Monday, March 11, 2019

squiggly-style (a technical term).

I decided to buy a mandolin. My octave mandolin has been really useful for learning fiddle tunes, as I can experiment and play with understanding the melody without having to deal with the dozen other things I have to do right on the fiddle to produce a tolerable sound. The octave mandolin is huge, though, about the same scale length (vibrating length of string, from the nut down to the bridge) as my guitar (648mm or so), compared to the violin's 327mm. My new mandolin is probably typical at just over 352mm, so the notes (and hence the fingerings) are much closer. My first violin teacher told me the fingerings were the same, but it was a while before I realized she meant it literally, in terms of where you actually put your fingers.

(Big Muddy Mandolins will make you a mandolin in violin scale, so if you're a good enough violinist I guess you can play like this. I can play my Suzuki violin pieces easily enough.)

Mandolins come in a handful of shapes, and unlike the violin, which has barely changed in the past 400 years, the story of the instrument itself is a fun romp through musical history. They started out in the bowlback mini-lute form, which is what composers like Vivaldi wrote concerti for. Eventually people experimented with carved tops and backs like the violin/viol families have; F-holes instead of open (round, oval, whatever) soundholes; flat tops and backs; and all kinds of variations and mashups. Instruments vary so widely among components, wood quality, and simple luthier skill, that it can be tricky to generalize, but maybe the best you can do is this guy who plays the same music on mandolins from the three major categories:


The rules of thumb, including some visiting music stores and playing a bunch:

  • A bowlback is not at all what I want.
  • Flat-topped mandolins are often full and boomy with lots of sustain, like my octave mandolin. This can leave melody lines a little muddy.
  • Open soundholes tend to cut through less than F-holes.
  • The F-style ("Florentine," ironically unrelated to whether it has F-shaped soundholes), which I call "the kind with all the squiggly bits" for the sake of conversation, is considerably more expensive (30-50% more for the one I bought) than its teardrop-shaped A-style siblings, because the squiggly bits take a lot more work to make.
  • The F-style can sound a bit different, but nowhere near 30% different.
  • You may need an F-style if you want to be taken seriously as a professional bluegrass musician, just for appearances.
  • Internet prices are the same as shop prices.

After I did all the reading, I kept an eye on Craigslist, and went to the neighborhood music shop, where Anna's ukuleles came from. They had two (2) mandolins, which were educational, but not nice. It turns out that while I am not a good enough violinist to distinguish between a half dozen violins at a given price point, I first picked up a guitar decades ago, and fretted instruments are absolutely something I know about. And I'm good enough at them to be pretty picky about how they sound and play, especially the neck shape, which you just can't feel until you get your hands on it.

Next stop was the world-class--literally, they have an international reputation--Gryphon Stringed Instruments. They escalate pretty quickly into the multi-thousand dollar price range, but they do have a handful of lesser models, including some Eastman mandolins. I liked how they played, but the MD304 (oval soundhole) was a little quiet, and the MD315 (squiggly-style) was $220 more, and...really, I'd rather that money be spent on nicer wood. Gryphon didn't have the MD305 (A-style, F-hole), and didn't know when they'd get them, owing to trade disruptions with China. Elderly, a Midwest shop that does a big mail-order business, also doesn't have them, so who knows.

I remembered that Santa Cruz has some good music stores, so I carefully called ahead to Sylvan Music and determined that they had enough of a selection to make it worth the hour-long drive. They actually had even more than I thought, a whole row of sub-$1200 instruments, so after dismissing the cheap ones, I spent an hour playing up and down the handful of Eastmans, including the MD515 (squiggly) and MD505 (non-squiggly). The winner was the MD505, and they had a variant the Internet hadn't told me about, the MD505-N/CC. This not only had the "vintage" finish I liked--avoiding the sunburst finishes which trend pretty garish on even the nicest mandolins--but they skipped the white "binding" to round the edges and make it more comfortable to play, and which makes it look even more understated.

It's an absolutely lovely instrument, a perfect example of how instrument quality has increased over the past 40 years even as prices have decreased (in real terms). Even 20 years ago I don't think you could have gotten this good a deal. Globalization certainly has its share of discontents, but I can't regret how accessible it's made genuinely good musical instruments.

This one should last me a long, long time.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

they never had such a supper in their life.

I've been listening to this on repeat, so I share it with you.


The singer is the astonishing performer Chris Thile, who Garrison Keillor chose to take over the older-than-me radio show A Prairie Home Companion. Besides being several generations younger, Thile is a fantastic musician--arguably the world's best mandolin player--with a wide-ranging love of music in all its genres, neither of which describes Keillor. My parents love the show, so I grew up listening to it on most weekends, so I'm confident saying that Keillor's show never meaningfully changed over the decades.

(Minnesota Public Radio fired him with a vague explanation, but on investigation, it turned out he's a predatory harasser like so many men in charge. Keillor owns the trademark on "A Prairie Home Companion," and it appears Thile was diplomatically happy to suddenly change the show's name. And what an amazing change. One musical guest recently played a rocking-out techno-infused song, at the end of which Thile shouted, "Take that, public radio!". You can feel the joy.)

"The Fox" is not a complicated song: with a capo, you can use the G, C, and D chord shapes on the guitar, mainstays that are probably the first three chords anyone learns on the instrument. So I learned them over 35 years ago. I took lessons. I'm not a great player, but strumming basic chords is a thing I can do pretty fast, in complicated ways. I can't play it at speed, neither on the guitar nor on the octave mandolin. It's harder than it sounds like it should be.

I'm glad they can play it, though, so I get to listen to it.

Friday, February 15, 2019

De har flera elefanter.

"They have several elephants" is not an obviously useful sentence for Sweden, though it is chock-full of delicious cognates. Lest anyone say the Scandinavian cultures are too hard to tell apart, friends using Duolingo for Norwegian say it gives them sentences like "I am drinking on the floor," which I think we can all agree is in every way less appealing than "She has a bear." It certainly suits the flavor of Norwegian I'm descended from, though.

After years of Spanish, an occasional dalliance with French, and shaking my head from afar at German's die/das/der, I am really appreciating Swedish's lack of linguistic "gender." At some point--I gather pretty recently, as these things go--condensed from having a masculine/feminine/neuter like German, into just having the indefinite articles ("a/an" in English) ett and en: ett äpple, en elefant. That dictates how you form definites ("the"): äpplet, elefanten. And the word "it": det, den. (I don't know which "it" you use when you don't already know what the object is, but I'm sure it's something.)

However it got there, det is actually pronounced sort of like "day," but of course that's the natural pronunciation of de. So instead, de is pronounced..."domm."

Maybe "m" wasn't pulling its weight and they had to give it some extra work to do.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

everyone has their story.

I've spent an abnormal amount of time at the Apple Store this past six weeks or so, dealing with both my personal and work laptops. The personal machine needed a new battery, which in modern MacBooks is a single piece with the keyboard and trackpad; this was actually pretty awesome because four years of constant use left both the keyboard and trackpad pretty beat up. The work laptop is limping along, and I can use it, but I've warned IT I will probably end up begging them for a less haunted machine.

The guy who helped me with the haunted work laptop, though. Nice guy, in his 20s, who besides working at the Apple Store, is not just in a band, he's a drummer, and has done some sound engineering.

(I'm sometimes not good at not having conversations, and I opened this up by being startled when the idiots running the sound system dropped the microphone a few times with the volume about double what it should have been, in a space that is fundamentally a 2-story tall empty concrete box. I mentioned compressors and limiters and we were off to the races.)

He loves model trains, and he's far and away the youngest officer of his model train club (association? I don't remember) in many, many decades.

He makes and sells various train parts, using a 3-D printer. He'd like to build a business around it, but needs to buy injection molds, which are expensive.

His uncle knows a Japanese angel investor who loves model trains, and might be excited to provide the capital. If I were that investor, I would be very, very happy for the all-too-rare opportunities to kickstart model-train-related startups.

I live in a very strange place.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

sköldpaddan dricker vatten.

I'm having fun with Swedish. Our next-door neighbors are a very nice Danish couple, so I decided to check out Danish on Duolingo as well. (I was about to write "as a lark," but that sort of represents everything I do with my spare time.) There's a certain level of mutual intelligibility among Swedish/Danish/Norwegian, so I thought I'd see for myself. It's interesting, of course: the words for "man" and "woman" are cognate (man/mand and kvinna/kvinde), but "boy" and "girl" are not (pojke/dreng and flicka/pigin).

(I had to stop both Danish and Norwegian: all the words are too close together for me to keep track, and I also don't trust Duolingo's pronunciation across the three.)

I bestirred myself to actually look up Swedish's indefinite articles (translated as English "a/an"), en and ett. One Swedish teacher writes that there used to be three, formerly labeled masculine/feminine/neuter, but then they simplified and now about 75% of things are en, and the remainder ett. These come in handy for forming the definite article form ("the"), so ett äpple becomes äpplet, and en björn becomes björnen.

The rules get more complicated with plurals and then definite plurals, depending on the final vowel (or occasionally consonant?) in the word. Duolingo doesn't help with this: it's fun, but it's best not to confuse it with learning a language, exactly, since it neither focuses on useful phrases, nor explains rules nor grammar. I mean, do I know more Swedish now than I ever expected to? Sure, and I love learning stuff. But, Duolingo clearly has algorithms driving much of its learning, and may have topped its previous best sentence:

Hon har en älg. / "She has a moose."
With a new contender:
Björnen tycker om vegetarianen. / "The bear likes the vegetarian."
Though once I get off the plane in Stockholm, I will definitely look for a chance to use either of those.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

books books books

I came in just shy of finishing 100 books in 2018. It wasn't a goal, but I was surprised how much I did read, and some of it took a while, like The Tide, A Perfect Red, and perhaps the longest-running, "great for small increments at bedtime," Cuisine and Empire: Cooking In World History. So far, nothing compares to Moby-Dick for great literature to put me to sleep. (Robinson Crusoe might, but I couldn't get past the first couple paragraphs. Maybe 2019 sees me trying again.)

I started in on audiobooks a bit, for the times when I can't focus my eyes, or I'm doing something else (driving, dog-walking) and need something different than podcasts. The clear winners here were The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft, and various Conan the Barbarian writings by Robert E. Howard. Lovecraft, for all his reputation of writing in the vein of "O, but it is so cosmically horrible I cannot describe it," actually goes ahead and describes it, quite well. The Conan works are also pleasantly surprising, and once you adjust for the era and medium--he was writing in the 30s for pulps like Weird Tales and Oriental Stories, not angling for a Pulitzer--it's easy to see where Howard's avowed feminism shows up. I'm also revisiting Christopher Moore's work as audiobooks, starting with Practical Demonkeeping.

Reading in 2018 was a path for growth, but also an escape from anxiety, and work, and work-provoked anxiety. I've got a lot of stuff to do this year, internally and externally. We'll see what happens.

Monday, December 24, 2018

as one does.

It's Christmas Eve, so naturally we spent it, variously:

  • Working at REI.
  • Taking the dog to the groomer.
  • Retrieving the dog from the groomer.
  • Playing Cthulhu Wars.
  • Bringing the home network back after a power blip.
  • Making and eating empanadas.
  • Watching Moana (or a big chunk of it).
This sounds much smoother than it was, since the boy was pretty broken today, lots of moods and crabbiness and melodrama. It's been a rough school year for him, with a pretty much non-stop headache of varying intensity and migraine-ness; though he may also just have been hungry.

The power blip was weird. It was in that sweet spot where it was long enough to make equipment stop working, but not quite long enough for it to power down all the way, leaving it in some weird half-on state. A couple years ago I got fed up enough to put some money into Ubiquiti UniFi gear for the house--a good investment considering we use the Internet more or less every waking hour--and its display showed one of the wireless access points (WAP or AP) as disconnected, which was weird since it was on. I power-cycled it, but noticed some other wireless devices still weren't working. It turned out I had to power-cycle the network switch first, then the AP. The switch's only active data is a Major Arcanum called the Address Resolution Protocol, which mostly Just Works™, but if it's corrupted somehow, nothing works, and it will not-work in irritating, obscure ways.

J was being a jerk while I was trying to fix it, but I was reflecting later how impossible it is for him to fathom the gap between his technical knowledge and mine. Some of it is the decades of experience; some of it is that biodad is more likely to get angry at things than learn how to fix them. It's just that there's no catalog of the stuff I know, and if there were, it would be SO, SO BORING. So why shouldn't he say "have you tried turning the Chromebook off and on again?" while I'm telling him the Chromebook and Chromecast need to be on the same wireless network? The Chromecast says "maybe your wireless router is messed up! maybe you should power-cycle it?" and it was more than he could do just then to listen when I said I did that already.

Work is closed until January 3rd, so I decided to spend some of the time learning more fiddle tunes, feeling like I can learn them now without making my technique too much worse. It's a lot of Irish/Scottish/(bluegrass/old-time/Canadian) tunes, which all sound very similar and take a lot of repetition to differentiate, though it's easier to remember them when learning them to play them:
  • Whiskey Before Breakfast
  • The Red-Haired Boy
  • Drowsy Maggie (not sure yet if I'm up to this one)
  • The Humours of Glendart
  • The Kid On The Mountain
  • Polska efter Pelle Fors (which I couldn't play 3 months ago! go, me!)
Scandinavian music is (a) harder, and (b) mostly named descriptive things like "Wedding Polska" and it's just hard to get a handle on. As regards (a), my favorite is a Swedish fiddler saying "Yes, that dance is in 3/4, but the second beat comes faster."

The dog is really soft now, though.