Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I've Discovered My Newest Time-Waster

It started so innocently.

Well, that's not exactly true. It started with me websurfing. You never know what's going to happen when you start websurfing. Websurfing is not innocent--never was, never will be.

At any rate, I was over at the Instapundit, when I saw a post with no text--just a title and a link:
John Tierney: A Beautiful Math.
Sounds mildly intriguing, I thought. So I clicked over and found myself at John Tierney's blog at the NY Times. It turns out, it was a review of a recent episode of the PBS show NOVA.

The "Beautiful Math" he was referring to, was Fractals. Ah! I love those. Not only are they intellectually satisfying--in that a simple formula can be used to generate very complex, chaotic structures--but they are often very, very beautiful to look at.

And I've always enjoyed the NOVA program. But, of course, my wife and I don't have a TV, right? While this means we aren't tempted to fill our lives with all that Hollywood dreck--a circumstance that we feel justifies our decision--it does mean that we miss out on the good programming that's out there. It's a justified sacrifice, we feel--but we do recognize it's a sacrifice.

But then I read the following:
[UPDATE, Wednesday, Oct. 29] If you missed the show last night, you can watch it by clicking here. You’ll see a beautiful explanation of how patterns of static in phone lines led to the Mandelbrot set pictured above — and much more. I agree with Xanthippe’s critical verdict on the show: “Brilliant.”

So this evening, after the kids were all in bed, my curiosity got the better of me, and I clicked on it. Sure enough, the entire PBS episode was available, free in streaming Quicktime format. So I watched it as my wife fell asleep on the couch.

You know, this streaming video on demand thingy may have some promise....

But out of curiosity, I started poking around the PBS/NOVA website, and saw that they have a whole bunch of other episodes available, as well.

So this raised the question in my mind... What other free TV is there available? Let me look around...

Oh, no. CBS has put up the entire original Star Trek series online, available for free download.

Even worse: South Park. This show, truly, is one argument in favor of not having a TV. No one should be watching this show ever, ever, ever. Don't even think about clicking on that link.

I suspect that many of my readers are laughing at me about now: You're only now figuring this Internet/TV stuff out? You are, like, so 2005.

Yeah, go ahead and laugh. I was happy before, and now my life has just been turned upside down. All this means, of course, that unless I'm really careful I'll start spending all my free time watching TV on my computer! Our desire to Kill the TV and live simple, wholesome lives is being thwarted by the March of Technology and our society's pursuit of the Convenient!

What a bunch of Herberts.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bidding A Fond Farewell To A Fellow Blogger

A couple of days ago I discovered that I couldn't open up the site for Arby's Archives. Well, I thought, the Internet doesn't always work the way it should; sometimes sites are down, and sometimes routers blow gaskets.

But his site stayed down for a couple of days, so I started to get a little concerned. So I contacted Arby.

Alas, Arby has decided to stop blogging. He has removed his blog, and he indicated that I should remove my now-broken sidebar link to him.

So Arby's Archives has Slipped the surly bonds of Earth, Reached out its hand and touched the face of God, and all that. Forsooth.

What Arby didn't say was why he decided to stop blogging. This being the internet and all, that means we're all permitted to engage in uninformed speculation. Was it:
  1. That he was overcome by a general sense of nihilism and ennui, resulting in chronic writers' block?
  2. Was he concerned that after our new Overlords are elected next week, people who say unenlightened things on the internet are going to be rounded up into camps (and not the kinds with canoes and s'mores)?
  3. That The Boss somehow came across this comment (referring to this comic strip)--or one of hundreds more just like it he has no doubt scattered across the internet--and decided that her husband wasn't actually safe around computers?
Alas, the true reason shall probably remain forever an mystery, shrouded in the mists of tragic, poetic obscurity. Unless, of course, Arby just decides to drop in and tell us.

Ah, well. Arby, I just wanted to let you know that I nearly always enjoyed what you had to say, and the way that you said it. It's obvious that you love your family, that you love your chickens (except when they get too loud), that you think the Cubs need a goat, and that you possess an amused contempt of Bureaucracy. That makes you all right in my book, even if you do come from Chicago.

Monday, October 27, 2008

On the Female Form

Or rather, on my female's form.

(Oh, I am so going to get in trouble for this....)

Thought 1:

I am married to a very modest woman. Tonya was raised in the Church, and she takes her faith very seriously. And part of the way she expresses her faith is in the way she dresses. That is, she does not want to present herself to society as a sex object. So even when we are in social settings where it would be completely acceptable for her to wear V-necks, or shorts that come more than a couple inches above the knee, she doesn't do it.

Or rather, she rarely does it. I remember that the college-age group at our previous church once went on a 12-mile hike in the Santa Cruz mountains, and she wore some comfortable, practical shorts for the event. Now, this was before she and I were dating, so I had no idea that we would one day be married. She was hiking next to someone else, about five paces in front of me. And after an hour or so of this, I found myself thinking:
Hm... that's a really nice pair of legs on that woman. I wonder why I've never noticed that before? I normally notice that kind of thing....
The reason, which I realized much, much later, was that I'd never actually seen those legs before. Tonya has always been a very modest dresser; she dresses for comfort, propriety, and practicality--not to impress the people around her.

Now, this does have some advantages. When I fell in love with her, it wasn't because she had worked her Bene Gesserit ways on me. It wasn't anything that could have been described as a seduction. She just acted as herself, and after spending enough time around her, I decided that this woman is worth having.

(Or rather, if she did work her Bene Gesserit ways on me, it was so subtle that I still haven't caught on. Man, that woman is good....)

What then happened, as I was dating her, is that occasionally she would put on the war paint that I wasn't accustomed to seeing, because she was so rarely trying to impress people. And when she did, um... well, I would tend to lose about a third of my IQ points. :-)

The day we married she went all-out, of course. We had decided to have the pictures before the wedding, so everyone could get started with the reception immediately after the ceremony, and this meant that I did get to see her in her gown before the big event. I remember seeing this really, really pretty woman coming at me across the courtyard, smiling at me, and thinking for a split second: Oh, now that woman is really pretty. Too bad I'm marrying someone else toda--- just before my jaw hit the aggregate sidewalk.

So let's just say that Tonya's modesty has tended to deflect attention from her onto the young ladies around her who are trying to be flashy. But it also meant that Tonya has a whole arsenal of secret weapons....

Thought 2:

During Sunday Morning class time, our church will occasionally hold Men's and Women's divided classes. This is partly because Men and Women often have different interests and different struggles, and partly because we men just start behaving differently when women are around. I'm not the only guy around who loses a third of his IQ points when a beautiful woman enters the room, after all. And sometimes we just don't want to discuss what's bugging us when there are women around to start pitying all over us. We want solutions, not empathy! It's a guy thing, I suppose.

In most cases when this happens, I find I'm especially glad I'm a guy. Men's classes are about exciting stuff: you have to stand up for the integrity of your family! You have to learn to be a leader! It's all about the manly virtues: Courage, Fortitude, Honesty, Strength in the face of oppression, Defense of one's family, that sort of thing. In comparison, the women's classes tend to be weepy affairs that share touching stories about heirlooms and relationships and the like. These classes so often are based around the theme of Women of the Bible. You should be loyal like Ruth! You should be brave like Esther! You should have wisdom like Deborah! You should be submissive, like Mary!

My wife is sick of it.

(Now, a couple of years back, one of the ladies--just for fun--decided to do a Ladies' Class on Bad Women of the Bible--Jezebel, Athaliah, Herodias, Michael, Sapphira, and the like. Now I would have shown up for that one, if they'd let me in. Too bad my church frowns on the practice of guys dressing in drag and showing up in the ladies' classes...)

Well, one of the classes that was inflicted upon the women of our church a couple years back was on the topic of modesty. The class made quite an impression, I'm afraid; it was being talked about--in fairly unfriendly terms--for weeks after. The woman who presented this class basically was stating that the way that women dress has a huge effect on the way that men perceive them, and the way they interact with them. And because of this, women in the Church need to avoid anything that might tempt the men to let their eyes linger...

For example, she went on, there's the issue of cleavage.

The trouble is, when a woman's neckline is low enough, we men are hardwired to have our eyes lock on and track the lower vertex of the neckline. It's sad, it's unfortunate, it's shame-worthy, and it's absolutely inevitable. And the neckline doesn't have to be all that low for this to happen--sometimes all it takes is for a well-endowed woman to be wearing a T-shirt with a V-neck, and all the guys will notice--hey, there's an opening there.

So this intrepid female instructor proposed the "Bean Test" for a woman to determine if her neckline is too low: Have her husband stand a couple of paces away, and have him try to toss a bean down her front. If he can do it, there's too much cleavage there.

As I said, we guys heard about this class secondhand for weeks from a bunch of fuming women (many of whom were younger women who liked the current fashions). I think that most of us secretly wanted to start trying the Bean Test out--strictly to determine how good our aim is, mind you. This is for Science. ;-) Of course, there's a fatal flaw to the Bean Test: while they may not admit it in front of their wives, the men are nevertheless very aware of their strong motivation "unintentionally" to miss.

Sadly, because of my wife's aforementioned propensity for modest fashions, I never had the opportunity to practice the Bean Test. (That, and the fact that my wife would be highly unamused if I started chucking beans down her cleavage.)

Thought 3:

Well, my wife went shopping for maternity clothes the other day.

Believe it or not, this is a significant occurrence. After all, this is not her first pregnancy--couldn't she just pull out her clothes from the last time? She's not the one to say, "Oh, these clothes are so 2002. I want something modern!"

The trouble is, this will be (with the Lord's blessing) our fourth baby carried to term. We're not sure of the exact number, but we think it's actually Tonya's sixth pregnancy.

She has--no kidding--worn out many of her maternity clothes. As in, worn holes clean through them! What does it say, when a woman is pregnant for a big enough proportion of her life that she actually wears out her maternity clothes?

So she went and got some nice looking maternity blouses. Significantly, these blouses looked nothing like that denim tent that she wore the last several pregnancies. One of these in particular caught my attention: it's a V-neck, with an Empress waistline (as most maternity blouses are), in a deep, rich burgundy color.

My wife reports that it's actually one of the more modest of the V-necks available. If so, I find that amazing, and either a sign of terrible derpravity, or something that totally rocks, depending on your point of view and your opinion of the desireability of pregnant women.

I distinctly remember having a reaction to the one I had when watching my future bride's legs on that hike so many years ago: You know, those are really nice. I wonder why I've never noticed that before? I normally notice that kind of thing....

Now, part of the issue is that my wife, being pregnant, has a changing body shape. This often causes strain in marriages. Some women feel big and unlovely when they're pregnant, and some men prefer their wives thin and petite like they were before. But I--ironically, considering how slender my wife was during our dating years--somewhere along the lines developed an appreciation for the Rubenesque. (I suppose it came from my college days, when I dated a somewhat overweight woman who was nevertheless a spark plug. Somehow I got imprinted by this experience. Talk about Bene Gesserit....) But what this means in the present, is that so far as my admittedly unusual tastes are concerned, my wife is at her loveliest when she is expecting. She gets all curvy....

(Maybe that explains why she gets pregnant enough to wear out her maternity clothes.)

And then she starts dressing in what for her are the equivalent of low-cut blouses, and I start becoming aware of that Secret Weaponry of hers and begin losing IQ points.

Now what's a guy like me to do in a situation like this? I mean, aside from tossing beans at my bride?

On the one hand, she's pregnant. This means that I as her Loving Husband, must be Supporting and Appreciative. And boy howdy, I'm appreciative.

On the other hand, if I'm too appreciative, her modesty starts kicking in, and she goes back to denim tents. No more secret weapons, no more beans.

And if I try to hold back on the appreciation to keep from overdoing it, there's the risk that I'll overdo it the other way and not appreciate her enough. Then she starts to feel like I'm neglecting her and the family, and I have to start demonstrating my love to her in other ways, like cleaning the dishes and folding the clothes. That's a risk, too.

Man, I could use the rest of my IQ points about now...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

On Very, Very Unorthodox Science

An interesting story came out about a week ago that I thought I'd pass around, because there are some Deep Thoughts to be had by contemplating it.

And no, these aren't the Jack Handy Deep Thoughts. ("Even if they never find intelligent life there, I still think we should declare Jupiter to be an enemy planet.")

Here's the setup. It was about twenty years ago (has it been that long already?) that all our energy needs were solved by a couple of guys named Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. That is, our energy needs would have been solved if everyone else had been able to reproduce their stated results. As it was, after their jubilant announcement that they'd managed to start a fusion reaction with palladium electrodes in a jar of deuterated water, further independent research produced decidedly mixed results. That is, some researchers detected extra heat in their follow-up experiments, most others did not.

Eventually, the term Cold Fusion came to be synonymous with the term junk science. After a time, further research in the field was dropped by most outfits. For the sake of their careers, few researchers wanted to have their names associated with Cold Fusion. Interest was lost in most corners, and it just became a byword and a bad memory.

But... this obscures the fact that something happened in that jar of deuterated water, and we still don't really know what. Was it fusion, as Pons and Fleischmann alleged? Almost certainly not. It was most likely some as-yet unrecognized, unidentified chemical reaction. Some decent primary chemistry research could probably be done to figure it out. It might not earn a Nobel prize for its investigators, but that doesn't mean such research would be without merit.


Now out of the aftermath of Cold Fusion, there came an, um... unorthodox theoretician and experimentalist named Randell L. Mills. He proposed a theoretical framework for understanding what happened. According to Mills, it wasn't fusion at all--it was a new kind of chemistry entirely.

Mills wrote a 1000-page tome, entitled "The Grand Unified Theory of Classical Physics", that outlined his proposed theory. In a very small nutshell he proposed that pretty much everything that came after Maxwell's equations was wrong. For Mills' theory to be true, the work of such giants of 20th Century physics as Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, and Richard Feynman has to be wrong. I won't go into the details, other than to say that in Mills' theory, the electron that orbits a hydrogen nucleus can drop into much lower orbits than what is generally accepted as the "ground state", and that this process releases a whole lot of energy. Mills has dubbed hydrogen atoms in a lower-than-ground-state condition as hydrinos.

Pretty much every reputable physicist out there says that this theory is bunk, and that Mills is a crank. For one thing, if hydrogen could drop into lower states than the ground state, why haven't we seen this happen before now? Furthermore, they claim, Mills' tome is rife with errors; and that big parts of it--the parts that were the most lucid--were plagiarized.

For the record, I don't have enough physics knowledge to judge Mills' theory on my own. I find myself in the same boat as the other 99% of the population who didn't study quantum mechanics; I have to rely on the word of those people who have. And while it's true that Consensus Is Not Science (in the immortal words of Michael Crichton), a consensus among scientists should at least make us sit up and pay attention.


Nevertheless, Mills pushed ahead, and founded a company to help develop this theory and find marketable uses for it. If ordinary hydrogen atoms could be forced into less-than-ground-state conditions, they would release energy in the process. (Mills and co. calculated that this would be an order of magnitude more than a typical chemical reaction, and an order of magnitude less than a typical nuclear reaction.) If the reaction could be controlled and harnessed, a cheap and plentiful source of energy would become available (Warning: link is to a pdf file).

And his company, Blacklight Power, managed to scare up something like sixty million dollars of venture capital, and started up its R&D.

At this point, the conventional wisdom shifted: Mills is no longer just a harmless crank: Now that he's convincing people to pony up big bucks for this harebrained scheme of his, he's progressed to outright fraud!

And to be fair, this was not an unreasonable suspicion. After all, if someone comes to you and says:
We've got this new process that will make almost limitless inexpensive energy! All those stuffy old-school scientists like Bohr and Feynman shall be shown completely wrong, and when we unveil our invention to the world five years from now, everyone will have to rewrite their physics texts! All we need is for you to provide us a little financial help...
...most intelligent people would, quite rightly, offer to put them in touch with that ex-Nigerian Minister of Finance who's trying to figure out a safe place to put all that money.


But here's where the story starts to get a little unusual. It's one thing for a scammer to say, "it'll be ready in five years!" After all, the scam will generally be up well before five years, and the scammer will long since have vanished. It's quite another thing to say, "this thing will be ready for marketing by next year Q2, and we're looking for independent parties to verify our work."

And it's really quite remarkable for said independent parties to come back and say, um... yes, this reactor is producing more energy than we can account for through standard chemistry.

Last week, Blacklight Power announced that some of their claims had been independently verified:
Dr. Jansson's Rowan University team conducted 55 tests of the prototypes, including controls and calibrations, during a nine-month study. Test results indicated that energy generation was proportional to the total amount of solid fuel, and only one percent of the one million joules of the energy released could be accounted for by previously known chemistry. These results matched earlier tests conducted at BlackLight's Research and Development Center, in Cranbury New Jersey.
Now, whenever I hear anyone else announce that their results have been "independently verified", I immediately look to see whether the independent verification has been independently announced. After all, it's easy for anyone to claim that they've been independently verified by someone else. It's a lot harder to get that someone else to play along.

Well, the New York Times picked up the story. According to them:
We covered the company extensively back in May, when it started saying it had a prototype 50 kilowatt reactor.

At the time, Mills was reluctant to provide much proof, only saying that the process was being verified. Now an engineering team at Rowan University, also in New Jersey, has come forward with results from its own tests of the Blacklight process. Tests conducted in sealed chambers, and measured with a device called a calorimeter, show a heat reaction from a substance provided by Blacklight far beyond anything anticipated.
So: unless the Times has totally botched its reporting (hey! Could happen), it appears that the Rowan University team has "come forward with results from its own tests", and that their results are pretty close to the ones that Blacklight has predicted.

Now, are there parts of this story that sound fishy? You bet. For one thing, the Rowan U. team couldn't get the continuous energy production that would be needed in a commercial power source, and the Blacklight people are saying, "that's proprietary information." And there's the fact that the Blacklight people provided all the fuel for the Rowan U. tests, meaning that it wasn't completely independent. And this doesn't even start to touch on the sheer unlikelihood of a mere nickel-catalyzed chemical reaction forcing hydrogen atoms into a physical state that modern physics says doesn't exist.

And yet, even with all this, there's a pretty good point that's made by the writer of the Times article:

According to Mills, it’s likely a totally independent researcher will verify the whole process within a year. Meanwhile the company will start licensing out its energy process, and do work with hydrinos in various chemical applications.

As I noted in May, it would be odd, if Blacklight were a complete sham, for Mills to place himself in an end game in which he would be definitively proven wrong within just a year or two. So there does seem to be something deeper here. Physicists will deny the hydrino theory, and they may be right; perhaps that’s why there was a distinct note of smugness in Mills’ voice as he said, “The controversy and academic debate won’t stop commercialization.”
Emphasis added.


What to make of all this?

My own gut feeling, for what it's worth, is that:
  • Mills is not a scammer, and Blacklight Power is not a scam. To be a scam, the guys orchestrating it would have to know it's wrong, and be doing it anyway. These guys aren't acting like it's a scam. Like the Times writer said, it would be odd for Blacklight to "place [itself] in an end game in which [it] would be definitively proven wrong within a year or two." These guys are true believers.
  • That said, I doubt that we're seeing the vindication of hydrino theory here. I suspect that we're seeing some previously undocumented chemical reaction, and that with proper research, an explanation for the anomalous power will be found within the framework of standard chemistry, without the need for rewriting the laws of physics.
  • But it think it's noteworthy that these guys found something new. That is, even if hydrino theory proves to be totally bunk and everyone involved with Blacklight loses their shirts, they have reproducibly found a new chemical reaction. Key word here is on the term "reproducible": one problem with the Cold Fusion people is that it couldn't be reliably reproduced. One team found anomalous heat, another did not, and it was totally unpredictable. But whatever the "Blacklight reactor" is doing, it appears to be able to do it reliably, every time. That means the process can be studied at length, and it should be studied--whatever is happening.
But there's another Deep Thought that comes to mind as I survey the scene:

How is it that the "cranks"--if that's what they are--have managed to come up on a new chemical reaction the more respectable researchers have heretofore overlooked?

Answer: they looked for it.

Here's the problem. There's always been a tension in the scientific community between the experimentalists and the theoreticians. The goal of the theoretician is to produce a logical framework, a set of "laws", that explains all the observations that the experimental guys come up with, and predicts things that later experiments can verify. The goal of the experimentalists, on the other hand, is to make new observations that stretch--or even break--the theories. After all, if you observe something that has already been predicted by an existing theory, you merely reinforce the theory; but if you observe something that no one could have predicted, that is where the great leaps of knowledge come about.

The trouble is that by 2008, the physics theoreticians have won the debate. Blacklight notwithstanding, there are no observations of physical phenomena out there that can't be explained by the prevailing theories of quantum mechanics. Experimentation today consists of making predictions from the theories (say, regarding quantum teleportation), and then building an experiment to verify that what you predicted from the theory actually happens. That, combined with the fact that cutting edge physics often requires larger and pricier machines, like ITER and the LHC, means that there aren't that many totally new and unexpected phenomena left to be discovered by tinkerers building experiments on the tabletop.

Aside from the cranks and the crackpots, it seems everyone else has given up looking for holes in the General Model of Quantum Mechanics--because people have been trying for so long to find holes in it, without success. And because the General Model is so successful, there's a tendency to cast anyone who does reject it as one of those cranks and crackpots.

So along comes a Randell Mills, who says, "I think the General Model is a load of hooey," and he comes up with an alternate theory and sets about trying to prove it. He starts running experiments that no one else would have thought to run, precisely because the General Model told them they wouldn't find anything. And when these experiments start returning values that no one (except the "crackpot") expected, what happens?

Well, what should happen is that the scientific community says, "Hmm. Wow. Huh. Could you do that again, dear chap?" And then, when he does, the scientific community should say, "All right, I want you to show me exactly what you just did, so I can do this myself." That being done, the scientific community should start trying to fit their results into some kind of theoretical framework.

Now, there may well be plenty of scientists out there who think like that; I hope there are. But just from perusing various online scientific fora, I tend to see a lot of arguments like the following:
  1. His theoretical paper is riddled with computational errors and has extensive passages lifted from other works.
  2. The fact that he's rejected the Bohr model of the atom--with its absolute rock-bottom ground state--makes him a crank, and his work should be ignored.
  3. The guy's a scammer, who's just trying to get gullible people to send him money. For the sake of the integrity of the Scientific Community, this guy should get no attention whatsoever.
  4. The "anomalous energy" is most likely just a design flaw in the experiment--nothing to get excited about.
  5. The "anomalous energy" most likely comes from some change in the physical structure of the nickel catalyst; nothing worth getting worked up over.
  6. There is so little money available for any research these days, that we have to pick and choose what we give it to. We shouldn't have to spend a dime investigating something that's so unlikely to pan out.
My response to all of the above: This guy produced a chemical reaction that he predicted and you didn't. That much has been verified. Now his theories may be total bunk--in fact, I suspect they are--but the fact remains, he found something that you didn't even suspect was there. I'm enough of a traditionalist to believe that in Science, it is experiment--not theory--that is king. His motive, and his funding source, are irrelevant. He found something. If you wish to call yourself a scientist, it's now up to you to investigate what happened--and I mean really investigate, not just wave it away with ad hominem--and put it in a theoretical framework. Even if it's a bad experiment design, someone needs to prove that it's a bad experiment design.


Anyway, that's enough for now. I will occasionally follow up on the somewhat controversial doings of Blacklight Power. I suspect that eventually their process will be found to be a new but otherwise unremarkable chemical reaction, and the whole company will fold within a year or two. I find the fact that no one else has yet found hydrinos to be pretty compelling.

Still, I wish the Blacklight team well. While my gut tells me that their physics is totally wrong, and I certainly wouldn't invest in the company (at least, not before they have viable products on the market and a stable long-term cash flow from operations), I don't think they're scammers.

And unlikely as it is, I'm just enough of a rebel at heart that I wouldn't mind seeing the entire edifice of 20th Century Physics turned on its head. :-)

"Best Campaign Photoshop Yet"

Courtesy the Instapundit, and I have to agree with his assessment. I loved this picture. Can't exactly tell you why, but it made me laugh.

And I must heartily agree with the commenter who said, "Uh... I just wanna know which one of them leads..."

APB on Arby

Ok, I've had some difficulty for the last week getting Arby's Archives to load. Everytime I try, I get a blank screen, like this:

Anyone else getting the same thing?

I've tried on both Firefox and IE Explorer, from different computers. IE Explorer gives a 404 error.

Arby, ya still there? Everything OK?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sir Ian McKellan, On What It Means To Be An Actor

I saw this over at Apollos Academy, and I had to share it.

Apparently, it's from a British sitcom entitled "Extras", about a professional extra who's trying to make it big. It appears that they get a lot of big-name actors on for little bit parts, playing themselves. And it appears that a lot of these clips show up at Youtube--we've now seen the one for Patrick Stewart, and for Kate Winslet, and a couple for Robert DeNiro. I also saw a longer one for Daniel Radcliffe, although I didn't watch it. Be forewarned if you want to go browsing these clips: most of them are loaded with sexual humor.

Anyway, here's Ian McKellan, explaining what it means to be an actor:

(And there's no sexual humor in this particular one, in case that's important to you.)

And in case you're interested, here's the one of Patrick Stewart. (And there is sexual humor in this particular one, in case that's important to you.)

My Daughter Thinks Like Tevye!

I love the show "Fiddler on the Roof." And in particular, I love the relationship that the main character, Tevye, has with God. For the most part, he doesn't do set-piece prayers in the ritualistic fashion: "Dear Lord in Heaven, Hallowed Be Your Name...." No, he just starts up regular-guy conversations with Him. He might say things like: "So, was my life so uncomplicated that You decided to stir things up this morning? You know, you could really be of some help if you would heal my horse's hoof--or at least not make it worse again."

And I like the way that he's rooted in reality. When presented with the opinion of a young student radical, that "Wealth is the world's curse," he utters an oath (paraphrased): "Then may the Lord strike me down with this curse, and may I never recover!"

I always liked this formulation....

Well, my sick eldest daughter--who's never seen Fiddler on the Roof--produced a similar verbal formulation while preparing for her bedtime prayers: "I wish God would strike me with wellness."

You know, I like it. Lord! I beseech Thee that Thou wouldst smite me with good health! Crush me under thy generous, benevolent hand!


You know, I sometimes wonder about the theological framework that is forming in her mind, piece by piece, as we try to explain things as they come up in conversation. Sometimes we do pretty well, and sometimes we come off like Calvin's Dad. I remember how last year she was wondering whether God was going to make some puppies in our yard. Well, today she was wondering about Mommy's pregnancy: specifically, why.

"Mommy, why are you pregnant again?"

Good question! Sometimes, especially days like this, I need reminding myself. :-)

Well, at least she didn't ask how. This is one of those topics--at least until they're a little older--where it's best not to answer more than they ask. ;-)

So Mommy told her that God has decided to bless us with another little baby.

And the Pillowfight Fairy asked whether Mommy was OK with that. Mommy said that yes, she was OK with God's decision, and asked, "Don't you think it would be nice to have another little baby around here?"

Then with insight well beyond her years, the Pillowfight Fairy commented:

"It's going to be crazy around here."

Yes, indeedy. In fact, I've been reflecting on this fact a lot lately, especially as we've been dealing with all the coughing and sneezing that's been going on... :-(

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why We Homeschool

My wife just did a very long, in-depth post entitled Why do we homeschool. Check it out--if you've got twenty minutes or so to kill.


Sure, Darling, Let Me Find a Pumpkin and Some Duct Tape

So early yesterday morning my eldest daughter approached me, not yet quite awake, as I was goofing off on the computer.

"Could you play Stayin' Alive again, Daddy?"

Well, she was looking rather adorable with that mussed-up hair and all, so I couldn't refuse. I loaded up the previous day's post--the one about how the Bee Gee's hit Stayin' Alive has a good tempo for performing CPR--and played the youtube clip for her again.

And my little girl started trying to sing along with whatever lyrics she could hear. Now, the Bee Gees aren't particularly well known for their enunciation, so the Fairy quite understandably was unable to figure out most of what they were saying. (Side note: Neither was I.)

So, being ever the helpful daddy, I googled the lyrics. Upon finding a page with the lyrics, I started up the youtube clip, then put it into the background to play as I pulled the lyrics page so we could read it.

The Pillowfight Fairy got this dopey grin on her face (though not half as dopey as mine) as, together, we began singing in this fabulous falsetto:
You can tell by the way I do my walk
I'm a woman's man, no time to talk.
Music hot and women warm,
I've been kicked around since I was born....
So this got progressively goofier. After a bit, we were gyrating energetically around the living room....

And eventually the song ended. So we went back to the computer and started reading over the lyrics again. And singing with them again, without the song playing in the background to provide any cover for how silly we were sounding.

Then she hit me with it. With a dainty, inquisitive smile on her face--of the sort that only a little girl can give, she asked me (with great sincerity):

Daddy, can we make a disco ball?

I laughed. Hard.

I tell ya, the destruction of Western Civilization is continuing apace.

I feel the city breaking and everybody shaking....

Friday, October 17, 2008

Following Up on that Horrible, Horrible Idea

I mentioned yesterday that I'd like this story to get further play--because the more people who know about it, the better things are likely to turn out--and so today, Lo and Behold, Glenn Reynolds--the Instapundit--commented on the story. In a typically terse post, he writes:
PLANS TO ABOLISH 401(K) ACCOUNTS in favor of a government-run fund? Sounds like a loser to me.
He'll forgive me for reproducing this post in its entirety, I'm sure. After all, it was pretty hard to excerpt. ;-)

The link was to the blog of an outfit calling itself the American Shareholder's Association, which has also come to the conclusion that Representative George Miller (D-CA) is trying to socialize the 401(k) system. Their post had some links to a couple of PDF transcripts from the subcommittee hearings where they were floating the ideas.

So it's not actually legislation yet. But it's pretty clear that there are some important committee chairs who would like it to become legislation.

Speaking as one who would just assume that the Feds not tell us how we are supposed to save, invest, or spend our own money, I think this is one we need to keep our eyes on. Thankfully, given that the Instapundit has noticed it, it means that all his readers have noticed it too....

Who Knew... Disco Is Good For Something After All!

Of course, Disco first went through its Popular phase, then it went through the "Jeez, what were they thinking?" stage, then it finally came around to the "Heaps of fun, in a goofy sort of way" stage, where it will probably rest for the remainder of eternity, or at least until Western civilization finally falls due to spreading decadence.

My wife and I still have fond memories from the time we were courtin', when we went to a local sit-down pizza joint, and they were playing a not-very-long loop of disco numbers over their sound system. I think we got to hear Ring My Bell at least three times during the course of that dinner.

Repeat after me, in a rapidly descending falsetto: BHOOOOoooohhhh!

Ahem. Anyway, as I mentioned, these songs have somehow come around to being fun again, in a really campy way. You know you're being totally silly and un-hip when you dance to them, but that's half the fun. You get to pretend that you're a hip, happenin' swinger when these songs come on, and everyone else is in on the joke, so they play along with you. And you and everyone else gets to laugh at you, while laughing with you.

And you get to laugh at your parents' generation for coming up with this stuff.*

Well, I saw a news item today that put a smile on my face: Bee-Gees Song Stayin' Alive Helps Doctors Perform CPR.

(By the way, I love that picture of the three of them. Check out those manly rugs of theirs. Ah, yes: the seventies were where it was at, that's fer sure! Thankfully, we can tell by the way they use their walk that they're actually women's men--If it hadn't been for that, I'm not sure I would have guessed.)

Here's the issue: most people, when they learn how to do chest compressions during CPR, don't have a good intuitive feel for the correct rate to do them. Chest compressions should be performed at the rate of 100 per minute, which is significantly faster than people tend to do.

Well, apparently some doctor somewhere figured out that this rate is very close to the tempo of that great Bee Gees classic, Stayin' Alive: 103 beats per minute.

In case you need reminding:

And the really neat thing about this song, is that it gets stuck in your head! Even if you've only heard the song once or twice before in your life, you still can't get rid of it! It just goes into this endless loop up there and plays OVER and OVER and OVER....

So anyway, these CPR trainers got hold of the idea that they would put this song on the stereo while their cadets were practicing chest compressions, and before you know it, everyone was pumping in time with the music--at more or less the correct rate. And even when the music is taken away, it is apparently such a strong mnemonic, that their students were beating at pretty close to the correct rate several weeks later. They just get the song in their heads while trying to save lives, and do their thing... and it works.

I love this extended quote:

Dr. Matthew Gilbert, a 28-year-old medical resident, was among participants in the University of Illinois study. Since then, he said, he has revived real patients by keeping the song in his head while doing CPR.

Mr Gilbert said he was surprised the song worked as well as it did.

"I was a little worried because I've been told that I have a complete lack of rhythm," he said. Also, Mr Gilbert said he's not really a disco fan.

He does happen to like a certain Queen song with a similar beat.

"I heard a rumour that 'Another One Bites the Dust' works also, but it didn't seem quite as appropriate," Mr Gilbert said.

Indeed. No, that one would be bad during CPR.


Anyway, as I was thinking about writing this post, I decided to see whether there was a youtube version of Stayin' Alive available. When I found it, I started playing it here just for kicks. When my two daughters heard the music start up, they wandered over to the computer to see what I was doing. And they saw those three guys with the rugs doing their things.

And before the song was over? You guessed it: I had two little girls running around, singing OVER and OVER and OVER:

"Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Stayin' Alive! Stayin' Alive! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Stayin' Alive! Stayin' Alive! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah...."

I think they liked it. In fact, I think they liked it a wee bit too much. We like it better than the whole Ring of Fire thing that Auntie Jean inflicted on us a few years back (in the form of one of those musical birthday cards)...

...but we fear we may have just corrupted the next generation, contributing to the inevitable collapse of Western civilization.

Ah, well. At least some people's lives will be saved in the interim. God works in mysterious ways, no?

*Before you ask, my parents were most definitely not into disco.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Horrible, Horrible Idea

Saw this news story today, and thought I'd bring it to the attention of my (admittedly small) readership. (Hat tip to The Next Right.) Now, I've only seen this story in one place so far, so I'm going to resist the urge to blow my stack here, until more information comes in.

I'm not going to try to do any extended commentary on it, because by the end, I'd be so frothing at the mouth that I would most definitely not be Coherent.

But as I understand this story, various high-ranking House Democrats are floating a proposal that would:
  • Eliminate the tax incentives associated with the 401(k) plans.
  • "[Redirect] those tax breaks to a new system of guaranteed retirement accounts to which all workers would be obliged to contribute."
  • Provide some kind of federal subsidy of $600 per year per worker (the funds for which would be raised... how? hmmm?)
  • Require that all workers contribute at least 5% of their income into a "guaranteed retirement account" administered by the Social Security Administration...
  • ...Which would return a "guaranteed" 3% after inflation.
Read the thing and tell me if I'm understanding this correctly.

Sounds like they think that you and I are idiots, incapable of making decisions for our own futures, so they're plotting to take away control over our own retirement accounts, funded with our own money--taken from our own paychecks--and replace them with something that will provide a guaranteed lousy return. Am I getting this straight?

The only thing this system has in its favor--and it's not much--is that it's a less terribly designed system than the existing Social Security. If this system were being proposed to replace the existing Social Security--while not touching our 401(k) accounts--I might see a glimmer of something not to hate here.

As it is, if I didn't know better, I would suspect the authors of this abomination were trying to lose the upcoming election. And I suspect if this news gets wide enough distribution, they just might.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Carnival of Homeschooling is Up

It's here.

I haven't been blogging much about the Carnival of Homeschooling lately. That is, in part, because I haven't been blogging about much of anything lately. But it's also because I haven't had too many submissions of my own, so I haven't been participating as much as I'd like.

Well, this week I submitted my post on Southerners and Phonics. That was fun. I think I got a rise out of my Georgia-based doppelganger on that one, as I knew I would. :-) Lo and behold, this week's host decided to accept it.

There was another post that caught my eye: Barbara Frank posted an entry entitled Homeschooling on the Decline? noting that, for the first time since the founding of the modern homeschooling movement, the number of officially registered homeschoolers in the state of Wisconsin has declined from the previous year.

She notes a couple of reasons why. First, Wisconsin has instituted a "Virtual Academy" program, which allows public school students to learn at home. That is, the school system provides the curriculum and the monitoring (testing and grading, etc...), but the actual instruction is provided at home. This is not technically considered homeschooling by many in the movement, since the parents and students are accountable to the state school system, but this option is attractive to many of the same people who would otherwise be homeschooling. The popularity of this option may well be making a dent in the homeschooling population. I would, of course, be interested to see statistics on the trend of all students being taught at home, whether through pure homeschooling or through the Virtual Academy, to see if this aggregated number is still on the rise....

Second, the economy has taken a hit, and this has put pressure on a lot of stay-at-home-mothers to return to the workforce. It's a big enough job for my own wife to homeschool our oldest, without any outside employment; it would be much tougher if she had to hold down a part-time job, and it would be next to impossible if she had to hold down a full-time job (although some mothers do actually make it work!). If this theory is true, we could see a dip in the growth rate (or even total headcount) of the homeschooling movement during economic down-times.

But she also muses on the idea of whether homeschooling is starting to approach its natural limit in the general population. After all, it takes a special kind of family to homeschool--one where (usually) the mother has enough time, energy, confidence, support, and talent to put into what is a huge commitment. Families where both parents work, and families with single parents, tend not to go the homeschooling route for obvious reasons (although there are a few stalwart souls out there who can make it work. My hat is off to them). By the time you factor them out, and then figure that a big chunk of the remaining families would be against homeschooling for one personal reason or another, it may be that only a few percent of all families are both willing and able to take on the homeschooling lifestyle. Perhaps Wisconsin is nearing this limit?

Anyway, it's food for thought. I think that the homeschooling movement does have a natural upper limit, and there may be a few places in the country where we could be reaching this saturation point. It may be that Wisconsin is one of them. And the fortunes of the homeschooling movement are also inversely tied to the quality of the public schools, as commenter Crimson Wife points out:
There’s also been some improvement in the quality of government-run schools at least in certain places. Families who never even would’ve considered enrolling their children in a government-run school 5 or 10 years ago are now willing to give it a try. Granted most of those families would’ve gone the private school route, but some of them might’ve ended up homeschooling.
As I said, food for thought. I suspect that, nationwide, the movement still has some way to go before it hits its upper limit. For one thing, for better or worse, the movement is driven at least in part by suspicion of the public schools. This is especially--though not exclusively--true on the cultural right in this country. There is a suspicion, right or wrong, that the schools have a social agenda they are trying to push, which involves investing values in the children that the parents themselves disagree with. The more that people--the cultural right especially--distrust the government, the more they are likely to pull their kids out of public school and teach them at home. (And incidentally, the news that speeches by Obama are already starting to show up in textbooks in various public schools isn't going to help the cultural right's distrust of the schools one bit.)

Anyway, it's an interesting post. Take a look.

Ummm... Wha???

Ok, as someone who gets a fair amount of news from the Fox News website, I've come to the conclusion that you often can't tell what a story is about by looking at the headline.

I've commented upon this phenomenon before....

All news providers do this, but Fox News--bless their souls--seems to do it more than most. They like writing headlines that catch the attention and make the reader think: Good grief! I wonder what that's all about? And then the reader reads the story and discovers that it's quite mundane, actually. And Fox likes to go with "cutesy" headlines: puns (usually not very good ones), cultural in-references, and the like.

So today, I saw the headline: Infant Stars Caught In Act of Feeding.

Now, maybe it was just because I wasn't awake yet. Maybe I need to start developing a taste for coffee, so I can actually wake up in the morning before I read the news. But this headline simply did not compute. I stared at it for a bit.

Infant stars? I know they have to have babies in movies from time to time, but I wasn't aware that any were regarded as stars. And they were "caught in the act of feeding?" Well, I knew the paparazzi were privacy-invading scum, but it really wouldn't be that big a deal if one of them snapped a picture of a mommy nursing her young movie star. It would be hugely impolite of them to invade the mommy's space like that during a potentially intimate moment, but aside from that, it's not like it's a scandal or anything.

Why is it a big deal if movie-star babies are "caught" feeding? Unless it's feeding on something the baby shouldn't be eating, like with the Happy Boy and rocks (or grass, or dirt, or snails, or most of the other yummy stuff in our backyard).

So I clicked on the story. I wanted to see what the big deal was: who were these infant stars, and why was their feeding such a big deal?

First line in the story:
The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope has given astronomers their most detailed look at how infant stars feed off the disks of gas and dust that swirl around them as they grow.
Oh. Those stars.

As Emily Litella would say: Never mind.

You know, a very small and petty part of me is tempted to blame Fox News for this. After all, they do tend to put a lot of entertainment-fluff dreck and shock stories on their front page. I'm tempted to claim that this was a case of crying wolf. After becoming too accustomed to seeing these kinds of stories, the brain tends to start reading all ambiguous headlines as though it's another sensation they're trying to flog.

But as I said, this would be small and petty of me. I think the whole thing about needing to caffeinate myself before I read the news is closer to the truth.

Except these days, that might get me way too wound up. It's probably for the best that I'm taking in daily news in a semi-comatose state....

Monday, October 13, 2008

I Can't Believe I'm Losing To A Wooden Dog...

So tonight was one of those nights where order ruled in the household.

Sort of. The kids were actually holy terrors. Not even playing George Winston managed to calm them down. They were making all kinds of silly little-kid jokes that weren't even funny the first fifty times they tried them, let alone after that.* And then there was the kid who intentionally gagged on the food she didn't want to eat, and the other kid who just up and dropped his plate on the floor when he was done with it....

So Daddy blew his stack and sent child number two to bed early. And then he took the now ironically-named Happy Boy for a walk around the block (in the dark) while everyone else cooled off. And then after the Happy Boy went to bed, Daddy played the last fifteen measures of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (first movement) over and over and over again until serenity reigned.

And once again, order ruled in the household. Funny how things calm down when you only have to deal with one kid, and she's nearly six.


So while I was using the piano to establish a more serene mood in the household, Tonya pulled out our Mancala board to teach a little strategy to the Pillowfight Fairy--something we've been intending to do for some time. Mommy taught the rules to the Fairy, from the instruction sheet that came with the board.

Incidentally, I played a version of Mancala when I was a kid, and the instructions that came with the board were totally different than the instructions I knew. There are many different versions of the basic Mancala game out there.

Well, the Pillowfight Fairy did her manful best, and did OK--she actually came within one stone of tying Mommy. Now, Mommy prefers playing word games like Scrabble; she's not much of a look-ahead-five-moves kind of strategy player. So she wasn't surprised that the Fairy did as well as she did.

So then I asked if I could play. By this point the Fairy was rather intrigued by the game, and agreed. And, being Daddy, I demolished her. ;-) And that was even with the occasional helpful hint about how she really didn't want to do that move--because if she did, I'd be able to capture all those stones in that pit right there...

But the funniest thing happened at the end of the game: she didn't break down in tears at the unfairness of the universe in not permitting her to win! This is, so far as I can tell, a serious breakthrough. So, I went off to do something else...

...and when I got back, she was practicing strategy. And she had picked out a foe worthy of her talents:

She would make a move from her own side. Then, she would pick up the wooden dog, dance it over to one of the pits on the other side, and make its move for it--with a suitable running commentary on what the "dog" was doing, of course.

I had come back about halfway through her game with the dog, and she was clearly winning against the poor hound. So I decided that he needed a little help.

"Now if I were the dog, here's the move I would make, and this is why..."

And then she would try to make a move that clearly would set up several of her stones to be captured, and I would warn her: "But if you do that, the dog can do this, and then..."

Surprisingly, she didn't object to the fact that the dog was now benefiting from my kibitzing. Not even, mind you, when the dog started to win again. Instead, I noticed that she started employing some strategic thinking of her own--moving the stones from the pits that were threatened with capture, counting stones to see how far they would go, that sort of thing.

Finally, that game ended and we started counting up the stones in great anticipation... and it was a tie! The Pillowfight Fairy, and the little wooden dog, had each taken 24 stones! This made the Fairy very, very happy, and she started to jump and bounce around:

"We both won! We both won!"

So after an appropriate celebration, we reset the board, and she started to play again. This time I "helped" the wooden dog all the way from the beginning of the game, and at each move, I warned her what the dangers of various moves were--what the dog would do if she made certain moves. She did Ok, but this time the dog came out victorious.

The Fairy, again, took the loss well in stride. She did make some comments that were vaguely Rodney-Dangerfield-like, about how she just lost to a wooden dog! But these comments weren't accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth, so we consider the night a success. And most importantly, she is now hooked on a (non-computer!) strategy game--which I see as a big, big plus. Strategy games work the brain, help to train up logical skills.

But I fear we'll have to find her an opponent she can win against once in a while, lest she lose interest. And that means it can't be as tough as that durn wooden dog. Maybe the Adrenaline Junkie? Ah, but then we have to find someone the Junkie can win against on occasion. And the Happy Boy would just eat the pieces at this point, I'm afraid.

Maybe I can learn to play Blindfold Mancala?

*Although, in as foul a mood as I was, I admit I couldn't help laughing when I overheard this exchange just before dinner:
Exasperated Mommy: What are you doing?

Pillowfight Fairy: I'm straightening my tongue...

My Very Left-Brained Wife Discusses Fashion

Tonya--who hasn't been blogging much lately--decided to expound upon her fashions, and how they've changed since she's become a mommy. Now, she doesn't wear combat boots like some mens' wives do, but she's now pretty close.

I'm actually rather proud that she made the footwear choice she did, for completely inexplicable reasons. And it's not because of any foot fetish on my part, really....

Sunday, October 12, 2008

How To Play Piano When You Can't

We always had a piano in our house growing up, but I never learned how to play it. It's not that my parents were ambivalent about music education for their kids; rather, I suspect it was a combination of the fact that lessons are expensive, and the fact that my parents as kids developed horrible personal memories of hours spent doing their scales when they'd rather have been outside getting some sunlight on their pale skin. So I never had lessons as a kid; I never asked why, and they didn't ever ask whether I wanted them.

And then I got all grown up, and discovered that it would have been really, really handy to know how to play the piano. I've done my share of music composition and my share of directing, and are plenty of times when it would have been so convenient just to be able to grab a sheet of music, pull up a keyboard, play it, and let everyone know that it sounds like that. Alas, I never developed that skill--and I suspect that, given my experiences trying to learn the piano as an adult, that I never will.

Well, I had lessons for a few years in college, because it was necessary to have some skill for my music minor. But aside from that, I just wasn't an instrumental kind of guy until I started learning Celtic Harp on a lark about ten years ago--well after having left college. My instrument was the voice, and I got good enough that I was able to do minor opera roles. I also got good enough that I could read most vocal music by sight. I learned my role of Alcindoro, from La Boheme, by reading the score, with no headphones, while riding a train on my way to work one day....

But we got a piano in the summer of 2007, and I've been determined to make sure my kids learn how to play (at least until they get old enough to decide whether they'd rather become expert at some other instrument instead). And not only that, but I've been trying to learn myself. (Alas, this also means that I haven't really practiced the harp in about a year. Sometimes I miss playing it, but I'm rather dreading actually trying to tune the thing again....)


What I've discovered is that unlike with vocal music, which I can sight-read very well, learning piano (or harp) music takes me a very, very long time. For me, the process of turning notes on a page into sung phrases is natural and (mostly) automatic; but turning the same notes into a sequence of key depressions or plucked strings is a strange, artificial process. By the time I know a piece well enough to feel comfortable playing it for other people, I've had to memorize every finger motion, so that the entire piece is played from muscle memory.

(It also means that if I miss a note, I often can't pick up where I lost it, and have to start from the beginning. This is especially true on the harp. Somehow, the plucking motion is more physically complicated than the simple key-presses on a piano, so a missed note or mis-positioned finger throws off everything that comes after it.)

I have, after the better part of a year of constant practice, managed to learn the first Clementi Sonatina in C major!

(I can do it a bit faster than this girl, but not as accurately.)

At this rate, I might have all six of them learned by the time I die....

So I've been figuring, this will never do. Time for a change of strategy. I'd like some day to be able to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (First Movement--I'm not sure I'll ever get good enough to do the Third Movement), and Debussy's Clair de Lune, but I'm having difficulty making my way through the second Clementi Sonatina. It's in G major, dont'cha know, and that means you have just that many more black keys to deal with....


So, how do I plan to get good enough to do Moonlight Sonata?

Well, I decided to do two things.

Item One: if you're trying to get good enough to do X, here's a hint: sometimes it's a waste of time to do Y, where Y is easier than X. You spend all your time working on Y, polishing Y, making mistakes on Y, and you never get good enough on Y to feel comfortable working your way up to something more sophisticated. Sometimes, it's worth it to jump straight to X, and work your way through it. Or to put it another way: if you're trying to learn Clementi, that's great--if you want to play Clementi. If you want to play Beethoven, on the other hand, start playing Beethoven.

Black keys and all. Now, this has always been "scary" to me, especially after playing the harp (which is a diatonic instrument, like a piano would be if it only had white keys). How do you learn how to play something with four sharps (Moonlight Sonata) or five flats (Clair de Lune)? Those keys have much more complicated scales to them than plain old C, or even G or F--and I've been struggling with the Clementi pieces in G and F.

Well, for me at least, I don't think it helps to "work my way up to it". If you want to play four sharps, just do it! Yeah, it'll be tough when you start, but after you've done it a hundred times, the muscle memory kicks in....

So my courage duly braced, I went and got the sheet music to Moonlight Sonata and a collection of Debussy pieces, including Clair de Lune. I got them home, looked at all those funny little notes, and promptly thought to myself: Gaaaaak! What was I thinking?

Which brings us to Item Two: learn the piece backwards.

Here's the problem. I learn through constant repetition. The trouble, when learning a new piece of music, is that it takes me a long time to play all the notes, because my brain is having to look at the music, then consciously decipher what I'm reading, then consciously place the fingers on (hopefully) the correct keys, then look back at the music and find my place again... It can take ten minutes to go through a one-minute piece this way. And given that this Daddy doesn't have much time to practice these days, that means I don't get any repetition, and the muscle memory builds up very very slowly.

Now, obviously the solution is to take a chunk of measures--say, four or eight--and play only those measures over and over until you have them cold, then go on to the next chunk. But there are two problems with this approach. First, when you stop at the end of an eight-measure passage, you don't necessarily learn how to position your fingers for what comes next. You create an unnecessary transition point: your brain knows how to get up to that point; and your brain knows how to start at that point and go on, but it doesn't necessarily know how to pass through that point smoothly. Second, I simply don't have the discipline to stop, go back to the beginning of the passage, and start over. There's just part of me that wants to keep going, to see what's next.

Thus, I've decided to learn the piece backwards. That is, I start with the last eight measures of the piece--the ending--and play them until I can do them cold, from sheer muscle memory. Then, I back up an additional eight measures--now I'm sixteen from the end--and practice that section. Of course, the penultimate eight measures are much harder, but when I get through them, the last eight are easy, since I've already mastered them. Then when I can get through all final sixteen measures without flaw, I back up another eight... and so forth.

And it means that the farther I play through the piece, the smoother it gets. :-)


So, how's it working?

After dinking around with Moonlight Sonata for a while on Friday, I started this scheme yesterday. As of this evening, I have the last fifteen measures--about 20% of the movement--mostly memorized. That doesn't mean I have them smooth or error-free, but it does mean I can play them without having to look at the music. For me, this is a big deal: once I get to the point that my brain doesn't have to spend CPU cycles reading the music, learning the finger motions becomes much faster, and I start to internalize the music.

A few more observations:

First: After two days, I'm no longer scared of keys with lots of flats or sharps--or even double-sharps, with which Beethoven's music is packed. For one thing, when you get enough of these in the music, you just start playing everything on the black keys. It's just like playing everything on the white keys, only easier--since you can feel where the keys are. :-)

Second: my music theory education is kicking in. As I'm trying to puzzle out where my fingers go, I'm getting little glimpses of what Mr. Beethoven was thinking. For example, why it is that he kept writing those notes as B# instead of C-Natural? They may be enharmonically the same, and writing C-Natural may (in the short term) help newbie piano players know where to put their fingers. But, writing it as B# actually makes the music easier to understand. (You're in the key of C#-minor, and B# is the seventh note of the harmonic minor scale. It's the "leading tone", trying to push the harmony back to the root of the key). The more I focus on the notes, the more I start to understand the music. It gets demystified--but at the same time, I'm coming to see Beethoven more and more as a genius.

Given the progress I've made over the last two days, I'd say the strategy I hit on is-for me--a decent one for learning this difficult music. Given how long it took me to learn the much simpler Clementi music, I'm quite optimistic given how much progress I've made on Beethoven in the last two days. Continuing at this rate, and given what time I have to practice, I would have the Moonlight Sonata (first movement) learned in a month or two--which for me would be a record, given the complexity of the piece.

Am I being too optimistic? Possibly. Most likely. :-) I'll keep you posted as it goes...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Adding Insult to Injury

Well, with all the things that are going wrong with the world, it would certainly be nice if the National Debt suddenly reset to 0,000,000,000,000.

Alas, it is just an illusion. It turns out that the National Debt Clock, mounted in Times Square, just recorded that our national debt has now exceeded the 10 trillion dollar mark. And, well... it doesn't have enough digits to hold the number. So it rolled over like a high-mileage odometer.

It appears that to fix the problem, the Durst Organization--founded by real estate tycoon Seymour Durst, who first put up the National Debt Clock--is going to put up a new clock in place of the old, that has a couple extra digits.


Story here. Hat tip to Hot Air.

2008 Ig Nobel Prize Winners Announced!

Ok. I actually wrote up a beautiful post on this last night, but for some reason, Blogger ate my post just as I tried to submit it. I got frustrated and just decided to go to bed, rather than try posting again. So what follows is roughly what I would have published last night.


So are you familiar with the Ig Nobel Prizes? No, these are not to be confused with the much more stuffy Nobel Prizes, which are also granted around this time of year. The Igs were founded in the early nineties to highlight research which (for whatever reason) either could never be repeated, or should never be repeated. (A good example of this is the infamous pitch drop experiment at the University of Queensland, Australia, which measures the viscosity of a blob of bitumen tar, by letting it flow through a funnel and drip into a beaker below. This experiment, which has been running since 1927, has so far produced eight drips--about one every nine years, give or take. It won an Ig in 2005.)

Well, as the Ig Nobels started becoming more famous, they shifted their mission slightly: now their intention is to highlight research that "makes you laugh, then makes you think." I don't know how much this research actually makes me think, but every year, there are at least a couple that make me laugh out loud.

The list of this year's winners is here. I blogged about the Igs last year, at this post--check it out if you want to read my earlier thoughts.

These are a few of my favorites from this year:

NUTRITION PRIZE. Massimiliano Zampini of the University of Trento, Italy and Charles Spence of Oxford University, UK, for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is.

Now, explain something to me: how exactly does one "electronically [modify] the sound of a potato chip"?

Now, I suppose it would be possible to wire up your hungry friend with a wireless hands-free microphone to pick up the crunch sound, and pipe its signal through some kind of electric filter, and then broadcast it to an in-ear monitor that he happens to be wearing. That might work. And depending on the kind of electronic filter you send the sound through, you could turn mealtime into a truly psychedelic experience. But I'm not immediately sure how you could turn this into a marketable product. Any ideas? :-)

ARCHAEOLOGY PRIZE. Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and José Carlos Marcelino of Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, for measuring how the course of history, or at least the contents of an archaeological dig site, can be scrambled by the actions of a live armadillo.

Now I loved this one. Here's the trouble: archaeologists determine the age of artifacts in part from the layer in the tell from which it was excavated. Artifacts further down are generally older than the ones above. Unless, that is, the site has been inhabited by burrowing armadillos. Armadillos build burrows that are often twenty feet or more deep, and they seem particularly to like these old tells. But in the process of building their burrows, they tend to move old artifacts up, down, and all over the place. It appears, if I understand these Brazilians properly, that our understanding of the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica has been pretty well thwarted by all these armadillos scrambling the evidence. Personally, I find that idea pretty funny. Apparently the Ig committee concurred.

BIOLOGY PRIZE. Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse, France for discovering that the fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than the fleas that live on a cat.

As with so many of these winning research entries, the funny part is when you try to imagine the kinds of experiments they had to come up with to test these things....

MEDICINE PRIZE. Dan Ariely of Duke University (USA), Rebecca L. Waber of MIT (USA), Baba Shiv of Stanford University (USA), and Ziv Carmon of INSEAD (Singapore) for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicin..

Now this one actually is thought provoking. Suppose that more expensive fake medicines work better than cheaper fake medicines. Does this extend to all medical care? And suppose that the politicians do manage to make our health care "more affordable". Does that mean it won't work as well? Hmmm....

COGNITIVE SCIENCE PRIZE. Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University, Japan, Hiroyasu Yamada of Nagoya, Japan, Ryo Kobayashi of Hiroshima University, Atsushi Tero of Presto JST, Akio Ishiguro of Tohoku University, and Ágotá Tóth of the University of Szeged, Hungary, for discovering that slime molds can solve puzzles.

I think that the next time I meet a slime mold, I'll hand it my Rubik's cube and see how long it takes...

But, seriously. (Or, rather, less unseriously.) They built a maze, put the slime mold at one end, and put the slime mold food at the other. (What do they eat? No, scratch that; I don't think I want to know.) The slime mold sent out "feelers" that grew all the way through the maze. And then when it found the food, all the feelers on the dead-end paths shrunk back until the slime mold only occupied the direct path from the start of the maze to the end. Not bad for a creature that doesn't even have a central nervous system--let alone a distinct cell structure.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia page on slime molds is here. I'm not sure why, but I found this page vaguely hilarious. And it wasn't just the "Slime Molds in Culture" part at the end...

PHYSICS PRIZE. Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA, and Douglas Smith of the University of California, San Diego, USA, for proving mathematically that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots.

I was thinking this last one sounded familiar to me. I actually blogged about it last year, and predicted that it may be in the running for an Ig! And this year, just like last, the first thing that came into my mind when I read about it was that chapter from Jerome K. Jerome's book, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), which discussed the trouble one has keeping tow-cables straight. Amazing that, presented with the same information nearly a year later, I thought of exactly the same thing I did the first time around. Hm... I bet there's a research paper in that....

The Perils of Letting Southerners Teach Phonics

No offense to my Doppelganger intended.

Now, my wife isn't technically a Southerner. She was actually born in Mesa, Arizona, and was raised from age 3 in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley. But her parents were Southerners through and through. Papa was born and raised in Cullman County, Alabama, and her mother was born and raised in Graves County, Kentucky--that little part in the far western end of the state where the border with Tennessee bumps a little bit to the south.

They're Southerners to the bone.

Now, it's not as noticeable anymore. They've been living in Silicon Valley so long that their accents have mellowed. And while Papa is still a country boy at heart, Mama has always had a bit of a maverick streak in her, and often found herself in rebellion to the Southern culture surrounding her--or if not open rebellion, at least covert subversion. While they can still function when they go back to the South to visit, I suspect they're pretty happy when they get back--especially Mama. They've absorbed enough California that they don't really fit all that well in either culture.

And, well... my Tonya is a bit like that herself. Even though she's a Southwesterner, even though she's a Silicon Valley girl, she doesn't really fit. Not in the Santa Clara valley, not out here in the Sacramento area, and definitely not the South. And yet, having grown up only one generation removed from the farm, she still has a lot of those little quirks, which occasionally manifest themselves in weird ways.

She can spit watermelon seeds much farther than I can, for instance.

But I've been noticing, um... unusual speech patterns in my eldest daughter for some time now. How to describe them? Well.... imagine that scene from the movie "Singin' In the Rain", where the movie stars are all having to take speech lessons so that they can perform in the new talkies, and the voice coaches are trying to get them to speak with full, rich, "round" sounds. Remember how the lead actress can't break out of her whiny Brooklyn accent? Well, if you can remember that scene, you can imagine our five-year-old with a similar not-full, not-rich, not-"round" sound. For example, she speaks the word "jam" as a two-syllable dipthong, like jā'-ăm.

And I'd been puzzling over for a few weeks now: where'd she been getting this?

Tonight, it hit me. You see, I overheard my wife giving my three-year-old an elementary phonics lesson.

I've mentioned before that we've been using the Hazel Loring method (Warning: pdf file), which we found at Don Potter's website. And in this method, the parent spells out words from a list, one letter at a time, and progressively lets the student sound out the word.

Today's method involved the "nk" combinations: ank, ink, onk, unk. She started in on the first few words on the list--things like sank, and tank. And the Adrenaline Junkie was dutifully sounding these words out.

But then my wife stopped to correct her, with the following phonetic rule. "No, we don't use a short vowel sound on these words. When followed by the NK, we use the long A sound."


So I listened as my wife systematically taught my daughter to mispronounce a whole bunch of words--sānk, tānk, bānk, dānk, and thānk, instead of sănk, tănk, bănk, dănk, and thănk.

So I manfully went in to correct my wife.

"Um, honey? Don't you mean it should be sănk?"

She looked at me like I had three heads. To be fair, she tried to sound it out the way I had said it, and it just sounded funny to her. It sounded funny to me when she tried to pronounce it that way, too--because that's not the way my wife usually sounds.

So I went and pulled out the dictionary and looked up the word sank. Sure enough, the non-Southerner was right. The dictionary must have been edited by a Yankee: the word is officially pronounced "săngk".

Apparently, she was trying to get our kids to pronounce all the "ink" words as "eenk" as well: "I theeeenk she weeeenked at me when I was over by the seeeenk."

So. This explains a lot! So I got to mock her mercilessly tonight.

She's never been one to call people names. But if she were, I'm sure I'd have to correct her again: your husband is a wănker, not wānker....