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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Road Not Taken - A Misunderstood Poem

This classic poem by Robert Frost is grossly misrepresented by English teachers and misinterpreted by students.
 
Was the road taken really “the one less traveled by?” No. And, that’s not even the point of the poem.
This poem isn’t an ode to being a rebel as I (and probably others) have long believed. It’s a simple reflection on the timeless impact of seemingly minor decisions.
Frost says he took the road less traveled by, but it surely doesn’t sound like he did. In stanza 2, Mr. Frost says he “took the other (road) as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim [b]ecause it was grassy and wanted wear. . . “ But, then he says the passing there had worn both roads “really about the same.” And, in stanza 3 he goes on to say that “both (roads) that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black.” The roads were identical but for one perhaps having a bit more grass on it.
 
Frost didn't take the high road or blaze his own trail. He simply had to choose between two very similar courses of action and his decision is what “made all the difference.” We all face seemingly insignificant decisions every day which alter the course of our lives from that point onward. For a time, we can save the alternate path for another day, but eventually, as Frost points out, way leads on to way and we leave those forks behind us forever.
Frost should have rewritten the penultimate line of the poem. It's misleading. Frost is not encouraging the reader to “take the road less traveled.” He doesn't even make a good case that he took the road less traveled. Frost is simply saying, “Every decision you make in life will alter your course forever.” The subtext being, “So choose wisely.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Are Taylor Swift and John Mellencamp Related?

I know this is a bizarre-sounding question, but is there a possibility that Taylor Swift (my celebrity crush) and John "Johnny Cougar" Mellencamp (one of my favorite singers) could be distant relatives?

My Apologies to John Who Probably Hates this Picture




Here's how this even came up:

I was curious to know whether Taylor was really a sweet little down-home country girl or if she might possibly be a little hard to deal with on a personal level. I have not only heard that the latter was true but I have surmised it based on the trail of high-profile ex-boyfriends she has created by the tender age of 22. So, I looked her up on Wikipedia.

Sure enough, while Taylor lived on a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania for a while, both of her parents were executives in the financial world. She summered at a vacation home in Stone Harbor, New Jersey and spent a good bit of her childhood riding horses.  English style. That's the kind where you wear a helmet and funny pants - not jeans and boots and a cowboy hat. Hardly the life of a Tennessee country girl.

What's more, her mother was raised at least partly in Singapore and her mom's father was an oil company petroleum engineer who worked overseas. (That means he made a boatload of money, in case you didn't know that.) Mr. Swift, Taylor's dad, comes from a long line of bank presidents (three generations' worth, to be precise). The Swifts are not your average American working class family and never were. Not that any of that matters. I still think she's totally gorgeous, but I was curious.

Anyway, among the tidbits I found on her extensive Wikipedia page was this: One of Swift's earliest musical memories is listening to her maternal grandmother, Marjorie Finlay (née Moehlenkamp), sing.[8]

Did you catch that? Taylor Swift's grandma's last name was "Moehlenkamp."

Now, I'm no expert - and it's a little hard to tell where Granny is from (she was an opera star in Singapore and a recording star in Puerto Rico) - but Moehlenkamp and Mellencamp look awfully similar to me. They also sound very similar if you say them out loud.

Just made me wonder if there's a family connection somewhere back in history.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Abraham Lincoln - The Great Emancipator, Who Didn't Give a Damn About Black People

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.” — Abraham Lincoln (Fourth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858; The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, pp. 145–146.)

Still think Lincoln started the Civil War because he cared deeply about equality among blacks and whites? Hooey. Thanks for the burdensome, overgrown Federal legacy, Abe. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

In Praise of Vinyl Records (CDs Suck)

This weekend I realized just how great the old vinyl records were. This was sort of a watershed realization for me because CDs are one of few technological advances in my lifetime that I liked. Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of technology. I find most new gizmos to be entirely unnecessary. But, when CDs came out in the 80s I thought they were the greatest thing since casette tapes. Which they were. But, it turns out they really aren't that great. After this past weekend, I'm inclined to say records, for all their faults, were better than CDs in virtually every way.


Typical Hi-Fi Rack System
In college, I had a couple of room-mates who were "hi-fi" afficianados. "Hi-fi," for those of you under 40, is the original "-fi." It's short for "high fidelity." That's what audio enthusiasts listened to back in the days before home theatre systems and MP3 players brought quality audio to the masses. Hi-fi guys had separate amplifiers and tuners and equalizers and turntables, literally racks of equipment just to listen to music.

Our Parents' Hi-Fi System
Hi-fi people had a kind of geeky arrogance and shopped in special stores that may as well have had XXX on the windows - like audio porn. The rest of us listened to our music on portable record players from Sears or our parents' console stereo systems which, like their televisions, were cleverly disguised as furniture with speakers and evertything else hidden inside. Lo-Fi.

My Uncle's Reel to Reel
Except for the true purists who listened to very limited selections of classical music on reel to reel tapes, hi-fi and lo-fi types alike listened to music on black vinyl disks called "records." You put a record on a turntable, set the speed to 33 or 45 rpm, placed a "needle" on the spinning record, and music came out of the speakers. (Most turntables had a 78 rpm setting, too, but I've never seen a 78 record in my life. Maybe they were the Betamax's of the record world - superior but undermarketed.)



The Needle
They still sell turntables. You've probably seen the new USB-compatible ones which allow vinyl recordings to be dumped directly onto computers and saved as MP3s. Frankly, I'm a little curious as to how many people still own vinyl records. I mean, CDs have been around for 20 years or so and the only place I ever see records is in unsorted piles at thrift stores. But, I'm glad to know that people are preserving them. Even though virtually everything I ever owned on vinyl is now readily available as a digitally remastered MP3 or CD, I like the idea of preserving physical copies of things rather than reducing everything to 1s and 0s. Someday we may have no way of translating those 1s and 0s back into something meaningful.

Pile of Records
Anyway, a couple of guys I went to college with had hi-fi systems with speaker towers the size of end tables and amplifiers made by companies I'd never heard of. Their turntables were precision machines. The needles were mounted on meticulously balanced arms which were adjustable so that the needles themselves exerted the absolute minimum pressure on the vinyl records. Listening to music involved gently placing a record on the turntable without touching anything but the very edge of the record itself, starting the turntable motor, and then using a velvet lint brush to remove any dust or other microscopic debris from the record before ever-so-gently placing the needle on the desired track. There was also some sort of solution you lightly sprayed on the lint brush to eliminate static electricity. If you were listening to the Eagles' Hotel California and you wanted to hear Foreigner's Hot Blooded, you had to repeat this ritual with a whole different piece of vinyl. In short, listening to music on a hi-fi system was a huge pain in the ass.

The Vinyl Lathe
I had what might be best described as a vinyl lathe - a portable record player that you just plugged into any electrical outlet and threw records on. There was a cheap speaker built into the naugahyde-covered particle board box. It was a mechanical marvel in that the record player itself would drop records down the center shaft automatically and the needle would lift itself up and store itself at the end of a record. Never mind that the effect of dropping a stationary record onto a spinning record was pretty much the same as using sandpaper on both of them. You could throw a stack of records on the spindle and they'd just keep playing automatically until you got to the end of the stack. You didn't exactly feel like you were at the recording studio listening to the band playing, but you could listen to any music that you wanted to buy and it didn't sound too bad. As I recall, a "single" (actually two songs, one on each side of the record) sold for about a buck and a half when I was a teen, about the same as two MP3 downloads today. LPs (long-play), or albums, were about $15. Sometimes a lot more. Hi-fi guys were fanatics about their records, but at those prices even your average teen treated records with at least some respect.

This CD will not Play. . .
When my hi-fi roomie came back from the Chicago electronics and audio exposition in 1985, he described this new medium on which you could store music. He described how guys in the expo hall played frisbee with these little disks and dropped them on the floor and then just stuck them into a little player without even wiping them off! And, they sounded perfect. No scratches. No hiss. No random pops caused by static. Magic! One day these disks and the mysterious players that played them would even be available for sale to the general public for less than a thousand dollars. Unfortunately, the CDs we members of the public finally saw were not manufactured like the original prototypes. Like most things, quality was sold out in the name of profits, and today's CDs are junk.

Will Any of These CDs Play? Who Knows?
Flash forward to this past weekend. My son and his classmates are standing in a recording studio as part of a class project. They've got to take a popular song of their choosing and lay their own vocal track (with their own lyrics) over the music. The studio engineer pops the kids' CD into his computer to lay down the music track and, lo and behold!, the computer won't read it. Who knows why? The very same disk apparently played just fine in the owner's CD player. The studio computer played other CDs just fine. There doesn't appear to be any physical damage to the disk. Still, it will not play. Another copy of the music track was obtained and the show went on. But, not without a significant and probably permanent shift in my attitude toward CDs. I mean, what the hell? Stuff should work, right?

The experience caused me to realize that for all their inconvenience vinyl records were superior to CDs in just about every conceivable way. Every single time I've ever put a record on a record player, it played. Even a record with a crack or a skip in it would play. If one track on an album had a flaw in it, you could still listen to every other track on that album. I once had a record with a hole in it; I couldn't listen to the two songs where the hole was but I could still listen to all the other songs on that album. I just had to be very careful not to let the needle fall into the hole. Easy to do because I could see the hole. You can actually listen to a record on an old turntable with no electricity; it's very quiet and you have to spin the record by hand at a consistent speed, but it can be done. Try that with a CD. Sure, records popped and hissed and sometimes skipped. They also worked.

And, they were tangible. Yes, using the lint brush on every record every time you listened was a pain. But, there was also something satisfying about physically holding your music in your hands. I think I may have to go buy one of those turntables this week.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Rocksmith Guitars - A Mixed Lesson in Getting What You Pay For

One of the coolest things about Rocksmith is that, while you do need a real guitar to play it, you don't need an expensive guitar. You can play Rocksmith with a cheap, no-name knock-off just well as a hand-made custom. With one caveat: Make sure you've got good strings.

[WARNING: If you think Epiphone guitars aren't worth playing simply because they aren't Gibsons, read no further. This blog is not for you. The Gibson/Epiphone argument won't be entertained here. If Epiphone guitars were good enough for Les Paul himself to use in the studio, they're good enough for me. End of discussion.]

A few years ago I decided to get electric guitars for my kids for Christmas. My kids were only 8and 10 years old at the time, so I got some really, really cheap guitars. They cost maybe $40 each. Somebody was selling a bunch of blemished guitars on-line - really cheap and perfect for my purpose. If the kids tore them up, I wasn't out much.

I doubt those guitars had been played in the past 3 years. But, I put down my Epiphone Les Paul this weekend and grabbed my son's old guitar just to see what it would do. As cheap as it was, this guitar worked just fine with Rocksmith. To my surprise, it was still pretty close to being in tune after many months of lying around in a gig bag (even though it's got the same strings on it that came on it over 3 years ago). The ability of a guitar to stay in tune is probably one of the most important things to look for in a Rocksmith interface - or, really, any student guitar. Sustains may be a little weak on a cheap axe and this might cost you a few bonus points when playing, but crappy sustain won't actually hurt your score in most Rocksmith songs. The most important thing is that when you play a G on your guitar, Rocksmith "hears" a G and not a G-flat.

Plenty of wanna-be rock stars on Internet forums will tell you that you absolutely must spend at least $300 on a student guitar, but that's a load of crap. My son's $40 thrasher is easy to play, doesn't buzz, and stays in tune. For playing Rocksmith, that's all you need. Unless you plan to play in front of other people for money, that's probably all you'll ever need. Period. (Plus, my son's $40 thrasher weighs about half as much as my Epiphone Les Paul, which is lighter than a Gibson Les Paul by about 3 pounds; a cheapie is much easier for my son to handle. A 12 lb. guitar gets very heavy after a while, even for a grown man.)

You don't need a great guitar to play Rocksmith, but there's a limit to how far you can take the cheap road. For example, don't buy your guitar strings at Wal-Mart.

Because I had been playing my guitar a LOT lately, I decided to restring my Les Paul this weekend. I had ten sets of strings lying around so I grabbed a set, put them on, and fired up Rocksmith for another session. And, suddenly, instead of getting better, my scores on songs that I've been playing for a few weeks started dropping. I couldn't get a Phrase Level Up no matter what I tried. And, just about every note I played was either sharp or flat. There were more yellow arrows and Phrase Level Down and Late and Missed Pull-off messages on the screen than notes. Didn't take long to guess what the problem was.

A year or two ago I found a bunch of guitar strings on sale for a really, really good price. Now, I have a pretty good understanding of both metallurgy and economics and I'm not generally a betting man. But, when I find something marked down to give-away prices - in this case, full sets of brand new guitar strings for $1.00 - I'm almost always willing to take a chance. So, I bought 10 sets. Since I'm not really a guitar player, don't play a lot, and rarely change strings, 10 sets represented a virtual lifetime supply of guitar strings for me. And, ten bucks is roughly what I'd normally spend on one set of strings. So, I think I can be forgiven for ignoring the fact that these were First Act brand strings on the clearance aisle at Wal-Mart. What I had were toy strings for toy guitars. Apparently they're made of recycled beer cans because they sound like crap right after tuning and then they go out of tune and sound worse.

Lesson: Do NOT use cheap guitar strings, not even on a cheap guitar! Cough up ten bucks for some decent strings.

Before I tanked my progress on Rocksmith, I had to make an emergency run to my local big-box music retailer to buy some real guitar strings. I actually found a promo 3-pack from a very well-known guitar maker on sale for less than $7.00. It was hard to believe the difference in sound and the effect on my Rocksmith scores. In a way, this makes sense. On an electric guitar, the strings are really the only things making sound; there's no guitar body to resonate that sound, just some electrical pick-ups to translate the sound into electrical signals. Of course you can spend more money and get nicer sustains and better intonation, but keep things in perspective. Most of the songs in Rocksmith (and rock in general) use considerable amounts of distortion and reverb; a $40 cheap-o guitar is going to sound just as good as a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Custom. And, if you're playing Rocksmith, you probably aren't going to pay $1000 for a guitar anyway. The good news is you don't need to!

So, don't even let the fact that you don't own an electric guitar keep you from checking out Rocksmith. Go buy a cheap guitar and play! Just make sure you get some good strings.

(Rocksmith and Epiphone also offer an official bundle which includes Rocksmith and an Epiphone guitar. Not a bad option for anyone who doesn't already have a guitar lying around.)

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Rocksmith Review by a Drummer

As a drummer who has owned a guitar for nearly 35 years, I love Rocksmith. I bought an XBox 360 just so we could play Rocksmith at our house. That's how much I love Rocksmith. My kids, neither of whom have ever had a music lesson, also love Rocksmith. It's an absolute blast for a wide range of ages and skill levels. Even if you're already a Professional Guitar Player, this game could be some fun.

And, contrary to what a lot of know-it-all's have spouted on forums all over the Internet, you WILL learn something. No, Rocksmith will not show you how to finger pick or teach you music theory. Yes, Rocksmith gives you the latitude to pick up bad habits. But, if you want to major in guitar performance at Julliard or Berklee, you should be taking lessons from Joe Satriani or Stevie Vai. The rest of us can relax and enjoy playing, knowing that guitar greats like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn taught themselves to play by listening to records. Rocksmith is like playing along with a record (CD for those of you under 30, MP3 for those of you under 20) with tablature streaming simultaneously across your TV.

My kids played Rocksmith at a music retailer before we bought it. When we got home that night, my 11-year old son picked up his guitar for the first time in over a year and played exactly what he had learned from playing RS at the store (Satisfaction by the Stones). When we got our own set-up, I picked up my guitar and - for the first time in over 30 years of guitar ownership - actually learned a song from beginning to end. In about a month, I've learned 15 songs. A few of them I'd be comfortable playing on stage from memory. Anyone who says you won't or can't learn to play guitar from playing Rocksmith is just being an ass.

The premise of the Rocksmith game is that you are starting out on your Journey to become a rock star. Rocksmith creates editable Setlists of three to five songs each for you to learn from a library of about 50 songs. Once you reach a minimum qualifying score on each song in a Setlist, Rocksmith unlocks an Event for you to play at some fictional venue. You start your Journey as an Amateur and advance by increasing your overall score. Venues get bigger as you climb toward the 11th and highest level of achievement - Rocksmith. (I'm currently a Local Headliner, the 4th level.)

If you just want to play some songs on a your guitar, you can do that. The entire song library is stored in a big alphabetized list under the main menu and new DLC is added to the on-line Store all the time. You don't have go on "the Journey" at all, but I personally find that the scoring system and unlock incentives make it challenging and fun to practice.
Scoring 70,000 or higher on a song will unlock a new effects pedal which you can actually use to modify your guitar's sound within the Amp portion of the software. (You can also unlock new guitars, but these are nothing more than achievement "badges," which - unlike the armor upgrades in Halo - you can't even actually see in the game itself.)

I've played more guitar in the past month than probably the previous 3 years put together. I continually find myself saying, "OK. Once more through this song and I'm quitting for the night." And, then I play that song again. And again. And again. The Riff Repeater lets you learn songs piece by piece before you ever try playing through the entire song, or you can use Riff Repeater to drill the hard parts of any song. There are Technique Challenges with olympic-medal style incentives. And, there are Guitar-Cade games to which make boring stuff like scales more fun. So, there's a considerable amount of flexibility in how you use Rocksmith. Much more fun than sitting in a room by yourself running scales for hours at a time.

Qualifying a song for an Event is often pretty easy, but really getting it down is a different story. When you do get good enough, there's a Master Level where it's just you, the backup band, and a thousand screaming fans. You have to play the songs from memory. I don't know what that takes to reach the Master Level. I've scored over 100,000 on one song so far and still haven't made it there.

There's a multiplayer feature which lets two people play at the same time - without being on the same skill level. My son and I can play at the same time, either playing the same part or splitting rhythm and lead. Doing something creative with your kids or friends rather than sitting on your ass shooting aliens? That alone makes Rocksmith worth every bit of $79.99 - even if you DO have to read the set-up instructions and run analog audio cables. (For multi-player mode, you will need an extra True-Tone cable which will cost you another $30. Still well worth the price.)

There are some things about the design that I'd change if I had the smarts to write game software but overall it works fine like it is. Most of the songs that come with Rocksmith are pretty good. There's only a small handful that I would delete. You can download new songs for about $2.00 each through XBox Live. Not sure how DLC works for PS users.

To play, you need a guitar (just about any guitar with a pick-up on it will do) and a game console, currently either an XBox or PS. A release for PCs is due out this Spring. You don't need an expensive guitar, but it's helpful if your guitar will at least stay in tune. Otherwise, it'll be very hard for you to make any progress in the game and you'll sound horrible.

You'll also need some way to run analog audio from your game console to some speakers or headphones - through a home theatre receiver, for example. This game is unplayable if you insist on ignoring the very clear on-screen directions for hooking up your system. The audio delay that you'll get using HDMI cabling or your TV speakers makes Rocksmith virtually impossible to play. This issue is already widely known and Rocksmith addresses the issue right on the screen before you ever play the first note. As with most things in life, if you read the directions first you'll have no problems with audio latency.

Overall, Rocksmith rocks. The detractors are entitled to their opinions, of course, but I wouldn't give their opinions much weight. Unless you already think you are some kind of guitar god, you will really, really enjoy Rocksmith and also learn quite a lot from playing it, kids included. Best $110.00 (with extra cable) I've spent in a long, long time. And, when you consider that you can use Rocksmith as a practice amp - with a whole bunch of effects pedals built-in - even the additional $299 I spent on an XBox makes Rocksmith look like a very, very good buy.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

One Month of Rocksmith

Exactly one month has passed since Santa Clause left a new XBox and Rocksmith game under our Christmas tree, but we've really only had access for a few weeks. First, we went out of town for a week the day after Christmas. Then there was the latency issue, now mostly resolved. So, we've really only been playing Rocksmith for something like two weeks.

We may still have some minor adjustment to do on the audio-to-video latency. If I watch the video while playing, I seem to be "off" just a bit. If I don't watch the video part too closely and just listen to the back-up music and vocals, I do fine. Of course, I can't do that until I've learned the song somewhat. I'm sure we can tweak this using the adjustment provided within the game, but it's livable as is.

I've got an industrial-strength callous on the tip of my left index finger that goes down to the subdermal layer. I've even got a pretty good callous on my left pinky finger. In short, I've played more guitar since Christmas than I've played in the combined 35 years since I bought my first guitar. Say what you like about whether Rocksmith is an effective teaching tool. It's a darn fine motivator to pick up a guitar and play, which is ironically what many detrators of Rocksmith advocate as "the only way" to learn.

In 35 years, I've never been able to do much more than strum a rather limited selection of chords. As of today, I've worked my way pretty well through a dozen whole songs - chords AND single notes - to a point where I'd play them in front of people. As I indicated, I've owned and played at the guitar for many years. But, my son has not and he's also learning (with a few often ill-received pointers from me). So, it works for young beginners as well as adult learners who half-way know their way around the frets.

Bottom line: Rocksmith is a ton of fun and will teach you to play songs on your guitar. Will it prepare you for Julliard? Probably not. But, keep in mind that most successful rock musicians never formally studied music - at Julliard or anywhere else.

Here's the status so far:

Me:
Local Support Act (Level 4) with roughly 1,600,000+ RSP (Rocksmith points, I assume).
Played 4 gigs so far, two with 2 songs each plus an encore or two and two with 5 songs plus another couple of encores.

Quite a few of the fifty or so songs that come with Rocksmith are songs I've never heard before. For that matter, most of the artists represented on Rocksmith were completely new to me (indicated with *'s below).

Satisfaction - Rolling Stones
My Next Girl - The Black Keys *

In Bloom - Nirvana
Higher Ground - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Go With the Flow (encore) - Queens of the Stone Age

Vasoline - Stone Temple Pilots

Slow Hands - Interpol*
I Can't Hear You - The Dead Weather*
Surf Hell - Little Barrie*
Use Somebody - Kings of Leon*
Angela (encore) - *

Unnatural Selection - Muse*
Outshined - Soundgarden
Number Thirteen - *
Playing with Fire - Rolling Stones
Where is My Mind - Pixies *
(encore) -

Encores are sort of like bonus songs that get thrown at you at the end of an Event if you don't totally suck. In my case at least, the encores were songs I'd never played - or even heard - before, so my encores didn't add much to my Event scores.

Which brings me to my first major gripe with Rocksmith. It's not a deal-breaker, but it does tie into the navigation issues I have with the game.

There is no E-stop. No way to quit something once you've started it. No do-overs.

This week I was presented with my fourth set-list (above). By some twist of fate, I managed to qualify two of these songs for my 4th Event on my very first play. In fact, these were not just the first time I'd played these songs but the very first time I'd ever heard them. I qualified the remaining 3 songs within 3-6 plays through. Mind you, qualifying is one thing. Actually knowing the song and being able to play it well is another thing altogether.

So it was that I ended up accidentally playing Event 4 (The Red Velvet Room) after having played - and heard - about half of my setlist only once in my whole life. As I've pointed out previously, once you qualify a song for an Event, it no longer appears under that event. In order to practice it, you have to scroll through the whole song library in the main menu. I don't like this quirk. All songs on a setlist should stay in the Event until the event is done. On top of that, I'd prefer it if the game at least kept a record of your Events, setlists, and scores. I do this myself in a notebook, but it would be nice to have that feature in the game.

So, somehow while attempting to practice for Event 4, I accidentally clicked on my Event when I intended only to bring up the setlist. Once I did it, the show was going down. There is simply no way short of a cold shut-down to stop an event or even a practice run through a song once it begins. Thus, as you can imagine and since I didn't play at all Wednesday night, Event 4 did not go too well for me. Frankly, the fact that I got an encore song makes me suspect that you ALWAYS get at least one encore no matter how bad you suck.