in PEM format, we can have stunnel verify it, preventing man-in-the-middle attacks.

The ideal solution would be to download the PEM file through a trusted channel but, as a stop-gap, let’s replicate the “trust whatever we see first” behaviour that SSH uses. Fill in your IRC server’s details in the following command and run it to dump the server cert:

openssl s_client -showcerts -connect </dev/null 2>/dev/null|openssl x509 -outform PEM >your-irc-network.pem

Now, copy the resulting your-irc-network.pem file into /etc/stunnel/ and add the following lines to your whatever_you_want.conf file:

CAfile = /etc/stunnel/your-irc-network.pem

You’ll probably also want to add these lines temporarily so you can see what’s going wrong if the verification fails:

debug = 7
output = /stunnel.log

…and, that’s it. Just restart stunnel, reconnect with your IRC client, and, barring verification errors, you should have an encrypted connection which verifies the self-signed certificate.

(I say “should” because, as of this writing, the self-signed cert I’m testing against is expired, so I can’t get all the way through the verification process to confirm.)

Posted in Geek Stuff | Leave a comment

Fixing “Steam refuses to start (without error message) under VirtualBox”


  1. Disable 3D acceleration for the guest
  2. export CPU_MHZ=2000
  3. find ~/.steam/steam/ubuntu12_32/steam-runtime/ -iname '**' -execdir mv {} {}.bak \;

Since GOG has introduced GOG Connect, I decided I might as well try to turn some worse-than-worthless unredeemed Steam keys into actual GOG-owned games.

Now, given that I don’t trust the Steam client, that means quarantining it inside a VirtualBox VM that can see the public Internet, but not my LAN.

Unfortunately, whoever wrote it most definitely doesn’t code defensively (It’s like driving defensively. Assume Murphy’s Law and code accordingly.), because the /usr/bin/steam wrapper ignores common options like --help and -v and, in my VM, it exits without showing an error message and without actually starting up.

In order to track down what was going wrong, I had to rely on my skills as a developer:

  1. Run file "`which steam`" to verify that I’m dealing with a wrapper script
  2. Run bash -x "`which steam`" to get a readout of what’s actually being executed.
  3. Run bash -x /home/user/.local/share/Steam/ to see what’s happening in the actual wrapper.
  4. Finally see the “Unable to determine CPU Frequency. Try defining CPU_MHZ.” message.
  5. Run export CPU_MHZ=2000; steam and then wait for it to download its updates.
  6. Wait several minutes after it stops producing output while it appears to do nothing, then Ctrl+C out of it.
  7. Try previous steps again and discover an error message getting covered up by the outer wrapper.
  8. Search up results for said error and discover that none of the suggested commands reference paths used in this version of Steam.
  9. Manually craft a new version of them: find .steam/steam/ubuntu12_32/steam-runtime/ -iname '**' -execdir mv {} {}.bak \;
  10. Finally get a helpful error message, advising me to turn off VirtualBox’s 3D acceleration to make Steam work.
  11. Restart the VM with 3D acceleration disabled and try re-setting CPU_MHZ and re-running steam.
Posted in Geek Stuff | Leave a comment

Quick Hack: Global Hotkeys for SMPlayer

I have a family member who has grown used to pausing Audacious Media Player with a quick press on their XF86AudioPlay key, but half of what they listen to is video files, so I wrote a quick shell script to work around SMPlayer‘s lack of global hotkey support.


  1. Install xdotool (on Debian/Ubuntu/Mint)
  2. Put the script somewhere and set it executable
  3. Use your desktop’s global hotkey support or a utility like xbindkeys to run the script whenever something like Ctrl+XF86AudioPlay is pressed.

If you want it to do something other than play/pause, the simplest solution is probably to replace space with "$@"  (including quotes) inside the script, save it under a name like, and then set up associations like these:

  • space
  • Left
  • Right

(You can find the keysym names using the xev tool (on Debian/Ubuntu/Mint) and man xdotool will tell you how to specify modifier keys like Ctrl and Alt)

I initially tried to make it behave exactly like a real global hotkey would, but xdotool seems to have an unavoidable race condition and no way to force a 100ms delay after using the windowfocus command… so, instead, this will momentarily switch window focus, then restore whatever you were working on before.

It should be possible to do it properly if I were willing to either patch xdotool or drop down and write against the bare X11 APIs, but I just don’t have the time for either and this is Good Enough™ for the intended use case.

Posted in Geek Stuff | Leave a comment

How To Report Stoic Studio to Kickstarter and the BBB

I just discovered that Stoic Studios has decided to be a language lawyer (See their comment (screenshot) on backer-only update #62) and claim that, since they never explicitly said I’d get DRM-free copies of The Banner Saga, episodes 2 and 3 for increasing my pledge to $50 (which is the only reason I did it), they’re free to offer me Steam keys (worse than worthless) instead.

(They also seem to have decided against offering the Linux version of the first episode outside Steam, though I haven’t been able to find any clear answer on that one. Turns out that it’s only GOG that doesn’t have it. While I’m still waiting for the new build that was just released to Steam users, an older Linux build with serious performance issues is available via the original backer download link which I’d forgotten about after redeeming the GOG key to spare their bandwidth costs. Possibly a bit of an internal communication issue since the person I was talking to wasn’t initially aware of that.)

I think this is, at best, deceptive advertising and, in my personal opinion, it’s a flat-out bait-and-switch tactic, even if they didn’t originally intend it to be.

I’ve already tweeted about how this makes me wary of trusting any future Kickstarter projects if it’s allowed to stand, reported them to Kickstarter, and reported them to the Better Business Bureau, but the latter two could potentially trip up some people, so here’s a guide:


UPDATE 2016-04-02: Added the “Report this Project to Kickstarter” steps and a reference to Kickstarter’s terms of use.

  1. Log into Kickstarter
  2. Visit the “Campaign” tab on the project page
  3. Scroll to the bottom and click the “Report This Project to Kickstarter” button
  4. Select “Post-funding Issues” and click “Report project”
  5. Visit the Contact Page (“Support” in the site footer)
  6. Select “My pledge · X pledges”
  7. Choose “The Banner Saga” from the resulting list
  8. Select “Reward” from the “What is your question about?” box
  9. Select “Creator accountability” from the resulting submenu
  10. Click the green “Open a support ticket”

When you’re writing your support request:

  • Make it clear that you’ve already tried to work it out with Stoic directly and they told you to escalate it to Kickstarter.
  • Draw as many comparisons as possible between Stoic’s behaviour and what the “Creator accountability” text above the form says.
  • Draw attention to the fact that Kickstarter’s Terms of Use state that a creator must “[have] been honest, and have made no material misrepresentations in their communication to backers” and state that you believe this rule has been violated.
  • Be sure to remind Kickstarter that, if they allow Stoic to get away with playing technicalities like this, then you’ll have trouble trusting any Kickstarter project (since, obviously, it’d only be safe to back them if you hired a lawyer to vet the text of the Kickstarter listing.)

Better Business Bureau

NOTE: While I’m no expert, my understanding is that the BBB cares about where the business is located… so people outside the U.S. and Canada should still be able to file a complaint.

UPDATE: Stoic LLC is now in the Better Business Bureau database, so you are advised to use this direct link to the Central Texas BBB’s “File a complaint against Stoic LLC” page. The steps in the wizard will vary slightly, but it’s still the same basic process as covered in this guide.

  1. Open the Better Business Bureau’s complaint wizard
  2. Answer Yes to “US or Canada?” (They’re in Texas) and choose “business’s product or service (other than a vehicle or cell phone)”
  3. According to their privacy policy, their legally-registered business name is “Stoic LLC“, so enter that in the search field and click “Search”
  4. The BBB doesn’t yet have Stoic on file, so click the “Enter Business Information” button.
  5. Fill out the following information, which I’ve taken from Bloomberg Business’s listing:
    Business Name:
    Stoic LLC
    Online Only Business:
    1103 West 39th 1 half Street, Apartment A
    Postal Code:
    Phone Number:
    E-Mail Address: (source)
    Website URL:
  6. Click the submit button and then “Continue with this Business”
  7. Make sure the complaint type is “Consumer to Business” and then fill in your contact information. (If you have multiple e-mail addresses, I suggest using the same one entered into the Stoic forums)
  8. On the “Your Complaint” page, I suggest the following…
    Complaint Type
    Select “Contract Issues” since this is a case of them trying to unilaterally reinterpret the meaning of a prior “In exchange for $X, we will give you Y if we succeed” agreement.
    How would you like this matter resolved?
    Select “Refund” since they already have your money and there’s no “Partial Refund” option.
    The freeform ‘problem’ and ‘requested solution’ inputs
    We can’t guarantee that everyone who reads this will be familiar with Steam, so be sure to explain what it is and why you don’t consider a Steam key an acceptable substitute for a DRM-free release.
    Also, if you received a physical reward for pledging $50+, you’ll at least want to tell them you’re OK with them deducting the production and shipping costs from the refund you’re demanding.
  9. Fill out the following under complaint details:
    Product/Service Purchased:
    The Banner Saga
    Purchase Date:
    April 20, 2012
    Date Problem First Occurred:
    March 24, 2016 (When their comment was posted)
    Purchase Price:
    (How much you backed for)
    Disputed Amount:
    (The size of the refund you want)
    Payment Made
    Payment Method
    Credit Card
    Are you willing to speak to the media regarding your complaint
    Date of first complaint
    (When you first complained to Stoic)
    Upload a supporting document
    (A screenshot of the conversation)
  10. Confirm that your submission is correct

P.S. Regarding Twitter…

When you’re tweeting about how this makes it hard to trust both @StoicStudio AND @Kickstarter, don’t forget to actually @mention them rather than just saying their names. (I did)

Also, since the relevant update is backers-only, attach a screenshot of the comment where Stoic says they won’t honour the interpretation of their promise that a reasonable person of sound mind would settle on.

Posted in Geek Stuff | 1 Comment

How to get a playable Linux Railroad Tycoon 2 install

By following these instructions, I was able to frankenstein together the Loki Software Linux Railroad Tycoon 2 binaries with the data from a Windows Railroad Tycoon 2 Platinum disc.

WARNING: The installation produced by this will be missing the music and video cutscenes.

  • Music (It doesn’t even seem to be trying to load it, so I have no idea where to start diagnosing.)
  • Video cutscenes (I didn’t care enough to spend the effort. See this blog post for instructions on converting Smacker video to the type of MPEG Loki games expect and read further for how to identify what filenames it’s looking for.)

Required tools:

  • unshield or Wine to unpack the Windows installer
  • unzip to bypass the “Please insert ‘Railroad Tycoon 2 Loki disc'” message in the Linux installer
  • Perl and the /usr/bin/rename symlink to Perl’s prename

Required files:

Instructions (all approaches):

  1. Put into your target directory
  2. Insert the Railroad Tycoon 2 CD into your CD drive
  3. Type or copy-paste the following commands, adjusting paths as appropriate:
# Unpack the Linux binaries
cd data
tar xvf patch-1.54c.tar

# Unpack the data files from the CD into the expected layout
unshield /media/*/RT2_PLAT/_setup/
unshield /media/*/RT2_PLAT/_setup/
mv Root_Files/* .
rmdir Root_Files

# Fix issues caused by Windows being case-insensitive and Linux 
# being case-sensitive
mv Data data
(cd data; rename 'y/A-Z/a-z/' *)
(cd maps; rename 's/.MP2/.mp2/' *; rename 's/.MAP/.map/' *; rename 'y/A-Z/a-z/' \#*)

That will get the statically-built binary (./rt2) playable but you won’t get any sound because the static linking prevents PulseAudio from faking ALSA’s API. (It may play audio if run via pasuspender but I don’t like how pasuspender mucks with things, so I didn’t test it.)

Additional Instructions for working audio:

The simplest way to get working audio is to use the dynamic version. For that, you need some old library dependencies and a wrapper script capable of providing a 32-bit version of padsp’s functionality on 64-bit Linux:

tar xvaf loki_compat_libs-1.3.tar.bz2 --wildcards 'Loki_Compat/libsmjpeg-0.2.*' 'Loki_Compat/libSDL-1.*'
cat > << EOF
export LD_PRELOAD='/usr/lib/i386-linux-gnu/pulseaudio/'
export LD_LIBRARY_PATH=Loki_Compat
if [ "$1" = '--strace' ]; then
    strace ./rt2.dynamic 2>&1 | egrep -v '/(var|etc|lib)/|.loki/rt2|[./]pulse|Loki_Compat' | grep -i 'No such file'
chmod +x

Now, you can use to launch it and your sound effects will work too.

Additional Instructions if you want to try to get videos or music working:

First, the most important trick I used to figure out which files to rename and how was running the game via this command:

strace ./rt2 2>&1 | grep -v '.loki/rt2' | grep -i 'No such file'

I’ve incorporated a more polished version into which can be triggered by running it as ./ --strace

(Don’t worry about the LD_PRELOAD errors. That’s just strace complaining that it can’t use the 32-bit PulseAudio library that we’re requesting for the game itself.)

Second, be aware that, if you break the audio on the dynamic version, don’t click the Quit button. It’ll freeze the game without releasing your pointer. Instead, if audio isn’t working, hit Alt+F4 to ungrab the mouse and keyboard and switch to windowed mode, then use xkill to kill the window.

In case you forget, I also advise running these so you can recover from a freeze while fullscreened by using Ctrl+Alt+F1 to switch to a console, logging in, running ./, and then using Ctrl+Alt+F7 to return to your desktop.

echo "DISPLAY=:0.0 xkill -id $(DISPLAY=:0.0 wmctrl -l | grep Railroad | cut -d' ' -f1)" > ~/
chmod +x ~/
Posted in Geek Stuff | 2 Comments

Composing Music: A Layperson’s Quickstart Guide

Updated 2015-12-21: Added a basic explanation for the concept of the tonic note, some chord dictionary links, and a link to JGuitar’s Harmonizer in the Scales section.

Having an analytical mind like mine is great, because it means I can easily understand why a thought process works or doesn’t work, but that also comes with a downside: When starting into an entirely new field, I have trouble making the intuitive leaps needed to get going.

In order to help others who may have a similar orientation (and to mothball the urge to research and write a whole book about this when my plans for a story-plotting book are still on hold for lack of time), here are a few insights I picked up over the years which should allow basic music composition at a level sufficient to stay interested and improve (if I can ever find time to actually do it).

I apologize that it’s all so rough and incomplete and the writing’s so sloppy. It’s already taken an entire day rather than an hour or two and ballooned up to far longer than I expected.

(Note: If any of the YouTube links are geo-blocked, I’ve provided enough information that it should be easy to copy-paste the title into the search field on the error page)

A progression of notes/chords feels “complete” if it ends on the “tonic”
The tonic is the note that your brain identifies as dominant in a progression of notes and one of the TED talks I watched (I don’t have time to track down the exact one) explained that, from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Andrew W.K.’s Ready to Die, there’s a simple rule. A progression of notes/chords must end on the tonic  (possibly in a different octave) in order to feel “complete”.
In simple pieces, it’s most common for your brain to identify the tonic as the note you start on. Let’s take Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for an example. “Twinkle, Twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are.” feels complete because the terminal “are” plays the same note as the initial “Twinkle” while “Up above the world so high” and “Like a diamond in the sky” leave you in anticipation because they do not.
In more complex pieces, it’s possible to start on a note other than the tonic because your brain identifies the tonic based on how the notes relate to each other. For example, if you start with an arpeggiated chord (more on that later), the first note you play might not be the tonic for the chord you’re playing and your brain will instinctively choose the chord’s dominant pitch as the tonic instead. (Chords are named after their dominant pitch, so it’s very helpful to consult a chord dictionary. I couldn’t find an all-round best choice, but is best if you don’t need audio, JGuitar has sound clips, lists the formulas for constructing chords within any scale, and there’s also one built into every Yamaha keyboard I’ve seen so far.
I haven’t had time to properly research the low-level mechanics of what makes a progression appealing, but, if you need more help getting started, you can always pick ready-made chord progressions (see also autochords) and then experiment with different keys and tempos. As 4 chords by Axis of Awesome and Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel Rant hint at for comedy purposes, there are only so many chord progressions (and even fewer that feel right for a given genre) that you can form which will appeal to a western audience (It’s a learned thing. Musical Involvement by Donald J. Funes introduced me to the Indian Raga and Javanese systems of music but some of the very aspects which characterize them turn me off… primarily in the Javanese stuff.)
Update 2016-10-28: If you want more examples, Benny of Axis of Awesome has done another “same chord progression, many songs” medley under the name “Another Four Chords” (And, while his “Six Chords” uses more than one chord progression throughout the video, the beginning of it does a great job of showing how each step in the simple progression maps to a phase of the embellished version he’s playing.)
The simplest way to build a complex piece is by combining complementary simple ones
As with subplots when writing stories, the simplest way to bulk up a song is to take a bunch of simple melodies that work together, play them at the same, and change them out before they have a chance grow stale… but never all at once, so continuity is preserved.
This layered structure is easy to see in many pop and eurodance songs but is especially clear with the title/menu theme to the Super Nintendo game Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. The song starts with one layer, lets the listener get used to it, then adds another. Repeat until all of your layers are present, then start swapping individual tracks within the song to keep things fresh and varied.
If you really want to see how powerful this trick can be, find some songs you like on the Share > Projects section of the LMMS website or in The Mod Archive, open them in the appropriate tool (LMMS for the former, OpenMPT or equivalent for the latter) and take a look at how they’re constructed. (Keep in mind that some of the looping will be less obvious in stuff from The Mod Archive because the file formats aren’t as advanced as an LMMS project and composers had to manually repeat their note patterns.)
Variations on what you’ve already made are a good idea
Again going back to Musical Involvement by Funes, the key to understanding how big, complex pieces like symphonic compositions work is recognizing that they’re “exploring themes”. That is, they play a bunch of different variations on a musical idea in order to guide the listener through its emotional implications.
For this example, I’ll use the rondo from “Sinfonie de fanfares” by Jean-Joseph Mouret. A rondo (from the Old French for “little round”) is a type of musical structure which plays a verse, then diverges from it, then returns. Rinse, lather, repeat.
In this piece, the trumpet first plays part A, then part B, then returns to part A, then plays part C which resembles part B but is noticeably different. Then, the trumpet and organ start to take turns with the organ parts being rondos unto themselves.
In longer pieces, you might instead see something like sonata form, which can be very crudely summarized as “Music A gets played, then music B, then they attack, parry, and riposte like duellists in a fencing match, then it ends with music B winning.”
Icicles by F-777 does a good job of demonstrating the use of these elements in a trance composition. It starts by layering loops, one-by-one, then moves to experimenting with variations on different musical ideas built around simple but appealing progressions, then finally ends by returning to where it started, similar to traditional classical forms like rondo and ternary form.
Arpeggios and related techniques
Also sometimes called a rolled chord, an arpeggio refers to playing the notes in a chord one after the other rather than all at once. For some instruments, this is your only option but, even if it’s not, it’s a great way to add more variety to your composition.
If you have a keyboard like the Yamaha PSR-E413 with an arpeggio helper function, you’ll probably find that there are a lot of different ways to do this (walking up the keys, walking down the keys, playing medleys of the single notes and two-note chords contained within a three-note chord, etc.) and they provide an easy way to squeeze more variety and interest out of a chord which you already know will work.
For example, here is one form of the infamous “4 chords” progression in LMMS (“one form” because octave doesn’t matter. You could have it go up at the end as long as that last chord is still A, C, and F):
…and here is a slightly more interesting piece of music achieved just by partially arpeggiating the second and fourth cords:
…and here’s another one, but still the same four chords.
Hopefully, that will help to get your imagination brewing.
Never discount the power of lyrics
The key to making a successful song is making something people will remember fondly. While being catchy is always something to strive for, never discount the power of distracting the listener from your weaknesses with powerful lyrics.
In fact, you could say that Rap is built upon that because it’s not really music in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s closer to being slam poetry (Marshall Davis Jones : “Touchscreen”) set to musical accompaniment.
As for making lyrics, the simplest way to make them good is to recognize two things:
First, Lyrics are poetry, where the structure is constrained by the music but the distraction provided by an appealing melody and beat forgives some laziness in the writing. Anything you can learn about writing good poetry will make you a more effective lyricist.
Most importantly, learn to use meter (the pattern of stressed and un-stressed syllables) to supercharge your rhyming scheme because that’s what makes things like Dr. Seuss books so powerfully appealing. They’re poetry for kids with strong, consistent meter.
Update 2016-10-28: Don’t believe me? Take a look at the lyrics to Bus Stop by The Hollies. It’s a masterpiece of elegant songwriting. Just the words needed and nothing more. (For example, look at how they rhyme “[at the] bus stop” with “[the] bus stops”. Beautiful.)
Second, poetry (and, thus, lyrics) can do anything prose can, whether it’s a story like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an essay like “If” by Rudyard Kipling, or jokes (eg. any song by Tom Lehrer).What this implies is that most if not all of the tricks for planning out high-quality writing in other formats still apply. (eg. learning to write imagery well)
For example, classic fiction becomes classic either by changing the landscape (eg. Don Quixote invented the modern novel, Frankenstein invented modern sci-fi, etc.) or by remaining relevant after it outlives the era which birthed it (eg. stuff by George Orwell like 1984).
The big trick for things like Frankenstein and 1984 is that they’re actually essays in disguise, sort of like Aesop’s fables… which means that you can use the same essay-planning tricks you learned in high school. (Come up with a thesis statement, develop an outline, etc.)
The other trick is to focus on things that don’t change… things that are part of the human condition. I was once told of an Ancient Greek play in which a father complains about how all his teenage son wants to do is lay around all day, listening to the bards and farting. Sound familiar?
Get creative
Humans are addicted to novelty so one of the most effective ways to make your lyrics work well is to sing about a topic that nobody else seems to be paying much attention to.

At the very least, you don’t want to do something that’s overdone unless you can find a way to make it fresh again. For example, everyone’s written a love song but not everyone’s written A Summer Song by Chad and Jeremy. Everyone’s written a breakup song, but not everyone’s written Dunrobin’s Gone by Brave Belt.

I suggest looking into Folk music if you want inspiration for music on broader topics. Here are a few examples:

…and then there’s geek folk, known as filk after the fan community decided to keep a typo and make it their own:

  • 307 Ale by Tom Smith (booze so powerful you have to bend physics to make it)
  • The Gods Are Not Crazy (drunk gods) and Bones (Dr. McCoy’s character from Star Trek) by Leslie Fish
  • Chickasaw Mountain by Leslie Fish (Added 2016-10-28, I wrote a whole post about the elegant, multi-layered meaning of the lyrics in this one)
If you still need more help, drop by your local library and grab some books on philosophy and critical thinking. If you can make your lyrics thought-provoking like Lucifer by Don Simons and Leslie Fish, they’ll have more appeal… and remember, there’s always someone wiser than you and someone who makes you look wise. Perfection is the enemy of “good enough”.
I’ll use Lucifer as an example to demonstrate what I mean:
  • It starts out with a phrase that sounds good (let me teach you to wonder and worry) and a phrase that sounds bad (permit me to tell you how to wage war), and then spends its time convincing you that those two phrases are actually two interpretations of the same thing.
  • It implies that, before eating The Fruit, humans were non-sapient, having all the ability to “plan for tomorrow” of a pet cat.
  • It specifically says “Taste of the fruit of the tree that is knowledge”. Knowledge isn’t the fruit itself; Knowledge bears fruit.
  • It’s not just the knowledge “of good and evil”, it’s “of good and of evil and all the world’s lore”. (“Lore” being an archaic word for knowledge that’s generally used to mean “traditional/folk knowledge” in modern use)
  • Using clever variations on the same phrase, it argues the thesis that eating the apple was the right thing to do using a structure similar to a four-paragraph essay:
    • Verse one argues that a paradise like heaven is pointless if no creature has the ambition to grow beyond what they are now. (ie. if humans already live in paradise on Earth in the form of Eden).
    • Verse two argues that there was no reason for God to create the heavens if they cannot inspire a creature to reach for them (assuming a geocentric cosmology).
    • Verse three argues that a reward like heaven is pointless if no creature ever thinks outside the limits of what they are taught.
    • Verse four argues that heaven and hell are nothing more and nothing less than the possible outcomes of granting ourselves power through knowledge.
Whether it’s an essay, a story, a poem, or a song, the process to get to that is very simple. Brainstorm out a novel concept (follow the Pixar rule of throwing out your first few ideas as too obvious), then break it up into smaller problems, just like arguing for a thesis in an essay.
If philosophy isn’t your thing, maybe something else. Listen to ’39 by Queen and try to figure out what it’s about before looking it up… then listen again to get the full impact.
(Also, don’t forget that it’s legal to reinterpret music old enough to be in the public domain. In fact, that’s how humans built new songs for most of our history. For example, “This Land is Your Land” adapted its melody from an earlier song and Woody Guthrie himself didn’t believe in copyright.)
You never use all of the notes available to you at the same time, because only certain sets sound good together. These sets are called scales and there are many different ones, varying in popularity depending on when and where you are.
For example, the oldest type of scale (and, as Bobby McFerrin demonstrated, the most instinctively obvious) is a pentatonic scale. The black keys on a piano form one possible pentatonic scale. Wander your fingers up and down on them, and you’ll be half-way to traditional-sounding music. Play chords on them and you’ll get something that sounds like traditional Chinese music.
Each scale will lend a different feel to your music (best illustrated in the Far Side comic where an nasty-looking guy in black walks into the saloon and the banjo player says to the piano player, “Bad guy comin’ in Arnie! …Minor key!”).
In western music, the most common family of scales are the major and minor diatonic scales. In fact, if you play only the white keys on a piano (or use no sharp/flat notes in sheet music), you’re playing on the C major scale. (The white keys aren’t actually equally spaced. To walk up the keyboard in even increments, you have to play both the black and white keys.)
Transposing (playing a tune in a new key) is quite simple. Just slide each note up or down by the same amount. (eg. if C becomes D, then E becomes F because you move two keys to the right in both cases)
That’s how medleys like “4 chords” work. They transposed all of the songs they showed into the same key.
JGuitar also has a tool called Harmonizer which lets you explore which chords and scales sound good together.
Key shifts
One useful aspect of music that I don’t always pick up on (it can be subtle) is the key shift. That is, changing the key you’re playing in part-way through the song. Good, easy-to-notice examples of this include the third verse in I’ll Make a Man Out of You from Disney’s Mulan, when the song shifts up to give a greater sense of urgency to “time is racing toward us”, or just before “soon the duet will become a trio” in The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music.)
Also, on a related note, I’ll Make a Man Out of You (like many Disney songs), is an excellent example of distracting the listener from a very simple melody using lyrics.
Time signatures
While not strictly necessary to play around with composition in the beginning, understanding key signatures is very helpful… especially since programs like LMMS will snap your notes to a grid by default.
The time signature of a piece of music refers to its beat pattern with the actual numbers on a piece of sheet music referring to how many quarter notes per bar. For example, 2/4 time means two quarter notes per bar (“ONE two ONE two”) while 4/8 time would mean four eighth notes (“ONE and two and ONE and two and”). How long a bar lasts in actual time is determined by your tempo (in beats per minute).
Wikipedia has some good videos illustrating how the various common time signatures look and sound.
Further learning
If you can, I highly recommend borrowing Musical Involvement and its accompanying CD of example clips from your local library, because there are a ton of little things which I don’t have time to cover that are easy to notice once you know what to look for.
For example, Syncopation. You might not have noticed, but we intuitively expect the emphasis on a beat pattern to land on the first note. (eg. “ONE two three, ONE two three” in a waltz)  Forcing the emphasis to land on another beat makes the music feel more tense and this “raggedness” is the origin of the term “ragtime”. (See, for example, Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. Listen to the beat and you’ll notice that, in the parts where it’s clear and obvious, it’s “duh DA duh DA”)
Posted in Geek Stuff | Leave a comment

…and I also updated my userscript

After not noticing I’d been messaged until hours later, I decided to amend the userscript I use to watch for new forum replies so it also watches other kinds of notifications (ie. private messages, friend requests, and game library updates). – Updated Thread Count in Title

More details on the GreasyFork page.

Posted in Geek Stuff | Leave a comment