Monday, May 31, 2004

As You Like Dancing

I got to see two more great shows last night. First was Decadance with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Moose. My favorite of their dances was probably the Polka Contrille (music: Beaumont Rag, by Natalie MacMaster) with its Grand Square exploding into silliness. There was also a post-show attack of Peanut Butter Jelly Time. Much fun.

After that I went to the Stanford Shakespeare Society's performance of As You Like It, outside in the Old Union courtyard. That was absolutely fantastic. The actors were all excellent and had us laughing almost non-stop. There was a blues-singing ukulele player for a few musical interludes. And there was a swing dance for the finale. That was what really blew me away. It wasn't just some non-dancing actors doing slow-slow-rock-step-underarm-turn a few times, it was a serious choreography. The did an entire song (Jumpin' by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, almost 5 minutes) with charleston kicks, lifts, and solos for all the major couples. Not as polished a performance as an actual dance group, of course, but very nearly as complex. And they were doing this all in Shakespearean costumes. I was very impressed. I wish that hadn't been the last night of the show, so I could tell everyone to go see it.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

West Coast Snails and a Blog Surprise

Last night was the joint spring show for the Cardinal Whirlwinds and Double or Nothing (square dance and swing, respectively). I was pleasantly surprised to see on the program that Neal had choreographed dances to two They Might Be Giants songs for DoN: Snail Shell and Lie Still, Little Bottle. I was rather uncertain about what they would dance to the former, but it turned out to be a west coast swing. They didn't really have any flashy new moves for me to pick up, but they did do something that looked kind of snail like. With one couple dancing in the center, another couple came up to join them. The new guy took the first guy's place, but the new girl just put her hand on the first girl's shoulder and danced behind her. A few more girls got added on this way, so it was always just one guy, but with an accumulating string of girls. It reminded me of a snail growing multiple rings on its shell. Very cool.

The Whirlwinds had some fun dances, too. I especially like the two clogging numbers that the girls did. On the second one, Caitlin played her fiddle and clogged. I'd seen that before, but it's always a hoot to see it again.

The theme of the show was "The Dancing Game" and the skits in between dances involved Evan getting set up with various girls on a dating show, the dates then being represented by the dances. There were some pretty funny skits, but I was particularly tickled by an unexpected blog reference. Evan had just been accidentally matched with a guy for one of the dates, which lead nicely into the Whirlwinds' Gender Bender square dance. Afterwards, Evan's friend asked him how the date was, and Evan replied "Well, he certainly swept me off my feet. But then I read his blog and he just doesn't seem like my type." Yay to blogging, for working its way into a dance show!

Friday, May 28, 2004

String of Pearls

I got to see the SImps (Stanford Improvisors) perform tonight. After watching so much of Whose Line is it Anyway? over the last couple years, it was a lot of fun to go see some live improv. Especially since they did a lot of different games, or different variations of games that I'm used to seeing on Whose Line.

I think my favorite new game was the last one, called String of Pearls, which took all 8 people. Everyone starts off in the background, and there's an imaginary line across the front of the stage, with 8 imaginary spots in it. That line represents the story they're about to create. One person steps forward into an arbitrary spot in the line, probably somewhere in the middle, and says a line that will fall in that part of the story. Then another person picks another spot, makes up another line, and they each say their line in order. Other members fill in the rest of the line, repeating the fragmentary story as each one comes in, until the whole thing is finished. So not a lot of acting in that one, I guess, but the story-creation process is cool.

Another thing I liked was how the person on the synthesizer participated in all the scenes, not just the musical games. She did sound effects sometimes, as well as background music. That was a nice touch.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

My Good Deed for the Day

As I was coming up the stairs to work today, I came across a House Finch that thought it was an Office Finch. He had somehow gotten into the stairwell and was banging himself against the enormous window, trying to get out. With all that sun and sky visible through the glass, there was no way to convince him to go out the two doors necessary to actually get outside.

I managed to get really close, and I could even see how hard he was breathing and how scared he looked whenever it paused for a moment. So when he put his attention back to the window, I took off my jacket, snuck up on the bird, tossed it over him, and completely surprised myself by catching him on the first try. He took it pretty calmly, so I just gathered him up in the jacket, carried him outside and let him go.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Catching Up on the Reading

I read through a pile of stuff over the weekend, so maybe I'll do a recap of some of the recent books that haven't been mentioned here yet. I'll back up a little bit to start, though.

A People's History of the United States was a pretty major project to get through, but certainly worth it. Its goal is to be biased in the opposite direction from typical history books, focusing on the perspectives of women, blacks, native americans, the poor, and other groups for whom the USA has not always been all that it's cracked up to be.

I read Middlesex so I could be the tie-breaker between Mom and Greg, who hated and loved it, respectively. The verdict: while it didn't sound like the sort of book I would ever read, it turned out to be surprisingly good. It's the story of a hermaphrodite from Detroit, but it encompasses the previous two generations of her/his family, starting the the grandparents immigrating from Greece. The overall family portrait that it creates is fascinating, even aside from the sheer unusualness of reading about a hermaphrodite.

The other day, Biz and I were talking about children's books, so I decided to go read Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. It's a great story, and definitely on the creepy side, so it was a lot of fun to read, in spite of being labeled for kids age 11 and up. I'd love for him to turn it into a novel for adults, but still, part of the appeal of this form is its compactness. Kids' books are generally much more to-the-point: they get you straight to the story, with no extra fluff, which can be a very refreshing change once in a while. It was also fun just to visit that section of the bookstore and see a lot of other books that brought back their own memories.

Miriam recommended Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach to me. That was a very interesting introduction that I liked because the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism seems very similar to my approach to religion in general. There is a very strong focus on evolving Judaism to keep pace with the evolution of society, and a lot of flexibility and encouragement for people to relate to the old traditions in ways that are meaningful to them today. A lot of good concepts in there, I think.

My newest audio book is Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, recommended to me by Eric. This one is going to be intense. Chapter 1 had me breathing fast just sitting in the car listening to it this morning. Wow.

And there's a lot more in my to-read list where those came from.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Musical Interfaces

I had an interesting discussion with Simon the other day about musical instruments. We started off just talking about synthesizers, and how they can basically give you a single user interface for a larger number of instruments. Now that's all well and good, of course, but then you have to take into account the fact that a lot of music is written for particular interfaces, so trying to play, for instance, a fiddle tune on a tuba interface is going to be difficult, even if you're a virtuoso tuba player. Not that I know of any tuba synthesizers out there, but you see the point. Something like flamenco guitar on a keyboard would probably be difficult, too.

So Simon starts taking this a step further, and assigning more and more of the technical skills to the (now fictitious) instrument in question. This is where I start getting uncomfortable, perhaps because I'm suspicious of things getting too easy. For one thing, it seems that any technical aspect we delegate to a machine would have to be something we'd be willing to have done exactly the same way every time, and I can't actually think of anything I'd be willing to put in that category, when it comes to making music. The argument here, of course, is that people make recordings all the time (and tweak them to fix their [human] mistakes), which amounts to the same thing. So why not have an instrument that lets you create a fixed, technically accurate, recording for each piece you play, which will then be the basis for your performances of that piece? All you have to do is add the variations and expression particular to each performance.

Sounds interesting, but I'm still not too happy with it. Some things in this situation are going to be right out the window, like complete improvisation, or learning tunes on the fly, or sight reading. But once again, Simon comes up with the next step: "What if," he asks "I gave you a harmonica, for instance, that could read your mind?" Now, all I have to do is think the music, and this amazing instrument will do all the work of creating the actual sound for me, allowing me to share it with people without having to spend years learning to play harmonica. In fact, there wouldn't even really be a point in having it be an actual harmonica, so much as just some sort of abstracted musical interface for any instrument.

That's tempting. My first reaction, though, is that it would devalue all the hard work musicians have put into their art, and that there would just be an awful lot of people creating an awful lot of junk if we had instruments like this. But when it comes right down to it, so what? Those are all people who probably wouldn't have had much or any musical expression in their lives, so this could only be better, right? Plus, it's sort of like blogging. Blogging has made "writers" out of an awful lot of people, like me, who otherwise wouldn't have this outlet for expression. Yes there's a ton of junk out there, but there has also been a lot of great stuff coming into existence entirely thanks to blogs. We just learn to filter through and find the good stuff.

My one last holdout was that spending the last 10 years learning to play the mandolin, etc. has actually changed the music that is in my head. Even with this hypothetical magic harmonica, I know more about music and have more of it inside me because of all the hours I've practiced and worked on it over the years. That experience seems too crucial to give up to some sort of super instrument that will do all the hard work for me. But even as I started writing this, I realized that, you know, I really sucked when I started playing mandolin, too. Plus, it was just hard to get all that experience. Why couldn't you build that experience on an instrument, or even a more abstracted interface, that made it easy? Then all you have to do is train your mind.

So I don't know. Maybe all this importance I assign to actual, physical instruments is really just psychological. It's kind of interesting to try to trace it down, though.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Calming the Talker

Most people are probably familiar with the problem of trying to fall asleep when your mind just won't shut up. Sometimes you're just reciting worries in your head, or sometimes there's a part of you that just seems to want to hear itself talk, tired though you may be. Another manifestation I get a lot is a continuous loop of dance music, with pieces of choreographies coalescing and dissolving along with it. In fact, I can already see the one that's headed for me tonight. I've had Manhattan Transfer singing "Trickle Trickle" in my head ever since this afternoon, and there are just too many fun swing things you can do to the "— Trickle Trickle, — Splash Splash" part of the chorus. This just has long night written all over it.

Luckily, in class tonight we learned a technique for dealing with this kind of thing. It's called articulatory suppression, or as Dr. LaBerge puts it: "calming the talker." The first thing you do is to pick any random word, let's say "green." Now start repeating it over and over, but vary the rhythm: "green... green... green green greeeeeeeen... green......... green" etc. The variation is important because what you're doing is overriding the talking part of your brain with something else, but if it gets too monotonous then you can just start talking (thinking) over it. So it needs to keep changing, while still being pretty simple, which is why there's just one word. As you may imagine, this gets pretty dull after a few minutes, but that's exactly what we want. Because if you're laying in bed in the dark with your eyes closed, and you're tired, and you're getting bored, you'll probably drop off pretty quick.

I expect I'll be test driving this tonight, so we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

A Ceilidh Contra

I went to the Starry Plough in Berkeley last night for the first time, though I didn't go for the Irish ceilidh dancing. Bob has recruited me to join him in his mission to lower the average age of contra dancers in the bay area, and his first step towards this goal was to do a contra dance demo at the Plough's Monday night dance during the break. Since I don't really do Irish dancing, I brought along my banjo to join the band until it was time for our demo.

We had eight of us for the demo, which is exactly the minimum size for it to make any sense at all. Some of us had contra'd before, and the rest were good Irish dancers, so they picked it up pretty fast when Bob taught us the dance beforehand. It went pretty well, and though we had some mistakes (mostly due to last minute choreography changes intended to minimize downtime at the ends) they were mistakes that were more noticeable to the dancers than to the audience. People seemed appreciative, and hopefully lots of them will rush out to try contra dancing this weekend. So all in all it was fairly successful.

Speaking of recruiting new contra dancers, here's a question for all you Stanford folks out there in my readership: Why don't we have more college students (or other people in that approximate age group) at contra dances around here? What would it take to get more people into it? It really is one of my favorite styles of dance, but I've always had a hard time getting more people to come along with me. Any ideas or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Anyway, with all that said, there's a contra dance this Saturday in Palo Alto. Anyone who wants to go should see the BACDS website or me for more info. It'll be fun.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

It's a Bird! It's a Plane!

It's Super Dance! Big Dance had a super hero theme this year, which made for some cool decorations, especially the giant Spiderman hanging from the web on the gym ceiling. No, I don't have photos, though. I suck at taking pictures of dance events.

When I got to the dance, I found that Jim and Chris had managed to get themselves into both the 9-to-midnight band as well as the midnight-to-3 band, in the studio. I thought that was amusing. I've been rather in a swing mood lately, though, so I also spent a lot of time over on the gym side where the Bob Saul Orchestra was playing. Of course, I was really just hopping back and forth all night long, because of all the contests and performances in both rooms.

In the polka relay race, Susanna and I blazed past everyone else, by virtue of being one of the only couples to do an actual polka on the actual beat. (Becky and Dave claimed this was an unfair advantage, saying we must have been on steroids, and challenged us to a one-on-one [2-on-2?] rematch for sometime in the future.) We also came up with a clever way to transfer the super hero cape (which was acting as the relay baton) to the second couple in our team. All in all, it was enough to get us the victory, in spite of some pretty wild flailings in the other laps. I actually had to fling myself bodily in front of our last out-of-control couple, to keep them from crashing into the band's instruments, which were behind us. That was crazy.

I also did the Jack and Jill swing contest, where you get a random partner for the first round, and a different random partner for the final round. I ended up with Anne for the finals, but got seriously confused by the music. I was in Lindy Hop mode, but they were playing a West Coast. If I had stopped to think about it, my limited West Coast probably would have done as well as my confused Lindy, especially since I know Anne could have made it look great. Oh well. We switched off leading a bit, so that was fun, and we ended up getting third place.

Let's see, what else was fun? I danced a very unusual salsa-hustle-west coast sort of thing with Erin (another case of having a partner who just makes it all look good). There were some very nice cross step waltzes with Jean and Quetzal. Decadance did a new polka quadrille choreography to a Natalie MacMaster recording (courtesy of Caitlin, of course). The hustle competition was won by a fantastic "couple" consisting of Gary, Jennifer and Achuith. I got to practice West Coast Swing a few times, with various people.

The "Lullaby Gauntlet" of slow waltzes in the early morning seemed to go by pretty fast, without weeding out too many tired people. Then of course there was the Dawn Mazurka at around 5:00. At ten minutes to six Richard played the Hamster Dance polka. I danced that with Eric, and gave myself a bit of a scare when I twisted my ankle halfway through. I kept going though, since a Hamster Dance with Eric is high up on the list of dances not to be missed, and the adrenaline kept everything going. It was worth it. My ankle's mostly okay right now, so maybe I didn't get it too badly.

So many people stayed to the end that the last waltz felt like a Jammix. When six o'clock finally rolled around we had 225 all-nighters, a new record. It was my fifth year of doing the whole thing. I was a bit wobbly at that point, but I stayed until 7 to help clean up a bit. When I finally got home I slept until about 1:00, and I now plan on moving slowing and infrequently for the rest of the day, and probably knocking off a few items on my reading list. Another nap might be in order as well.

Big congratulations and thank-yous go to the Gang of 13, as well as Richard, the bands, and everyone else who made the dance great.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Continuing Continuing Studies

I got the Stanford Continuing Studies course catalog in the mail the other day. We're only about half-way through this quarter, but registration for the next starts on the 17th. The summer quarter will only be about half as long, but I think I'll still probably sign up for something. I've enjoyed taking classes again, so I'd like to keep it up. Here are the choices I'm looking at: Right now I think I'm mostly leaning towards the Magic Realism class. I've been starting to read more fiction recently, and that's always been a style that I've liked. But I'll think about it all a bit before I register.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Notice Anything Different?

Find out what all the excitement is about here. The new look to my blog is one of the brand new Blogger templates that I'm using until I get around to redesigning my old one. Click my comment link below to check out the new commenting system. See my profile. If you're a Blogger user, go log in and check out all the other fun changes. Happy Blogger Day!

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Where in the World is Testimony A Cappella?

There were far too many things going on this evening, and up until literally about 8 p.m. it was almost a three way tie for what I would actually end up doing. Well okay, the Alameda waltz was actually pretty low on the list, but a contra dance with the Hillbillies from Mars was a very strong contender. In the end though, Testimony's spring show won out, and I'm very glad it did.

The theme for the show was "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?" and the skits involved a detective tracing down the criminal who stole Stanford University. There were clues, mimes, silly accents, and altos trying valiantly to imitate very tall buildings. And of course, as always, the singing was wonderful. But most of all I was glad to hear Tina sing Fool for You, which I had only ever heard on their CD. Somehow, that made me happier than anything else in the entire delightful show, and probably even anything within recent memory. Yay Tina!

Anyway, it is now very much time for me to go to bed. I've been low on sleep recently, it's past my bedtime, and I've got a big day tomorrow. I just had to share the happy first.

Thursday, May 06, 2004


I made it to the Irish Session tonight for the first time since March. I almost didn't go because I was pretty tired this evening, but, as always, I was glad that I did. Sue was there too, and for the first time in something like a year of hand problems, she was playing a mandolin. This was no ordinary mandolin, though. She got it from The Thin Man String Co. in Alameda, and it's made from the body of a ukulele. It's strung with nylon guitar strings, but they're doubled and tuned like a mandolin, but then one of each pair is dropped an octave, like a bouzouki. I called it a mandozoukulele, though Patrick preferred "sue-zouki." (It looks sort of like these pictures, though Sue's is rather nicer.)

This seemed like a really weird instrument at first glance, but I was absolutely tickled when I tried playing it. It has a remarkably nice, full sound to it, and it actually seems louder than a regular mandolin. (Unfortunately, I was playing tenor banjo tonight, and didn't have my mandolin for comparison.) It's also easier on the hands than a mandolin, which is why Sue got it, though it's still a bit more work than tenor banjo. I really enjoyed playing it, and I could even see myself getting one.

Another interesting thing: the same place also sells these mandolins with extra little sound holes in the side. That way, more of the sound gets directed up towards the musician, so you can actually hear yourself play. Neat idea. Of course, once these entered the conversation, we got several offers of electric drills and on-the-spot mandolin customizations, but we passed on that. However, it occurred to us that you could probably get a similar effect without having to puncture anything. The experiment I want to try is to get a stethoscope and tape the sound piece to the back of the mandolin, then find out what it sounds like through the other end. Of course, you'd look pretty silly sitting in a session listening to your mandolin through a stethoscope, but it would be interesting to try, at least.

Monday, May 03, 2004

A New Spectrum of Dancing

I went to the Dance Spectrum in Campbell last night for a West Coast Swing lesson and dance. The lesson was taught by Richard Kear and actually seemed to be at an appropriate level for me. It wasn't really the sort of thing I wanted to learn, being more focused on using a particular fancy replacement step, rather than lead/follow type moves. But still, it was a good lesson for me, because I got some extra drilling on the basics steps that we were adding this fancy step to, and that helped.

There were a few "warm-up" dances played early on that seemed almost painfully slow to me. Swing is one of those things where too-slow is as difficult for me as too-fast, so at first I didn't like that. But it was really interesting to watch the people who could dance that slowly and deliberately and still make it look good. And trying it myself actually helped for when we got up to the normal, easier tempos. Being around a lot of good WCS dancers really helped me slow down and smooth out some of my remaining Lindy Hop bounces. It was actually kind of neat, and I think I was starting to get a better feel for the style. (I don't know if I look much better, but I at least have more of an idea how it should be.)

After the lesson was the dance, though I only stayed for about half of it. I watched most of the time, but I did do several dances. I'm still at a pretty shy level of WCS, so it's a bit hard for me to ask strangers to dance, but it wasn't too bad, and the dances I did were fairly encouraging. There are a lot of great dancers there, but I didn't find it nearly as intimidating as, say, the hustle club dances. I'd like to go back and try it again (this particular dance only happens once a month, though I'm sure the studio has lots of other classes if I want to do that). And I'm on the lookout for other convenient places to learn/practice west coast, so if anyone has any suggestions, let me know.