Dec 28, 2007

the language of Alzheimer's

My inner ear is not known for its cleverness in cars. On the ride from Burlington, VT back home to Marlboro, VT last night, I got spectacularly carsick (not unusual, sadly). I spent almost all of the ride slumped motionless in my seat, reminding myself which way was up and attempting to breathe. My poor parents kept trying to ask how I was doing, but all I could manage to do was mumble and wave my left hand in a feeble attempt at "thumbs up".

But even though my verbal communication was totally nonexistent, I was able to think about stuff during that car ride. We'd been in Burlington to visit my grandparents. My grandfather has both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Both are very advanced. He's quite shaky, and sometimes he can't remember how to walk or sit up, so he spends most of his time lying on the couch. Two or three minutes of slow walking exhausts him. He still speaks a little bit, mostly in response to questions, and occasionally on his own. He doesn't recognize anybody except for my grandmother, and he only recognizes her 50% of the time these days. But in so many ways, he hasn't changed. His expressions and mannerisms, though displayed on a failing body, are totally recognizable. He can sing along to almost any hymn - including all of the words. And, most significantly, his pronounced sweet tooth and fondness for dessert has only been magnified as the disease has progressed. He may not remember how to read, but ice cream? He knows all about that.

While we were visiting, I took a walk downtown with my family. As we milled around, I remembered that Amanda Baggs lives in downtown Burlington and I wondered if I was anywhere near her apartment. I remembered
reading a post somewhere on her blog that said that anybody friendly was welcome to visit her, which I thought was an disarmingly generous offer. Of course, I never did find her apartment (though I must have been close). But if I had found it, and if I had actually summoned up the courage to knock on her door - an unlikely prospect, I know, but it's just imaginary - and she had been in a chatty mood, we would have had an unusual conversation. She probably would have used her speech synthesizer, and I probably would have spoken out loud.

I saw Amanda Baggs' video "In My Language" long before I found her blog. In her video, she explains that her native language is not really English, but a constant interaction with every part of the world around her. Though she does speak fluent English, it is taxing for her when she types it, and nearly impossible if she tries to speak out loud. (Similar, I think, to the way I have increasing difficulty speaking my second languages as I get more tired.) I took her video as a challenge never to assume that any living thing (human or animal) is unintelligent or unfeeling on the grounds that he, she, or it cannot communicate in my language. In some ways, that's obvious - I don't assume a Frenchman is an idiot just because he cannot speak English. And one reason I'm a vegetarian is because I'm not fluent in the language of chickens, cows or pigs, so they can't tell me that they'd like a chance to keep on living, and so I defer to the (reasonable, I think) assumption that living things want to keep living. Because it's silly to assume that somebody or something you can't communicate with is less worthy of life than you are. (Don't get all cheeky and tell me I shouldn't eat plants because I can't talk to them either. Philosophy only goes so far - I will, in fact, kill plants to ensure my own survival. I like living too.)

But what about Alzheimer's? Is there a language of Alzheimer's? Should I have learned it long ago? So often, people speak to my grandfather like he's just a shell of a person, with no consciousness at all. His attention to the present time and place does seem to fade in and out, but I doubt his mind is blank during those times. What must he be thinking about? As his brain melts away little by little, is he creating a new language?

So far, I only know one word in the my grandfather's new language: dessert. That's my main method of communication. Ice cream, brownies, chocolates, pie, whipped cream. The deliciousness of these things is a point of understanding. A good bite of dessert, and there's a twinkle in his eye, a knowing look, a little nod of the head. Good communicatin'.

Emily in a hammock

If I were a rat on vacation, and I could do whatever I wanted with my days, I think I just might nap in my hammock, too :)

Dec 10, 2007


Available at are .wav recordings (done by Kontakt Player*, which is a crummy synthesizer) of my minuet & trio and art song**. PDFs of the music included for the curious. There is also a recording of a live - and professional - quartet playing my minuet & trio. Lastly, a live performance of my chamber group playing the Schumann piano quintet.

*The synthesizer recordings each have some bizarre hiccups in the sound that seem inevitable - my computer just can't keep up.

**Forthcoming: live performance of my art song.

Dec 8, 2007

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants

This essay by Marc Prensky is really interesting. It's the first formal attempt that I'm aware of to qualify the difference in experience between young people interacting with digital technology, and adults interacting with digital technology. Much of the essay is about how "Digital Natives" now learn in a fundamentally different way, and the "Digital Immigrants" who are trying to teach them are going about it all wrong. I have my own opinions there (below), but first...

I expect that most of my fellow classmates here at MIT have, like me, been called upon by relatives - particularly parents and grandparents - to explain, fix or set up computers. We get frustrated phone calls about error messages, and during our trips home we often teach new computer skills and fix problems.

In most cases, us "Digital Natives" were not taught how to use computers. Some of us may have had Apple II computers in elementary school (used for playing Oregon Trail or other games), and some (like me) had typing lessons - but we are definitely self-taught. It it that learning how to use computers is like learning a language - it takes effort and structure as an adult, and happens much more organically as a child?

Perhaps - this article by Sugata Mitra is incredible. So often adults assume that complex skills, like using a computer, require regimented, segmented, carefully planned exposition in order to be absorbed by young minds. (Just look at how we teach math in this country! Or even reading for that matter! If you want proof that people can - and always do - learn to read with no instruction at all, look here.) Mitra's article shows just the opposite. Children (poor slum children, lest one suggest that only the privileged can master these things) given access to a computer, which appeared with no fanfare, instruction, or even the childrens' native language, figured out how to use it.

Three quotes from Mitra's article relating to Prensky's Native/Immigrant Digital Divide (apologies for the length, but it's interesting, you see):

"It was a social observation rather than a scientific one. Any parent who had given his child a computer would invariably remark to me about it. I could hardly ever find an exception. Within a very short period of time, the parent would be claiming that the child was a genius with a computer. When I poked a little further, I invariably found that the child was doing things with the computer that the parent didn't understand."

"Well, I tried another experiment. I went to a middle-class school and chose some ninth graders, two girls and two boys. I called their physics teacher in and asked him, "What are you going to teach these children next year at this time?" He mentioned viscosity. I asked him to write down five possible exam questions on the subject. I then took the four children and said, "Look here guys. I have a little problem for you." They read the questions and said they didn't understand them, it was Greek to them. So I said, "Here's a terminal. I'll give you two hours to find the answers."

Then I did my usual thing: I closed the door and went off somewhere else.

They answered all five questions in two hours. The physics teacher checked the answers, and they were correct. That, of itself, doesn't mean much. But I said to him, "Talk to the children and find out if they really learned something about this subject." So he spent half an hour talking to them. He came out and said, "They don't know everything about this subject or everything I would teach them. But they do know one hell of a lot about it. And they know a couple of things about it I didn't know.""

"I'm not even going to suggest that we use this [technique] for adults. The only reaction we got from adults was, "What on earth is this for? Why is there no one here to teach us something? How are we ever going to use this?" I contend that by the time we are 16, we are taught to want teachers, taught that we cannot learn anything without teachers."

So. Here's the real question - is there a *fundamental* difference between how adults and children learn to use computers? Or, as Mitra suggests, are adults taught that they need teachers?


I want to mention some of the characteristics Prensky identifies about Digital Natives, because although I think he brings up some really good points, I disagree with him on several counts.

Here's a quote from his essay describing what Digital Natives are like:

"Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work."

(Importantly to what I am going to say, he also mentions: 1) that Digital Immigrants have a tendency to assume that Learning Is Serious Business and shouldn't be confused with playtime and 2) that Digital Natives, widely assumed to have lost the ability to memorize anything because of the internet, in fact memorize lots of stuff - just not academics.)

As a Digital Native, here's what I think: Yes, I'm used to receiving information fast. I get irritated by slow internet connections. But take the internet away altogether - say, when hiking - and I don't go crazy. I don't think young people are dependent on the internet in order to think - which is an attitude I often hear, as if our brains have been outsourced. Why WOULDN'T we use it? It's a miracle tool! I think that teenagers often say things like "I can't live without my cell phone", when what they really mean is "I can't live without my friends", and that's certainly not unusual for a teenager of any era!

Do I like to parallel process and multi-task? Eh, sometimes. I don't really see what relevance this has to the debate. My mom multi-tasks just as much as I do, and she's squarely in the Digital Immigrant category. Do I prefer graphics before text? Not necessarily. While I do like pictures, actually, I find web pages with distracting images irritating. When I'm looking for information, I don't want extraneous pictures.

(In general I think Prensky's points about multi-tasking and graphics are somewhat prey to the stereotype of sugarhigh 10 year olds who can't be sedated except by jittery videogames and more sugar. I'm not sure these children actually exist. If there is actually a 10 year old who can't sit still for something he or she is interested in, I have yet to meet him or her.)

Do I prefer random access (like hypertext)? Yes! Absolutely. I think this is one of the most important points Prensky makes. If you have hypertext, you're not limited to learning things in a linear fashion. You can build a network of knowledge, at your own pace. If you learn differently from other people (which, by the way, is true of, well, everybody), you have the freedom to take your own winding path through information.

Now, do I thrive on instant gratification? No. Unless you count having a web page load as "gratification" - which I don't. This idea implies that Digital Natives have no goals that they are willing to pursue for any length of time, and that they crave less meaningful, more instant rewards. I think what IS true is that many young people are bored by textbook classroom teaching, which presents information with no excitement or joy. If pleasure in learning is what Prensky means by "gratification", then I think he's right. And then, I would ask, why should anybody put up with learning that is not fun, when it has the potential to be fun?

Prensky says that Digital Natives thrive on games as opposed to serious work. Well, good for them. Good for us. If learning and living can be more fun than it currently is in schools - and I can certainly attest to the fact that secondary education is NOT FUN - why on earth would we choose not to have fun? Some sort of puritanical guilt? Prensky and Mitra and Dodd (the author of the page on reading) all give examples of people learning without forced instruction, and having a good time doing it. Prensky points out that young people are pefectly capable of memorizing worlds of information about Pokemon, but seem incapable of memorizing the capitals of the world. The internet hasn't outsourced our brains or killed our curiosity - in fact, my personal experience would lead me to believe that it's given me more food for thought than any other resource I have. Thank goodness that young people today are realizing that we needn't divide our lives in to Serious and Fun.

Dec 7, 2007

a proud moment

I had a proud moment today.

A while ago, I realized that a class I took for fun last year, 6.002 (Electronics+Circuits), counts as a Restricted Elective in my major. Great news - it means I have inadvertently completed all my graduation requirements (except the capstone project next semester), and can take basically whatever I want during my senior spring. Yay!

But, alas, I realized shortly afterward that since I took 6.002 Pass/Fail, I can't use it to count towards anything at all. I thought that was really a shame. It was doubly a shame because I know that I got an "A" in the class (my TA told me), and I felt stupid for passing up 15 units of Restricted Elective "A" credit. So I emailed my advisor and the administrators of my major, asking for my transcript to be changed from "Pass" to "A", and explaining that I'm really gung ho for some neuroscience classes next semester that I couldn't take if I was required to do another Restricted Elective. I pasted in the email from my TA in which he told me my grade.

And, to my wonderment and disbelief, they *all* wrote back within the hour. And this was on the Friday night of the busiest week of term. They immediately contacted my TA, who responded with helpful emails in which he explained that yes, he does remember that I got an "A", but that the professors probably have the official grade spreadsheets. He even said that if the professors don't seem to be answering, the head TA also has a grade spreadsheet.

I was in the middle of composing an email thanking them all for being so very helpful, when Linda Griffith, the chair of the Undergraduate Programs committee, beat me to it. Her email thanked everybody, and said that they "think the world of me" and were glad to help out.


Dec 5, 2007


I played the Beethoven on Sunday.

I took Monday off on account of achy tendons and mountains of schoolwork.

Last night - Tuesday night - I had a rehearsal with my quintet. I took out my violin, and it was completely out of tune. Not a half step out of tune, although of course that alone would make it unplayable, but more than an octave out of tune. My E string was so loose it couldn't produce a sound.

This isn't particularly unusual, because cold and lack of moisture, two recent problems here in Cambridge, very frequently cause violins to be out of tune (the pegs shrink in the cold and dry and twist in their holes). And of course NO violin ever stays perfectly in tune for longer than, say, an hour - the stress of playing changes so many things - but mine isn't particularly prone to slipping that far out, so it caught my attention, even though it's no big deal.

I tuned up, adjusted the bridge, which tends to tilt when the strings loose tension, and the quintet began to play. But I stopped about 2 minutes in to the first movement because something just didn't sound *right*.

I played a few scales, a little snippet of the Beethoven, some chords, some harmonics... the violin was just different. Something had changed. No matter how I checked it over, I couldn't figure it out. It's usually impossible to see changes to a violin, even significant ones, because moving this or that a millimeter can have a huge impact, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. The tone was just inexplicably changed.

Strange thing was, the tone is actually... better. My violin improved over the course of Monday. It's got a slightly fuller, darker tone on the A string now, and the E string seems ever so slightly louder. It seems just a little bit mellower - like a teenager who finally got over his angst.

It's well known among musicians - and it has finally been shown - that violins improve with time. I wouldn't be surprised if I found out that my violin sounds better now than it did in 2002.

But these changes aren't supposed to happen overnight! I think Beethoven must be possessing my violin ;)

Nov 29, 2007

Here's what Joshua Bell thinks about playing the Beethoven concerto:

“It is as though I must succumb to this world that Beethoven has created, and I suppose I almost treat it in a religious sort of way. In the world of his music, Beethoven is God. I’d never thought of it that way before, but it is as though I begin to warm up to what religious people refer to as a loving God within that musical world. I feel as though I surrender to this. I feel that there is somebody who knows this world so much better than I do – and it is Beethoven himself, who created it – and there is something very comforting about that. Somehow that gets me feeling very relaxed. I think what a privilege it is to be a part of this great, beautiful piece of music. And this helps me get rid of my nerves and stops my extraneous thoughts about technical issues and what I did or didn’t do in the practice room.”

I thought about this all evening as I practiced. I recorded myself. Then I listened to the recording, and for the first time, some of it wasn't bad. When I listen to Joshua Bell or Isaac Stern or Itzhak Perlman or Jascha Heifitz play it, as I have so many times, I hear them shift in the same places where my shifts are audible. I hear their bows slide just a hair in the awkward passages. I can practically feel their hands moving in the places where the fingering is tricky. Of course they play so beautifully - and I'll never be that good - but it's comforting to know that even the masters have trouble with the same spots as I. And sometimes, for a few glorious seconds, the recording of me sounds just like Stern - or Heifitz - or someone. And then of course the illusion fades.

But maybe, sometime this evening, the spirit of ol' Beethoven hovered 'round.

Nov 28, 2007

down to the wire

My performance of the Beethoven concerto is in 4 days. Today I had my last lesson on the concerto. Monday's rehearsal had gone well, and when I warmed up for an hour before my lesson I was really *on* - everything falling in to place and flowing along. Intonation was good. Bow control was good. I had this beautiful daydream in which the concert was a grand success and everybody was so moved...

But then I went to my lesson. I was reaaaaally nervous. I'd never played the whole movement for Rictor with piano before. So, of course, I looked panicked and sounded dreadful. When I'd finished, Rictor said that if he had never heard me play before, he would have concluded only that Beethoven is hard and I don't like it very much.**

Ouch. OUCH.

When I get nervous, I get paralyzed. My fingers curl up and won't relax. I twist my back and neck unconsciously - although if you saw the position I get myself in to, you'd find it hard to believe that it's unconscious. (I have had a suspiciously sore back, complete with a visible enormous knot on the left side, for a week now. Hhhhhm.) My fingers seem to move whenever they feel like it, not when *I* want them to move, and this of course is extremely disconcerting and means that fast notes or large shifts are often fumbled.

So it's down to the wire. I need to clean up a few little spots - a shift here, a grace note there - but the piece is largely under my fingers. Now I just have to play it so that other people can tell how much I love it. For me, that means remembering to keep my head (chin) down and not tilt it back, to move my fingers from the first joint (the one in the palm), to release tension, to shift with my whole arm and not with my wrist, and especially not to make the icky facial expressions I make when I screw up a note. Because I *WILL* screw up a note in performance. I have to get used to that. Not even the greatest of the great plays perfectly.

Performing is such a funny thing. You work for hundreds of hours for the privilege to stand up in front of an audience and play once - just once, out of the thousands of times you've played it - so that it will mean something to them. You don't get to explain. You don't get a second chance. You can't give a lecture on your piece so they'll appreciate it more. You've just got to feed so much soul in to it that nobody could possibly be left untouched.

And this is what I have got to do on Sunday.

**Later, at the very end, he said that if I was a conservatory student, and I was playing the concerto for juries, I would be just fine. And that was very nice of him to say.

Nov 25, 2007

my funny family

My parents got a MacBook Pro... and look what happened.

We're rock stars!

Nov 22, 2007

Portrait of the Bird as an Old Man

Scooter was born on July 4, 1999 in a trailer park outside of Ithaca, NY. During his infancy, he made his home in a small cage with myriad brothers and sisters. As the smallest of the flock by far, he was unjustly disallowed the full run of the cage, and spent most of his time on the floor.

In early fall, 1999, Scooter was purchased for $5 by four enthusiastic budgerigar aficionados. His charming demeanor and stand-out method of locomotion ("scooting" on the cage floor) immediately earned him his name, in addition to much affection. Scooter then boarded a grubby VW Passat for the journey to his new home. His brief (yet daring) excursion underneath the driver's seat was a sign of adventure to come.

Scooter's first days as a free bird were rocky. Affected by a mysterious lack of flying strength, and a possible eye condition, Scooter crashed repeatedly in to walls and windows, despite closed curtains and padded walls. A year or so later, an air sack injury resulting from these crashes kept Scooter in his cage for much of his first three years.

During the years in the cage, Scooter thrived despite room to stretch his wings. His interests and hobbies expanded to exclude toothbrushes, corn chips, hanging upside down, and vacuum cleaners. Scooter presided over his living room from a large forest-green cage, complete with adjacent space heater. Despite a somewhat quirky appearance, due to bald spots (left by wing feathers which never grew in) and a beak of unusual shape, Scooter dazzled his housemates with his iridescent teal back and sky blue belly.

After several years of civilized cage life, Scooter once again made his mark upon the wider world of the living room. Despite becoming lodged behind bookcases and inside pianos, Scooter soon became Bird at Large. His flying skills rapidly improved, and within months he was able to land on hands playing piano or violin, hands holding forks full of food, hands holding pens, and any other place where avian assistance was generally warranted.

The next half-dozen years of Scooter's life were filled with many delights. His conversational repertoire expanded to include such words as "pencil", "Scooter", "budgie", "goodnight" and many varied shrieks. His new hobbies included landing on exposed food, attempting to bathe in juice glasses, chasing pencils, attacking shiny objects such as rings and spoons, and hampering the doing of homework (and occasionally befouling it). In all situations Scooter prevailed supremely over all other members of his household.

Though times were generally good, Scooter survived several brushes with death. Two unidentified infections placed him in the ER, and he endured a feeding needle full of bitter medicine for two straight weeks. His housemates were twice prepared for his passing, but not one to be outdone by Death, Scooter pulled through and returned to his passion for chasing pencils within a few months.

Though Scooter was never a long-distance flier, he made up for strength in tenacity. Never taking no for an answer, Scooter was known for his trademark evasive flying, and would dodge even the most desperate attempts to return him to his cage in the event that guests unaccustomed to birds landing on their heads would arrive. And although such attempts were made in good faith, they were almost never necessary, as Scooter's good looks and impressive singing served to thoroughly charm every single house guest. Most endearing was his habit of riding on shoulders in the morning, and stylishly adorning winter hats.

Scooter is now nearly nine years old, and very wise in his old age. Having honed his methods of communication with his cohabitants, he is now able to dictate his every whim from his regal perch with only a few short chirps. He exits the cage when and if he wants to, and always makes his desires perfectly clear. Scooter still enjoys jaunts around the living room, though his flying strength only propels him a few feet, and standby rescue is necessary. Crashes, however, do not faze this sage. He chirps for help from beneath the table, steps regally on to a finger, preens, and resumes his reign. Most of his time is spent gracing whomever is present with chatty conversation and puffing his feathers agreeably.

Also as a result of his old age, Scooter cheerfully allows snuggling, as shown.

Nov 19, 2007

my housemates

Yesterday, I came downstairs in to the dining room looking visibly upset, which is quite unusual for me. Within a few minutes, I had unwittingly attracted 6 concerned people, who arranged chairs around me, brought me tea, chocolate, backrubs, cough drops (I didn't even have a cold!), hugs, and crackers. After 10 quiet minutes or so, somebody said, "We don't like a Sad Lissa! It scares us!" (Feeling rather guilty for having worried them so, I went upstairs, with my *4* different types of tea, so as not to disturb the peace.)

What wonderful people I live with.

Nov 13, 2007

brain weirdness

So lately I've been composing a lot for my music class. I use the program Sibelius for notation. In Sibelius, there are 2 ways to enter in a note: you can either click on the stave where you want the note to be, or you can type the note name on the keyboard.

Being a fan of keyboard shortcuts in general I decided to type note names. But I was (and still am) really, really bad at it. For a few days, I thought I was just spacing out or tired or something, because I only typed the note I intended to about 30% of the time, and was constantly adjusting everything to make up for my mistakes.

But then I realized that each time I typed the wrong note, I typed it using the finger that would have fingered that note on the violin. So if I mean to type "F", I'd go for "D" instead, because in standard typing, "D" is typed with the middle finger, which is the finger for "F" (in the right octave of course).

Interestingly, this happened no matter what instrument I was writing for, or what clef I was using. Even if I was writing in viola clef - which is annoying for me to read - I would still make the same consistent mistakes.

Once I realized what was going on, I started thinking very carefully before typing each note. "Ok", I'd say to myself, "you want a 'A', so you'll have to use your pinky to type it". And then I'd go right ahead and get it wrong anyway. My brain just didn't want to be rewired.

This is related to another brain quirk that shows up in my mind, kind of like a lost traveler, ever once in a while: I'll be drifting off to sleep, and thoughts will be flowing through my mind. Somehow, in my sleepy state, I'll want to *play* the thoughts on my violin - sometimes it seems as though I should spell each word in notes, and sometimes it seems like each word should have a distinct pitch. Either way, after a few minutes, I realize that my fingers are moving, and that I'm trying to "play" something... but it never works, because obviously the musical alphabet only goes to G. After a few confused minutes, I wake myself up and laugh about it.

Very odd.

Nov 4, 2007

living scientifically - or not

This is a very provocative post. It may not seem like it, at first - at least in the circles I run in, it's not, shall we say, terribly outlandish to suggest that Black people are as intelligent as White people. But this post goes farther than that.

[Aside, I must say that the following quote is worthy of, I don't know, some fabulous accolade: "Beardiness is very much like intelligence; all a bit fuzzy."]

Here's the interesting part: the post concedes that we can't be 100% sure that race does not influence intelligence. That's true. There are a lot of things I can't be sure of: I can't be sure that my chair will not suddenly disappear from beneath my rear (quantum coincidences are possible!). I can't be sure that all my experience is not a hallucination. I can't be sure that I am not currently breathing in pathogenic bacteria right now.

In life, however, it's generally known that if you go about assuming, suspecting, or even planning for the sudden disappearance of your chair or impending mortal illness, your life will be compromised. You cannot simultaneously live in all of life's possible paths. You have to "have faith" in a few things in order to avoid paralysis by indecision.

Wait, you have to have WHAT? Is this a religious discussion or a scientific one? Ahh, this is where things get complicated. Is it actually possible to live life without trusting that your chair will remain solid beneath you? The answer is very important. If the answer is yes, that means it's possible to reach a degree of zen such that the uncertainty associated with being alive can coexist with choices that ignore that uncertainty. If the answer is no, that means that our actions in life will be profoundly dependent upon which possible reality we use as a model.

I suspect that the answer is, in fact, no. I don't think we're capable of living life without faith in a few things . We seem poorly equipped to be continuously aware, yet unfearful, of all the disastrous twists and turns life might suddenly take. It's not that we're never aware of What Could Happen, but most of the time we choose to ignore most other possible realities. You don't consider that you might break your leg with every single step, do you?

So, the possible reality that we focus on influences the way we act. That means that if we focus on the possibility of Black people being less intelligent than White people, we will act accordingly. And, as a society, we do. This page lists 10 ways in which it is "proven" that Black people score lower on IQ tests than White people. Proven, however, in a society that focuses heavily the concept inherent racial inequality and acts accordingly. Reason #10 on this list above says the following:

"Do Culture-Only Theories Explain the Data? Culture-only theories do not explain the highly consistent pattern of race differences in IQ, especially the East Asian data. No interventions such as ending segregation, introducing school busing, or "Head Start" programs have reduced the gaps as culture-only theory would predict."

Do they honestly believe that all the cultural bias was removed when segregation ended? That "Head Start" can shield a child from all discrimination? That school busing can solve the problem? The only way to test whether or not culture is the culprit is to put the kids in a locked box or something, and I expect that would lead to much worse results.

Humans are not perfect scientists. We can't pick a hypothesis and then let the data roll in, impartial as you please. We can't even pick a hypothesis and dispassionately collect evidence.

This is a case for optimism.

Oct 26, 2007


Some days, I want to: recycle every piece of tin foil I use, carefully rinse out plastic baggies, turn out all the lights except for those I absolutely need, never waste any water while cleaning, answer every single email I get with full attention, do every single item on my agenda, keep on schedule, save even tiny quantities of food in miniature containers, pick up wrappers on the ground outside and put them in my pocket until I can throw them away, brush my teeth three times a day, hem my pants so they don't get muddy and ripped, bring an umbrella everywhere, and generally do my part to save the world one step at a time.

On other days, I want to: let the hot water run over my hands for way too long in the morning, throw away anything I don't want any more just so I can be rid of it, unclutter the refrigerator because I'm not going to eat that last bit of mashed potato anyway, let the covers on my bed become completely tangled, ignore the mail, sit and have real conversations late in to the night and ignore my homework, play video games and forget to eat, stand in the shower longer than necessary, linger over dessert, spend 3 hours on an extra credit problem that's interesting and 45 minutes doing a hack job on the required problem, and stay up late for no reason.

Louise Erdrich has a rather nice poem on the subject:

Advice to Myself

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

Oct 23, 2007

The Wall, a case of the blahs, and a mouse

I had a very blah moment this afternoon. Desi (the cat) caught a baby mouse - it wasn't even an inch long, but its eyes were open, and it was absolutely gorgeous - and broke its neck. When I saw the mouse, its neck was already broken, but it was still alive. I picked it up and held it in my hand. It took about 30 seconds to die - making these tiny little gasps, little mouth open wide. It was so incredibly sad. I put the baby mouse outside in a sunspot, and later I wished I had done something more ceremonial, and even later than that I realized that no ceremony would have been quite right, and that a sunspot was a good resting place.

The baby mouse made The Wall - this part of the semester where there's no break in sight, tests around every bend, and homework up to your eyeballs - look pretty bad. What a bleak day when adorable baby mice die in the palm of my hand for no good reason, not to mention the piles of work.

A little bit later I realized that actually, I'm fine. The baby mouse was sad, and yes, I do cry about such little things, but that little sadness didn't have to ruin the day. I'm busy and tired, and sometimes I just want to go to sleep, but does that necessarily mean that I'm doing badly? I don't think so. I think I'm ok. Sometimes I get stuck in this strange frame of mind, where "good" is this unattainable state of rest and contentment, with no outstanding responsibilities to speak of. That doesn't happen here at MIT. But that's all right - there are other ways to define "good". Like, this morning I made eggs on toast. And an old friend visited me. And I sat on the roofdeck in the windstorm and watched the sunset.

Oct 18, 2007

i love pika

I walked in to the dining room just now, and there was a cluster of 10 or so people peering intently at a laptop, giggling. I asked what they were looking at...

"Chocolate trilobite monsters! Come see!"

I love pika.

educational philosophy: a rant and a rave

First, the rant.

A few weeks ago I wrote that I was trying to be less crusty and cynical about my Ear Training than I was last year. And I really have been trying. As recently as last night, I renewed my dedication to finding the good in the class, viewing the teacher in a positive light, and having fun.

Somehow though, by the end of class today, I was so angry with the class that I had a terrible urge to slam the door on the way out, which, coming from me, is serious. On the bike ride home, I decided that the most positive way to deal with the situation would be to write about why the class irks me, and positive solutions I see to the problems.

Before I begin describing the class, let me first say that I am fully aware that Mrs. X (the teacher, name withheld for obvious reasons) is a well-meaning person who I believe cares about her students. I strongly oppose her methods, but I have no problem with her.

Before teaching at MIT (this is her 2nd year), Mrs. X she taught grade school, and BOY does it show. The atmosphere of the class is stiflingly sincere and slow. No humor is permitted or appreciated. Mrs. X plans the lessons in excruciating detail - to the minute - and does not deviate from her plan, no matter the circumstances.

Mrs. X feels the need to control all the students in the class to a ridiculous degree. However, her manner is extremely gentle. Too gentle, in fact - her demeanor is that of The Kindergarten Teacher, and it doesn't wear well on a bunch of spunky MIT students. This combination of softspokenness and control really rubs me the wrong way.

Case I: In our class, we have one particularly enthusiastic student, "Jimmy". Jimmy loves music, and is always overflowing with tunes and harmonies. He sings loudly, very often above the other students, and not always in tune. Jimmy definitely lacks social graces, but is genuine. He can sometimes be irritating, either because he tends to dominate the class, or because one tends to feel chronically embarrassed on his behalf. Today, we had to practice conducting in class. Unasked, Jimmy brought in a very professional-looking baton. Mrs. X of course noticed, and said, "Yes, it's ok if you use a baton, Jimmy", although she looked a bit ruffled. Then, we began conducting. After a little while, Jimmy began using two hands and adding expression in to his conducting. Mrs. X asked him to stop. She said, "Jimmy, please do not give me more than I asked for."

Case II: After singing one of the assigned melodies today, another student, "Bobby", noticed that the melody sounded a lot like a certain Broadway tune, which he sang quietly. He wasn't interrupting anything. In fact, his 10-second Broadway tune caused no inconvenience of any sort, as far as I can tell. But Mrs. X told him, "you may not sing any music in this class other than what we are working on".

Case III: At the end of class, we were sight reading a Bach chorale. It was sounding dreadful (which is not unexpected) and we were going sharp. In between phrases Mrs. X said, "it's out of tune, please try and fix it." In the midst of singing, I hit my tuning fork twice to figure out how far the pitch had migrated. I was listening very carefully to the other parts and trying to keep the group on pitch without "upsetting the apple cart". When we had finished singing, Mrs. X told me that I am not allowed to use my tuning fork while we are singing. She explained: using the the tuning fork is a visual reminder to the other students that we are out of tune. She said, "I want you all to suffer together until the pitch gets better. Don't try to change it."

Here are the positive responses I would propose.

Case I: So, you have a student who is too enthusiastic? Is there any such thing? Tell Jimmy it's really great that he's learning to use a baton. Ask him to tell the others briefly why he has chosen to use it. If he sings too loudly, say, "Jimmy, you must really love this piece. Let's hear your most soulful rendition. Remember, soulful doesn't necessarily mean forte or piano. This is your chance to put all of your musicality in to play." If he sticks out, let him! He obviously doesn't mind. There's nothing worse than telling a student to give less than their best. And in the case of Jimmy, trying to squash his personality results in overflow.

Case II: It's really cool when a piece of music jogs your memory and brings up another tune. Talk about it for a minute: is the difference an accident? Intentional? Is the chord structure the same? Does talking about this similar tune really detract from your lesson plan? I doubt it. When people make connections between what they are learning and what they already know, isn't that... well, learning? Also, "Bobby" was inspired by the lesson material. I think inspiration is pretty much the best response you can get out of teaching, and to forbid expression (when the expression is totally appropriate) of it is wrong.

Case III: If I had a student who had excellent pitch and could help an ensemble sing better, I would definitely encourage him or her to help, in a sensitive and tasteful way. Today, I would have appreciated a discussion about how to improve pitch constructively. I would have appreciated Mrs. X's acknowledgment that she had already informed us that we were out of tune by the time I began using my tuning fork, and that I was actually doing my best to improve the situation. Lastly, I think that it's crazy to say "I want you all to suffer together" to anybody. This is the mentality about grade school that drives me up the wall. Isn't school supposed to be about learning? Instead, it's all about suffering through it with other children your age, so you can grow up and tell stories about how much you hated it. It's akin to prison bonding, and that's no joke. Should children suffer through classes that are not useful or interesting to them (or that are at the wrong level) until the other children catch up? Should adults? Absolutely not.

The last thing I want to say about Mrs. X is that she has repeatedly told the class that the reason she teaches Ear Training at MIT is for her personal growth. She says that she's getting better every day at arranging music, sight reading, and solfege. She is becoming a better musician and she is enriching her life by teaching us the concepts of musicianship. She conveys this in a very intimate, humble tone, and I think she means to say that she isn't perfect, and that teaching benefits her, too. BUT! Never once have I heard her say that she teaches because she loves to, or because she believes in and cares about her students. Not once. Perhaps she thinks this is obvious... but every time she tells us that she's really "growing musically" (maybe 4 times this semester), I become more and more convinced that her attitude towards teaching is really too self-serving. This isn't to say that she doesn't care about her students - it just seems that her motivation for teaching was unrelated to her students.

Rather than ending here, I want to rave about my main music class, 21M.303. It is AWESOME. Our professor (Shadle) is a witty, smart guy who is willing to completely abandon his plan for the day in favor of exploring hidden music diversions. Last class, we talked mainly about a Mozart quartet, but somehow ended up talking about The Phantom of the Opera, the fight music from boss scenes in Super Mario, Brahms, descending diminished 7th chord patterns, and goodness knows what else. The students (most of whom are also in the Ear Training class) are totally awake and alive and making connections all over the place. Every time a student has an idea that differs from Shadle's idea, he takes it seriously and we discuss. He almost always ends up saying, "I can see that working. I can see where you're coming from. That interpretation is just fine." Even better, Shadle says he's learning a lot from our class - but not because it serves him personally to cement his musical knowledge - because the class is full of smart people from a different backgrounds who honestly want to contribute.

Oct 4, 2007

Heiligenstadt Testament

In my last violin lesson, I was discussing the Beethoven concerto, which I'm working on, with my teacher. We had been working for quite some time on technical things, like the angle of my right thumb, the placement of my left wrist, and moving my bow from my shoulder to get a softer, more cushiony sound, and after all that work, conversation turned to Beethoven's life. My teacher asked me what I thought the concerto was about, and I stood there thinking, imagining all that I knew about Beethoven's life. The concerto is incredibly intimate and profound. It lacks the flashy technical passages present in so many of the great violin concertos, but many say it contains more soul than any other violin concerto ever written. The notes are soaked in meaning, that's easy to see - but what meaning?

I knew that Beethoven was a loner. I knew he was unhappy with Vienna, even though it was considered a musical mecca during his day. Beethoven had strange habits, few friends, and none of the social graces of, say, Mozart. He loved the outdoors. I knew he struggled with his deafness, especially in his later years, when he would play pianos that had metal bars attached to them so he could bite the bars and feel the vibrations in his skull. He tried everything that was available back in the early 1800s to hear better.

But what I didn't know about was the Heiligenstadt Testament.

Read it here.

And I am playing Beethoven's concerto, written shortly after that tortured document.

It's a big responsibility.

Sep 23, 2007

natural instinct

One sometimes hears the argument that "doing x is good because it's natural" or that "x is good because it's natural" or that "it's instinctive for people to do x". (Or even the opposite: "you can do better than x. Now we have a modern way to do that".)

And at first hearing that seems to make sense.

But after rolling that phrase around in my mind for a few years or so, I don't think it makes sense any more. It's like when you repeat a word to yourself so many times you begin to question it ("wait, is that really the right word? it looks so weird"). The word isn't really weird, you've just bored through the top level of thought and discovered that the particular collection of letters has no intrinsic meaning, only what society has ascribed to it.

Same thing with "it's good because it's natural". In various circles one hears that it's natural for people to get seriously ill in old age, natural for humans to eat meat, natural for people to lose their tempers, natural to fight in wars. We hear that it's good to eat natural foods, good to give birth in a natural way, good to "get back to nature". Calling something "unnatural" is almost always an insult, and reflects curiously upon the speaker's personal discomfort.

Here's what I think: none of those things are really natural. None of those things are good or bad because of being natural. And unnatural shouldn't be an insult.

Let's define nature as the qualities and/or characteristics by which something can be recognized. In that case, something "natural" in this case would be something that bears the hallmarks of humanity. I don't think sickness in old age, fighting, or any of the other things I listed up at the beginning are actually descriptors of human nature. There are exceptions everywhere. And honestly, nobody wants to be summed up as "human: animal that gets sick when it gets old, fights within its species, eats food without or without pesticides, etc". Nah, humans are something more.

I think what really describes humanity is our ability to do "conscious evolution", that is, change our minds on the spot, have epiphanies, learn new behaviors within minutes (not generations), change our habits just because want to. We can decide what we want to do. If it's the middle winter and a person wants to lie in the snow in a t-shirt and shorts, he or she can. We can be as nonsensical as we want! Isn't that great?

Every person is free (to slightly varying extents due to circumstance) from what his or her ancestors did. This is not so for most animals, for whom instinct rules supreme. Humans may have an instinct for, say, fighting, but what makes us special is that we can override that instinct with conscious decisions - and not just once, but for our entire lives. I don't think we don't use our remarkable power of "conscious evolution" as much as we should. I don't think we should accept something or reject something on the basis of what's "natural for a human being" (we do this inconsistently anyway - of course nobody likes for a child to die a natural cancer death) . Maybe what's actually natural for a human being - that is, the action that truly identifies us - is to act on careful weighing of the facts, intuition, or whim - anything which allows us to break free of our instincts and go in new directions.

I realize some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of going against an instinct. But really, we seem to consider nothing more heroic. How about a fireman who runs in to a burning building?

It hasn't escaped me that one reason to call something "natural" is to designate it as an acceptable thing. We say, "sometimes jealousy is natural" and "it's natural to be afraid" and "it's natural to cry sometimes". I think what we mean in those cases is: "It's ok that you feel that way. Sometimes I do, too. So do most people. You're not weird. " And that's a comforting thing to hear. I just think it's better to say "it's ok to feel that way, sometimes I do too", seeing as our overall acceptance of "natural" things is pretty spotty.

Don't be afraid to decide who you are, and then become that person.

1. During the writing of this post, I did in fact experience the bizarre phenomenon of the word "natural" suddenly losing all meaning.
2. I feel rather compelled to tell you that I don't eat meat, do eat "natural" foods, try desperately not lose my temper, refuse to fight in any war, and do not expect individuals to die of cancer in at any age if they don't want to. But in all of those cases, I have reasons that have nothing to do with naturalness.

Sep 21, 2007

oh. my. god.

This arrest of Star Simpson is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. Take a look at the pictures. It's several green LEDs in the shape of a Star - it is indeed her name tag. Anybody with 2 hours of electronics instruction should be aware that a 9V battery, a few resistors and several cheap LEDs *in a breadboard* are not dangerous. (Case in point - I blew one up yesterday in lab. Nobody was hurt.)

I can't believe that security people trained to recognize bombs are so ignorant of what a bomb might actually look like that they could mistake a flashy little nametag circuit as an attempt at terrorism. If a person is allowed to use deadly force in order to prevent a bomb from being set off, he better be incredibly well trained in the art of bomb-recognition. I just watched a news report where the Chief of Police described it as a "circuit board that actually lit up". Lit. Up. Imagine that! He even calls it "a device". Idiot.

What's more, I can't believe they didn't apologize to her after they realized what it was. Sure, it was exposed electronics, but living in a state of fear of anything with a visible resistor is not going to cure terrorism. Hey, mister police man, what's that clipped on to the front of your shirt? A radio? Hey, what's that inside - IS THAT ELECTRONICS? I mean, honestly, the only difference between the two is a plastic case.

If our law enforcement can be duped by the simplest of circuits, we're worse off than I ever imagined. What we need is people who are highly informed and equipped with the most sophisticated equipment for bomb detection, and who are experts in responding with as little force as possible.

I think that people should be responsible for their personal choices, but not for others' ignorance. If a police officer can't tell a bomb from a piece of electronic art, it's not Star's fault. People who make unusual choices can usually be expected to endure unpleasant questioning because society likes norms, but they should never be punished under the law for harmless self-expression.

"Had she not followed the instructions, deadly force may have been used." Our police officers (or at least the ones responding to such a call) should unquestionably have been able to tell, by the time they had her at gunpoint, that they had made a mistake.

Holy chalupa, as they say.

Edit: Here's what I think happened. At MIT, you see, you can walk around with a shopping cart full of capacitors and the only comment you'll get is something like "hey, want a plastic bag to cover your capacitors? it's raining". I've seen people with all manner of complicated, dangerous experiments in MIT's hallways and nobody gives a second glance. I've even walked around with a bread board, PRECISELY the same one that Star had (she probably even got it from the same class I did - 6.002) and the only thing people say to me is "oh, did you finish the lab already? what resistor did you use for the voltage regulator?". It's easy to forget that Logan Airport is a completely different environment where, apparently, carrying circuits is a crime.

Edit2: This article from South Africa makes my blood boil.

"A 19-year-old student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology walked into Boston's Logan International Airport on Friday with a fake bomb strapped to her chest and was arrested at gunpoint, authorities said." It was a name tag, not a fake bomb. It was not strapped to her chest - it was pinned with a safety pin to her sweatshirt.

"Star Simpson, who is from Hawaii, wore a computer circuit board, wiring and a putty that later turned out to be Play-Doh strapped over her black hooded sweat shirt and in plain view." It was a bread board, not a circuit board. I know most people don't care what the difference is, but they are NOT the same thing. The so-called "putty" was in her hand, not even touching her nametag. And yes, it was in plain view - it was supposed to be. How many terrorists wear their bombs in plain view?

"She's extremely lucky she followed the instructions or deadly force would have been used," Pare said. "And she's lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue."


Edit3: Even Fox news is reporting that it "turned out to be a fake bomb". I've never been so totally aware that the news networks in this country are shot to hell.

Edit4: This is what they used when the surrounded her at gunpoint.

Sep 14, 2007

it is

It is a blessing to be...
It is a blessing to be here...
It is a blessing to be here now...
It is a blessing to be here now, together.

"too fat"

In continuation of my recent outrage at being harassed while biking, I was going to write yet another outraged bit about the latest of the never-ending Britney Spears snafus, but then I discovered that some woman in San Jose has already done it for me.

Read it here.

Or at least it mostly represents what I think. The article doesn't get in to the disgusting critique of every aspect of Britney's personal life, which is good, because I expect we're all sick of hearing about it. It also doesn't get in to a defensive "she's beautiful exactly the way she is right now, and if she lost any weight she'd be practically invisible" stance either, which I also appreciated because telling somebody that if they "ever change how they look they'll be unacceptable" seems pretty wrong to me...

However, I do sort of resent the idea that people shouldn't call Britney fat because more than likely, they are overweight themselves. Not so! People shouldn't call her fat a) because she isn't fat and b) because talking about womens' weight in such a nasty way is destructive for several reasons. First of all, it perpetuates the idea that it's ok to question 1 millimeter of skin in the "wrong" place on Britney, but it's never OK to speak (even compassionately) about the weight of a non-celebrity peer. Basically, it just cements peoples' perception that your weight is inversely proportional to your self worth and confidence. What, fat people can't rationally communicate about their health or appearance, and if you try you're a bad person? If that's even the tiniest bit true, it's the fault of catty media articles that call Britney fat and then expect us to love ourselves.

I'm on the fence about the author's choice to include the names of celebrities like Kate Winslet, America Ferrera, and Queen Latifah. On the one hand, it's nice to point out that they *appear* to be doing a good job of eating their Wheaties and so on (although of course we can't be sure, one's appearance is not always correlated with body acceptance). On the other hand, I kind of feel like shunning "hollow-eyed, emaciated starlets" like Nicole Ritchie and Keira Knightley in preference of women with "bootylicious" curves doesn't really do much good. That's just ditching one body ideal for another. Although I cringe to say it, nobody these days seems to really embrace the concept - so I'll say it: "everybody's different". Although Kate Winslet's weight might be vaguely more attainable for the average woman, we're not all going to be Kate Winslets any more than we'll all be Nicole Ritchies, no matter how badly we want to be.

And this just makes my blood boil: "In that ensemble, you just can't have an ounce of anything extra," said Janice Min, editor of the celebrity magazine US Weekly. "Many women wouldn't eat for days if they were wearing that."

I have nothing horrible enough to say about that.

And, let me just say, I watched the video of Britney performing on MTV after reading all those articles, and yes, it was a terrible performance. Then again, I never was a fan.

Sep 12, 2007

just not cool

Every week I bike to Boston to have my violin lesson. I usually have a shoulder bag banging against my legs and my violin on my back, which in addition to my helmet causes me to have a strange ungainly way of cycling. I typically wear rather boring, nondescript clothes. My hair is usually rather messy because biking over the Harvard bridge is quite a windy experience.

So why is it that every time I leave my lesson, head filled with thoughts about fourth-finger vibrato, rolling my right wrist more, little snippets of Beethoven flying through my mind in the most sublime way... creepy guys hoot at me on the street?

It's not an isolated incident! It has happened 4 out of the last 6 times - and more than once on each trip! A few days ago, some college-aged loser made some weird hand gesture at me that I didn't understand, although it was perfectly clear that it was meant to be obscene. On the same ride, a guy on the Boston end of the bridge took pictures of me with his very expensive-looking camera. What is wrong with these people? What on earth is remotely attractive about some girl so completely laden down with heavy objects she can hardly cycle straight (not that this is actually the right question to ask)? A bunch of times in the past, some of these guys have actually managed to utter a few words in my direction, although I was a combination of disgusted and going pretty fast, so I have never actually manged to hear them, although I'm pretty sure I don't want to.

It occurs to me that when I leave my lessons, I am usually ridiculously happy and excited about the music I'm working on. Possibly, these people misinterpret genuine happiness in some sort of twisted sexual way? I'm not keen on thinking about it too much... but it's the only explanation I've come up with so far.

Either way, it makes me really, truly grateful that people on MIT's campus are, at least outwardly (and I suspect inwardly as well), respectful of women. What a shock to go half a mile away and end up feeling like a piece of meat instead of a person. Totally ruins my good mood.

Sep 9, 2007

the challenge of playing the violin

I was having a conversation with a friend about music nearly a month ago, and it's stuck in my head ever since.

We were talking about how classical music is such an inaccessible activity, in that it takes so long to learn how to do it, or in some cases even to learn to appreciate it. [Not to mention the fact that most people find it full of social and economic barriers.] Normally, in such a case, one would immediately suggest (and in fact my friend did suggest) that we should make it easier to play and appreciate classical music. Why should instruments be expensive? Why should lessons be expensive? Why can't we have free online videos showing you everything you need to know? Why do we need to use instruments that are incredibly difficult to play? (Violin is a hell of a challenge, but there are computer programs that, with only the mobility of your mouse hand, you can use to create melodies, harmonies, counterpoint - a whole symphony.) Actually, what's so great about playing an instrument at all? Isn't the goal to *make music*? If you can make beautiful music on a simple machine that's easy to learn and operate, does that accomplish the same thing?

It amazed me how stodgy I immediately felt when my friend suggested that a big advance in the world of music would be easy-to-learn, easy-to-play ergonomic instruments. I mean, I'm no stranger to the fact that violin is not ergonomic - I have an S-curve in my spine because I've been playing virtually every day for the last 17 years of my life. I've gotten tendinitis, and I've pinched nerves in my fingers. So what's so great about this awkward, expensive piece of wood I play with all the time?

I have to ask myself if I'm only defending it because I'm used to it, and I would feel annoyed if suddenly the next generation of musicians attained a level of music-making after months that I only reached after years of hard technical work needed to even be able to approach serious music. And on some level I think that *is* the case - working very hard to be come even a passable violinist feels something like a badge of honor to me, and I like the challenge. I do concede that more ergonomic instruments probably wouldn't be a bad idea. But that's not the whole story.

Starting from the top, I feel there IS an intrinsic value in learning to play an instrument, as opposed to having a computer or other electronic device play the music you compose (whether in real-time or not). The connection between instrument and musician is, after a while, almost seamless, and the instrument becomes practically an extension of your body. Sure, it's awkward, but so are bodies to a large extent - we just get used to them. The important point is that instruments are unintelligent and unsuspecting (despite being crafted with incredible skill), and have no preconceptions about what music is. They are tools that become virtually attached to you, and like hands, with enough skill, they can do practically anything. Personally, it seems especially beautiful and poignant to struggle to eke out a beautiful noise from a 100-year-old piece of wood and a stick full of horse hair. With a computer, it's waiting for your input in a pre-determined form. It already knows what music is supposed to be. You can't fool around with it. And, although I suspect technology will fix these problems in the future, computers are not capable of producing even a fraction of the tonal variation of a violin (or anything else), are very difficult to improvise on, and don't let you spontaneously make music with other people. Yet.

Then there's the aspect of connection to all the others who struggle with the same instrument - and to the composers who first imagined the music we are struggling to play. How cool is it that some guy 300 years ago conjured up an entire concerto in his head, and these days we STILL struggle to bring that dream to life? It's such an intimate and meaningful experience to try to realize somebody else's dream, especially in the medium of music, where you infuse your own personality in to every single note. If we could all accomplish it at the touch of a button, would that diminish it? I feel like it would, but I'm not sure. Maybe it would simply mean that we would be incredibly fulfilled people. Or maybe we would find that only in the sincerity and hardship of trying to understand one another do we become fulfilled.

[Note to self: this is a seriously good question for debate. If we all understood each other perfectly, would we all be happy? In the past I have asserted that total understanding disallows hatred entirely - and I still believe it - but this assertion has also been based on my knowledge that we will never completely understand each other in every possible way. What if we all were in *perfect* understanding?]

Lastly, we get to the nitty-gritty stuff. Why are instruments and lessons (particularly when it comes to violins) so expensive? Why can't we learn from books, websites and online videos? This is the information age, after all! This I have more concrete answers for, and I think at least one of them is important. The less important part first: violins (good ones, not student ones) are expensive because they take about 200 hours each to build, and so far nobody has been able to factory-build a good quality violin. They just require a ton of personal attention. Lessons are expensive because playing the violin is an extremely complicated skill which takes (yet another) extremely complicated skill to convey. Good teachers are rare and therefore very valuable.

Now the important part: we can't learn from books, websites or online videos because as far as my experience goes (and also the experience of all the other serious violinists I know), it is *not possible* to accurately convey the concepts needed to play the violin without being physically in the same space. I say "violin" because I can't really speak for other instruments - but I suspect that the same goes for any instrument at a high level. Of course, it is possible to get *somewhere* by watching a video or reading a book. It's not that it's entirely impossible to figure out the instrument. But the violin is playable on many, many levels, and in order to become what my teacher calls "a real artist" (where people judge your playing by how much it moved them, not by how complicated it looked for you to do and how much you must have practiced), you really, really need somebody to move the angle of your wrist 5 degrees and tell you to stop twisting your left shoulder and maybe put down your left first finger a millimeter to the right. You need somebody to demonstrate for you, to fix your technique in real time, to show you how to use the violin in the most extraordinarily efficient way possible - and most of all, to push you to the absolute limits of your musical understanding. This type of guidance is not available through any medium other than plain old-fashioned sitting in a room together and trying stuff out. Even super-hi-res video conferencing doesn't work. You gotta have 3D. You gotta have somebody to actually place your fingers where they should be. It's a kinesthetic endeavor.

And that might just sum up what I love most about the violin, and what makes me so resistant to the idea of super-accessible music making. What else is there these days that actually requires you to meet with a master, one-on-one, and try to do the impossible? What else takes 40 years to get good at? What else connects you with a whole world of other questers who are desperately trying to awaken something that a guy centuries ago imagined?

And is there anything as magical as taking out a funny-shaped, hollow wooden box, drawing some sticky horse-hair across it with everything you've got, and finding, in the end, that somehow you *have* managed to communicate something meaningful to other people?

Sep 8, 2007


Yesterday, I managed to put both contact lenses in the *same eye* without noticing. (For the record, the second one goes in just fine; it doesn't feel much different.) I stumbled around my room for a while, feeling off balance, and then tried to read an email on my computer and realized I was absolutely unable to focus at close distance and was completely unable to make out the words. It took me much longer than I'd like to admit to figure out what was wrong, because without the ability to focus close up I couldn't see that both contacts were in the same eye....

Sep 6, 2007

making friends

So the thing I'm making friends with - yeah, it's a thing, not a person - is my own stomach. It seems a bit odd to only get friendly with your own internal organs at the age of 21, but what can I say... it's taken me a while.

Funnily enough, I don't think I've ever written publicly about this issue, which is odd because I've been dealing with it since I was 11. I suppose most of the time it's inconvenient or embarrassing to discuss, and nobody wants to hear about anybody else's stomach problem. (Additionally, the responses I get if I mention it are usually exactly opposite of what would be useful for me, not that it's any body's fault.) Not great conversation material. So if you don't know, I'll sum it up smoothly: my stomach is unpredictable, uncooperative, and generally causes me trouble, and the trouble is only compounded by my rather severe phobia. (However, the two problems are so intertwined that from here on out I will refer to them only as my general stomach problem.) The problem has ranged anywhere from a vague sense that I ought not to do handstands after eating (on my best days), to extreme pain and inability to eat for upwards of several weeks. The effect that it has on my life also varies a lot - these days, I don't have to think about it all the time, I can eat most foods, and I can do most activities. I still don't run or swim or sleep within several hours of eating, but that inconvenience is easily circumvented by planning when I'm going to run/swim/sleep and then not eating (duh).

But there are still bad days - even now. When I wake up feeling sick for no reason, or when I eat 3 bites of lunch, can't eat any more, and am immobilized for the rest of the day. If I get in to a patch of bad days, life suddenly becomes more complicated - I can no longer go anywhere without bringing a whole host of items (I think I am the world expert at curing stomach aches that have no apparent cause) with which to rescue myself from uncomfortable situations (like being at a meeting with 3 professors and being unable to concentrate long enough to form a proper sentence). It's awful to step out the door in fear, with the sense that I need a backpack full of rescue "tools" just to walk to the store or something - but it's a LOT better than getting there without it and suddenly needing those things.

It's not that I haven't tried to medically cure myself of this annoying bum stomach. I've seen at least 6 medical doctors about it, been poked and prodded and tested for a zillion things (no conclusive tests), talked to at least 8 psychiatrists, tried 6 major drugs, and tried at least 12 different natural stomach health products. While I've learned a lot, and I've picked up some "tools" along the way, none of these people or products has really done anything for me.

So, what the hell is wrong with me? Conclusion: nothing. It would appear that it's... "just me"**. Now, one might argue that this chronic nuisance is not something I should just accept - I've certainly been encouraged to try every possibly avenue of treatment - but frankly, the only one left is surgery and I'm not willing to go that way. So if I'm not trying to fix myself any more, I better start picking the good bits out of the lot - and that's what I mean by "making friends".

Now, I think that in general, the worst part of it is behind me, which makes the whole deal easier to make friends with; I don't think I'll ever spend another month desperately trying to eat a quarter of a banana while losing weight at a fast pace. I don't think I'll ever collapse outside the hospital again, or lie on the lawn outside the house for 3 hours until I feel well enough to get inside. I've got more control now than I ever did then, and heck - maybe someday I'll kick the whole problem.

Last year, a baffled psychiatrist told me that since I apparently can't be cured, I might start trying to figure out how this whole problem benefits me. A few weeks ago, I was at a talk by a Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, who themed his entire talk around an opening meditation: "Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I smile at my body". So, the signs are everywhere, and it's time to get thinking: just how does my little friend, my stomach, benefit me?

Well, for starters, it does sometimes do exactly what it's supposed to, so score 1. When it's misbehaving, it gets me to slow down and realize that I must sleep, eat well, and take care of myself. Because of it, I now know a jillion things to suggest to anybody who needs help with a stomach problem. I know what it's like to feel stuck in a pit, unable to dig one's way out of the wrong perception that life will never be easy or cheerful again. Because of my stomach, I've met some of the most accomplished meditators of the modern world and had a chance to ask them questions. I've learned a lot about the brain and how fear works. Perhaps above all, I've learned that when I see somebody sitting in a meeting looking distracted or unhappy, there are a thousand ways in which just being there, sitting in that chair, could be unimaginably hard for them. Actually, even if somebody doesn't LOOK distracted or unhappy, it still might be hard.

So.... hey buddy. Yeah, you, Stomach. I know you're tryin' hard. I'm getting someplace, I really am. Thanks for all the hard work. You can be quiet now. I'm paying attention.

**What exactly is it about me that causes this? For opinions from disparate sources, including my mother, a Buddhist monk-doctor, and my aunt, ask me.

Mar 21, 2007

Maverick the Muffin

I couldn't stop laughing... That's her food dish she's sleeping in. And ballooning out of. And even better, I saw her deliberately settle down in there.

Mar 17, 2007

boy, they've got everything on the 'net these days

I think I've been called "oversensitive" by most of the people I know - sometimes disparagingly, sometimes affectionately. Most people who know me well have observed that I have a really hard time in crowds or cities - spending any extended period of time in such an energetic environment leaves me physically shaky and weak. I've always described it as the "sponge" effect - I soak up what's around me to an insane degree. I plug my ears when loud things happen, like braking busses or jackhammers. In virtually any party situation, I can interact with the crowd for some limited amount of time, after which I always need to unwind, and retreat to my room to sit in the dark. I am completely unable to watch violence or tension on TV or in movies; during these scenes I usually plug my ears and shut my eyes; even when watching completely tame shows I find myself tense and stiff and really on the edge. Even if I *like* watching them, they do me in.

These weird traits have been interpreted in various ways. I think some people think I'm kind of faking it, like a lot of middle school girls fake being afraid of bugs just so they can all squeal in "fear" at the sight of one, which in some twisted way connects people socially. Others see it as a very negative thing; the result of my not watching TV as a child. Still more feel they have to be very careful around me, for fear of "setting me off" - that's not a great way to say it, but many of my friends do realize that I notice and respond to little things VERY quickly.

Well, it turns out there's actually quite some information about people like me. It's all over the web - search for Highly Sensitive Person or Intuitive Empath, and you can look through lists of traits that describe me in a nutshell. Most surprising of all was this site, in which the essayist also describes herself as a "giant sponge", a description I've never heard anybody else use.

I'm pretty suspicious, generally, of hokey spiritualist personality descriptions, in which the page seems sincere until you get to the bottom, and then they tell you that you're "most like the Elephant/Cockroach/Spiny Lobster" or "destined to be psychic" or "exhibiting extrasensosupranaturalistic mental techniques" or some other weird mumbo jumbo. In those cases the writer is usually somebody who has adopted an Indian pen name, puts a lot of sentimental .wav music files on their site, and has a picture of him or herself engaged in a little-known religious practice.

The author of the article linked above is an MD. She also asserts that people's bodies "are made of flesh and blood, but they're also composed of energy fields", and a section of the article is about Energy Vampires, who drain intuitive empaths of energy. Does this sound believable to you?

Think carefully. Personally, I have enough experience being *me*, complete with Issues in all their glory, to realize that a strict modern Western medical perspective is not enough to explain why I often feel the way I do, even though I am neither physically sick nor clinically depressed. But I find it incredibly irritating that people who try to explain these emotional tendencies and traits often use language like "Energy Vampires", which in most peoples' view robs the thesis of any credibility. This woman describes me very well, which by its very nature is bound to mean something to me - but her book categorizes people in to boxes like Drama Queen, Sob Sister, and Blamer. Why, once you've liberated a few confused souls from thinking they are incurably weird, must you go on to further categorize? Identification of a trait, articulating it so that you can state who you are to those who care about you, is important. Knowing that you are a Sob Sister, while your neighbor is a Drama Queen, and therefore you two really can't quite relate, is NOT.

I know, and my friends know, that the way I feel is CLEARLY influenced by the way people around me feel, to a very profound degree, and that I easily pick up on how people are feeling. It is also true that the more people there are, the more influence pours in, and I tend to get overwhelmed. But this doesn't have to be mystical, folks. It doesn't need to involve vampires. By describing it, you don't have to make a religion out of it. It's just how some people are.

Feb 9, 2007

introducing Emily

This is Emily. Isn't she darlin'?

Getting her to play nice with Maverick has been hard, though. Or rather, getting Maverick to play nice has been hard. This is not entirely unexpected; introducing new rats to each other often takes time. One accepted strategy is to put dabs of perfume on the rats so as to mask their scents, and then introduce them in neutral ground. It's taken 4 days of doing that, but the two girls finally are able to stay in the same cage without fighting.

They have, however, constructed separate nests in far opposite corners of the cage. Ha!

UPDATE: They now sleep next to each other (aww), but they still fight over sunflower seeds.


Boston is dry. Extremely dry. I sound like a frog in the morning, my throat hurts if I speak for more than 5 minutes. My hair looks suspiciously as if I have been hanging out with a Van de Graaff generator. My lips are split and sting horribly if I eat salty things. Even my hands are cracked and itchy. I've been drinking at least 2 liters of water per day, but it just doesn't seem to help... And there's no better way to appreciate how much your face hurts than to bike around Boston when it's 12 F, at night, in the wind.