Thursday, September 25, 2008

Interesting Article on Pitch Development Training

I come from a musical family. On those occasions we get together, we generally break out into spontaneous song. Usually these songs have four parts to them. In those cases where they don't, it's often more like five or eight.

Looking back on my childhood years, I find that I can't pinpoint the exact time that we became a musical family--it was just always so. We've nearly always had a piano in the home, even when we were stationed in Germany for four years. I remember my Dad occasionally arranging pieces of vocal music for weddings. I remember having groups of people from church over in our house for singing sessions.

And I remember, back in my pre-teen years (just as my voice was starting to change), how we'd all be crammed into the Toyota driving somewhere, and my Dad would suddenly pull out the pitchpipe, blow a C, and demand that we all start singing The Lord Bless You And Keep You (with the polyphonic ending!).

Daaaad! Not again!

This is a tradition that I fully intend to pass on to my children. :-)

The ability to read music, to glance at a page full of notes and know what's going on musically, has come in mighty handy over the years. And the ability to hold my own vocal part, when I'm the only one on that part--and my part is in difficult, dissonant harmonies with the other parts--has come in mighty handy too. But it didn't come easily, and it took a lot of practice. I'm not sure this is the sort of thing that one picks up by osmosis, even when one attends a church like ours, where we have a tradition of four-part A Capella singing. I managed to pick up these skills somehow; my wife, who grew up in very similar congregations to the ones I attended, didn't--at least not to the same degree.

So in the pedagogical division of labor in our little homeschool here, I'm the music teacher.

And I'm very interested in reading whatever material I can find on music education of children--especially the teaching of music theory, since a strong understanding of music theory is crucial to good sight-reading skills.

Well, in the Carnival of Homeschooling from last week there was an interesting article dealing with the development of the "inner ear". And by "inner ear", he's not referring to the Cochlea or those funny little bones or structures that keep you from listing to port--he's referring to the ability to "hear" the right pitches in the head, regardless of whether they are being played or sung at all.

In a really well-trained musician, this results in the ability that was portrayed in the movie Amadeus, where Solieri is reading the manuscripts of Mozart's music that were just handed to him, and is hearing the music in his head, without needing to have them played first. (And in an extremely well-trained musician, this results in the ability to write good music when you're completely deaf, as with Beethoven and Smetana.)

I'm not that ambitious. :-) But I have been thinking about the kind of musical training I need to give my kids. I've been giving regular piano lessons to the Fairy, and she's been doing well. We're going slowly, and she doesn't particularly like to practice, but she's making progress. But the little Angel on my Right Shoulder (or is it the Devil on my Left? I can't always tell) keeps insinuating that there's so much more that she needs to be learning--how to read the notes on the staff better, how to do scales, how to sing so that she matches pitches. She's definitely getting better at this last one, but I admit that my own pride sometimes gets in the way of allowing her just to be a little kid. She's a Power kid, for goodness sakes! This stuff should be coming naturally to her! Well, no. After all, she's five; I didn't start sight-singing until I was in the fifth grade, and I was, um.... abnormal.

But my wife tells me she loves me anyway. :-)

Anyway, check out that article. It's on the long side, and (to my mind) it rambles a bit, but that's only because he has a whole bunch of good points to make.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I'm So Proud Of Them....

You know, one of the reasons that I haven't been blogging as much lately is that I've said it all already.

Well, it's not entirely that way. But a little something happened today that caused this Daddy's heart to swell with pride in his little girls. So of course, I wanted to blog about it; but I vaguely remembered that I'd done a post on a similar topic at one point, and I Googled my own site...

And came upon this post. And it said pretty much everything I was hoping to say this time around.

Darn, I scooped myself again! You see my problem; when you write numerous blog posts about family life, after a while the same themes come up over and over, and it takes some serious work to think of new things to say. After a while, you are reduced to saying the same things over and over again, just in different ways. As time progresses, you're tempted to use less and less originality (since that takes work), and you just link to yourself and say, "Read this one again."

It's a little like what I suppose comic strip writers go through. Every year, Lucy would hold out that football; every year, Charlie Brown would try to kick it; and every year, Charles M. Schultz would have to try to think of a new way to make that scene funny. It's to his great credit that he usually succeeded; I remember the version of that strip where Charlie Brown and Lucy were discussing the three things that are inevitable in life as they were setting up for the kickoff. Charlie Brown could only remember two: death and taxes. He couldn't think of the third, and Lucy kept teasing him that it was so obvious, clear through to the panel where Charlie Brown was lying in pain flat on his back....

I understand that Bill Watterson had the same problem with the character of the Sadistic Babysitter in Calvin and Hobbes. The Babysitter was one of the fan base's favorite recurring characters, of course, but apparently he dreaded having to come up with new storylines for her every year or so. How many different ways can you write a funny story about Calvin trying to outsmart his Babysitter, and the Babysitter using threats of physical violence toward her charge (and extortion of his parents!) to keep everyone in line? Ultimately, Watterson (wisely) decided that Calvin and the Babysitter actually had more in common than either cared to admit, and that they'd get along famously in the right circumstances; his last storyline involving her had her learning the "rules" to Calvinball (the only rule: no rule is ever valid more than once) and having a blast trying to beat Calvin at his own game.


But I digress. Wildly.

I've mentioned before that we've been using the method of Blend Phonics developed by Hazel Loring for teaching our kids basic phonics. I've mentioned this method here and here. (Unfortunately I can't seem to open the web site of Don Potter, where we first found the link to Hazel Loring's stuff. Is this site just not loading, or has it expired and been taken down? Unknown at this time....)

But the method itself is very simple: the teacher sits down with the pupil, with some kind of writing pad. We use a Magna-Doodle for this--and find it to be the perfect tool for the job. The teacher will explain whichever phonetic rule will be used in the lesson, such as "The letter A usually makes the aaaaaaaaaa sound..." or "when you see P and H together, it makes a sound like ffffffffff." Then the teacher will start taking words from a list. For each word, the teacher spells it on the Magna-Doodle one letter at a time; as each letter is drawn, the student sounds out the word so far. It looks a little like this:

Teacher writes F.
Student says ffffffffff.

Teacher writes an A next to the F, making FA.
Student says fffffff-aaaaaaaa.

Teacher writes a T next to the FA, making FAT.
Student says fffff-aaaaaaa-T, then recognizes the word fat, and becomes really happy.

Then the teacher has the student use the word in a sentence. Then, on to the next word on the list, continuing for as long as the kid's attention span allows. (In our three-year-old's case, this is no longer than 15 minutes, or slightly upward of a dozen words.)

This program has 44 lessons to it. When teaching the Pillowfight Fairy, Tonya broke these lessons up into multiple sessions, because there were far more words in many of the lessons than could comfortably fit within her attention span. It took the Fairy about three months to work through the whole thing, at which point she had most of the phonetic rules down (although she still preferred to read by sight instead of sounding out; but that's another issue--and one in which she's greatly improved over the last year, I might add).

Well, now it's the Adrenaline Junkie's turn. She's approaching her fourth birthday, so she's about the age that the Fairy was when she was learning to read. And the Junkie has become fascinated with the stories in all the books; she loves to be read to; she occasionally tries to read short words; and she occasionally draws lots of letters on the pictures she draws. So Mommy decided that it was time to start. She pulled out the notebook with Ms. Loring's program, and started going through the process.


Now, here's where it gets interesting. The Fairy rather squirmed her way through this process when it was being taught to her. She was interested at first, but then it got boring and she wanted to do other things, so we occasionally had to sit on her, practically, to keep her still long enough to do the lesson with her. But now that it's her sister's turn, she's so enthralled with the process that Mommy has to keep warning her not to blurt out the answers before the Junkie can answer them. The Fairy is fascinated at watching the same process being done with her sister as was done with her, and she wants to help in any way she can.

I guess it's less fun being the one lectured to, than it is being the one doing the lecturing. What can I say? Some of us love to explain things to others. I suppose it gives us a sense of power and status. ;-)

At any rate, the Fairy definitely inherited this love of explaining things from her Daddy. And so now that the Junkie is in the position of learning things that the Fairy has already mastered, the Fairy wants a little piece of the pedagogical action, it would appear.

So today, when the Junkie wanted to "do her words", and the Fairy wanted to administer the lesson, Mommy pulled out Ms. Loring's notes, turned to the correct lesson, pointed the right list of words out to the Fairy, and set them both loose.

And the Fairy--little, not-quite-six-year-old girl, administered the phonics lesson to her three-year-old sister. And she did great.

The only quibble that Mommy had is that it took longer than normal, because the Fairy wanted to draw illustrations of all the nouns and verbs in the list. But this is of course a very minor quibble.

(Yes, she illustrated the verbs too. She illustrated the verb "tell" by drawing the profile of a face, with a big empty speech balloon coming out of the open mouth...)


Now that is something to make a parent proud, and it does so on multiple levels.

For one thing, it's something of an article of faith in a big chunk of the Homeschooling world--especially that corner of it that's influenced by the thinking of Charlotte Mason--that you've never truly learned a thing until you are able to teach it to another. The ultimate test of subject mastery is that you're able to help someone else master the material. And pretty much any teacher will verify that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. This is one reason that Charlotte Mason so advocated the discipline of narration: it gives the pupil the chance to explain things, briefly to become the teacher.

And my 5.9-year-old daughter is teaching her 3.8-year-old sister how to read. This is absolutely splendid--not just for the Junkie, not just for Mommy (who managed to get out of teaching a lesson today!), but especially for the Fairy.

The Fairy loves words. She loves reading stories, she loves reading comic books, she loves poetry; she loves writing down her own stories (as regular readers of this blog know). She doesn't always love writing her assignments; but that is in part because there is other stuff she'd rather be writing. And now, she's seeing that her sister is starting to enter her world, so to speak; the Junkie loves being read to, as well, and the Junkie also likes poems and stories. Tonya thinks the Fairy is becoming excited by the fact that her sister is beginning to figure the reading thing out, because now she'll have someone to share her enthusiasm with. And that enthusiasm, in turn, is infecting her younger sister.

So she's very excitedly jumping in and pushing this process along in whatever way she can. When the Junkie wants a story, but Mommy and Daddy are tired, we can often ask the Fairy, "Would you read a story to your sister?" And she'll do it! And the Junkie loves it!


Sometimes we homeschoolers wonder whether we're doing this stuff right; whether we're doing enough; whether our kids are going to fall behind. But one of the joys of the homeschooling lifestyle is that we occasionally have days like today, in which we can see real, tangible proof that we're at least doing something right.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I'm Not Dead Yet!

Ok, Ok. I did, after all, mention three posts back that "blogging would be light", didn't I? I suppose I didn't realize at the time just how light blogging would be.

Spore is a really, really evil game. It's not a game for the hard-core gamers; they would say that the gameplay is "light"--that is, you're not having to remember which key on the keyboard operates the pressure valve on the intake manifold on your third engine when you're operating in Silent Mode. It's more a game for the more casual gamers; those who don't want to face death every time they're in front of the screen. Casual gamers like those games with simple controls and uncomplicated, intuitive rules; where you're not under constant survival or time pressure; where you get to explore at leisure. The trouble is, games like that can take all month to finish.

So, here we are two weeks later, and none of us has finished a game yet. We've enjoyed playing (obviously), though we enjoy different parts of the game: My daughters are into the creation of new monsters and spaceships; my wife is into the early stages of the game; and I rather enjoy zooming around space looking for new sources of Purple Spice.

Hmmm... somehow, the thought occurs to me that we could work out an arrangement to make a game of Spore be a family affair, where everyone plays their own favorite bits. That'd work!

And it means that I'd get to play it the most, because the Space Stage in this game takes longer than all other parts put together. Sneaky, aren't I?


While we're on the subject of video games, I thought I'd take a quick stroll down memory lane. Anyone else among my readers get the game Myst when it came out? Remember that one?

Believe it or not, it was released fifteen years ago tomorrow. And I'm feeling really, really old.

Man, I loved that game. And it wasn't that it was particularly hard; when my parents got me a computer for my post-college-graduation present in 1995, I had the shop throw in a copy of the game, and I had it solved pretty much within two days. It wasn't that the puzzles in the game were so hard; it was that the game was beautiful, and that it had a sense of hugeness to it. You were exploring a complete world. No, strike that--you were exploring a complete multiverse, shifting between worlds as you discovered the links between them. As the histories of all these worlds were revealed bit by bit, it evoked strange moods and emotions--a sense of longing, a sense of nostalgia, a sense of loss.

It reminded me of the feeling of wandering through an old World War 1 battleground (which my family has done, by the way)--you feel ghosts around you. You know that terrible things happened here once; everything is peaceful now, but it still doesn't feel right.

The thing about Myst was that it wasn't just a game, it was at least in part a work of art. So even after I solved it, I found myself playing it again and again, just so I could look at all those scenes again, and see all those details--the brass nails holding together the table in the corner, the grain in the polished wood writing desk, the gears and cogs in the orrery, the model ship sunk in the birdbath....

Of course, a lot has changed in fifteen years. Most games have very detailed images these days, and some of them can animate them, with shadows and reflections, in real-time (while Myst used nearly all still images). And yet, there's still a beauty to this fifteen-year-old game that I think few others before or since have matched.

If you'll allow me to wax philosophical, I think this is true of Art in general; I'm not sure that Art has "progress". That is, in any artistic medium, there is great art from every period, and there is dreck from every period too. The fact that Medieval artists had not mastered perspective does not diminish their artistic accomplishments; the fact that Renaissance artists did master perspective does not make their art superior. Moviemaking was in its infancy in the Twenties and Thirties, with many of today's tools and techniques not yet discovered (including color, and even sound!); and yet Buster Keaton still managed to make better comedies than most of today's crews.

The quality of a work of art isn't determined by the medium; rather, it depends on the artistic vision of the artist, and an ability to understand and work within the constraints imposed by that medium. Some of the greatest works of art were only grudgingly created by the artists, at the demands of overbearing patrons--the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel comes to mind. And some of the worst, most self-indulgent dreck comes about when you give artists blank checks and government grants.

I suspect that the term "starving artist" contains truth: the best art comes from artists who are, in fact, starving. Well-fed artists do whatever the heck they want. Hunger has a way of focusing the mind....


Anyway, the game Myst is noteworthy not because it was the end-all and be-all of games, but because it made the absolute best use of the limited (by today's standards) hardware resources it had access to. They came up with a truly interesting storyline for the game. And they somehow managed to create hundreds of beautiful images, a fair amount of (admittedly postage-stamp sized) video, and over an hour's worth of well-composed mood music and squeeze it onto one CD. It was, to use a cliche and a pun all at once, a game-changer.

And it sold six million copies.

So if I have any readers left after my little hiatus, what do you remember about this game? Did you like it? Hate it? I'm curious to know....

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Public Service Announcement

We interrupt this blogging hiatus and nearly-two-week late-night Spore orgy to bring you a very important Public Service Announcement.

Tomorrow--Friday, September 19th--is International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

You see, too often I would forget all about Talk Like A Pirate Day until it was nearly over. I'd get home from work, have dinner, be Daddy for a few hours, put the kids in bed, check the news... and then realize that it was Talk Like A Pirate Day, and I'd nearly missed it! I hadn't even uttered one lousy Aaarggh to my precious little squabbies.

Thus, the PSA: I'm informing everyone tonight, so that you can remember it tomorrow and be prepared to plunder your mateys' booty.

(Actually, the apostrophe is wrong. It should be matey's booty. If you plunder the booty of more than one matey, they tend to get mad at you. Not that a true pirate would have minded....)

Friday, September 12, 2008

On Press Coverage, and "Tough Questions"

Ok, ok... So I've been playing a whole lot of the computer game Spore lately, and haven't been spending much time thinking about what my next blog post should be--AKA "Feeding the Beast".

(Of course, the phrase "Feeding the Beast" is reminding me of Spore, too. Everything seems to, these days....)

And I've completely blown my one-post-per day benchmark. Ah, well. So I guess I might as well blow another self-imposed rule of mine, the one about avoiding political topics.


Since Sarah Palin came on the scene two weeks ago, she's rather dominated the political news coverage, in a way that few candidates do. In fact, the last candidate to get this much coverage, to become this kind of a media phenomenon, was Barack Obama himself. The trouble for him is that he was the phenomenon about eight months ago; now Palin has become the new shiny thing that has attracted everyone's attention. Eight months from now, even if the McCain/Palin ticket wins, the press will find something or someone else to cover, and it will be on with the next fad...

Now, to be fair, there are some good reasons that Palin has grabbed everyone's attention. She has the very real potential to upend this race, and it looks like this may in fact be happening. And I'll probably blog about her more in the future.

But this post isn't actually about her. I have an observation to make regarding the press.


Since Tonya and I don't have a TV in our house, we tend to miss a lot of the news as it happens, and then we read about it after the fact. Just from a time management standpoint, it's a whole lot faster to read a speech, than it is to listen to it. If there's some news video we want to see, we can go look it up online; but if we're not particularly interested in something, we never see it.

Now, the big political news over the past day or so has been the interviews that Mrs. Palin did with Charlie Gibson of ABC News. Tonya and I haven't been particularly interested in the interviews themselves, so we haven't seen them.

But what has caught my attention is some of the reaction to these interviews. Being something of a socially conservative libertarian type myself, I tend to read a lot on sites like Townhall, Redstate, the Instapundit, National Review, Hot Air, and so forth. And the consensus on these sites is that Charlie Gibson is asking some very tough questions and pressing for answers--not always fairly, as when he misquoted some statements of hers about the Will of God and demanded that she defend them. And the consensus is that she's handling these questions reasonably well. Not perfectly; she's had better performances before; but she's doing adequately.

Here's what's caught my attention: So many of the commenters at these various sites are decrying the media bias, and saying things like: How come they never ask Obama hard questions like these? and If she was a man, they'd never ask her stuff like this, and Oh, that question was so off base that it's absolutely clear they're in the tank for her opponents, and So when are they going to ask Obama about X, Y and Z? and so forth.

There's an underlying assumption here that I'd like to pull out into the daylight and kick around for a while, to see what y'all think. The thought process of these commenters goes something like this:
  1. The press prefers candidate X over candidate Y.
  2. Therefore, the press will give much harder questions to candidate Y than X...
  3. ...In the hopes that candidate Y will stumble...
  4. ...Making X look more attractive to the electorate than Y...
  5. ...Thus influencing the vote in the direction that the press wants.
My thought, which I've been mulling around for some time now, is: what if we've all got step 4. above totally backwards?

Suppose for the moment that these commenters are right--that there is a strong leftwing bias in the press, and that this manifests itself as hostile questioning of non-leftist candidates, and friendly questioning of leftist ones. Is it not possible that this disparity actually works to the benefit of the non-leftist candidates? That is, the hostile questioning actually makes the intended target electorally stronger?

After all, consider:
  1. If a candidate handles a hostile question well--keeps his or her cool, gives a detailed and weighty answer--that's impressive to most fair-minded observers. Softballs don't impress anybody. A hostile press gives more opportunity for a good candidate to shine, than a docile press does.
  2. A candidate that routinely gets hostile questions will, over time, become good at answering them. A hostile press can actually make a candidate stronger on the stump, or in debate, than he or she would otherwise have been.
  3. Furthermore, a hostile press can wind up causing the electorate to sympathize with the candidate being targeted. Americans have always loved the underdog and hated bullies; when a candidate holds up to tough questions delivered by sneering reporters, we're likely to cheer them on.
  4. Suppose a voter agrees with a candidate on Issue X. Suppose a reporter gives the candidate a really tough, even unfair, grilling on Issue X, implying that anyone that agrees with Issue X is stupid. What does that do to the voter? It helps him realize that he agrees with the candidate, and suggests to him that he might be better served by tuning in to a different channel for his election coverage.
I'm reminded of something along these lines from the Democratic primaries earlier this year. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton held something like two dozen debates during the primaries. When Obama was riding high in the wake of Super Tuesday and the other February contests, numerous Hillary supporters started calling foul about the questions being posed in the debates--it seemed to them that Clinton was getting the tough questions, and Obama was getting the softballs. And it wasn't just the Hillary supporters who noticed this: the guys at Saturday Night Live noticed it too, and created an opening segment for one of their programs that was an absolutely glorious debate parody. If you're interested, you can see it here.

So what happened? Well, that skit got seen by millions of people. Hillary herself started referring to it in later debate performances and stump speeches. And, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, that was about the time that her election performance started to improve; after a disastrous February, she won most contests after that, and nearly caught up to Obama by the end of the primary season.

I suspect that some combination of my four points above happened: the fact that she was widely percieved as having harder questions earned points for her in people's minds. It earned her sympathy, and gave her opportunity to show off her command of the issues and her ability to perform under fire.


And it's important to note who's actually been winning the presidential elections lately.

Now, my readers are free to disagree with me on this point if they want--after all, gauging Press Bias is a highly subjective exercise, and I tend to be on the right-hand side of the political center, so I will tend to see the press as left-leaning. Your mileage may vary.

Nevertheless, let's look at all the elections over the last forty years or so and see who's been winning them, and who the press favored.

1968--the press hated Nixon. I don't think there was a time that they ever didn't hate Nixon, even when he was Ike's Vice President. (And back then, the press supported Adlai Stevenson.) Nixon won anyway.

1972--ditto, especially because Nixon's "secret plan" to get us out of Vietnam ultimately involved escalating our efforts until we won. Nixon won anyway. (Incidentally, Wikipedia says that Nixon never actually used the term "secret plan" himself; that phrasing was actually coined by a reporter...)

1976--Carter v. Ford. These were the post-Watergate years, and the press hated anything Republican. Carter won the election--barely. The undecideds mostly broke for Ford, nearly bringing him to popular-vote parity with Carter on election day, after having trailed badly during the summer.

1980--Carter v. Reagan. At this point in time, Reagan was seen in the press as a warmonger and social neanderthal. He was also dismissed as a shallow B-Movie actor and intellectual lightweight. He won anyway.

1984--Reagan was still viewed by the press as a warmonger, social neanderthal, and shallow B-Movie actor. And Mondale had picked a woman for his running mate, which made it the first time a woman had run on a major party's presidential ticket. The press were all over them. Mondale then went on to lose 49 states. (Incidentally, this was the first election that I really remember personally; I was vaguely aware of the 1980 election, but I was only nine at the time.)

1988--Bush v. Dukakis. I was not quite old enough to vote, but some guys in my senior class were, and there was a lot of interest in this election. I remember the press's absolute loathing of Bush after the Willie Horton ad, which didn't run in our neck of the woods and I never got to see. Bush was seen as the third term of Reagan, and won a strong victory (after having trailed in the summer).

1992--The press was tired of the Bush/Reagan years, and was constantly pushing the "we need change" line, as well as pushing the idea that the congressional-presidential "gridlock" of those years was entirely the fault of the President. They also played up the "Man from Hope" theme quite a bit. Ultimately, Clinton won--but with only 42 percent of the popular vote, since Perot took a big chunk. It's not really known how the vote would have panned out had Perot not been on the ballots; but it's within the realm of plausibility that Bush would have captured enough to win.

1996--Times were good in the US. We were at peace, the economy was strong, and the press was happy. Dole never really had a chance.

2000--Dubya was alternately portrayed as a hick and as a pampered scion of an aristocratic family. Every little slip of the tongue--and to be fair, there were many--was jumped on to portray him as an idiot. Al Gore was viewed as the Candidate of the Environment, the one who would fight for the little guy, the intelligent one; Bush was seen as having Daddy issues. Ultimately Bush won the election in the Electoral College after a very messy count/re-count/re-re-count process in Florida.

2004--The press hated Bush. For one thing, many of them thought he'd stolen the 2000 election. For another, he had gotten us involved in Iraq. Kerry was held up as Bush's intellectual superior; Kerry's military service in Vietnam was repeatedly invoked and compared to Bush's time in the National Guard. And then there were the forged papers that CBS tried to use to smear Bush. Yes, the press were definitely in the tank for Kerry the last time around. Bush won anyway.

2008--I don't seriously think there are too many people in the mainstream press who want McCain to win. I suspect most of them think that Obama's presidency would be "historic", that it would be for them a welcome repudiation of the Bush years and The Time That America Is Made Right Again; McCain for them would be just another Dead White Guy in the presidency. (Ok, technically he's not dead yet, but they keep bringing up that age thing....)

So not counting the 2008 election, that's 10 elections since 1968. If my assessment of the media favorites above is correct, it means that the media favorite only won three of those ten contests, and lost seven of them. If they are trying to sway elections with hostile questioning, it doesn't appear to be working....


So my advice for any political observer who happens to read this post (and any candidate! I can dream, can't I?) : don't complain if your candidate receives tough questions from a hostile press. In fact, pray that your candidate does receive tough questions--and pray that your candidate hits them out of the ballpark. You should see tough questioning as opportunities to shine; the more of these you get, the better you can show yourself to the electorate. The candidate who gets only softballs never has a chance to show his calm under fire, his command of the issues and of their details, and his depth of character. No candidate ever lost an election solely to tough questions, so long as he or she was able to give reasonably competent responses. Tough questions, and hostile press, only sink the candidacies of those who shouldn't have been candidates in the first place.

And regading Palin? From what I'm seeing, she's doing just fine.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

So My Wife Got Me A Little Treat...

She picked up the computer game Spore (which I've blogged about, here) for me yesterday, on a whim. I'd tried to get it over the weekend, but I was early by one day...

Anyway, that explains the light posting.

A few observations:
  • It's a huge game, especially when you get to the Spacefaring stage at the end.
  • It's rather fun to see all the creatures you created in isolation over the last month show up as you're evolving. And then they try to eat you. Or when they show up, the Spore game has blown them up so they are the size of dinosaurs, and they try to stomp you flat.
  • And then you try to defend yourself against the creatures attacking you; but your daughter, who designed those creatures three weeks ago--and remembers exactly what she named them!--is emotionally invested in their success, not yours. So when you successfully defend yourself and kill off your attackers, your daughter starts weeping uncontrollably.
  • She also starts weeping uncontrollably when one of the cars that you spent so much time designing gets blown up by one of your rival civilizations.
This is apparently a very emotional game.

Anyway, as they say: Blogging Will Be Light. :-)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

I Have Seen the Future, and It's Large, Round, and Kicks a Lot

So Tonya's been acting funny lately.

(Of course, she'd probably say that I've been acting funny, too.)

You see, she's been feeling a little under the weather. But it's the way that she's been feeling under the weather that's caught our attention: she's been feeling sick to her stomach, nearly any time that she hasn't eaten in the last hour or so. So long as people keep stuffing food in her, she's fine.

She's become a little absent minded lately, too. The other day she gave the Adrenaline Junkie three potty times in a row. And each time she put the Junkie's shoes back on, they went on the wrong feet--three times in a row. Then there was the time she put her food on one of the kids' plates, and the kid's food on her plate, which of course resulted in a little girl becoming distraught and wailing. (The Pillowfight Fairy is very particular about this kind of thing, apparently. But then, she's only five.)

And, oh--she's been feeling a little clumsy lately too. Now, she's noticed that she's been feeling clumsy, and so she's been intentionally moving a little more slowly; she doesn't try to move heavy objects (like the Happy Boy) without focusing her full attention on what she's doing; and she's stopped juggling flaming knives. But she still occasionally bonks into things.

And, um... don't tell her I said this... she pees a lot too.

Now, as I mentioned above parenthetically, I've been acting funny too. My wife has noticed that I've been running into things as well, for instance.

Let's just hope it's not for the same reason that my wife is. ;-)


Well, we were both noticing these symptoms, and getting very, very suspicious, so we went ahead and did the pregnancy test this morning. And, um...

Let's just say that I'm going to have to come up with another blog-appropriate nickname between now and May 16th or so. And let's face it, that's pretty hard to do, at least until the baby starts kicking. By the eighth month or so, it's possible to start referring to the imminent bundle of joy as "The Gymnast" or "The Placekicker" or "The Rockette", but before that, we don't really know the baby as anything more than a fuzzy blob on a black-and-white printout. Interestingly enough, when we were expecting the Pillowfight Fairy, we were having trouble visualizing her (partly because she was our first, and partly because we didn't know whether she was going to be a boy or girl until she was born); so I remember thinking of the baby as some kind of amorphous "entity", like the "entities" that they run into from time to time on Star Trek--something weird, alien, without well-defined shape, and of unknown intention. Given that this will be our fourth kid, we're a little more mentally prepared; we have a slightly better idea of what we're getting, so we're actually more able to visualize a little person in there than an alien life force.

(As opposed to an Alien life force, which would be bad.)


One thing, though; I have a little request.

Whenever a couple gets pregnant, there's always the question of whether and how long to wait to tell everyone. The fact is, the first Trimester can be pretty scary; the baby's life is so fragile during this stage, and it seems that anything wrong can end the pregnancy very suddenly and traumatically. For this reason, many women--justifiably--like to keep the pregnancy a secret until this time is past. After all, if you tell everyone that you're expecting, and then the baby miscarries, you then have to deal with the trauma of telling everyone that you've miscarried.

The trouble is that if nobody knows that you're pregnant and you miscarry, then you have to explain to everyone why you're so depressed; and most don't want to do that , so they suffer in silence.

We've decided to tell everyone right here at the beginning, knowing full well that the first Trimester is a dangerous time, in part so that all of you who believe in God can be offering up prayers on our behalf, for a healthy baby and a safe delivery. Tonya is forty-one years old after all, which officially makes this a High-Risk Pregnancy (like every one of our previous ones, incidentally. Thankfully, maternal age is the only thing that's been high risk about her pregnancies).

And this is Tonya's fifth pregnancy that we know of (we've had some suspicions about some other times as well). One of those five didn't go past the 9th week.

So again, we ask for your prayers.

All goes well, we'll have a new addition to our family on or around May 16th.


And just so you know, we haven't decided whether we'll ask to know the sex. On the one hand, if you know in advance, it makes it easier to prepare for the coming of the baby--you know what to name the baby, for instance, and you can buy clothes in colors other than green and yellow.

But on the other hand, there's a sense of mystery and excitement when you don't know in advance. It actually makes the whole process a little more fun--and makes for more interesting office pools. :-) And besides, we have plenty of hand-me-downs for both boys and girls, since we've had both.

I think we're hoping for a boy this time, since we already have two girls and only one boy so far. Another boy would balance things out. Now, we'll be perfectly happy with a healthy little girl too, of course; as my wife likes to put it, "Ya git what ya git and ya don't throw a fit." But still, having a second boy would help out down the road when we have to figure out bedroom/sleeping arrangements for everyone. With two of each, you can stick both boys in one room, both girls in the other, and everyone is equally ticked at everyone else. With three-versus-one, you can only have a boy and a girl share a room while they're both still fairly young; eventually you have to put them in different rooms, and then (in a four-bedroom house) you have two people having to share a room while the other two each get their own, and that's so unfair and you don't love me as much as you love them and I'm not going to talk to you ever again.

But that's when they're pre-teens. What was it that Jesus said about borrowing trouble from tomorrow when today has enough trouble of its own? Great! I'll not worry about that one just yet.

Nor will I worry about the elevated possibility that a 41-year-old mother will give birth to twins. :-) Nope, not gonna think about it. At all.

(Good grief, where would all the car seats fit?)

Friday, September 5, 2008

It's A Good Kind of Hurt

I did something yesterday for the first time in my life, of which I'm particularly proud:

I hit myself with a boomerang.

It hurt, too. Nearly put a hole in my chest.

But I was so proud of me.... :-)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Great. I Can't Tell Whether To Praise Or Rebuke.

You can tell that your kids are starting to think for themselves when they start doing the things you tell them, in ways that you would never have thought of. In a way it makes you want to say "My, what excellent initiative you have, now don't ever do that again. But I'm proud of you."

Well, the Adrenaline Junkie did something like this today.

You see, we've been trying to get her to take good care of her glasses. They are, after all, her most expensive possession. And to her younger brother--who's currently teething out his last set of molars--they look particularly edible.

Naturally, we've been trying to get her to put them away when she's not using them. Trouble is, "away" is often an amorphous concept when you're only three. Besides which, the spot that Mommy and Daddy use as "away" for the glasses is high up on a bookshelf, so that the Happy Boy (who's not much smaller than the Junkie--and catching up fast) can't get at them. You can't just leave them on a table somewhere, as the Boy is almost as avid a climber as his sister.

Well, earlier today the Junkie decided that she was done wearing her glasses for the moment, and she wanted to put them away. Here's the trouble:
You see that little tiny pink thing on the top shelf of the bookcase? That is the case for her glasses. That's where we keep them when not in use. And Mommy wasn't around at this particular moment in time, so the Junkie decided to get creative.

Yup, she did. She used her climbing prowess to get herself up on top of that big wheeled thing with the rounded roof; then stood on that to get down her glasses case. She duly inserted the glasses in the case, then climbed back up to put them away.

How proud my Mommy must be of me! I put them away all by myself, without any help from anybody!

How simple life must appear when you're three. Yes, girl, we're proud of you. We like the fact that you thought, "I need to put this away now." And we like the fact that you're using your noggin to think a few steps ahead to come up with working solutions. Fair enough, you found a solution to this particular problem that actually works, and we give you your props.

Just don't do it again, m'kay?

But we're proud of you anyway....

Never Do This

Ok, the filters on our stove hood were getting pretty grody (there's a word from the '80's! But if you've never heard it before, don't worry: it means just like it sounds). Not sure why they've suddenly become more nasty now, but it may have to do with the fact that I'm cooking more on the cast iron; that skillet gets hot, and I think it tends to throw lots more oil droplets in the air, which the hood fan picks up and sucks through the filters.

But the filters are basically a tangled mess of wire mesh. It's not really scrubbable. So how do you clean them?

I pulled them off the stove hood. I decided to start by giving them a warm, soapy soak (which was a good idea), after which I'd just throw them in the dishwasher with the rest of the dishes.

Public Service Announcement: Never, never, never do this.

I knew I'd made a mistake when I opened up the dishwasher and started putting things away.

Everything in the dishwasher was covered with a microscopically thin layer of a really hideous gritty substance. Everything felt oily and rough to the touch.

The filters themselves were much better than they had been, but they still felt hideous too--not as bad as before, but not pleasant. They're not dripping oil anymore, which is good, so I put them back on the stove hood; but I don't think anyone would mistake them for being clean.

But everything else in the dishwasher had to go back in for another round. And even then, the silverware came out less-than-sparkling, and less than clean-feeling to the touch. I suspect it will take a few more cycles of use/rinse/dishwashing for everything to get back to its normal level of cleanliness.


To reiterate: do not wash your stove hood filters in your dishwasher with all your other dishes. If you must use your dishwasher on them, put them in there by themselves.

This has been a Public Service Announcement, and a pretty disgusting one at that. (But not as disgusting as my recent poop-themed post....)

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Long Tail--Or, Tracking Down Obscure Titles

This weekend I drove my family down to see my Mom and Dad. A good time was had by all. The kids were sufficiently cute to impress the grandparents; the grandparents were sufficiently doting to impress the kids. Everyone got to show off what they've been doing and working on (including the Happy Boy, who is now--I kid you not--sounding out letters. The kid is not yet nineteen months old, doesn't even talk, and yet knows how to make the sounds of many of the letters! I tell you, the Leap Frog videos are really, really effective). And I even managed to get sucked into the swirling vortex of Backyard Maintenance, and wound up helping my Dad repair a section of downed fence.

But just in catching up, my Dad inadvertently got me going off on another crusade: he mentioned an album that he'd recently heard on the radio that he really liked, and mentioned that he'd had some trouble finding a copy--at least, at a reasonable price. It's a pretty obscure title.

My parents listen to a lot of music--and their tastes tend to be pretty sophisticated. They listen to a lot of orchestral and choral music by the great composers; many operas, oratorios, and singspiels; some jazz and ragtime. They have entire racks full of CDs. They would be able to clean up at Name That Tune, so long as the music in question was from prior to the 20th century; and if you limit it to 20th Century orchestral or choral music, they'd likely do very well there too. And, of course, they have their favorites. They could tell you something about most of the big-name opera singers in the world right now, including whose voices they like, and whose voices are so-so, and whose voices they really like.

In fact, to me it seems as though they've gotten to the point where they have most of the non-obscure classical music out there. This means, of course, that to expand their collection, it actually takes some work.

(To be fair, we stumped them this weekend. In the Fairy's piano book, there is a melody from Haydn's "Surprise Symphony"; we wanted to have my parents play the real thing for her. Alas, they didn't have the CD. The odd thing, though, was that their collection is big enough that they couldn't remember whether they had it or not....)


Ok, so Dad has been looking for a work by Richard Strauss entitled The Donkey's Shadow (or, auf Deutsch, Des Esels Schatten). Now if you check out that Amazon link, you will see that Amazon doesn't have it in stock; there are three other sellers out there who have copies, and the least expensive of the three wants over fifty bucks for the thing. Out of curiosity, I also checked the UK Amazon site; they have five potential sellers but the least expensive wants £58.25, which at today's exchange rate is about ten grand.

Good grief. What's so big about this title?

Strauss's work is a comic Singspiel, with a story based on an adaptation
(greatly lengthened and embellished, of course) of one of Aesop's Fables. Here's the original fable, transcribed from the book that we're using:
A traveler who had to cross a desert plain hired a donkey to carry him on the journey, and offered the donkey's owner a good sum to act as a guide. They set out early in the morning, the traveler riding on the donkey and his guide walking alongside. Soon they had left all greenery behind, and as the sun rose higher in the sky, the heat scorched their skins and parched their throats.

At last the traveler called a halt. Since there was no other shade, he threw himself down to rest in the donkey's shadow.

"What right do you have to that shade?" protested the guide. "Move over--that's my place to rest."

"Cheat!" answered the traveler angrily. "Didn't I pay you for the use of the donkey all day long?"

"You paid me for the donkey, it's true," retorted the guide, "but you never paid for his shadow!"

As they argued, neither remembered to keep hold of the donkey's reins. Frightened by the shouting, the donkey took to his heels and ran off across the desert, leaving the two men with no shade to rest in and no beast to ride.

Moral: We lose what really matters when we quarrel over something worthless.
(Brief digression: we've found that a decent collection of Aesop's Fables is an indispensable educational aid for homeschooling those in the younger grades. The stories are short enough that they can easily be read in one short sitting, and short enough to be useful for narration practice. Our edition of Aesop's Fables is this one.)

Well, apparently when Richard Strauss was nearing the end of his life, he decided to do one last work, and settled on a setting of The Donkey's Shadow. He died (in 1949) before the work was completed. I'm not sure of the history of the work--how it was completed, or by whom.

But anyway, the recording I linked to above was made in 1997 and was marketed on the German Koch-Schwann label. It was, by all accounts, an excellent recording; it had some pretty big-name voice talent, including the great actor Peter Ustinov for the narrator. But it was, of course, a fairly obscure recording of a fairly obscure piece of classical music, and so it didn't sell many copies, and went out of stock very quickly--with the few existing copies jealously guarded in the private collections of musical connoisseurs.

Thus, according to Amazon, there are three copies available in the whole of the US, and five available in the whole of the UK. And they're all ridiculously expensive.


So I thought I'd do some digging.

You see, there's this buzzword that has been floating around for the last few years: the Long Tail. Here's how it works.

Suppose that you were to take every album ever created, and arrange it in decreasing order of demand. That is, the latest mass-market release by the currently-most-popular artist goes on the left, and Slim Wittinstein's Favorite Bathtime Yodels goes way out on the right. Then we plot, for each album, how much demand there is for it. The curve likely would look something like the blue line in the graph below:
Now, mass market retailers--and the big music distributors--like to operate at the left side of the curve. It's a whole lot easier to make money, if you have an artist that can sell several hundred thousand copies. When someone is making those kinds of sales, you don't want to have non-moving titles taking up space on your store shelves. You must always be purging the shelves, to make room for the Next Big Thing--with emphasis on the word Big.

The red line in the above graph represents the point at which a typical retailer won't carry a title. Every brick-and-mortar retailer, of necessity, has such a limit; after all, there are so many weird, unusual, forgotten titles out there, that even if your store only carries one of each, there wouldn't be any room left for the stuff that sells in quantity and pays the bills. Now, different stores and chains may have that red line at different points--for example, Barnes and Noble has this line farther to the right than Waldenbooks or B. Dalton, simply because they usually have more physical shelf space. But even B&N has to make decisions about what they will and what they won't carry. Obscure titles, that sell only one or two a month, won't pay the bills....

...except that, oddly enough, they just might. After all, if you have one copy of a really, really weird, forgotten, obscure item, all you need is to find one buyer. The trick is, that one buyer may be in a completely different state or country. If you can find a way of matching up an album in Dubuque with a buyer in Albuquerque, there's some serious business to be done. The fact is, while there are zillions of titles out there with rock-bottom demand, there are also zillions of buyers out there who desire those obscure titles; if you can match them all up, you can do zillions of dollars worth of business.

It is this low-volume market that is referred to as the Long Tail, and it turns out that this market--in music, in books, in movies--is huge. And with the coming of the internet--especially companies like, EBay, and iTunes, there are actually working business models now that can tap this market.

Incidentally, I first was introduced to the term "Long Tail" over at the Instapundit's site, where he was talking about this book.


So my search began. Does Amazon have a copy of the 1997 Koch-Schwann recording of The Donkey's Shadow? Yes--and they're all too expensive.

Ok. Does EBay have a copy? No.

Well, then. How about iTunes?

I was actually impressed by how much Strauss stuff iTunes had--a good 25 pages full of albums. But alas, they didn't have The Donkey's Shadow. They had nearly every other thing ever written by Strauss--Also Sprach Zarathustra, Der Rosenkavalier, the Egyptians, numerous other operas and tone poems, numerous collections of Lieder, but they didn't have that one.

I was surprised by this, truth be told. The iTunes business model seems perfectly designed to go after obscure titles like this one; all they have to do is get enough server space, which is
really cheap these days, and they just put up all the mp3 files from any album produced. And because they're selling music in the form of information, they never have to worry about a title going out of print or becoming otherwise unavailable. And I checked around, and found some other obscure titles available on iTunes. So... I wondered what else was going on.

I decided to check up on the Koch-Schwann label. Who are they?

Well, unfortunately the correct question is, "Who were they." Turns out they were bought out by Universal Music Group back around 2002. And after that, they decided they didn't need the label anymore, and they shut it down.

So on a lark, I decided to go to the Universal website and see if I could find any clue that there had once been a Koch-Schwann label, and whether any of their albums were in the Universal catalog.

And the first things that assaulted my eyes as I entered the Universal website were lots of very hip, depressed-looking young musicians with grungy clothes and very modern-looking guitars, under advertisements for the latest releases.

It was most un-Strauss like. And, no surprise, browsing their catalog revealed no titles for Richard Strauss.

So I poked around. First I went over to the Universal Germany site, figuring that since Richard Strauss was a German--and since Koch-Schwann was a German label--it might be there. Nope; most of what they had were very depressed-looking German "alternative" musicians. (And the site was in German, too--which made it a little hard for me to browse. Three years of high-school German, and so little to show for it.... sigh.)

A little more research: it appeared that Universal put all its classical titles into its "Decca" label. So I browsed over to the Decca site and looked. Nope; they had a little Strauss, but nothing from the Koch-Schwann era, that I could tell.

So what we have here is a Giant Music Producer/Distributor that appears to have bought up and dismantled a smaller rival, and then dropped its entire catalog down the memory hole. And they appear to have done this, even though there is now a company out there--iTunes--that has a workable distribution channel for these old, obscure titles, with the potential to turn a modest profit from these old catalogs. There would seem to be no downside to working out some kind of distribution deal with iTunes, yet they haven't done so. What gives?

Two possibilities come to mind. The first, which I've heard bandied about quite a bit, is that these giant distributors are basically dinosaurs--so wedded to the mass-market approach that they've ridden so well for nearly the last century--that they can't update their thinking.

I'm not sure I go with this reason; if there's a profit to be made, I suspect that one of their corporate officers will sniff it out eventually.

The second possibility, which I think is more likely (based on my extremely limited knowledge), is that the larger music producers/distributors see any form of file sharing as a threat to their core business model. These guys got big through aggressive enforcement of their intellectual property rights, and through strict control of the distribution channels. If you wanted to listen to your favorite artist, you had to go through them to do it. Now that music can be easily transmitted point-to-point over the internet, there is a distribution system out there that has the power to bypass them entirely--and it makes the enforcement of intellectual property rights much, much more difficult. Furthermore, the ability of the internet to serve the Long Tail threatens the mass market, too; after all, in the past, many people bought the mass market stuff because that's all that was available. But now, they can access anything they want, no matter how obscure; and so the mass market stuff has new competition for our entertainment dollars, in the form of thousands of obscure albums out there, some of which are pretty decent.

So while they could in theory make a profit by licensing all their old catalogs through iTunes, they would much rather see iTunes and the file sharing sites simply go away.

Simply Go Away.

So I hate to say it, but I'm thinking more and more that I'd be surprised to see the 1997 Donkey's Shadow show up on iTunes anytime soon, although I'd be gratified if it did. I think that Universal is probably content to let their old, legacy catalogs slide away, because the alternative would be to boost a new form of distribution that their industry considers a mortal threat. Which is, of course, a crying shame.


So, to my legions of loyal readers: um... If any of you happen to have a copy of this lying around that you haven't listened to in a while, let me know, m'kay? Thanks. ;-)