Friday, April 20, 2018

still listening to this one.

Following up on my previous post, I actually did take the Bar Violin and tuned it from GDAE down to DDAD. Nothing magical happened, viz.
  1. It sounds crappy. No surprise there: a string's size and composition vary depending on what pitch you want it to sound good at (and what your instrument will tolerate without breaking).
  2. "Midnight On the Water" doesn't sound that much better (the low D in particular is just a drone), and I still can't play "Bonaparte's Retreat."
They can, though:

I can play backup on the slow one. It's a process.

Monday, April 9, 2018

frets are for chumps.

I'm still learning the violin! It's great. It's an absurd instrument, but as long as I'm willing to spend 10 minutes trying to get the same 6 notes right, gratification is near-instant. My teacher says that's the great thing about teaching adults: we understand that repetition is not exciting, but that's how you learn stuff.

(Years ago a guy taught a first-aid class at the dojo, and he had this defensive/defusing banter down about how we were all going to hate him by the end because of the repetition. I went up to him at the break and said, "I see why you need that elsewhere, but you should understand that you're teaching a roomful of people who have quite literally spent decades doing the same movements over and over, and we get it. You can relax a bit." Which he didn't, very much, but I tried.)

I have a 5-day work conference in San Diego in May, and I don't really want to go a week without playing, so I'll bring the violin along and hope the practice mute and the normal hotel soundproofing work well enough that I can practice without complaints.

I'm at the point in Volume 1 of the Suzuki Method where the music gets more interesting, because "It's by Bach, instead of Suzuki." In this case it's Minuet #1, and YouTube is full of people playing it who clearly had it under their belts quite some time ago, if you're interested. I just play it over and over, mostly in bits and pieces, doggedly trying again and again until I get it better.

My fingers have a memory of their own. I'll play a passage, make an identifiable new mistake, decide to fix it on the next run-through, only to have my fingers make the same mistake. This is where I hit a wall performing as a classical guitarist, not just that I didn't practice enough (which was certainly true) but that my fingers just...didn't do what I told them to do, and it was worse with performance nerves.

Some years back, Anna read or saw a story from someone with autism, who said that they would tell their body to do something, like "raise my right hand," and instead their body just came out with some randomized action. Anna asked J if he ever felt that way, and without looking up, said "Yeah. All the time."

So it happens that trying to play an actual instrument with fine motor control might be my only analogue to his physical experience. (I can definitely be sensorily overwhelmed, but not in quite the same way, and I can power through it if that's what's needed.)

Did I mention I actually went to physical therapy for my left thumb? My thumbs took some heavy hurting from aikido, and then I fell on my left hand a while back walking the dog, which didn't matter much until I tried keeping my left thumb from clamping onto the violin neck. One of many differences about the violin is that you are not using the left thumb to press on the neck to counteract the force of pushing your fingers down on the string. This is the opposite of the guitar, so I was trying to keep my thumb away from the neck, at the same time as these accumulated injuries pulled in the opposite direction, and then that really hurt. PT's been so helpful, I forgot to make more appointments.

I was doing some reading this weekend and learned that:
  • Aaron Copland's Rodeo was actually a ballet score;
  • he was kind of in a hurry, so "Hoe-Down" (known to earlier generations as "the music from 'Beef. It's What's For Dinner.'") is a pretty direct orchestration of a fiddle tune called "Bonaparte's Retreat";
  • actually, it's an orchestration of the 1941ish transcription of a single 1937 recording of one guy's way of playing a song he called "Bonaparte's Retreat."
  • (It kind of keeps going, but I'll spare you.)
I did eventually track down some sheet music for it, and it's...well beyond my level right now, even if I were willing to alter my violin tuning. For an exploration of the subject, I refer the reader to the Bluegrass Intelligencer article "Old-Time Music Permanently Revokes All Song Titles."

Sunday, April 8, 2018

at least we have high-quality weed.

[Seriously. I thought I smelled skunks a couple nights out walking the dog, then realized it was surely just the mighty marijuana available here, now even closer to legality than before.]

The Bay Area is headed for a painful inflection point, which I call the Low-Wage Apocalypse.

Go through a normal week's errands and far too many businesses have HELP WANTED signs on them. Restaurants, coffee shops, stores are all trying to hire people for $12-$16 an hour to be dishwashers, line cooks, register clerks, baristas. Rents have skyrocketed, and people who don't work in tech often just can't afford to live here any more, no matter how clever they get. According to Zillow, our house--which no one else wanted (and now we know why)--is worth 225% what we paid 5 years ago. Zillow's numbers trend high around here, and the house is nicer now, but not quite that much nicer. We did get it re-assessed for real a couple years back, and that assessment was a mere 158% of the purchase price.

Now see that rents have increased by at least that much, and it's a wonder more people haven't left yet.

We're getting wound up for a market correction, but I've never heard of this happening and it's not obvious to me what it looks like. I've only got two scenarios:

  1. Hourly wages rise to match housing prices.
  2. Non-housing prices (goods and services) rise to pay for the higher wages.
  3. Consumers (a) suck it up and pay $6 for a small coffee that the hourly-wage set still can't afford, or (b) consume less, which damages small businesses in the ways small businesses can be damaged.
  1. Something stops the fountain of money: either a hollowing-out of the tech industry, or a major earthquake.
  2. Prices tank precipitously.
Anna's in the middle of a few grand plans for the house and yards, partly for now, partly because J will probably be at home for some number of years regardless of how the Low-Wage Apocalypse plays out. Looks a little grim.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

the intellect returns.

I've had lots of good sleep recently, leading to all kinds of strange conditions, like not falling asleep during the day, and holding more context in my head at once. As Anna points out, these are not necessarily the first things I want to recover--most of me would prefer to be jogging or doing aikido again--but they're no less real for my stubborn ingratitude. She pointed out that I'm reading more books at once, on steadily more esoteric subjects: I've been chewing through all of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, which aren't challenging, only numerous (I think I've read about 20 out of 40something), but also Cixin Lu's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, and the surprisingly erudite-yet-accessible The Chinese Typewriter: A History. For truly boring books, I slogged through A Natural History of the Piano, and after many, many months, I finished Cuisine and Empire: Cooking In World History, which isn't terribly obscure, but does contain a lot of detail I didn't just want to skim past.

Looking at my lists, I think the number of books I can usefully rotate through, approximated by how many books I can return to and pick up the thread of the text, is going up, as well as how many of those books live in the world outside undergraduate syllabi.

Learning stuff is fun. Not for any particular reason, except what the Nobel-laureate physicist(/chauvinist/womanizing asshole) Richard Feynman called "the joy of finding things out." I doubt I'll ever find a use for the contents of Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (a history of many-worlds/universes theories from antiquity until now), but more to the point, I'm not sure why it should have to be useful in order to be interesting.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

better living through electronics

I'm reading the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy by Cixin Liu, translated from the Chinese. It's really good, on its own terms, but also in the same way Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon is good, which is that it's a non-Western example of a (largely) Western genre. Translation is a miserable set of tradeoffs, but the translators have written English that probably no native speaker would write, which combined with the Chinese names does keep it fresh.

I've been sick all week, starting right after I spent Thursday and Friday in the office last week. I mostly only go there when I have a new minion starting, and #10 started on Monday of last week. Monday is my big meeting day, so I pushed through that, then I was useless Tuesday and Wednesday, and Thursday I wore myself out with 90 minutes of hiring tasks.

As you might imagine, I handle the home IT tasks, which extends to the A/V gear. We've been running for a while on my Yamaha "PianoCraft" receiver that was already discontinued when I bought it in 2008. In addition to the companion DVD player dying (who plays DVDs any more?), it doesn't handle modern video cables (HDMI), and as is always the case with these kinds of setups, only the person who set it up can really remember that in order to use the PlayStation you have to set the receiver to TAPE/MD and use the HDMI Y-junction to select Input A, and the Windows gaming laptop is DVD/CD on the receiver and Input B on the HDMI. The speakers are nice enough, though.

I did the usual research on how to solve this problem, and the answer appears to be precisely the kind of Home Theater AVR (Audio/Video Receiver) that I've avoided as being too awkward and expensive, which was true until recently. They look like this:

Incredible as it seems, I have avoided them, as they are large, and used to be expensive. My late housemate J.D. bought one, a Harman-Kardon, and I'm not sure he ever got the full value from it. They're better now in pretty much every way, and the base models start at $180: not too shabby for something that will stay mostly up-to-date for a decade.

This being the Bay Area, people are always selling this caliber of stuff, so after some painstaking research to count HDMI ports and try to understand what I'd be able to do with it, I picked up an older sibling of the Denon shown above, for $75 from a very nice Irishman who moved into a smaller place. Maybe his new place was too small for 5.1 Surround Sound? Dunno.

The digital music devices I use, the now-Logitech Squeezeboxes, were originally made by/for audiophiles, so they have a digital optical output I've never used. But behold! a few minutes with the on-screen menu, and I've reassigned the OPT port to the DOCK source, rename DOCK to "Squeezebox" (because changing the name is a thing you can do), and it's done! BD (Blu-ray Disc) becomes "PS3," DVD becomes "Laptop," and then that's it. If we ever get the yen for more speakers, there's 3 more speaker outputs, and an automatic setup function using the included calibrating microphone, although I don't remember where it is.

In other respects, it's been an extraordinarily messy few weeks. But the stereo is easy to use now!

We do what we can.

Monday, February 26, 2018


At work we have a #talk-food chat channel, and several people evangelize the Instant Pot™, a many-functioned electric device which does:
  • Sauté
  • Slow Cook
  • Pressure Cook
  • Rice Cook
  • Steam
  • Yogurt(!)
(They say "7-in-1," but they may somehow be counting the various pressure and temperature levels. The models bigger than 3 quarts have a few more complex automated programs.)

Being as the small one is $80, I hadn't planned to get one; but the cute little one-button rice cooker I bought off a friend has a peeling nonstick coating, and burns a bottom layer of the morning quinoa. Anna wanted a rice cooker with a stainless steel insert, and at that point you're looking at programmable rice cookers in the $80 range anyway.

Apparently pressure cookers have been an Indian family favorite for decades, though I'm not sure how I only just learned that. Much Instant Pot™ evangelism starts with someone making a Butter Chicken just like their mother or grandmother. I tried a pressure cooker on the sailboat, where cruisers like it for its reduced fuel usage, but it was mysterious and awkward. You had to watch it, wait for it to reach pressure and tell you so via the rattling of Widget #1, turn the heat off after some number of minutes, then when Widget #2 un-clicks or something, then leave it alone for another number of minutes, then vent it. I knew at least a little about cooking by then, but--setting aside the constant monitoring--how did you know how long to apply which phase? How could you adapt random recipes?

The Instant Pot™ uses a tiny computer to handle most of this nonsense for you, and furthermore it appears that once said nonsense is taken out of your hands, pressure cooking is pretty forgiving. Anna has made a fantastic beef stew a couple times (taking maybe 1-2 hours instead of 6 or 7) and gave it her highest accolade: "I can get rid of my Crock-Pot now."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

another addition to the household.

We had a remarkably un--relaxing day, starting with a trip to Urgent Care--I swear one of us is in there every 3 weeks lately--for a doctor to get a painful speck of something out of Anna's eye. (She's fine.) Then we had an appointment to buy a car, because one day the station wagon didn't start, thus calling attention to the frayed seat belts and other signs of wear and tear. So we bought a car.

I buy cars so rarely that I forget how many hours it takes, even without financing. I'm pretty sure even buying the house didn't involve 4 hours of sitting around.

The newest member of the family is a 2016 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT, named "Appa." He looks like this:
We did the test drive yesterday, and today we were just going to check out the fancier version (the R/T) to see if it was worthwhile. It's possible we could have tolerated the red-stitching-on-black-leather upholstery, but the deal-killer was that the leather meant the middle seats have a sizeable hard bump going right into the base of your neck. On the SXT's cloth seats, the bump is soft, so you don't notice it. The R/T also has a bunch of storage compartments running down the center, which lower the roof by an inch or two: clearly a downside with a child who's likely to top 6'2" before he graduates high school.

On reflection, the only thing we really liked about the R/T was the upgraded center console with the Bluetooth integration and digital temperature display, and that's usually the sort of thing added for less money than the R/T would have cost. Even if we can't get the OEM console installed, the Bay Area has a healthy culture of car modification, so there are a few dozen places to call about upgrades.

Hilariously, I learned to drive on a Dodge Grand Caravan. The family had gotten an original (not-Grand) Caravan, but my parents insisted on a manual transmission, back when that was both possible and not quite unreasonable: automatic transmissions were sold as a feature, but were often real shit-piles to drive. Of course, the manual only came on a V-4, which could have been okay if you weren't hauling stuff, but then why are you buying a minivan? And we were hauling stuff. Three boys, our friends, skis, bicycles, you name it, until our annual trip to Cape Cod saw this gasping little engine towing a 17-foot sailboat (probably pushing 1,200 pounds with the trailer) and everyone's bicycles at once, plus clothes and kitchen equipment, everything you needed to bring three children to the beach for three weeks, back in the days when books were paper and computers were large and expensive.

It sort of worked. Usually with the A/C turned off.

I don't remember if the Caravan died or just became intolerable, but the family's next car was...a Grand Caravan! with the coveted V-6, and the begrudged automatic transmission. That was what I drove, when I drove, and I was pretty good at it (as much as an 18-year old can be). I knew where its sides and corners were, what it would or wouldn't do.

The 2016 model drives exactly the same as I remember. Stronger engine, modern automatic transmission that doesn't suck, better tires and suspension etc., but fundamentally the same size with the same brick-on-wheels shape. You can lay flat a stack of 4'x8' sheets of plywood. You can carry 5 large teenagers and their swimming gear. You can tow 3,600 pounds (handy, since a trailer is how you'd take 5 large teenagers camping). Other features, besides the remarkably ugly front grille:

  • The seats have this Super Stow 'N Go™ system, where there's 12 cubic feet of storage under the floor, which is also where the seats fold into, creating the 160 cubic feet for  plywood-stacking.
    • I grew up helping to reconfigure minivan interiors by unlocking the seats and maneuvering them out the single sliding door, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds. (If you think about where you would store 2 bench seats when not in use, you'll probably find fewer than you were thinking.)
  • En route to folding into the floor, the rear bench seat flips over to provide seats facing out the (presumably open at that point) tailgate.
  • Not only is there a sliding door on both sides, they and the tailgate are motorized, openable from the keyfob, and you are specifically enjoined from opening or closing them by hand.
    • By extension, I assume this doesn't have the "shit, we parked facing uphill and now it's hard to close the sliding door" problem.
    • With less confidence, I assume there's some kind of safety mechanism to prevent the robotic doors from closing on people.
  • It has a kind of "Eco" button which claims to extract higher gas mileage in exchange for reduced performance.
  • The roof rack, which sucks up a few mpg on the current car, has tool-free (dis)assembly into slots in the roof.
Since Appa is replacing a 25-year old Corolla wagon ("Molly"), we had several years to research replacements. I was surprised to find that most SUVs won't hold as much total cargo+people as a minivan, and many SUV towing capacities are pretty weak. We were less surprised to find that our desires to travel SUV-required roads are transient enough that we can just rent one as needed.

Here's to never again cracking my head against the Toyota's anemic tailgate that doesn't raise up the final few inches unless you push it. Thanks for the years and years of service, Molly.