Friday, February 28, 2003

The passing of Mr. Rogers is a sad occasion in my household. Like millions of people, I grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I hadn't thought about the show for many years, in the same way that I'd forgotten about Sesame Street or The Electric Company. But last night we watched a 1990 documentary on the show and it brought back all sorts of good memories. Characters like King Friday, Daniel, and Mr. McFeely who came into my house every afternoon and made my day a little better. Even as a child, I thought the shoes-and-cardigan routine was goofy, since I didn't have to change shoes when I came home, but it was just part of the show's charm. I always wanted to know how that trolley got from the house to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, and I wanted one in my house (the trolley, not the Neighborhood). I clearly remember watching the episode with Yo Yo Ma, though I think it aired when I was past the age of watching the show regularly. And I'll have to check with my mother, but I think I met Mr. McFeely when I was a child, but I don't remember that as well. Finally, I hated the ending of the show, because that meant that I had to wait until the next day for another visit from Mr. Rogers and his friends. I love reading all the tributes to Fred Rogers in newspapers and on websites. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has some especially moving coverage. I can't write anything more eloquent about the man, so I will just say that Fred Rogers will certainly be missed.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

I've uploaded a few pictures from the blizzard to my photos page. Check them out here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Slashdot posted this article yesterday, titled "Why Nerds are Unpopular." As a one-time nerd and full-time geek, stories like this strike close to home. The author makes a number of valid points about the plight of the smart kid in today's American school system. He says that the years between 11 and 17 are the worst for the smart students, with 11-14 being the worst of the worst. I can relate to that: Seventh grade was the worst year for me in school. Other kids picked on me for years, starting well before 11, but in seventh grade, the torment reached its peak. I was chubby, unathletic, played a weird musical instrument (the viola), had geeky glasses with large plastic frames, my clothes were out of fashion, and I was among the smartest kids in the school. So I was teased mercilessly all year. I don't have any fond memories of that year, except maybe for my bar mitzvah. He argues that smart kids, given the option of being popular but losing intellect in the bargain, would choose to remain smart but unpopular. That's true too. I realized early on in school that I was smarter than most of those around me, and I wouldn't have dumbed myself down for any reason, not even to alleviate the teasing. He argues for a long stretch that American schools are micro-societies along the lines of Lord of the Flies or adult prisons, where the teachers are wardens and the students are inmates. Many schools are suburban and sterile, so the students have to create their own society and order so that they can have a frame of reference. When you get out of high school and into the real world, you have a society to belong to, and you finally recognize that the social order of your school years was an illusion, an artificial construct created for the survival of the group. That sounds about right to me: how else can anyone explain the cliques of students that cannot be transcended under any circumstances?

But I disagree with some of the details. The author argues that the nerds want to be popular, but instead of devoting time to figuring out how to be popular (as if it's a game or a school assignment), they're too busy doing their schoolwork or working on hobbies to try to be popular. I don't think that's true. First of all, I don't think I ever wanted to be popular. I would have settled for any outcome of events whereby I wasn't tormented as badly as I was at the time. For me, it wasn't about working too hard on other things to worry about becoming more popular. No matter what I would have done at that age, I would have been teased and ostracized. The other students had prejudged me a nerd, and there was nothing I could do about it. Eventually, I outgrew my awkwardness, as did many of the students around me. By the time I was a junior in high school, I had learned how to deal with the teasing (don't take it personally, something my parents had told me for years, but I hadn't believed until then) and I found some activities that broadened my circle of friends. The point is that it was a stage in my life that I don't think could have been avoided by my working harder at being popular.

He also brings up suicide, and suggests that it's the result of keeping students in prison-like schools and treating teenagers as if they don't belong in the adult world any more than they belong in a child's world. I think he's got this one wrong too. I considered suicide a few times growing up, at my most depressed moments. But I knew that it wasn't the solution to any of my problems. It would have been a cry for attention, but it wasn't attention I was lacking. It just wasn't the way out of the hole I was in, and somehow I knew that I just had to give things time and they would eventually improve. And they did, since I'm still here. The sad thing is that in my high school, we had a few suicides and several more failed attempts. But the kids who were trying to kill themselves were the popular ones! How much sense did that make to anyone? How could an attractive cheerleader with lots of friends decide to hang herself in her closet? What drove other students to overdose on pills? Even the popular kids had problems, just like the nerds. There wasn't any real difference among any of us; we were all tormented in one way or another. Some people chose the wrong solution to their problems.

The more I read the article, the more garbage I find. I think the author is trying to make a good point, and for the most part he succeeds, but he rambles too much and brings up too many points that aren't further developed. And he doesn't have any solutions to offer. Kind of like me sometimes. It's an interesting read, but I think that there are child psychologists out there who would be able to offer much better insight into the issues of today's teens.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Yesterday was quite a holiday in New York. Liz and I both had the day off, so we spent it relaxing at home and playing in the snow a bit. Around 3:30 PM we went out to see what stores were open in our neighborhood. Starbucks was closed, but Xando was open, so we enjoyed mint mochas and watched what little traffic there was go by. Liz pointed out that trudging through the snow was a good aerobic workout on a day when the most work we had to do was get out of bed. Even though I'm no stranger to large snowfalls, as you probably read below, I hadn't previously been in New York for a blizzard. So I took some pictures of buried cars and kids romping through Washington Square Park. I'll post a link to those later tonight, when I have a chance to upload them.

We watched with great interest as Evan chose Zora on Joe Millionaire. As Lisa De Moraes pointed out in her Washington Post TV column today, it was almost like FOX wanted us to root for her from the beginning. Gee, FOX wouldn't do that. I'm glad the show didn't end with a wedding, or the revelation that Evan was really a millionaire after all, or that Zora was. But the "mind-blowing" twist that the producers gave the happy couple a million dollars to split was anything but. The reason that most people were suggesting outlandish scenarios (like the women getting to choose Paul over Evan, or that Evan would choose one of the women he dumped earlier) was that giving them any amount of money was an obvious ploy and thus not the way the producers would go. But we are talking about the FOX network, after all, so the obvious choice was the only thing they could come up with. I would have preferred something like this:
Before Evan reveals his choice to anyone, Paul tells Evan that the show's producers have just given one of the women a large sum of money, like $1 or 2 million. Or after he picks one, they tell him that the other one suddenly has lots of money. Now Evan has to choose between love and money. That would have been more interesting than the lame stunt they pulled last night.

Still, it was a fun two hours. The first hour wasn't the stale clip show review I expected; I guess they got that out of the way last week. Instead, we got a closer look at some of the women, including Heidi. Wasn't it amazing that the man she's currently dating is even dumber and shallower than Evan? I wasn't sure that was possible. And Evan's friends that turned up as character witnesses were just as meat-headed as he is. In the second half of the show, Evan did a good job of keeping the audience guessing, even as he gave Zora what seemed to be the brush-off speech. When he gave Sarah the real farewell address, I would have enjoyed hearing him say, among his other platitudes, "...and I really enjoyed banging your rocket body." But that wouldn't have been too prime-time friendly, even for FOX. I'll have to put off recovering my dignity for another week, since I won't miss the "reunion" show next Monday night. I forget who said it, but someone on TV either last night or this morning (it might have been Mark Consuelos subbing for Regis on "Live") suggested that FOX is looking high and low for people dumb enough to fall for this stunt again, since it was such a ratings bonanza. I'd love to see the kind of people, male and female, that would appear on that show.

Monday, February 17, 2003

At the moment, somewhere between six and twelve inches of snow are falling on New York City. I always love the tranquility of falling snow. It silences even the most bustling of cities, and if anything can quiet New York, snow is it. Granted, I stepped outside at 11:40 PM on a holiday Sunday night, during a terror alert, but there are few people on the street and even fewer cars. There's not a police siren to be heard anywhere. I think it's fantastic. I'm growing tired of winter and temperatures below 20 degrees (and I can't believe I'd ever have that thought), but a quiet snowfall is always welcome. We're well-stocked on food and water, just in case we can't get out to the store tomorrow, but I'm not at all worried that this latest blizzard will be a problem for the city. If anything, I'm upset that the only day this week that the snow would be severe enough to close schools and cancel work is the day that I have off for the holiday anyway. I've missed the last few big snowstorms in New York, so I'm glad to be here for one. Maybe we'll go out tomorrow and have a snowball fight in Washington Square Park. This assumes that I can get Liz to leave our cozy apartment. I like to think that since she grew up in Mississippi, she probably doesn't have much experience with snow. Then I remember that she also spent a semester in Russia during college, where she lived a lifetime's worth of winter in six months. I guess I can't blame her if she wants to give this storm a miss and stay inside.

On Monday night, we finally learn which woman Evan chooses on Joe Millionaire. FOX promises a twist that will "blow your mind!" If it's anything like last week's twist where he didn't choose anyone, they can keep it to themselves. I've read the news reports about people who will boycott the final show because of FOX's bait-and-switch las week, and I think those people are full of it. If you've stayed with the show this far, how can you pass up finding out how it ends? I'm as upset as anyone else about last week's lame clip job, but I'll still give my conscience the night off and tune in tomorrow. Then on Tuesday, I can go about regaining my self-respect.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

I would have written earlier this week, but it was another busy week at work, and this level orange terror alert had me spooked for a few days. On Thursday morning, I got up to go to the gym as usual, and put on the "Today" show. The first three news stories were the tensions with Iraq, North Korea has a missile that can reach the western US, and al Qaeda is ready to attack. My first thought was "can I just go back to bed?" To ward off the fear, I reminded myself that my chances of being a casualty in a terror attack are far smaller than my chances of being hit by a car on any given day. And I stocked up on food and water, just to be safe. We've got enough tuna, soup, and peanut butter to last a few days if there's any unpleasantness.

Liz and I continued our run up to the Oscars by seeing The Hours on Saturday. It was good, but I didn't get into it like other movies I've seen this year. The acting was spectacular all around, which was good, since that's all there is to the movie. It's not like an action picture that distracts you from subpar performances with special effects and explosions. But Chicago is still the best movie I've seen in the past few years, and that includes the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I saw it again last weekend, and tapped my feet and sang along (quietly, of course) throughout the film. It just makes me happy in a way that few movies ever have. I can't wait to see it one more time.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

There's lots of good stuff over on Slashdot today. There's a story about the future of space exploration, another about Dell's proposed elimination of the floppy disk drive from new computers, and one about discovering how many real devices are behind a NAT router/firewall. If it weren't so late and I weren't so tired, I'd read more of the comments. There was a comment in the NASA story linking to this article by Gregg Easterbrook (aka's TMQ) on the funding and construction of the Columbia 23 years ago. It's amazing to me the way the government conducts its business and the way contracts are fulfilled. Based on this story, it's a real wonder the shuttle flew at all. I can't believe NASA once predicted there would be 50 shuttle flights a year. As far as I can remember, the best NASA managed was about 8-10 a year. And I hate to imagine the costs of launching a satellite with the shuttle today, if they predicted it would be well over $65 million in the 1980s.

On to other things. I bought some new CDs on Tuesday. Two were a two-volume set of the complete Beethoven concerto repertoire. I can't believe I lasted this long without owning at least a few of the piano concerti and the violin concerto, but I didn't have any of them until this week. I debated over several different recordings, and I even spent most of Sunday evening reading reviews of various sets on different store web sites. Finally, I decided on the Philips two-volume set, both of which were bargain-priced at $16 each. Since I had a $50 gift certificate from my wife's parents, that left me with another $14 and change to spend.

On Monday morning at work, I was listening to WQXR as usual, when they started talking about their CD pick of the week. It's a new three-CD set of Bach's Goldberg Variations, played by the late Glenn Gould. Those who know about Gould will recall that he recorded the Goldberg Variations twice in his career: in 1955 and again in 1981. Both recordings have been reissued many times, but this one combines the two (1955 on one CD, 1981 on another) and adds a third disc of 1955 recording session outtakes and an interview Gould gave to music critic Tim Page in 1982. WQXR has been playing the Variations all week, alternating between the two recordings: first, several variations from the 1955 CD, then the same variations from 1981 for comparison. And on Monday and Friday, they have another expert on the air discussing the differences between the two recordings. As soon as I heard the first few variations on Monday, I had to have the set. So that's where the rest of my gift card went. The Goldberg Variations has been one of my favorite pieces of music since I was in ninth grade, still learning about musical forms, and devouring anything I could get my hands on by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, and anything else my parents or the library had. I borrowed an Anthony Newman recording of the Variations on harpsichord many years ago and copied it to tape, and I've been carrying that around for a long time. I'd always thought that Bach's keyboard music made the most sense on harpsichord. After all, it's what Bach played and wrote the music for, and he predated the piano by at least fifty years. But after hearing Glenn Gould's recordings of the Variations, I'm not sure I ever need to go back to a harpsichord version. His performance gives me everything I've ever wanted to hear in this work.

Monday, February 03, 2003

I found out about the Columbia tragedy at the gym on Saturday afternoon. Liz and I usually don't watch much TV on Saturday mornings, so we hadn't tuned in when we got up. And I only checked my e-mail; I didn't make my usual rounds of the big Internet news sites, so my first exposure to the news was when we walked into the gym and saw the upstairs cardio machine/tv area crowded with people working out and watching. I listened to Queen II while working out, but I don't remember hearing a note of the music. I was too busy following the news.

I clearly remember watching the Challenger explosion 17 years ago. I was in sixth grade, home from school that day because of snow. I didn't watch the launch live, but whatever I was watching at 11:38 AM on NBC was interrupted by the news of the disaster. It was just unbelievable, that something like that could happen. And now it's happened again. I've always been a fan of astronomy and science fiction, so the losses of two shuttle orbiters and their crews hit me in a tender spot. They are reminders that space exploration is a dangerous endeavour that will claim more lives in the future. But it's an effort that must continue. There are no frontiers left on this planet, and as humanity expands, we will need to look for new frontiers in space. NASA should take the necessary time and effort to fix the problem that destroyed Columbia, and then we need to resume shuttle flights as soon as possible. And then we need to give NASA the money it needs to develop a replacement vehicle for the shuttle fleet. Then let's go to Mars already.

Saturday, February 01, 2003

It's extremely late (or extremely early, depending on your perspective), but I had to write about this now.

I'm reading Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, based on Liz's recommendation, which was "you'll like it; it's all about music." I'm not that far into the book, but tonight I read a passage where the narrator describes a lecture by the town organist and piano teacher. The lecture is on Beethoven's Op. 111 piano sonata, which has only two movements, and the pianist plays the work and talks about why Beethoven only needed to write two movements. The description of the music, and the pianist's performance, steered me right onto the Internet, where I had to download an MP3 or some form of this sonata, so I would have a musical frame of reference. As good a job as Mann does describing the music, I had to hear it. After some time on Google, I found the sheet music in PDF format, but my skills at hearing printed music in my head are not what they once were. And this is late Beethoven, so it's especially difficult. After some more searching, I came across a "scriptorium," which had MIDI-like downloadable files of Beethoven's works. One quick plug-in for Winamp 2.x later, and I'm listening to Op. 111 and following along with the sheet music. But I had other things to do earlier tonight, so I didn't get around to listening to the piece until a few minutes ago.

While listening to the magnificent second movement (a theme and variations), about halfway through, the music sounded familiar. I'd heard it before. It's weird enough that I can't imagine once hearing it on the radio, so I struggled to remember the situation when I'd first heard it. All of a sudden, the music turned jazzy, like Beethoven in the 1820s had channeled Scott Joplin in the 1920s. And it came back to me, mostly. I think Anthony, a pianist friend of mine at Georgetown, had played a CD of it one night when we were studying. Either that, or Professor Philip Tacka, the music guru at Georgetown in the mid-1990s, had played it in a music history class I took. I'm fairly certain Anthony played it for me first, though, and he was as amazed by it as I was. It really took me back.

Hearing it again tonight blew me away for a second time, and reminded me of my youth, when I would discover new music like this all the time. I spent hours listening to my father's record collection and following the music with his orchestral scores, most of which my brother and I appropriated for our own. Then I'd stand in front of my stereo and conduct my own imaginary orchestra. Damn, I was a geek. But I had such a good time doing it. I miss those days: not a care in the world, all the possibilities of life open to me. Ehh, it's not that bad now, but I don't have those moments of discovery anymore. I think that's what I miss more: the sense that I'm learning something new, that another view of something I already knew has appeared. Occasionally, I get bursts of this kind of learning at work, when I'm playing with a new product, but it's just not the same. This would seem to be another indication that I need to revive my dormant musical skills. And that I need to get some sleep.