Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chef Vinny

Vinny loves to cook, as I've told you before. As he gets more and more mature, he's able to do more and more complicated things. On Monday, we made some apricot sauce in preparation for Thanksgiving. This consists of stewing dried apricots in water for several hours. At first I had him help me by cutting the apricots with kitchen scissors. He held the scissors and cut while I put the dried apricots into the path of the scissors blades. But he lost interest in this task rather quickly because he had trouble operating the scissors. So instead he just stirred the apricots in the water as the pieces dropped from my scissors. He seemed to really enjoy doing that. Then, as the apricots stewed, I let him stir them (with quite a bit of supervision) on the hot burner.

Tonight he also helped me make some cranberry sauce. He remembered making cranberry sauce last year too. He absolutely insisted on stirring it, so I let him stir it while I held the pot handle with my left hand and held him back with my right. He was really fascinated as the cranberries popped and the sugar water became redder and redder and finally thickened.

Tomorrow, we'll make some rolls. Hopefully this won't turn out like it did last year, but worse things have happened I suppose.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Conference Woes

So, Jeff had come down with something really nasty last Monday night, and was incapacitated Tuesday, and barely functional Wednesday. I had hoped to avoid it, but no such luck.

Even my constitution of steel (if I were a D&D character, I'd have a score of 18) was no match for this virus. I woke up early Thursday morning to the most painful sore throat in the history of the universe. Then, as the day progressed, I felt worse and worse until by Thursday afternoon I had a fever of 101.5 F. In addition, the sore throat had been replaced by horrible head and bronchial congestion. I went back to the hotel and skipped the Thursday evening event entirely. I didn't sleep well at all and missed Friday altogether. Luckily nothing much was going on at the conference and Jeff just went in and moved a couple of signs for me.

I suddenly realized that I would have to travel the next day, which in my state, did not seem like a good idea. So I called my dad and bonus mom and asked for their advice. Their advice: seek medical treatment (oh yeah, what a great idea!), so I called the hotel's front desk and asked if they could tell me the location of the nearest urgent treatment center. Instead they suggested that they could call the house doctor for me. He could come and look at me in my hotel room. Sold!

So, I got my first-ever doctor housecall, which was mighty convenient, let me tell you, although not particularly cheap ($150). A wet dishrag had more going for it than I did at that point. The doctor told me that I did not have the flu (I was missing a few of the symptoms associated with the actual influenza virus), but I had some kind of virus and an ear infection. He wrote me some prescriptions for antibiotics and pseudoephedrine (in Oregon it is available by prescription only!) and my wonderful husband went and got them filled for me. The doctor said I'd probably be okay to travel the next morning, but to wear a mask so as to minimize transmission of the virus.

He was right. The fever broke that night and I was actually able to get some sleep before our 6:30 am flight. I wore the mask, and got some dirty looks from other passengers despite the fact that I was the passenger least likely to spread disease thanks to the mask. The descents before landing were fairly painful on my ears but I chewed a lot of gum in a semi-successful attempt to reduce the pressure in my ears.

Dad brought Vinny to the airport to pick us up. He was really happy to see us, and simultaneously intrigued and confused by the mask. He had grown that week, both in size and cognitive ability. His sentences are getting longer and longer and more complicated in meaning. I know he had a great time with his grandparents and I am very grateful to them for generously agreeing to take care of him for nearly 10 days!

We spent the night at Dad and Marvis' house before heading home the next day. I was still sick enough that I stayed home from work yesterday but went in today. The people at work were happy to see me until they heard my horrible cough. But I did what I could to avoid coughing on them and just get some work done.

It's great to be back home. Getting sick far from home is No Fun. I plan to use the four-day weekend to recover, especially so that I can go on my next trip the week after next -- back up to the QC to see and help take care of my sister, her better half, and my soon-to-be nephew, who will be born on or before December 3! I'm taking a week off work so that I can help them adjust to life with a newborn. I'm really honored that they asked me to come up and help them make that transition, and I hope I will be able to help out in a big way.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oh, Hi. How Are You?

Yes, I do have a blog. It's not just a dream.

I've been so busy since leaving for this conference that I've literally had no time to sit down and entertain my vast blogging audience until now.

The conference is going well. The signage is getting put out in a timely manner. We had more signs waiting for us in the signage office than I had anticipated we would. I don't anticipate ordering any additional signs the rest of the week.

I got to see the ever-wonderful ScienceGirl, whom I will hopefully see again while I'm here, as well as my summer student, another summer student who worked in our department, and various students from the summer HPC courses that I've taught over the years. I also saw a lot of friends and colleagues who I basically see only at this conference once a year.

Jeff has been a tremendous help with handling all the signs, which I realized but was fully underscored to me yesterday, when he was under the weather and I had to handle everything myself. I am so glad I talked him into coming with me, even if he wasn't able to help out yesterday.

The loot from the showroom floor is not as shiny, sparkly, or plentiful as it was last year. This is unfortunate for the sake of the three-year-old recipient of the loot that we collect. But, I was able to score a propeller beanie, which I know he will love (since, after all, the propeller goes round and round). It's also harder to score vendor party tickets, although I admit that because of all my signage responsibilities I'm not actively looking for them this year.

We were able to call Grandma and Grandpa and Vinny once, when we had a brief respite, and Vinny was doing well. He was watching a TV show about whales at the time we called. I have to admit, I am almost too busy to think about how much I miss him.

Tomorrow night is the conference social event, and then on Friday night is the wrap-up celebration. It's been fun, but I must admit that I'm looking forward to going home (well, at least back to the right time zone) on Saturday. It will be good to see Vinny again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Grandpa Vinny

Me: Vinny, who are we going to see tomorrow?
Vinny: Grandma Marvis and Grandpa!!
Me: That's right -- Grandma Marvis and Grandpa John!
Vinny: Who's Grandpa John?
Me: You know, Grandpa! His name is John. Like Vinny. In fact, when you're really old, someday, you'll be Grandpa Vinny!
Vinny: Grandpa Vinny?!?! Hahahahahaha!!!!!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Music I Like: Mille Regretz by Josquin Des Prez

Josquin Des Prez was a composer from the late 1400s/early 1500s, who is often referred to as "The Beethoven of the Renaissance." This is because Josquin was not only prolific but also had a great influence on the way that music evolved. Josquin is my favorite Renaissance composer, and I plan to share another piece by him in this series at some point.

His most famous composition is "Mille Regretz" -- the lament of one thousand regrets at abandoning one's beloved. It was a popular tune at the time -- you can tell because many people used it in writing church masses, which was the thing to do with popular music at the time. Listen to this recording by the King's Singers:

I chose this recording because it is the most beautiful interpretation of Mille Regretz that I have ever heard. Every time I hear it, I feel those thousand regrets. I love both the melody and the harmony. The rise and fall of the melody evoke the same emotional turmoil as the words do.

The King's Singers have modernized it somewhat -- the dynamics, such as the big crescendo at 0:42 (Jay si grand dueil...), and the phrasing, such as the short pause at 1:25 and the rallentando (slowing down) of the last phrases are additions by the King's Singers. But I really think this goes to show how timeless this piece of music is -- it's still accessible 500 years after it was composed. Josquin was a masterful composer.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Travel Plans

It's that time of year again -- conference time! Once again I am in charge of signage at this conference with 10,000+ attendees. And once again Jeff is going to go along with me. And once again we're leaving Vinny with Grandpa and Grandma for over a week. I think he's going to have a blast. Or at least I hope so.

This year we'll be in Portland, Oregon. We'll head to my dad and bonus mom's place on Wednesday, and Jeff and I fly out early Thursday morning. We'll come back the following Saturday.

Did I mention that next year, I'm just going to attend the conference? Because I am. Remind me of that before I go and volunteer for another job.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Friday, November 06, 2009

Music I Like: Pachelbel's Canon (Sort of)

So, I've been ragging on Pachelbel's Canon all week. And in fact, I do hate Pachelbel's Canon. I'm lucky to now be in my mid-30's, and therefore beyond the age when my friends are having church weddings, so I'm not often forced to endure another performance of that dreadful piece of music.

But, truthfully, there are some really cool things about Pachelbel's Canon. Okay actually, there's only one cool thing about Pachelbel's Canon, and that's its chord progression. The cool thing is that it's a harmonization of a descending major scale. In other words, if you start on the right note, and sing a major scale downward for an octave (i.e., the D two octaves above middle C down to the D just above middle C), your pitches are harmonized by Pachelbel's Canon.

If you listen to the radio, it's just a matter of time before you hear a song that follows the same chord progression as Pachelbel's Canon. In fact, serendipitously, I heard one just last night as I was composing this post in my head! It's Don't Pull Your Love Out on Me, Baby, which was sung by Elvis (both on the radio last night and in the link). Other songs you may have heard that follow this chord progression (with slight variations) include "A Lighter Shade of Pale" and "When a Man Loves a Woman."

But my favorite song that follows this chord progression is one that you've undoubtedly heard but never realized that it was so similar to Pachelbel's Canon. In part this is because this piece descends a minor scale rather than a major scale. (Okay, maybe it's also because you never suspected that Pachelbel's Canon was so pervasive!)

The song I'm talking about is Hotel California.

If you transposed Pachelbel's Canon into a minor key, you could harmonize the verses in Hotel California with it. (The chorus is different.) Try singing the transposed-to-minor cello part along with the Eagles in this video:

I picked the above video because it's the Eagles performing Hotel California live, and I enjoyed watching them have such a great time playing. Listen to their somewhat improvisational introduction, and see when you can recognize that it's Hotel California. Admittedly, knowing the title of the video put me at an advantage, but I recognized it long before the audience caught on.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Music I like: Beethoven's 5th Symphony

I picked Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to share first because everybody knows the first movement. Yes, the first movement is waaay overplayed, but I like it because, well, there's not much music that can stand up to being that overplayed and still be so compelling that I regularly listen to it of my own volition. So hats off to Ludwig van Beethoven for composing such an excellent piece!

What do I like about it? Well, it's not the melody, I can promise you that. I mean, "be-be-be-baaah"... what kind of a melody is that? Not a good one.

In fact, something I really love about Beethoven is that he can take these crappy, almost non-melodies, and just do something amazing with them!

In each movement of a symphony, there's a primary theme and a secondary theme. Here, the primary theme is what opens the movement, and the secondary theme begins at about the 0:49 mark. I've already dissed the primary theme, but to its credit, the secondary theme is a little more melodious. What is Beethoven going to do with these two themes?

He modulates them, changes keys and modes, and generally mixes each one up. At 2:55, the primary theme appears again, this time changed to a slightly different interval. And the secondary theme pops up again too. But the thing he does to combine them is what keeps me coming back for another listen.

At 5:12, he uses the primary theme as a fanfare introduction to the reprise of the secondary theme. He modulates the second theme from C major through a minor key, and beginning at about 5:32 the cellos and basses start playing in the rhythm of the primary theme. And gradually, the second theme takes on more and more characteristics of the primary theme until before we know it, we're back to the primary theme!

I actually like the third and fourth movements of this symphony the best (although I like my scherzo and allegro substantially slower than the videos I've linked to). When I listen to the fourth movement, I feel like I could do anything -- it's just so triumphant and powerful! I love the reprise of the C-minor scherzo theme in the middle of it (at roughly 5:20) -- it's like you have this triumphant feeling, then you see this potential problem, but you know you can overcome it and end on a positive note -- 29 bars of fortissimo C-major chords, to be exact. There's no better ending than that!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Music and Performers

My sister Rachel, in an effort to ruin my life, comments on my previous post:
Seeing the word "composer" there toward the end has me wondering: do you ever like a piece of music because of the performer, more than the composer? People who are really into opera, for example, are often quite picky about which performers they want to hear interpret which pieces. Vivaldi's 4 Seasons is pretty blah to me UNLESS it's Perlman playing it (that's the one we grew up with, I guess, and I prefer his interpretation).

When you get into popular music, the question becomes even more difficult to untangle, I guess. You get people performing their own music, covering each other's music, performing music by professional songwriters, performing traditional songs. There's much more scope for individual interpretation there, and again, a song that may be so-so may get a lift from someone else's touch (or may not - I can't think of a single Beatles cover I like better than the original).

A long way toward saying: sometimes it's not the music that's most awesome, it's the performance.
Sure, a performer can make or break a piece of music, I'll grant you that. Perlman playing a piece is going to sound a lot better than me playing it, because even assuming that it's within my skill level, his interpretation is going to be more nuanced and his execution is going to be better.

There are plenty of cases where the individual(s) performing the piece completely ruins it. For example, I abhor Rod Stewart because his voice makes me want to forcibly remove my eardrums. The Mommas and the Papas have some pretty good songs, but when I listen to their poor intonation I want to reach through the radio and change the record to something else.

Likewise, a good performer can make anything sound good. If I had to listen to Pachelbel's Canon, I'd want to hear it played by somebody good like Perlman, because it would be the best Pachelbel's Canon that it could be.

An example of the cover being better than the original would have to be anything by Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is proof positive that the American Dream is true -- anyone, if they work hard enough, can succeed. Because, lemme tell you, I don't know how else he got to be such a well-known performer. His voice is just miserable -- an unpleasant tone, poor intonation -- he's just terrible! But, he writes really good songs, and for example, Joan Baez singing "Blowing in the Wind" is great (and a huge improvement over him singing it!). Simon and Garfunkel also did a cover of "The Times Are A-Changin" which was far superior to the original.

I could hear the song immediately, but it took me another 20 minutes to remember enough of the lyrics to reconstruct that last title, which brings me to another point that I should have made in yesterday's post: I mostly ignore song lyrics.

It is profoundly difficult for me to remember the lyrics to a song. I'm lucky to remember how to sing the alphabet song with Vinny -- it almost seems like the only reason I can remember it is because I know the alphabet. I enjoy singing to him every night, but I have an extremely limited repertoire of "real" songs that I can sing, because while I know thousands of tunes, I cannot for the life of me remember more than a dozen lyrics. It's kind of embarrassing to admit to this.

To me, the voice is just another instrument. This explains why it's easy for an atheist such as myself can listen to so much medieval and Renaissance music,* which was really centered on Jesus. And why I enjoyed playing gospel music during my workplace's annual black history celebrations. The lyrics hardly register.

That being said, there are some songs with lyrics that have made their way past my incomprehension, which I cannot bear to hear. Those songs include "Hard-Headed Woman" (Elvis' tribute to misogyny), "Under My Thumb" (The Rolling Stones' foray into controlling abuse), and this certain song by some asshole from the 60's in which the lyrics make him sound like a creepy pedophile. And for that last one, since all his songs sound alike, any time he's on the radio I have to change the damn station, because I get the dry heaves every time I hear his voice.

Anyhow, now that I have all that out of the way, next time I promise to actually talk about a piece of music that I like.

* Yeah, it's mostly in Latin, but it's simple enough to translate.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Tuneful Tuesday

Before I really get started on specific pieces of music that I like, let me give you an idea of the characteristics I like in music.
  • I like a good melody, which is not to say that it has to be catchy. Catchy tunes are good, but sometimes, they can get a little too catchy and become an earworm, which will make me mad. I like to be able to hear a tune in my head by choice, not necessity.
  • The basic I-IV-V chord sequence, over and over, will make me mad and want to smash things. I like more interesting chord progressions. One of my favorite things is to hear an alternate chord being played, like when I expect a IV but I hear a vi, that makes me happy.
  • I like music that combines two seemingly unrelated melodies into something really interesting. There are a lot of good pieces of music of many different genres that do this.
  • I like music with an interesting texture, meaning I'm not a fan of simple homophony -- music where one instrument always plays the melody, and the others always play the harmony. I like it when the melody is passed from one instrument to another, and when it's not even completely clear what the melody is (such as in the previous bullet).
  • I like an interesting rhythm, but since I'm more of a classical musician, this is not strictly necessary.
  • Actually, none of these are deal-breaking requirements. Some of my favorite pieces of music have crappy melodies, use simple chord progressions, or are homophonic. It's what the composer does with it that makes or breaks a piece of music.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Musical Monday

Something I realized last night was that I have not spent much time on this blog talking about music. I thought I might remedy that oversight starting now!

I am a music afficionado. In fact, it's entirely possible that music, rather than blood, courses through my veins. (Although the mosquitoes do like me an awful lot, so maybe not!)

As a toddler, I was somewhat challenging and emotionally intense, but a surefire way to make me content was to put some headphones on me and play some music. I'd just sit there and listen for hours, which, as a mother, I now find pretty amazing, because there's no way I could get Vinny to sit still that long.

I loved music so much that my mom signed me up for violin lessons when I was 3 going on 4. I studied Suzuki violin through elementary and junior high school, and continued to take violin lessons in high school. I also played in the youth orchestra from the time I was in 6th grade.

In college, I took almost enough courses to get a music minor, and I played in the community orchestra, which I really loved. But at that point, the years of abuse to my arm was beginning to catch up with me.

In grad school, I found a community orchestra and played with them for about one semester, but it wasn't as fun as my former orchestra, and I got busy, and ended up not going back. I played less and less often, which was probably for the better, because my left arm kept getting worse. I had my first ulnar nerve entrapment problem after a particularly long essay exam (yes, even computer scientists can have essay tests; this was the final in a parallel computing class!), and then I continued to have more arm problems, until a particularly long but exciting derivation left me in severe and permanent pain.

But luckily, playing is not the only form of musical expression I had at my disposal. My arms may not work the way I want them to, but I still have my ears! So throughout the years, I've listened to a lot of music.

In college, I bought a fair number of CDs, but when I became a poor graduate student, I was able to borrow a lot of music from the library. This allowed me to broaden my musical horizons without risk.

Classical music is my favorite genre, although I don't like most of the things that your everyday person thinks define the genre, such as Baroque music (e.g., Pachelbell's canon, The Four Seasons, etc.) and Mozart. No, I am a big fan of early 20th century symphonic music, Russian romantic era symphonies, and medieval and renaissance music. There are other pieces I enjoy that don't fall into those categories, but by and large, those are my favorites.

But, I also enjoy a lot of other music. In particular, as a failed liberal elite, I listen to the oldies radio station instead of NPR when I'm driving to and from work. (I hate listening to the news, and when they're not playing the news, NPR plays too much of the aforementioned Baroque and Mozart.) I enjoy a lot of songs from the 1960s and 70s, so it's a good station for me to listen to.

I also enjoy a lot of world music, including authentic folk songs and fusion music that combines traditional ethnic elements with Western musical sensibilities. I always like hearing something new that pushes the boundaries of what I'm accustomed to.

I was thinking I'd start a series of indeterminate length to share with you some music that I like, as well as the reasons I like it. I plan to start with some songs that are probably more familiar (e.g., from the oldies station) and work my way towards obscurity. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

More Vinglish

From the mouth of the wee one:
  • "Mama, let's play blinky logs!" (that's Lincoln Logs to the uninitiated.)
  • "Can you fix it please?" [After I fix it, whatever it may be:] "Thanks, Mama, it's good as noon!"
  • "May I like some bran flakes please?" (it's all the polite phrases he's learned, rolled into one!)
Another interesting thing: today he saw a picture of a chicken on a rotisserie, and spent the rest of the day being chased by a giant chicken. I just told him to pretend to want to eat it, and the giant chicken would run away. I'm not sure how the picture inspired this piece of pretend play, but he says it did.