Friday, May 29, 2009

Stepping Out

I'll get back to showing you the transformation of our downstairs tomorrow (the blue is proving hard to cover up, so multiple coats of paint have been needed, especially for the white we're painting the trim). Today, I thought you needed a good Friday pick-me-up after this short work week. I told you that Noah's taking big steps - over 11 at a time at last count. So here, at long last, is video proof of Noah's wobbling walking (note his innovative arm action for balance):

(this video is also useful for letting you see the current carpet and paint of our downstairs) Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Slow Transformation Part I: Removing Wallpaper

Since moving into our house almost four years ago, we've spent every summer and almost every winter break redoing some part of the house. We removed carpet and painted the baby's room when we first moved in, we redid the upstairs bathrooms our first full summer in the house, we transformed the guest room into Sam's big boy room, we added a banquette to the kitchen. This summer, we're attempting our largest renovation yet on the downstairs den.

The den has wonderfully plush, plaid carpet that Joy's wanted to go since the moment we moved in. However, it has been great for crawlers and learning walkers and nice and warm in the winter, so we've kept it all this time. Now that Noah is starting to walk, though, it's time for the carpet to go. So we're going to redo the downstairs bath and den with new floors, new paint, new fixtures, maybe new furniture, and I'm going to catalog it so when all is said and done in a month, we can see how far we've come.

I started the process last night by removing wallpaper in the bathroom. The previous owners had a thing for bad wallpaper in the bathroom, but no such much of a thing that they wallpapered the entire bathroom. No, only the top portion of the bathrooms received treatment:

The picture on the left is the upstairs bathroom when we moved in and the one on the right is the downstairs bathroom I'm currently working on. Upstairs, the wallpaper was applied directly to the drywall - that was a fun week of removal and patching, let me tell you. Happily, downstairs the wallpaper was applied to paint, so it came off fairly easily last night:

As you can see, the wall is in pretty good shape, so I mainly had to patch nail holes hidden under the wallpaper and strange dents that have been there who knows how long. So the next step will be to prime that deep blue so we can cover it up when we paint. I'll let you know how that goes tonight.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Too Busy for Full Words

English is a fascinating language, convoluted yet able to be twisted into sentences of great beauty. But modern society, like the characters in Tikki Tikki Tembo, is fascinated with decreasing English's complexity by shortening everything into acronyms. Sometimes these are ridiculous, sometimes fun, and sometimes dead on; I'm reminded after watching Frost/Nixon last night of CREEP - the Committee to Re-Elect the President that was involved in the Watergate break in. But they seem to be popping up everywhere in this age of computing.

Sam speaks so much so fast, that's he's decided that his entire language should consist of acronyms. The only problem with this sceme is that the acronyms are completely of his own making. Sometimes, we have no problem figuring out what he's saying:

Joy: "What do you want for lunch today?"
Sam: "M and C."
Joy: "Macaroni and Cheese?"
Sam: vigorous head nod

But sometimes it's a little less clear:

Joy: "What do you want for lunch today?"
Sam: "P"
Joy: "Peanut Butter and Jelly?"
Sam: "No"
Joy: "Pasta?"
Sam: "Nope"
Joy: "Pizza?"
Sam: "Uh-huh."
Joy: "How about some polite words?

He shortens everything now (last night right after crawling in bed, he wanted some "W") and we have no idea where he picked up this habit. But at this point, the next time he asks for "P," he's getting porridge.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bob the Builder Too?

Recently, Sam discovered Bob the Builder. If you've not been around the under 5 crowd in the past 10 years or so, you might not know about Bob, but he's the star of a popular kids program featuring stop-motion animated construction vehicles that help him build and repair all manner of things. Sam cares nothing for the TV show; he likes the website. There you can finish projects in a reassuringly Bob Vila-like step-by-step process and play with all manner of construction vehicles that smile encouragingly at you.

Since discovering the website earlier this week, Sam has been obsessed. This morning, the first words out of his sleepy mouth was "can we play Bob the Builder?" His construction vehicles have suddenly become much more enticing, almost taking the place of his Thomas trains (almost, but not quite), and he sings the Bob the Builder song over and over and over. In case you haven't heard the song, here it is in a slightly modified version:

That's right, our president's writing staff plagiarized Bob the Builder to create a campaign slogan. Maybe that means he'll soon turn to commercials about restarting the Really Useful Engine of our economy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

First Steps

About two and a half weeks ago, Noah started standing up on his own from a crouch. He'd crawl to where he wanted to look, get up in a crouch, stand on up with his legs planted wide, and look around.

Yesterday afternoon, we were getting ready for a baby shower Joy was hosting when Noah stood up in the kitchen, moved one foot forward, and then fell on his bottom. Joy and I were both there, and so I started egging him on, encouraging him to take another step. He tried and tried, just stamping that one foot forward before he finally figured out how to get the next foot forward. He ended up taking two steps a few times and a third step once, wobbling from side to side as he moved slowly forward. By the end, his legs were so tired he couldn't even stand up anymore, but his face was aglow with his accomplishment.

I suppose full-scale walking isn't far away. I'll try and get pictures for you later this week.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Traffic Signs

For his second birthday, May and Pop got Sam his very own tricycle. You may remember that he rode it last summer in the fourth of July parade, but I had to tie a rope on it to keep him going the right direction or going at all.

Fast forward almost a year and Sam is big enough to fully control the tricycle and so wants to ride it all the time, especially since he sees me out on my bike now that the weather is warm again. There is a church up the hill from our house with a large, square, flat parking lot - perfect for riding tricycles. So the other day, we loaded the tricycle in Sam's wagon and hiked up the hill to the parking lot.

Sam pedaled all over the lot, learning how to steer and how to back pedal to slow down. But he sometimes got going too fast and lost control. One time, he tried to steer while going fast and tumped over, scraping his head in the process. After we got him and the tricycle back up he gingerly climbed back on and told us "I think I need to go the speed limit."

If only he'll remember that in 13 years.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Academic Presentations

I've been away from posting this week because I've been attending a conference at my school on teaching with technology. I gave a presentation Thursday afternoon on my use of blogs in the writing intensive music history I teach, which went very well, and spent the rest of the conference going from session to session wondering why at a conference on teaching with technology, the presenters used technology so poorly.

What technology you might ask? Why PowerPoint, of course. The first presenter had excellent ideas but used his PowerPoint like a paper, with footnotes and long quotations and so many bullet points it looked like Bonnie and Clyde's car. What was sad is that the presenter knew his PowerPoint was working against him because he jokingly referenced having seen Death by PowerPoint, but obviously didn't take any of its lessons to heart. The presenters after him were no better, simply taking bullet point list after bullet point list and forcing us to read them in bad templates. *sigh*

The other cloud hanging over the conference was the spectre of e-learning where an entire class is online. We're all crusty academics who value face-to-face interactions with students, but with the decline of newspapers, some doomsayers are forecasting the downfall of universities as well, especially after commercials like this:

Kaplan is one of the crop of for-profit online schools and have made several great commercials like that one. But what the articles and lectures and videos don't understand is that there is more to college than lectures. Much of the learning that goes on in college happens in dorm rooms, in the cafeteria, playing Frisbee on the quad. Those experiences are not replicable online; in facebook we're usually friends with people we already know, not making new friends and sharing deep conversations late in the night. Plus, many seem not to realize that classrooms are more interactive than ever before, harnessing new technology to encourage student participation. The old "I talk, you listen" paradigm is still in use, but is constantly changing. Many professors may not know how to use PowerPoint, but they certainly are learning to bring learning in powerful new ways.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Autotuning to Stardom

The Kansas City Star featured an article today discussing the wonders of Auto-Tune, the software that automatically corrects for pitch once you run a recorded voice through it. I first encountered Auto-Tune when I was teaching at Millikin over five years ago. In my 20th century music class, we were discussing the impact of computers and sequencers and software on modern composition when one of my students brought up Auto-Tune. He was majoring in music technology and ran Millikin's recording studio, so he always brought interesting perspectives to class. On this day, he began talking about how voices have changed since software like Auto-Tune first became available. The software, he argued, could be used to make most anyone sound good, a fact he demonstrated with the memorable phrase, "I could even make a fart sound like an F#."

Since that time, I've thought a lot about how so much of what we hear on recordings isn't the way a particular person sounds; even live recordings are mixed to add more reverb here and smooth out rough edges there. Except for Cher's Auto-Tuned voice in her hit "Believe," Auto-Tune is one of those programs that works in the background for people from Britney Spears to Faith Hill, working out those kinks. But the program isn't without its detractors (Death Cab for Cutie is currently running an anti-Auto-Tune campaign) and raises all sorts of interesting questions about music performance that are great to tease out in the classroom.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Star's report was that they put two singers to the test to see what Auto-Tune could do for them. Despite her last name, Anna Caruso had trouble hitting high notes, but Auto-Tune knocked her voice up almost half an octave, though you can tell at those moments she's been digitally altered. More interesting to me was Bill Sundahl, a music promoter who has better pitch control, but not much depth to his voice. Notice how much richer a sound he gets with Auto-Tune. His video shows the real and very subtle power of the program.

After watching the videos, I'm curious as to what everyone thinks about the program. Reactions?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Graphic Notation in the 21st Century

Since my undergraduate days when I was first introduced to George Crumb's Makrokosmos, I've been fascinated by graphic scores. If you don't know that piano work, in it Crumb famously notated every four piece graphically to represent the work's title. So the final piece, "Agnus Dei" is notated as a peace sign since the final line of the "Agnus Dei" in the Mass is "Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world, grant us peace."

From Crumb, I quickly branched out, and discovered two simple truths about notation that are glossed over if even discussed in most music curricula: First, that notation hampers musical development. Harry Partch encountered this frustration again and again as he tried to notate his justly tuned music. He noted in his treatise Genesis of a Music that "Our system of notation must be held partially responsible for the inelasticity of our present musical theory, and for the misdirection of many intonational ideas that have been proposed - it is so 'easy' for the notation of 'quartertones,' for example. But historically, in the establishment of current musical habits, there was little if any causal relation. Significant developments in notation, naturally enough, followed the development of musical artifices." Second, that notation has an impact on the ways in which music is composed and the way performers plays a piece of music. Morton Feldman noted that “The degree to which a music’s notation is responsible for much of the composition itself is one of history’s best-kept secrets.” Notation has a psychological impact on the ways in which we approach music, a fact even borne out in a recent study on creativity in grade schoolers in Australia.

Perhaps the book that most introduced me to notational practices of the past fifty years was John Cage's Notations, which featured graphic scores and traditional scores he collected from friends and colleagues to show the state of notation in 1969 (you can download all of Notations if you're interested). I came across the book through Partch, whom Cage approached about submitting a score. Cage's idea was simple - each composer got one page to show a score without any explanatory note and a section of their writings were included elsewhere in the book, all placements determined by the I Ching. The composers included were from a wide spectrum of approaches, from Boulez to Bernstein to the Beatles, and all were treated equally. Partch submitted Verse 12 from And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell on Petaluma and all was going well until Cage responded that wanted to use 43 letters in Partch's writing because of Partch's 43-tone scale. Partch rebelled against this pigeonholing, but his music was still included on page 208.

Imagine my joy when today I discovered today the website for Notations 21, an attempt to recreate Cage's book with scores from today. I've been spending moments between grading papers and tests digging through some of the fascinating scores already submitted. But therein lies the problem with this new collection - it is still small and the collector, Theresa Sauer, is dealing with an even more pluralistic composing society than Cage did and seems to lack the contacts Cage had in the composing world. So spread the word and see if more score samples can't be added. Think of the next generation of young minds that could be opened through this project.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Gospel According to Sam

Last night we were driving home and Sam noticed a sign that said "No Outlet" and immediately asked what it meant. Joy explained that it was like a Dead End sign because that street didn't connect to any others. Sam thought on this and proclaimed, "Jesus was dead." Then, showing that he was listening Easter Sunday morning, he followed his first proclamation with another: "And then he came back to life!" Then, not content to merely deal with the notion of a resurrected soul, he concluded, "And he had feet like me!"

Friday, May 1, 2009

New Listening Journals

Today is the last day of classes (hurrah!), and I finished my last lecture on Wednesday (super hurrah!). That doesn't mean I'm finished with grading (boo!), but it does mean that I have my most interesting papers to grade this weekend before the onslaught of tests next week for finals (yea!).

Many of those papers are my last round of listening journals, which were just posted this week for your reading pleasure. This is always the most interesting collection of listening journals because I give them a wide variety of music written since 1945 to explore. So I had students listen to late Schoenberg (many of them had performed Survivor from Warsaw last year and so wanted to revisit it), early Harry Partch, and even John Oswald's Plunderphonics, which he describes as "Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative." So take some time this weekend and see what my students have discovered. I think you'll find some fascinating sounds and thoughts.