Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Examiners Office

Part of the diplomacy game that rages on, taking away from all my other blogging. A lot more where this came from.

[excerpt from the personal diary of Eric Buchhalter, Chief Examiner at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern, Switzerland 1884-1912.]

May 2, 1903

11. Laterally Configured Universal Electromagnetic Dynamo for Powering a Rotary Engine. Sachs et al.
Summary: Mod. of Schliemann's design (see entry Dec 14, '99), with new orientation. Given to Albert to examine. Thoughts: Although idea has tech. merit, does not add sig. impr. on older model. Needs of universal motors may be imp. in future as alt. curr. generators grow in popularity. Reviewing more machine tech. good for Albert's training.

12. Heat Engine Based on Coal Oil Combustion. Leone et al.
Summary: Var. on Stirling eng. using coal oil as heat source. Rejected. Thoughts: Too similar to other designs (notably Stirling, 1820) and only var. is heat src. However, predict that heat eng. will prove more reliable than elec. engines over time.

Today's General Thoughts: Satisfying career watching human knowledge culminate, however today's appls. demonstrate how little left to discover. Spoke to Albert about this thought at lunch. His response troubling.

In brief, told Alb. thoughts re. scientfc. achievement. He replied that Ger./Fr. aggression toward Eng. and Ital. vs. Turkey have slowed research.

Granted his point: recent events across Eng. Channel and Skagerrak indeed troubling. (Ever-changing alliances of Eur. always confuse me. It is as if history means nothing. Did not mention this to Alb.) Still, science has uncovered all mysteries of energetics and balance of celestial forces. More, war efforts employ reschrs. (not slow them), but pat. appls. becoming more redundant than ever. What is left to invent, I asked him.

What holds spheres together he asked. What is light really.

aka the photoelectric effectGot angry and told him that Newton explained the spheres well enough. And what he didn't know about light, Maxwell figured out. Maybe someone will explain Hertz effect, but can hardly see the point.

Alb. gave most enigmatic look at this.

Go on to question wars on the continent that always rage around us. What's the importance of all that w.r.t. science?

It's all relative, Alb. said cryptically. Such an infuriating young man.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Information comes full circle

DNA--most of us think of it in some vague way as the stuff of life, some enormous string of data encoding every characteristic of the individual wrapped around it as some impossibly long Gödelian nightmare of a quarternary number. (The human genome is about 3 billion digits long, which allows on the order of 101800000000--almost two billion googol--unique codes.) It's that mystery stuff that is the blueprint for everything an organism is, from which proteins its cells express, to which organs it has and how many limbs, to its behavioral tendencies. The genome dictates how organisms process external information, which is to day that it influences everything the it does, whether it's at a high level, with brains (the human brain has about two orders of magnitude more neurons than a DNA strand has base pairs, but unlike natural DNA, they connect with one another nonlinearly) or at a low level, bending toward the sun, say. The organism's reaction to the outside world is part of its extended phenotype, and that response to the environment may include changing the environment, creating a cyclical relationship: the code creates external information that changes the environment, that the code must reinterpret. In the metaphysical extreme, the expression of DNA on an ecosystem level, or on an evolutionary level (over as many years as there are digits in the human genome) is a metastable means for the universe to dissipate energy into uselessness, information into meaninglessness. That sort of determinism doesn't lessen the burden on our freakish consciousness. In order to achieve that metastable species-wide state, or one of them, we still have to act, even if it's just the genes talking, and it's hard to tell where the story is going.

But at the bottom of that somewhat comprehensible tangle of life is a somewhat comprehensible tangle of sugars and phosphates. Actually, the molecule itself isn't quite so exotic as all that. The information capacity is vast, and many aspects of stringing it together remain mysterious, but it's held together according to some well-known chemical rules. It's composed of a phosphate/carbohydrate polymer chain with interacting base groups hanging off the side at regular intervals. Each of these bases is specific to only one other base, and for your single DNA strand to find a partner and make a double helix, then the whole sequence of bases has to correspond in the right order. A chain of bases will only stick to its complement (A and a in the figure), rejecting all others. Even a DNA strand of only ten base units can hold about a million different combinations, each of which has only one destined partner. If you're a chemist, that's as specific a reaction as exists, and it's where the fun with DNA begins.


Over the last couple decades, artificial synthesis techniques have become good enough to manufacture short DNA strands (called oligonucleotieds) in a controllable way and in high quantity. That oligomer can capture a small and characteristic portion of a longer chain, and this specificity can be used to test for the presence of longer chains of interest. Oligonucleotides can be anchored (more chemistry), so that one end is permanently attached to a solid surface such as gold or glass. The sequence of the oligonucleotide is engineered to complement a small portion of a DNA strand of interest, for example from a known pathogen. An assay can be constructed to detect that target DNA. To do this, an solution which is thought to contain the molecule of interest (anaylyte) is passed over the immobilized DNA oligomer, which will grab the target sequence and anchor its whole strand to the surface. A second oligonucleotide solution, which is complementary to another portion of the target molecule is then passed over the surface. Instead of being anchored to a surface this second molecule pulls along a label at its end, which can be viewed with instrumentation. If the label is detected on the surface after being exposed to the analyte and the reporting molecule, then the test is positive. Chad Mirkin's group at Northwestern is using tiny metal particles as labels in this type of assay, which when properly treated are visible to the naked eye or can be measured electrically. The goal is to make spot tests for a variety of dangerous or important microorganisms.


You can further manipulate oligonucleotides to make branched structures, as shown in the third figure. Here, the single strands are designed so that they complement only part of another strand. If you arrange the pattern just so (and if you have an army of grad students with brilliant lab skills), then you can make branched DNA structures. If you arrange the overlap of sequences just a little differently, then you can make branched structures with overhanging sticky ends, each of which will bind only to complementary sticky ends, much like in the assay experiment. The four-armed beastie in the lower figure will bind to itself, and should make a random sort of network (and will probably turn the mixture into a little vial of snot). You're not restricted to three or four arms, and you can have any variety of sticky ends. People have made closed shapes, three dimensional objects, and "tiles", which spontaneously form as each sticky end finds its own soulmate.


Self-assembled DNA structures are pretty cool, but they aren't just laboratories curiousities. If a DNA code is used as a code, that is used by people to store information, then self-assembled DNA structures can be used to read it, pinning objects of known shape or with known labels onto a more complicated molecular scaffold, the sticky end of the known unit attracted to a piece of the code DNA.

You can go further than this and imagine branched DNA structures as a series of jigsaw tiles, such that each edge is attractive only to certain other edges. In this situation, the identity of a given tile depends on the identity of adjacent tiles. Given an initial soup of molecular Legos, or for a given "input" series that starts concatenating a pattern, tile structures can emerge such that a unique structures assemble from given inputs. Known inputs-->organization-->reproducible outputs. You've made a computer. It doesn't necessarily matter how that organization occurs, you may not even need to know what edges you have in the mix of tiles, but Wang's carpet has just done your thinking for you. Molecular computers using DNA have already been shown to solve known mathematical problems that are computationally intensive by conventional means. Can any pile of jelly hold a thought? I've got to go with yes, Stan.

I've been entertaining myself lately to think properties of the universe as purely informational. Entropy can be considered as the availability of alternate states of being for any datum you can name, and the second law of thermodynamics says that nature pushes for all states to eventually become interchangable, and therefore meaningless. It may be more accurate to say, however, that information is a property of universe. Information requires the existence of the stuff of nature configured a certain way--if information is encoded in atoms then the nuclear force and electrical forces control the arrangement of its components. If it's stored in the motion of the spheres, then it's masses arranging themselves gravitationally, if it's in molecules, the thoughts in your head, or the words on your screen, then dynamic patterns of electrical motion are holding your information. Human thoughts (and computers too) may in a broad sense be considered expressions of a few billion molecular codes, each a few billion spaces long. The human genome has reached an oddly recursive point where it can manipulate itself as well as its environment. Information comes full circle.

Some additional online references:

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Soldier

[From my Diplomacy commentary. Somehow, I intend to generate three of these a week. Imagine this short story longer, and with a first half.]

...Alina was a pretty girl with an inquisitive birdlike face but with the blocky body and ragged dress of a peasant. Her mother worked for low wages in the cold buildings of the Kurosky factory that were arrayed in a dusky expanse behind the family manor, where she threaded the great bolts of cloth onto the printing machines. The daughter assisted lazily among the domestic staff, preferring to daringly flutter her eyelashes at the Kurosky sons, and chatter with the other workers than focus on her chores. When she heard Captain Pyotr coming down with the men, she sweetly looked up from the basin at Marya Andreyvna, pulling her brush behind her back.

'We must finish the laundry, Alinka,' the old woman said sternly. 'Please, grab that ladle.' When Marya spoke, the wrinkling flesh on her chin danced lightly. Although she had buried three sons and a husband early in her life and had not remarried, she had developed the demeanor of a doting relative. Alina frequently called her Grandmother. She had been working at the estate since she herself was a girl, and was known to treat the young people as indulgently as she could. She winked at the girl. 'You can look at the handsome young man on the way back from the stream. Please now, don't rush so.'

Blushing, Alina returned to her task, falling to the routine of brushing and scrubbing in the hot water with her thick, red hands. When the basket was nearly full, she looked up expectantly at Marya. 'Yes, yes,' the old woman said, 'I can finish the rest.'

The day was bright, the grass soft, and upstream from the factory, the water was still clear and blue. Alina dropped the basket from her hip, and hurriedly plunged the shirts and trousers into the cool water, a stream of foam trailing lazily back toward the rocks, dappling the surface of the water with little rainbows. She had nearly finished when she heard the voices of men nearby. A smile dotted Alina's face, a sharp line underlining ruddy cheeks. She moved to the stream's edge and began deliberately laying out several shirts on a rock, listening.

The rheumy voice of Ivan Ilyavitch, she realized, was speaking to the young captain. She craned her neck toward the sound, and went even more slowly at the appearance of work. She could feel the flush on her face, but the men did not appear to be getting much closer. Ivan Ilyavitch did not move quickly.

'Tell me Captain...' The old man coughed, deep and wet. 'Tell me of the Army. Is there to be war?'

'Your hospitality is appreciated, Colonel. I don't know the extent to which you still follow the greater affairs of Russia in your retirement.'

Alina could make out a slow grumble. '... not greatly aware of movements south--we harry the Turks these days, yes?--but local events concern me greatly.' He paused for breath. 'You march to Riga, and then, I assume you sail to Sweden, yes?'

' guard the capital against the English, of all the races of Europe! They are sailing east, and the Germans and Austrians are consolidating territories too. They have made no action on us--we have even worked with Franz Kyu--but I fear the worst!'

'I have heard this as well. It is probably nothing, these European affairs. Tell me Captain, has the Tsar provisioned you for tents and uniforms? How are your men clothed? Perhaps we should discuss with Boris Ivanitch...'

The men rounded the corner to see Alina, clothes quite neglected, standing in the sun by the rock, attending their words. Recovering herself, she straightened her skirt and color suffused her brow and cheeks and she curtseyed to the two of them. She was aware of Captain Pyotr's broad shoulders, and how the sun glinted off of his flaxen hair and close-cropped beard.

The young man turned to the old, and chuckled: 'these mean serving folk never know their place, do they?' Ivan Ilyavitch wheezed.

Alina felt suddenly aware of her rags, her ruddy face, her raw hands and wet knees. She spoke no more and when the men continued on, she plunged the shirts in the stream with vigor, hit them with rocks and grunted at them, as though they held the good birth and fair hair that she did not.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

How come I'm always it?

Hipparchia has tagged me for The Pharyngula mutating genre meme.

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, “The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…”. Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

You can leave them exactly as is.
You can delete any one question.
You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change “The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is…” to “The best time travel novel in Westerns is…”, or “The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is…”, or “The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is…”.
You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form “The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…”.
You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.
Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

My great-great-great-great-great-grandparent is Pharyngula.
My great-great-great-great-grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.
My great-great-great-grandparent is Flying Trilobite.
My great-great-grandparent is A Blog Around the Clock.
My great-grandparent is archy.
My grandparent is Why Now?
My parent is Over the Cliff, Onto the Rocks.

The best comic fantasy novel in SF/Fantasy is: Last Call by Tim Powers.

The best “bad” movie in scientific dystopias is: Spaceballs.

The best drinking song in pop is: Hey Jude

The best slob comedy in film is: Animal House

In order to keep mutation alive, I’m passing the meme on to:

Prof. Twiffer, of the Intentionally Blank Page
Catnapping, the Odd Neighbor

(Why these two? They seem to know a couple people outside the clique, they may tolerate a chain letter, and because Hippy overlooked them on the first pass. I clearly need more influential friends.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Five More Thoughts (Paid Writer Ed.)

Five More Thoughts (Paid Writer Ed.)

Let's see, we've got two parts each trivial life observations and media criticism, spiced with a delightful soupcon of navel-focused metabloggery. Finally, I've made it!

1. Just give me a second to talk to my manager
In general, I suppose I'd like negotiation better if it weren't so dully scripted. Well, that and if it didn't actually involve talking to people. A good half of Americans are woefully unsuited to wheeling and dealing--not everyone can make a living peddling vapor--and con men always need marks. (I lie and tell myself I'm a conscientious objector.) But everyone has to deal at some point, and those life situations that involve sizable and volatile investments can put everyday slobs in a difficult place. We'll pay someone 5% of $400 grand to resist that lower offer on that house. When it comes to automobiles, we're played for suckers in every aspect of the game:

"I'd like an oil change please."

"Do you want our premium lubricant service?"

"Just the oil, please."

Typically at this point, the technician will punch my tag number into the computer, and shake his head indulgently. "Mr., um, Heegins? I see it's been 5500 miles since your last service. You should--"

"Please. Just an oil change."

"I see. Our high milage oil is good if you..." (he'll lower his voice and lean in here) "…have excessive wear on your engine."

"How much more did you say that was?"

The negotiation must go through several rituals, not unlike the arcane art of inhabiting a house. After the premium pitch, I'm shuffled to the waiting room to review the 'why we should service you twice as often as the dealer says' posters, and the one that hints at such lost and potent automobile knowledge as serpentine belts, as though I were in a real shop. Meanwhile the technicians rip my hood up and tear off this cap and pull down that hose like an experienced pit crew slumming it in the burbs. At about 2 minutes in, there's the customary showing of the air filter. "Yeah, I think I can wait till next time." At 7 minutes, the technician comes to the door with his arms behind his back and a steady, serious expression, a doctor about to deliver difficult news. "Mr. Heegins? Please come with me."

He drags me to the computer to show me, in a couple of powerpoint slides, cartoon horrors of unflushed radiators and unreplaced oxygen sensors. The screen is worn and stained from presenting this same act to the thousands of other customers. It's his best act, but also the most the most dangerous. I'm a guilty and a lazy automoble owner, but I'm not quite this stupid. The moment trails off, and then it's all business, ringing up 50 bucks for what I could have done on my own for ten.

Fed up with the charade, I took it to a regular shop last time, and I didn't have to view the air filter. "Mr., um, Heegins? You might want to be careful about those brakes. The rotors look a little thin."
2. The Starbucks Coffee Paradox
Across the street from the shop is a Starbucks, and while my car was hoisted on the lift, I grabbed a Globe and an execrable coffee from the counter. Although I fancy myself to possess the rudiments of Epicureanism, I've never achieved coffee snobbery, just so long as it's bitter and caffeinated and tears my guts apart, I'm pleased enough. But the 'buck still sucked with the over-roasted rankness of 4AM pot of desparate sobriety.

At home, we've tried a number of shitty little coffee-making apparati. Want I want is straightforward enough: a good cup of coffee from a pot that doesn't dominate my countertop, and whose cost reflects the essential function of producing brew without my intervention. We've tried a number of coffee brands, and are dissatisfied with most of them. What works for us? Starbucks. Spooooky.

[Hey, I needed five.]

3. Obviously, they're both lying
Sitting there with my newspaper, I caught my third reference in a day to the Giuliani/Romney smackdown on Tuesday night. What happens when an inconsistent force meets an object the exact shape of a man's suit? Well, you get a passive little snit over who lowered taxes more and more often. Mitt says he lowered 'em 17% as governor, but got accused of raising them 10% (I think I got the claims right), whereas Fightin' Rudy cut taxes 23 times. Precisely zero of the reports (including the one on NPR) informed me of whether Mitt's shit (or Rudy's doodies, somebody please stop me) floats.

Let me put on my citizen journalist hat for probably the first (and hopefully the last) time here. In the early aughts, when I first moved here, the Republicans were, in the face of slightly less underfunding than in the previous couple of years, slavering over an income tax 'rollback.' Mitt, when voted in, attempted to deliver this, but when these cuts revealed themselves to be on the wrong side of the Laffer curve (revenues dropped) the legislature stopped him at a 5.3% rate (from 5.85% originally, and not yet to his promised 5.0).

Not being a New Yorker, I'm a little more sketchy on the municipal tax structure of that burg. There is a city income tax. According to, Rudy eliminated a surcharge from it. (I got a ticket in New York once, upstate. "What the hell is this?" "It's the surcharge." "What's it for?" "It's like, you know, an extra charge." So fuck the surcharge.) As well, he's evidently cut some stifling property and rental taxes (Sin City has those too, evidently).

Although there's about a metric ton of bullshit involved, understanding tax distribution isn't quite that difficult. One of Mitt's opponents that year liked to truck around a bar chart that neatly broke taxation down into the big three--sales, property, and income--at three or four different income levels, much to the mystified shame of journalists and voters alike. She still lost.

How do you cut (or raise) taxes tens of percents and hundreds of time without really affecting anything at all? First of all, in Mitt's case, it's easy to push around 10% of something that's already small. More importantly though, the problems with living in Massachusetts emphatically aren't taxes. What's more, I suspect most of those tax-cutting instances are measured in any number of temporary tax holidays, tariffs on stuff no one buys, and targeted breaks to eight hundred or so of his buds. Is there some journalistic code that you can't say what everyone knows anyway, that those waving hands are just wafting around so much bullshit?

4. "We report, you look it up." I've heard worse slogans.
I catch Fox news in the mornings sometimes at the gym, with the sound off. Since the managers evidently don't understand that you can turn captions on, I am left to guess what the shrew, the tool, and the closet case are jawing about, which I amuse myself by trying to piece together from facial expressions and the punny flyout at the lower right of the screen describing the topic what the hell they are saying. The best I can gather is that it's a series of "Oh-no-he-dinnit!" moments for insecure southerners (when Mr. I'm-not-gay-I'm-married reports the weather on the map, Los Angeles and New York never show up, and I've only seen Boston once), filled with the noble patriotism of soldiers and aging white men, a carousel of loony commentators, and the chuckling disapproval of violators of the shifting white man's culture code that the Jiffy Lube guy dreams to perfect.

I've been a little slow to realize it, but the disapproval network exists to simultaneously placate the insecure movementarians, and divert their time with judgments of dogmatic minutiae. Like it was in the church, and the totalitarians throughout history, the minor (and usually double-edged) privelege to report petty judgements of doctrine is given to the apparatchiks, while the leaders get on with the business of exercising raw, naked power.

5. I've got my whole career ahead of me
Complaining about Fox News? About my uninteresting daily routine? I think I've hit two rock bottoms simultaneously, a grotesquely smashed mixture of The Daily Bleat and the Daily Kos, which can only mean one thing... I've finally hit it! So where do I sign up for my sinecure? Any gigs I can get at the Times?

It's fun to fantasize about being a paid writer, after all, bloviated nonsense is something I've been producing anyway, all on my own. I've tried to tell myself that it's a good outlet for depression, and as experience proves that untrue, I tell myself that if I'm luckier than good, it might turn depression into something profitable. Rundeep had a compelling little piece on her blog describing why she rejected a music career (she went out of her way to paint an unflattering portrait, but I remain impressed that the choice was hers to consider). I can see a parallel between the pro musician and the pro writer: unappreciated and unrewarded effort, insecurity, poverty, hypersensitivity, witness to the success of your inferiors. Writing blog posts is like playing the guitar, just, you know, minus the sex appeal. Oh, I can so fucking make it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Last Contact: 1900

Last Contact: 1900

The world changed in 1900, which isn't anything special. History, I heard once (in one of those pop culture moments of accidental wisdom), is replete with turning points, changing more here, less there, now for the better and there, often enough, for the worse. Even if civilizations seem to grow through periods of relative stasis and rapid change rather than gradually, every moment is still in flux, every tradition is already dying by the time it's recognized. Nostalgia, by definition, is clutching at the customs that the times have outgrown, grabbing at some imagined better past, dully remembered from childhood. The habits of our grandparents are changed even in our desperate attempt to preserve them.

For all that, it's comfortable for me to pin 1900 from my own point in history as a transformative moment. On one side of the century, I see all the strong associations with my modern life--automobiles, electronics, and global war--while on the other side there is another world, teeming with subsistence farmers, tuberculosis, and verbose novelists. One thing that intrigues me is the role of technology in that cultural shift, how much of those beloved traditions were based on the constraints of the times? How many of them were lost only because the alternatives were easier? (Pretty much all of them, I think.)

Reading some of Chekhov's short stories this past week (that'd be Anton, not, um, Pavel), I found myself puzzling about the Russian economy. It's one that enabled sloth, drunkenness and other gluttonies, which would seem, at a glance, to be unsopported by an unforgiving climate and a large dependent population. But there was a lot of real estate, for one thing, and the backs of innumerable serfs (even if they were liberated years before Chekhov's time) for another. One gets the feeling that life was cheap in Russia. The industrial revolution made it better for the peasant class, offering factory work as a slight elevation from abject poverty, still at a station well below the professionals, and distant as ever from the landowners. Chekhov painted many vignettes of the tension between the new technology and the old traditions. His rich decorated their estates with baubles: a concertina, a telephone, electric lights. Telegraph lines buzz through his pastoral landscapes, and rail touches the provinces to the heart of Moscow. The flicker of progress in his Russia is inevitable, irrepressible, changing everything and yet changing nothing. It makes lives better, but fails to cure society's ills--people are still people after all, and progress is much too slow for that, and too ingrained in the present. Is it any wonder that the Russians revolted? Freedom from bondage, economic growth, and the lives of 98% of them still managed to be total shit.

First contact stories tend to be bad (with exceptions), because of the focus, the icky exceptionalism, the false promises. The unquestioning love of progress is about as tedious as being stuck in the past. The better versions of this tale, and I'll call them "last contact" stories for want of a better distinction, carry a more complete sense of what's lost, what's gained, and how the transition comes both from the past and from the alien ideas. Geoff Ryman, one of the better authors you've never read, grabbed it in 2004. He opens his novel Air with "Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online. After that, everyone else went on air." It seems odd to have life in the 1900 Moscow 'burbs to resonate so strongly with the science fictional central Asia of the 21st century, but it positively hummed. Ryman takes the future and the past with equal love and with equal reprobation and, like Chekhov, focuses narrowly on the characters living in their context. It's a sign of honest writing, good perceptions, and a sense of subtlety. More of an observer, Chekhov wasn't given to the same sort of moralizing harangues of the earlier 19th century Russian novelists. Still, he had his moments. Near the turn of the century, here's a quote from A Doctor's Visit (1898):

"Looking at the factory buildings and the barracks, where the workpeople were asleep, he thought again what he always thought when he saw a factory. They may have performances for the workpeople, magic lanterns, factory doctors, and improvemens of all sorts, but, all the same, the workpeople he had met that day on his way from the station did not look in any way different from those he had known long ago in his childhood, before there were factory performances and improvements....[He] looked upon factories as something baffling, the cause of which was obscure and not removable, and all the improvements in the life of the factory hands he looked upon not as superfluous, but as comparable with the treatment of incurable illnesses."

Progress comes, and it changes everything. But as brilliantly as we may advance, and as much as I enjoy tapping away at my magic lantern here, the drama still repeats itself, and the end is always the same.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Fun Link of the Day

Er, well, first one ever for this blog.

Animations by XVivo, imagining the molecular mechanics inside of a human cell. A lot of the visualization is fanciful (I think), but it's also well informed by the actual crazy-ass shit that cellular proteins do when they're working. It's a very cool cartoon, and courtesy of Mrs. Keifus.

I've actually been doing a fair amount more scribbling lately than is reflected here. Will provide links soon (whether or not anyone cares).

Monday, October 01, 2007

Lairnin an' Such

I've lost track of the exact sequence of events that got me into playing music. My daughter was taking violin lessons for a short while several years ago--is that what prompted my father to send her back with a short-scaled mandolin, or was it the other way around? It is for sure what started my wife's sporadic interest in the fiddle, as she tried to show Junior some of the practice moves. Regardless, that neglected little mandolin (yeah, I think it showed up a good year before the fiddles) proved infectious, and to this day I have no idea why. I played a trumpet in high school, and it took as poorly as the kids' violin lessons did. Maybe it just took thirty-plus years to grow the proper mindset. (I should be great when I'm 80.)

I'm not an overbearing music parent (or husband), and aside from the little brown lute, the efforts come and go around me. Far from overbearing: if the girl's not interested, then I can't see the point of springing the funds that could otherwise help inch the family out from our crushing mountain of debt. Private music lessons don't come cheap. Learning through school is covered by your taxes though (there may be a libertarian anecdote in this one), and through those channels, the rented kid's fiddle has been replaced with a rented (full-size) trombone after a merciful two-year hiatus. The bias of school music programs toward wind instruments is a mystery to me, really. My current theory is that it's an insidious scheme by The Man to completely dissociate music from sex (the emasculating band uniforms I remember from high school would support this), in which case, my daughter's going to remain unmolested if she manages to drag that ridiculous trombone around until she goes to college. ('You know, I have a trumpet,' I tell her, 'it's a lot easier to take on the bus.' 'Daddy!')

Of course I had to try it when she brought it home, and I can't say whether it's with pleasure or disappointment that I observe my hatred of brass instruments holds. They seem like they should be my thing, all about the mouthfeel, but before you can start slobbering lasciviously into one of those, you have to learn to clamp your cheeks (your embrochure) vise-like to even get the first fraction of the available notes. (I think it also helps to have an appropriately shaped mouth.) That was a frustrating thing--you need some stern measure of discipline to even find most of the damn notes, never mind to play them well. Even though I've been clenching my jaw for about a year straight, I still could only come up with hissing farts on Junior's trombone. The visual/aural/tactile combination of a stringed instrument has, to my surprise, suited me much better.

The other frustrating thing with the old trumpet was just my basic laziness. I didn't want to learn it badly enough to actually learn it, and it didn't come nearly as effortlessly as the schoolwork. It's funny what you value. My wife has had no time for fiddling since she started taking classes this fall. She's busy relearning chemistry for the biomedical field, and this time around she's fascinated with it all. She's taking notes and studying hard, not to get through it, but because she's paying the cash and wants to learn what she's paying for. Also because it interests her. It's great to see her this excited. When you're learning because you want to, you can get a sort of positive reinforcement going. When you feel obligated, the knowledge can still get in there, but it's not treasured. In my case, this has been the difference between the tiny handful of good projects at my job and the innumberable shitty ones (that have been better spent blogging).

I've been an autodidactic menace on the mandolin for more than three years now, and, as I've been saying, cruising along a low-grade upward spiral of interest and accomplishment. Which isn't to say I don't suck--I'm atrocious--but I'm at the point where some pointed advice, advice about where to focus, some tools and tips, would be highly valued. I landed in music lessons by another odd sequence of family events. My wife ran into a mandolin player at a wedding and cornered the guy by the bathroom. (My wife's tactlessness makes up well for my shyness--we work great this way, except when we infuriate one another.) I may be terrible, but this guy is an ace--I really love his fusion thing. (And I'm sure he won't mind the plug.) At fifty bucks, I'd better value the lesson, but even one visit is pointing me in some of the directions I was too puzzled to find. I'll write about that soon, I think (this post is a boring introduction to that one that flowed over the wall), but it feels good to be gaining knowledge without pressure, for no other reason than because it satisifies me.

Keifus (with apologies to the usual gang of idiots)