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September 26, 06
Yesterday morning, i woke up to enjoy a nice leisurely start to my birthday - i had planned to keep the morning to myself for practicing and for catching up on Curtis administrative stuff, perhaps even an hour at the gym before an afternoon lesson at school. These days, i've been trying to avoid looking at emails in the morning, as they tend to completely absorb my time, but yesterday i thought i needed a little headstart, as i hadn't been able to login to my Curtis server over the weekend.
A reasonable pile of emails was waiting in my inbox - nothing unusual about that. As i worked through from older to newer messages, i got to one that came from a certain personnel manager from a certain orchestra. That immediately raised a flag - they usually don't email me unless they need something rather important. I checked my cell phone log (it had been set to "silent" as usual to avoid Sunday worship service disturbances) - sure enough, there was a logged call from the same person who had tried to contact me on Sunday. The flag turned red.
The tone of the email was desperate, asking me to call by 8:30 am Monday morning. It was now 8:20 am - i called the cell phone number. Apparently, an important audition was about to take place in one hour - they desperately needed a pianist, no one else was available, could i come in to help?
Mad dash to close off the most urgent emails (things from Curtis that could not wait), throw some clothes together, then dash out the door. No time for a shower (ewwww) or breakfast (growl) - somehow managed to remember to bring the extended battery for my Tablet PC, but forgot that i had switched bags for Sunday worship service, leaving my Powermate pedal system at home! Miraculously arrived at 9:35 am despite horrible downtown traffic - turns out the auditions weren't scheduled to start until 10 am (always a good idea to call folks in 30 minutes ahead of when you REALLY need them if you're desperate) and that they needed the extra time for rehearsals for the candidates.
I didn't realize how dependant i've become on my foot pedals for page turns! I was able to manage turning pages "manually" by clicking the "page down" button on the face of the Tablet PC, but i had to conscientiously remember to do that. My foot-press/page turn instinct is so strong nowadays, that if i have paper music in front of me i forget to reach up with my hand and instead wonder why the page isn't turning after i've stomped my foot on the floor! I hate turning pages by hand - it involves removing a hand from the keyboard, automatically dropping notes if rests aren't in place, planning ahead mentally to turn in time...how my foot ached for that pedal!
Grungy, yucky, footloose and wired from lots of coffee and no carbs to mitigate the effects of caffeine, i managed to get through the auditions just fine...yes, hard to believe that there is still such a need for "commando pianists" to swoop in for "emergency jobs" like this, but these kinds of requests happen far more frequently that you might realize...sigh
Note to self: buy extra pedals and keep spares in ALL my bags! Maybe that's what i should've requested for my birthday had i known this was how i was going to spend the day!
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September 22, 06
Passing 50,000 on my way to 10,000
I have a confession to make: my daily blog and my MySpace profile
are both running experiments in online marketing and promotion. This week, my blog passed its 50,000th page view. As of this writing, my MySpace profile has garnered over 7800 folks added to its 'friends list' (probably will pass 8000 by the time you read this, as i try to write my blog posts ahead of time). After reading so many interesting accounts of internet-based promotion and so-called 'success stories', i posed 2 simple questions to myself back in Februrary: how does one generate "mass" (ie, a following of fans and loyal 'readers'), and what happens when one attains "critical mass"?
What does critical mass even look like?
Numbers are arbitrary, but i still remember the thrill of reaching my first 10,000 page hits on this site - now, as my MySpace profile approaches 10,000, i am beginning to notice an interesting spike in activity:
The speed of 'adding friends' in MySpace has always been spotty and sporadic; interestingly, the slowest period of 'friend growth' seems to have been between 5000-6000. Once i passed 6000, suddenly the growth almost became exponential. It'll be interesting to see how long this continues...
Perhaps not surprisingly, my volume of emails and correspondences has also exponentially grown. This is a new challenge for my lifestyle: finding dedicated time to respond in a personal manner to the comments and private messages that are sent my way, both in MySpace and on this website (yes, i know, i know, i'm behind on my comments here...) With increased dialogue has come some fascinating prospects and opportunities, everything from meeting some terrific composers who have been very generous to share their works with me, to finding instruments that need a new home, and most importantly coming across some possible concert/presentation opportunities. Follow-ups are in the works, so it's still too early to give a number-to-results ratio yet, but it certainly is resulting in a far busier concertizing year for me so far!
Networking windows - just maintaining an active presence on the web has led to some wonderful discoveries of other forums, colleagues, networking sites, resources...the list goes on and on, as you can probably see from the growth in my sidebar columns. There is something new to learn and discover each and every day, and the artistic and personal ramifications are quite staggering!
The most critical tests of this internet promotion experiment will come later in the year with some of my upcoming concerts - mainly, does all this web-based activity result in better audience turnouts? A real and viable fan base? A working community between artist and public?
Stay tuned as i report my ongoing experiments and results...
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September 21, 06
New Online Store for The Philadelphia Orchestra
I just received this exciting press release from the Philadelphia Orchestra - here is an excerpt:
(Philadelphia, September 21, 2006) – Free classical music downloads of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony launch The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Online Music Store, created in partnership with nugs.net enterprises LLC, at www.thephiladelphiaorchestra.com and toll free at 1.888.747.6847. The Philadelphia Orchestra is the first major American orchestra to offer consumers the opportunity to download recent and archival music directly through its own website. Operating its own online retail site allows the Orchestra greater flexibility in determining what is released and when, how long the product stays in the catalogue, and price scale. The Philadelphia Orchestra will realize greater revenues by going directly to its customers, thus eliminating a third party distributor. The Philadelphia Orchestra retains rights and ownership of the musical content in the Online Music Store.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Online Music Store opens with free classical music downloads of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for a limited time. Also available for purchase in the store are the other Beethoven symphonies recorded under Christoph Eschenbach during the 2005-06 season, selections from the Orchestra’s highly acclaimed Centennial Collection with works conducted by the great maestros of Philadelphia – Stokowski, Ormandy, Muti, and Sawallisch – and pieces recorded during the past six years under Mr. Eschenbach, Mr. Sawallisch, and Philadelphia Orchestra Associate Conductor Rossen Milanov. (See full list at end of release.) Initial prices range from $.99 for works under 10 minutes to $4.99 for a major work, and in the future full concerts for $9.99. Special projects will be priced separately. These recordings will initially be released as high-quality 256 kbps MP3s – a better-sounding audio format than similarly-priced offerings available through Apple's iTunes Music Store – and in a true CD-quality format known as FLAC. Future plans include downloads available in even higher-resolution 24-bit formats to further attract audiophiles who seek better than CD-quality audio recordings.
Later on in the press release, it lists an impressive history of technological firsts by the Orchestra:
The Philadelphia Orchestra boasts an extraordinary record of media firsts. Among these, it was the first symphonic orchestra to make electrical recordings (1925), the first to perform its own commercially sponsored radio broadcast (1929), the first to perform on the soundtrack of a feature film (Paramount’s The Big Broadcast of 1937), the first to appear on a national television broadcast (1948), the first American orchestra to record the complete Beethoven symphonies on compact disc (1988), and the first major orchestra to give a live cybercast on the internet (1997).
Three cheers for the Philadelphia Orchestra, setting the benchmark for yet another cutting-edge artistic/technological synergestic milestone!
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i noticed that we were running low on body wash in the shower this morning, but more often than not the thought of pulling out an extra bottle from the closet escapes my mind the moment the hot water is turned off. Somehow, miraculously, the memory synapses didn't fail and i actually remembered to leave an extra bottle next to the shower when i was done! Maybe this old brain is finally learning from too many experiences of dashing out sopping wet, fishing for replacement shampoo or body wash...thank goodness i at least had the foresight this time to buy a few extra bottles of body wash to stave off 'soap drought'!
My little experience with the body wash got me thinking about backups in general, their necessity, benefits, and also unfortunate tendency to be forgotten until too often it's too late. One of the most frequent questions that i get asked about my Tablet PC music system is, "What if the computer crashes and you lose all your data?" I've had enough experiences with hard drives dying a "crunchy" death (when the data needle grinds into the disk platters) or being shocked with enough static electricity to wipe out everything while trying to make repairs - yes, i've been there, lost everything, and learned the hard way how critical it is to make backup, backup, backup plans, not only for data but for hardware as well.
Just as a violinist wouldn't think of walking about without an extra set of strings, or a clarinet player without a full set of usable reeds, folks working with technology need to always be prepared for the worst. A dropped laptop, the wrong magnet at the wrong time, sudden-death experiences with no explanation at all - there's no way to predict how any piece of technology might fail or die at any time. With that in mind, here's my brief snapshot at my various backup schemes to show just how seriously i take all of this:
I have two Fujitsu Stylistic Tablet PC's in the office at all times - my main machine and my backup. If i'm going to commit to life without paper music, i need to make sure that my primary means of reading music has a backup in case the unthinkable happens to the hardware.
As the digitizer pens are really the only means to interface with the Tablet PC's, i keep at least 2 other extra pens in my work bag at all times. That way, if (heaven forbid) i should forget to put my pen back in its Tablet PC slot at the end of some lesson in another music studio, i'll always have a way to work with my computer
I have at least 3 Delcom Engineering USB footswitches and 3 Griffin Powermate USB controllers. Since i'm stepping on these devices all day long, i want to be extra sure there's always an extra working model in case one dies or breaks
i have a 200 GB external hard drive in my office that serves as an onsite data backup storage unit. Each day before i go home, i use Microsoft's Synctoy to run an automatic synchronization between all the files in My Documents folder and the external drive's version. That way, i have an on-site copy of each day's work, from added fingerings and markings in all my music to the latest versions of emails and documents from my various Office programs, etc. Synctoy is an excellent, easy-to-use backup program that's part of Microsoft's suite of 'Powertoys' for computers running Windows XP, and is completely free.
i have several external hard drives at home - one is dedicated as my home backup drive, a Maxtor 200 GB model
i should note, that to keep my backups as simple as possible, i keep ALL of my working files and documents in a single folder - My Documents, in this case. My entire music library, my office documents, even my Outlook pst files are based there (Outlook creates its own weird folder placement - i just removed that setup and created a new mail setting within a subfolder within My Documents). One reader asked me how i organize my digital music library - i'll get to that in detail in a future article.
Since my son is now using a Tablet PC for his daily school work, i'm trying to apply the lessons i've learned to prepare for the worst. Paul has been extraordinarily good about keeping his computer in excellent shape, but you just never know with kids being kids what might happen. Thanks to eBay, i should be receiving Paul's 2nd Compaq TC1100 in the mail tomorrow - that will serve as his backup machine, as well as a computer for his younger brother Eric to work on at home.
In Paul's case, i wanted a synchronization program that could be scheduled run automatically each evening (Synctoy only runs manually). Syncback
is another free program that fits the bill perfectly. With Syncback
, i have it set every evening to wirelessly synchronize between his Tablet PC's files and the backup folder copy i placed in our Windows Media PC (the "TV" computer, which happens to have 200 GB for recording shows a la Tivo). If something happens to his computer, the worst will be only one day's worth of data lost. Eventually, i'd like to get one or two more batteries for his Tablet PC in case he forgets his power cable (like last time).
Of course, there are no perfect guarantees, especially in the digital domain, but it still behooves us to be as prepared as possible and realistic about being ready for the worst in case it happens. I hope today's blog convinces you to reconsider your backup contingencies, for both your computer data - and your soap!
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September 20, 06
The End of Chalk Dust
I forgot to mention that at my 504 Plan meeting with Paul's teachers last week, everyone seemed to be perfectly fine with his use of a Tablet PC in the classroom. Good questions were raised concerning the use of batteries, data backups, etc. (amazingly, Paul forgot to bring his powercord a few days ago, but still managed to get an entire day's worth of work out of a single battery! Yet another impressive feature of the Compaq TC1100 Tablet PC!)
To be honest, i had been expecting a bit of apprehension and resistence from his teachers, but when my wife and i stepped into Paul's classrooms during a "Back To School" event last night, i quickly understood why there was nary an objection- in every classroom, we saw gleaming new SmartBoards
that had just been installed over the summer.
I had heard about these interactive digital whiteboards, but never had a chance to see them up close or in action until last night. These devices are meant as the digital answer to the old chalk and blackboard setup - projectors wirelessly connected to laptops display the content onto digital boards that can receive input from finger motions or taps that simulate mouse movements or clicks, as well as from digital "markers" that can simulate colored ink. This basically functions as a projected Tablet PC interface, with all the benefits of accessing internet content and manipulating text as images (or vice versa, when words are penned onto the board) - one neat demonstration was seeing some key words on one column with a jumbled pile of definitions on a second column, the exercise being for the student to use his/her finger to move the appropriate words to the correct terms. The most impressive feature was the evident ease of use for these boards. One drawback was the shadow cast by the user from the projected image, but if you stand at the right angle this can be worked around - LCD screens that size would obviously be much too cost-prohibitive (at the time of this writing, at least - let's see what happens in 20 years, eh?)
What a tremendous tool this could be for music schools, with streaming videos, audio clips, finger-input Finale/Sibelius exercises that could be manipulated directly on the board, instant access to archival recordings for demonstration purposes...the list could go on and on!
What a thrill to see my son's public school catching up to the digital age! Now to see if we can get the music schools to follow suit...
[UPDATE: Ah, silly me - upon closer examination of SmartTech's website
, there does appear to be different models of the Smartboard, not just the front projection types - you can get rear projection models, or even Plasma screen versions if your budget allows! Most impressive!]
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September 19, 06
Blue Button TV
"Daddy?" called my 5-year old son Timmy.
"Can i watch the blue button tv?"
Huh? What was he talking about?
"I've never heard of 'blue button tv' - is that a new show?"
"No, no, Daddy! The Blue Button TV!" he pouted, insisting that i immediately decipher his kindergarten logic. Seeing the blank look on my face, he realized that his father was hopelessly confused.
"Wait here, Daddy..."
He dashed back up the steps, then a few moments later, called back down, "Daddy! Look at this, here's the Blue Button TV!"
I peered up the stairs and saw that he was waving a piece of paper expectantly. i went up, took hold of it, then immediately understood what he was talking about:
See the resemblance with my video iPod in the blue neoprene case?
Yes, i was one of the first shoppers in line last week with the newly relaunched iTunes store
, now offering movie and tv show downloads. After picking up a movie for myself ("National Treasure" with Nicholas Cage), i also purchased a few cartoon shows for the kids - great time fillers for moments when we're stuck at the hair salon waiting for grandma's haircut, or stuck in traffic trying to get home from the baseball game...or when you're in the train too tired to get work done...or you're at work, too tired to get work done...or...
Well, you get the picture...i'm really enjoying the upgraded drivers for my video iPod. Maybe it's my small eyes, but i'm actually enjoying watching feature films on the tiny screen - the crisp video resolution and excellent sound quality really help to make an effective presentation. Battery life so far manages to get through a full movie with time to spare - not great, but at least it's serviceable. iTunes is sporting a very, very slick new interface, very easy on the eyes, and the search function pulls up material from all corners of the store - podcasts, albums, videos, and all (try searching for "Hugh Sung" and you'll see what i mean - but i need to update my podcasts first, grr....)
Now to try out some of those new iPod games...
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September 18, 06
An Amazing Find: Horowitz Piano Transcriptions Online
Kudos to that young pianist Patrick Merrill
, who recently shared an amazing find with the Classical Lounge
community: online scores of Vladimir Horowitz's Piano Transcriptions! The link to the site is http://vkgfx.com/
- keep in mind, these are most likely renditions penned down by fans poring over Horowitz's recordings note by note, and may not always be 100% accurate, but it's certainly an amazing starting point!
While you're visiting Patrick's website to thank him for his wonderful find, please take a look at a very nice review
he penned of my recital with Classical Accordionist Lidia Kaminska at the Ethical Society back in August. I sense the force to be strong in this one - one day, he may become a prominent music critic, retuning the sense of joy and wonder, the thrill of discovery and cultural relevance to new audiences with his writing! Get those miticlorian scanners out now!
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September 15, 06
Time Tickers - A Meeting of Metronomic Minds
Several colleagues from Classical Lounge
posted their thoughts on metronomes recently, and i thought i'd share some of their findings with you:
My personal favorite is a program for Pocket PC's (the Microsoft answer to Palm Pilots, those personal digital assistants - PDA's) called "PerfectBeat
" by Fifty Cycle, Inc. I use a Pocket PC phone made by Samsung - the i730
- carried by Verizon, so i have this program installed on that device, giving me the advantage of having my metronome with me at all times, as well as eliminating the need to carry yet another device in my already full pockets. In addition to a clean interface, easy-to-see graphics, multiple rhythm patterns and a nice loud beat, my favorite feature is its "tap tempo" where you can tap your stylus or finger to determine the tempo. Perfect for those collaboration situations where you need to settle whose tempo is REALLY correct once and for all!
Daniel Paul Horn, Professor and Chair of Keyboard Studies at Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, came up with a neat device - the Korg MA-30
. This looks like a nice pocket-sized metronome that packs a lot of powerful features - polyrhythms, a clear visual interface to see the beat, and even a tap tempo button. It also has 12 reference pitches and adjustable callibration - all this for only around $30! Quite a steal!
Concert pianist and U. of Texas in Austin Keyboard studies Head Anton Nel
offered up an interesting site - metronomes.net
, a one-stop portal and shop for everything related to metronomes. I particularly found the Metronome Watch
quite attractive, except for the fact that i can't stand to wear wrist watches - i'm always having to take them off to practice, and the bands always chafe my skin...
So there you have it - a couple of thoughts from some distinguished colleagues (and lil' ol' me) and some neat portable time ticker solutions! Drop me a line if you have any other recommendations you'd like to share!
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September 13, 06
Keeping a step ahead: Monitoring digital education
Shortly after getting Paul his own Tablet PC over Christmas break, i remember coming home from work earlier than usual and seeing him working on his computer at the dining room table. I noticed him quickly switch from a video game to his study program, and instantly surmised that he was spending more time in the "games" folder rather than his "study" folder. A thorough scolding ensued, and i realized that i needed to nip this potential breech of trust in the bud. With all the wonderful advantages computers can bring to education, it also carries infinite avenues for diversion, distraction, and even danger.
My solution was to install a program called "Beyond Keylogger
" by SupremTec. This is one of a class of stealth keystroke recorders that can track every word typed and the name of every program opened. The program remains hidden and locked by a password, so it's virtually impossible to remove much less find (the program even has the option to remain hidden from the task manager menu). Screenshots and even recorded sounds can be logged as well. Regular activity reports can be transmitted via email or FTP file upload, and the level of detail can be quite staggering. (Note: Please be aware of the possibility of legal infringements when using these types of programs!) Paul was made aware of this program, and that instantly put an end to unsupervised surfing or game activities on his laptop.
Another solution was for me to shore up the security protocol of my wireless router. Most current model routers will enable you to set firewalls to block out certain URL addresses or website names containing specific keywords. These are crude filters, but at the very least a good first step to securing your children's web surfing (Paul and i once had the unfortunate incident of searching for information on the X-men movie once by typing in a certain url address that we thought would be obvious - much to my shock and Paul's horror, we were taken briefly to a porn site instead!).
I also try to make sure that our children's computers are in full parental view at all times. I will not allow my kids to use their tablet pc's alone in their bedrooms - they must use them either in the dining room or the living room in the company of others. Just as we monitor their television viewing habits (using my Windows Media Center PC to block out any shows or movies over a PG rating by code), the children understand that we will carefully monitor their computer activities. We don't allow doors to be locked inside the house, keeping an atmosphere of openness and transparency - this will become more and more critical as Paul enters his teen years.
No method is foolproof, but it behooves the parent to try to keep one step ahead of their kids for as long as possible.
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September 12, 06
Getting Back to School Part 3: GTD meets Amy Tan's Fingers
The start of a new school year is much more conducive to new year resolutions than January 1st, at least to me. Despite the fact that i've been working at Curtis now for about 14 years, i'm always looking for new ways to make my job (and life) more effective and efficient. Some years have been better than others - last year was pretty bad, despite my adoption of David Allen's "Getting Things Done
" time and stress management methodology.
Hmmm...perhaps i should rephrase that...
to GTD, i was able to more or less survive what surely would've been one of the most punishing work schedules i think i've experienced to date. i think i had a good handle on mastering some of the 'short term' aspects of the GTD productivity mantra, enabling me to get as close to an empty inbox as possible on a day-to-day basis, but i really dropped the ball when it came to overarching long-term goals and projects in a lot of areas...
And now, with the advent of yet another school year, my mind is wandering to a strange fusion of GTD and...Amy Tan - huh?
I've just started Amy Tan's novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter", as an audiobook on my iPod (i LOVE audiobooks - getting through "Master and Commander" at the same time on my Garmin Nuvo GPS computer!). The protagonist - Chinese-American Ruth Young - struggles with her mother slipping into dementia and a deteriorating relationship with her Caucasian lover. Near the beginning of the book, Ruth uses an interesting finger-counting system to mark off her daily "to-do" list...and that got me thinking...
i had been starting a Mind Map of my daily life - tasks that needed regular daily attention, juxtaposed with some longer term goals that i wanted to set my sights on. As you can imagine, the map is already pretty packed with an insane amount of stuff - no amount of graphic juggling seems to help me put my head around a routine that will circulate through all these things. Then i started thinking about Amy Tan's character, the way she counted off her fingers and toes, giving her a 20-point daily memorization system...could i employ something like that in tangent with David Allen's excellent GTD task filing/productivity system?
Here's my attempt to map a 10-finger daily to-do list to cover the most important short-term and long-term aspects of my life:
Left Hand - Morning activities
Finger 1: Quiet Time - spending time in prayer and reading God's Word, and helping my kids do the same - Paul and Eric already have this excellent habit ingrained, now i need to help Timmy do likewise
Finger 2: Practice Time - this is a new priority, i must confess with great shame. In recent years, i've been literally flying by the seat of my pants, learning repertoire with breakneck speed. That simply cannot continue, especially with the enormous amount of repertoire i see looming this year, already packed with more recitals and concerts this early in the season than i've ever had before...finger 2 is my new priority to get an hour's worth of good practicing every morning before i do anything else following
Finger 3: Kid's piano - this finger has yet to get up and running, but i really need to get back to giving the kids their micro lessons...hopefully by the end of this week...
Finger 4: Exercise - sigh...another finger that has to awaken from the grave...this week, i promise...
Finger 5: Agenda review - too often i've started the day without a clue what was coming up. This will hopefully be my opportunity to prepare for the day, week, and month, especially to take advantage of down-time in the train or car
Right Hand - Daytime/Work activities
Finger 1: Initial Emails - i'm slowly learning to keep the internet valve shut off until my left hand's activities are done. My regular practice (or addiction) has been to check emails first thing in the morning...then before you know it, i'm swamped with messages, surfing the web for news, trotting from blog to blog...and my whole day is gone! Finger 1 will hopefully keep the initial daytime emails to immediate and emergency responses
Finger 2: Recital Review - my job at Curtis is multi-faceted. A large portion is the scheduling of the 100+ student recitals we have each season. It would be good to have a finger to dedicate to reviewing the recital requests and overall schedule integrity on a daily basis, instead of ad hoc whenever i can squeeze it in between my rehearsals and lessons...
Finger 3: Gig Review - yet another portion of my job involves the hiring of students for outside gigs and recitals. This always eats up an enormous portion of my day, but it would be helpful to keep this in proper perspective so that it doesn't consume everything else in my schedule
Finger 4: Accompaniment Review - just a general-purpose finger here, to make sure i've kept perspective on my own accompaniment duties, as well as the proper assignment of work to my staff pianists and the handling of their various timesheets
Finger 5: Closing emails and task review - um, this is to keep that email flow mitigated somewhat. There really is no end to correspondence, just my attempt to make sure that i'm giving the flow 2 points of attention during any given workday - these might be more of my 'proactive' emails, as opposed to the morning 'responses' and 'reactions'...make sense?
Left Foot - Late Afternoon/Home time
(if i can manage to be home at a reasonable hour...)
Toe 1: Kids' homework review - might have to relegate this to phonecalls or a webcam setup if i can't make it home in time (which will be often, once the recitals begin again...), but this toe is critical to keep in touch with my kids' progress...
Toe 2: Kids' extra studies - these would be extra-study activities to help keep my kids productive, things like yesterday's typing tutor game, or online math/reading activities, book reading, etc.
Toe 3: boy, so many digits! I really have to think of things to fill them with - um, ok - how about, Kids' Exercise? I really should be spending time with the kids, riding bikes with them, taking them to the park, outdoor time, etc.
Toe 4: Mom-in-law time - My mother-in-law and i are very close, but i know i take too much advantage of her. I really should use this toe to focus attention on her needs, even if it's just extra grocery shopping or chore management...
Toe 5: Wife time - no, not the littlest toe, or the last toe because of priority - mostly because of the order of day, she's usually home late. Wife time wouldn't happen until all the other late afternoon toes were used up anyway, given her schedule...
Right Foot - Night Time
(boy, i'm really stretching this system...losing track of digits already...)
Toe 1: Practice - if time permits, and before the boys go to bed, need to try to squeeze in another hour or so of personal practice time
Toe 2: Family Worship - i must confess, this summer made it almost impossible to keep up with this practice. Need to get back on track with our family time of worship, prayer, Bible-reading and study
Toe 3: Personal emails - this can cover both traditional emails, as well as responses to messages via social network sites like MySpace and my own blog comments
Toe 4: Work follow ups - to keep my inbox at a sane level, i still need an evening follow-up to work-related emails and reports that need to be uploaded to the Curtis website. Sometimes, the quiet evening at home is a better place to concentrate than the disturbance-prone office...
Toe 5: Internet work - stuff like articles for this blog, marketing work that i'm doing via MySpace, video podcast/audio podcast production, research - in short, anything related to my personal web-based promotion activities
Well now, what an interesting exercise! To be honest, i didn't really know what this finger/toe-based productivity map would look like, but already i'm seeing the rough outlines of a system that - while not comprehensive and certainly not always do-able, given my wildly fluctuating schedule at times - might still give me a good overview of the activities that i want to give priority to in my daily life, and hopefully in better proportion than the haphazard scattering and stuffing into tiny free-pockets-of-time nooks that i tend to do...
Talking to one of my wife's colleagues the other night, he showed me pictures of a beautiful pedestal desk he was building. This was a project that was already several years in the making - close to completion, but it was his patience and perseverance that really impressed me. The discipline to be able to chip away at something a little at a time each day, or whenever time permitted, instead of cramming it with spasms of unreasonable time blocks really pays off in the long run...a good lesson i hope to learn this year, particularly as it pertains to my own playing and personal life.
This little piggy went to market...this little piggy stayed home...
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September 11, 06
More Back to School Thoughts: Tech Tutors
One of our household rules is that during school week, the kids aren't allowed to watch TV or play any videogames. The only exceptions to the 'videogame rule' are educational games and/or websites.
Timothy loves playing around with NickJr.com
, the pre-school television show online offshoot chocked full of learning games and activities (that was a mouthful...) Eric has spent his summer wrestling with Timez Attack
, the multiplication tables videogame tutor, but now that he's mastered that game i wanted to find some other computer-based activities to supplement his studies.
During a recent trip to Staples for school supplies, i had an eye out for a typing tutor program for Eric. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, that old standby, was the first title i had in mind (my mother used that program to great success), but i really wanted something that would keep my 8-year old's interest. Sure enough, i stumbled across "Spongbob Squarepants Typing" program
and snapped up a copy.
The above link will take you to a '10-ten product review' website of sorts - while 'Spongebob' only ranks #7, to be honest the top 6 don't really look all that interesting (from an 8-year old point of view, in my opinion). Installation was a bit of a pain on my Windows Media Center PC, as the program will ONLY run in 800-600 screen resolution at no more that 16-bit color resolution, forcing me to adjust my screen settings and reboot my machine before the installation program would even run...sigh, oh well...
The opening cartoon was absolutely hilarious! Yes, even my wife and i were in stitches - a promising start to what looked like an entertaining program! The colorful graphics and cheery words of encouragement from that yellow sponge makes for quite an inviting environment for young typing proteges. The opening interface was a little confusing - there are three main areas, a practice section (on the left), the 'typing tournament' represented by the 'Krusty Krab' restaurant in the middle, and a series of typing games in the 'Glove World' section on the right. Thinking that the practice section was the first place to go, i was immediately concerned that it seemed to jump right into a series of advanced typing dictation exercises - definitely NOT what i had in mind for an intro course for kids! Turns out the 'typing tournament' in the middle is actually the place to begin the lessons. Indeed, an entertaining series of wacky illustrations instructs on proper seating, arm/hand position, and finger placement on the keys. Lessons look fine, and more importantly it seems like Eric will take very well to learning from his bright yellow nautical instructor!
Another quick search on the internet for children's online math games turned up FunBrain.com.
This site is crammed full of reading and math activities, presented as charming and well designed flash games. I haven't had time to exhaustively explore the site, but i had a lot of fun playing around with the Mad Libs word game and a delightful math board game that can have difficulty levels set by grade.
If you know of any other great educational websites for kids, please drop me a line! I'll post up my findings for other parents from time to time.
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September 08, 06
Getting Back to School: Thoughts on a New Season of Learning
One sentence has been dominating my correspondences these past few weeks: "My apologies for the delay in getting back to you..." - a chagrined response confessing the hard time i've been having dealing with the avalanche of work barricading the start of the new school semester. And now, i'm extending that sentence to you, my blog readers - i'll try to be better at aiming for a daily article, but every now and then it will still fall by the wayside, especially as my plate this year seems to be bigger than ever (do i say this every September? My colleagues seem to think so - i'll have to run a review of my blog next year...)
The new school season is upon us, and i've been focusing a lot of energy on helping my kids get ready. My youngest, Timothy, started Kindergarten and is completely thrilled with everything from the school bus to his new friends to his teacher!
Eric managed to finally finish his Timez Attack multiplication tutor videogame
after much wailing and gnashing of teeth - videogame or no, he still hated having to restart each level over and over again if he missed even a single question from the final "boss" (ie, the "x 5" level, the "x9 level", etc. - the final boss monster forces you to answer all the multiplication tables for that level perfectly before advancing to the next). To ease his torment, i had reverted to blatant bribery: for every question he got right at the end of each level, he would be paid a nickel. Completing the boss level would double that to ten cents per question. By the time he finished the game, he had a pretty nice hunk of change to accompany the joy of having it done and over (at least, for now...)
Back near the end of school right before the summer vacation began, i had sat down with Paul's middle school speech therapist to come up with a special accommodation request for seventh grade: he would be bringing his Compaq TC1100 hybrid Tablet PC laptop to school. Sixth grade and the start of Paul's middle school years had been especially difficult - getting adjusted to a new building, having different teachers for each subject, rushing between classes to get stuff out of his locker amidst a swarm of students - making life for him pretty miserable at that time. A lot of this was my own fault, having booked myself with way too many concerts and trips away from home, not being able to spend any time helping him to make the adjustment to the new demands of middle school life. Over the Christmas break, i sat down with him to look at all the things he had to deal with and sifted through all his homework papers, textbooks, and scattered notes.
My solution was to buy him his own Tablet PC - the aforementioned Compaq TC1100 - along with some powerful notetaking and organizing software. I also purchased a multi-function printer/scanner that could be accessed via a wireless network connection, the Brother MFC-420CN. I then proceeded to teach my son how to eliminate his physical paperwork and think digitally.
, by Agilix Labs, was a program i had used myself to help organize the various aspects of my job and musical research. Designed primarily for college students, it acts as a virtual 3-ring notebook binder, enabling the student to clip anything printable into various customizable course folders and to write notes with digital ink. GoBinder is bundled with powerful calendar and task tracking capabilities, and even has the option of synchronizing with Microsoft Outlook and Blackbaud systems for calendar and contact info (and i would assume course info from Blackbaud). I encouraged Paul to practice taking notes of sermons from Church with GoBinder, to get used to capturing information on the fly.
With the Brother MFC-420CN, i taught him how to scan his own handwritten notes and handouts from teachers. By keeping all of his documents in a virtual format, it made it much easier for him to keep all of his materials organized and accessible for study and test review. Paperport, that ubiquitous piece of software that comes with so many scanners i've purchased, still seems to be one of the best programs (and simplest) programs for organizing scanned document images.
Perhaps the most powerful piece of software for Paul's studies has been RecallPlus
. Paul is a very visual learner, so i wanted to find something that would enable him to organize his notes as drawn conceptual diagrams. RecalPlus is sort of like flash cards on steroids. Information is entered into small 'cards' that are dynamically linked to other cards you create. For example, you could create one card that poses the question, "When did Columbus discover America?" then have that card linked to a second with the answer, "1492". The information can either be handwritten (if you have a tablet pc) or typed (if you're using a regular computer). Cards can be arranged graphically anywhere on the virtual desktop. The program can switch to pen mode for digital ink drawings - particularly useful for drawing geographic maps or other visual study elements like Venn diagrams - and the cards placed within the drawings accordingly. One of the best parts of RecallPlus is the automated tester - at regular time intervals, the program will ask if you want to review the material you've entered. If you agree to go into test mode, all the cards you've created will disappear except for the very first cards in your link sets (presumably your first 'question' cards). Clicking on the initial cards will then expose the next linked cards, revealing the answers you have created for yourself. You can flag cards with 'missed' answers for further review. The program will then score your results, and according to how many you missed, time the next review session accordingly.
Adapting to work on the computer was not easy for Paul at first - the novelty of having a "cool new laptop" quickly wore off when he realized that getting his mind around these new study and work concepts was initially very difficult and laborious. The entire winter break was spent tutoring Paul on navigating a Tablet PC interface and training him on the various aspects of his new study programs. It took about a month before he started feeling comfortable with his new study system.
The idea was for him to use his Tablet PC as a home study tool. He still had to lug his textbooks, paper binders and pencil cases to school, but his primary notetaking and review materials at home would be his computer after he had converted the paper versions to digital ones. The additional benefit of having all his notes as digital files was that i could copy them and review what he had been working on with my own Tablet PC - particularly helpful when i was forced to be away from home either for concert travels or just late nights in the office doing paperwork or practicing. We were even experimenting with webcams for a while, where i would be able to watch him and his brothers do their homework from my office desk and be "on hand" to answer questions (it was hilarious to see all three of them clamor for attention on my little webcam screen!) I would even supervise their violin practice via webcam (surprisingly effective when you have highspeed internet connections!) In short, the digital medium enabled me to maintain oversight and support for my kids even when it was not possible for me to be in their physical proximity.
The improvements in Paul's grades were pretty astonishing. His attitude, demeanor, and confidence also improved dramatically, and school no longer became this dreaded daily torture and burden. This doesn't mean that all his academic problems were solved overnight - there are still many areas that he struggles with, and will probably continue to have difficulties over despite his new digital tools - but his computer has been a tremendous tool to organize his life and to help him study much more effectively.
The good news is that the request for Paul to use his laptop at school has been approved. I'll be meeting with his teachers soon to draw up a 504 plan
, a legal document that outlines a plan of instruction that incorporates special 'accommodations' (strange to think of a laptop as an 'accommodation' when grade school kids in Taiwan are now required to use them in class). Thanks to Tracey Hooten's excellent Student Tablet PC website
, i found the perfect scanner to convert Paul's textbooks to digital PDF's, the Plustek Optibook 3600 Plus. My goal is to finish scanning Paul's books this weekend so that his trips to the locker will be eliminated (save for storing his laptop at lunchtime) and his back spared the pain of lugging around his ridiculously heavy textbooks from class to class. His TC1100's RAM has been upgraded to 1 gig, making for much speedier performance (RAM upgrade thanks to www.Crucial.com
and UPS's overnight delivery).
Paul is very upbeat about his new school year. He seems very comfortable using his Tablet PC in the class and has adapted to the scheduling and task list features of GoBinder nicely. I'm eager to see what his teachers have to say about his laptop use when we meet. Speaking of technology in school, check out today's article from CNN.com
about the new Microsoft-designed High School right here in Philadelphia.
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September 05, 06
PDF Annotator Updated and Better Than Ever
Most of my digital music is in Adobe Acrobat PDF format, that ubiquitous file protocol that ensures nearly universal readability. CD Sheet Music's
library and most online sheet music stores distribute their scores as PDF's. One huge drawback, however, has been the clumsy inking capabilities of Acrobat's native reader - you're limited to one color, and it feels like you're writing with pickup sticks covered with marshmallows (hard to describe, but you'd understand if you try it).
To get around this, i've been using PDF Annotator
, a brilliant program that adds a layer of smooth inking capabilities to any PDF document being read within a Tablet PC computer. A regular computer and mouse could be used, i suppose, but to enjoy the natural interface you really should be using a pen input device (like the Wacom
When the first versions of the program came out a couple of years ago, it was extremely slow with regard to page turns, making it virtually useless in a real-time musical setting. Fortunately, future versions corrected this and dramatically improved the page turn/screen refresh speeds. However, several features remained incomplete or missing, two of which i really yearned for: a handwriting text search function and a bookmark feature. Strangely, almost no news of any development work could be found from the developer's site for over a year, so i assumed that this program might be dying a slow death...
Suddenly, a few days ago, lo and behold as i was practicing some new repertoire with the wireless antenna switched on in my Fujitsu Stylistic ST5022 Tablet PC, PDF Annotator indicated through its automatic update feature that a new version was available for download! This one is hot off the press - two major updates within the span of a week (August 18 and 22, according to their website)! Several improvements have been made to the program, including - happily - the addition of handwriting text search and the ability to read bookmarks! There had also been a performance quirk where the program would not be able to initially turn pages with hardware keys (or programmed switches like my Griffin PowerMate) before you manually scrolled down at least one page with your pen. That quirk has now been corrected, and the page turns seem even faster than before!
I haven't finished playing around with all the improvements, but a few items keep this from being the penultimate digital music reading/page turning program for me:
Bookmarks can only be read, not created from within PDF Annotator apparently. You still need to have the full version of Adobe Acrobat to make bookmarks
Unlike Windows Journal, the native notebook program that comes bundled with Tablet PC's, there doesn't seem to be an apparent way to paste images directly onto PDF documents (at least from what i've read of the update logs). This isn't a typical function for the average user, but something that i'm depending on more and more as i develop Visual Recital programs - i need to be able to easily paste image icons onto the music to show me what the successive projection scenes will be. I don't expect this atypical function to be incorporated, but it would be nice...
Minor quibbles aside, this is an absolute must-have program for anyone working with PDF documents and digital ink! Highly recommended!
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September 02, 06
Provocateurs: Up Close with Arts in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Last night i was at the latest show by Arts in Motion
, a cutting-edge art fusion group blending classical music with techno, dynamically-created computer graphics with real-time video-art mixes, live musicians with electronic tracks and sonic enhancements - in short, an ensemble that gives me the excuse to mash together as many descriptive-hyphenated words that would normally be separated as far apart as possible!
The show took place in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Great Stair hallway, complete with booming marble resonance and stadium-style seating to ensure a clear line of view from nearly any vantage point. Several gorgeous video-art projections graced the walls of the stairway, depicting one artist's perspectives on "romance", and hovering eerily like gently moving holograms.
The main action took place at the base of the stairs, beneath a large stretch-fabric projection screen hung from an enormous columned archway. Here you can see the final stages of roping up the screen...
...and here, you can see the initial test pattern for focusing the main projector.
The tech setup for the show was clearly very, very complex. So much so, that the show actually started about 40 minutes late. From what i could make out, it looked like some of the visual effects comprised of video mixing hardware (notice the little box with the three miniature monitor screens) connected to three DVD-video sources (two of them being MacBooks, i think a standard DVD player being used for the third). At least one of the MacBooks was also dedicated to generating both pre-rendered computer graphics, as well as an innovative MIDI-controlled visual generator that had the effect of displaying individual notes "flying" over a virtual landscape. There was at least one mini-keyboard synth controller set up on the table, but i didn't see any direct activity on it (perhaps it was serving as a data conduit?)
There was a string quartet set up in the middle with microphone pickups for amplification (a 2 speaker setup, from what i could see). Each of the players had stereo earbud monitors for feedback. In addition, a Kurzweil keyboard complimented the acoustic players, along with a vocal mike and another computer rigged with a P5 virtual-reality glove
for added sonic effects to the underlying techno tracks
The P5 glove apparently operates as a virtual mouse, but it certainly looked uber-cool watching the operator manipulate track settings and adjustments like a scene straight out of "Minority Report"!
A large and appreciative audience was in attendance. It was neat to see how varied it was, a great mix of young and old, speaking to the broad appeal this type of presentation seems to be able to draw on. That having been said, there was a constant murmur and rumble from the audience throughout the show. I'm not sure that could've been helped, given the 'techno-club' atmosphere the music and the visuals lent. Don't get me wrong, i actually enjoy techno and electronica music (Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, Paul Oakenfold, etc. etc.), but it has a way of blending into the background of your attention with its endless rhythmic repetitions. The pulse has a way of constricting live musical flow and personal expression, as the musicians are forced to fit themselves into the unforgiving pre-recorded electronic rhythmic track. The visuals for the most part seemed to be along the same lines of creating vistas of relatively static atmosphere - i'm sure the artists drew their inspiration from the music, with their abstract computer-generated fractals, visual algorithms, and video clip mashups from old movies, original clips and documentaries, but that relationship never seemed to be more than a tangent point for atmosphere as opposed to being a direct corollary to enhance or highlight the music's structure, drive, climax and release points. The music seemed to be secondary to the visuals: the enormous size of the projector over the musicians' heads, the musicians themselves dressed all in black and virtually tucked away with the absence of any spotlights, the driving pulse that forced them to be mere musical passengers rather than leaders, all this contributed to the aforementioned 'club' atmosphere, where you're really there for the ambiance and company of your friends and pretty lights (and a few nice drinks), more so than to have your attention fully captured by the energy of the live performance and the spontaneity of the artistic creation unfolding before you.
The technology is really quite amazing. The fusion concept is intriguing, and the musicians (half of them from Curtis) did an outstanding job given the technical difficulties and the unorthodox setup, both physically and musically. The artwork in all its permutations was really quite stunning - it just felt like there wasn't enough of a connection between the music and the visuals, a missing synergy between a medium based in narrative time and a medium displaying such a wide palette of possibilities but seemingly held in stasis like a painting in a frame. There seemed to be a disconnect between the performers and the audience as well, with a few awkward moments of tech transitions, limited dialogue with the audience, and lack of personal introductions to all of the performers, artists and technicians who put the show together. The potential is exciting, but the execution perhaps needs more polishing. I'm eager to see this concept develop and improve, and would heartily recommend everyone to visit their website
to learn more about their cutting edge work, and to lend them the artistic support they need to continue to break new ground.
[UPDATE: Arts in Motion has been added to my 'Favorite Musicians' list along the left column. Be sure to check out the picture gallery from the show!]
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