Archive for August, 2006

Radio Lichtman

NPR‘s Morning Edition interviewed Jeff Lichtman, now of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and the Center for Brain Science at Harvard, for the story this morning about the importance of exercise for learning in children. Lichtman is an alumnus of my program, and he was here for many years as a professor. He taught a few lectures and labs that I attended early in my time here, and then I worked across the hall from his group just before he left. He has studied refinement at the neuromuscular junction for many years. During development, the number of connections between nerves and muscles drops tremendously as nerves and muscles become more precisely matched. Many researchers focus on how synapses, the connections between nerve cells, are formed and strengthened, and the hippocampus has been the most popular structure for this research. In contrast, Lichtman is an expert on elimination out at the periphery of the nervous system, and he believes that elimination is an essential and overlooked aspect of learning and development. He is an interesting and insightful person, and I believe that there is a lot of truth in his ideas. Having not seen him in a few years, it was fun to hear him express his views on the radio this morning to a wider audience.

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Michael M. on August 31st 2006 in General


This post on /. pointed to a good article in the New Yorker about mathematician Grigory Perelman‘s refusal of the Fields Medal. It is like turning down a Nobel Prize. Many mathematicians are cast in different molds. I majored (barely) in math in college. I am glad that I did, but I wish I had taken it more seriously. My only real exposure to topology was through analysis classes, so the Poincare conjecture is not very familiar to me. Topology is definitely one of the subject I should have studied more.

An interesting story about the story is that Sylvia Nasar was one of the two authors. She also wrote A Beautiful Mind. The movie received major criticism for its liberty with the facts. I seem to recall that the book also had some, but far fewer, notable inaccuracies although I have not read the book and know little about the whole ordeal. This /. comment claims that there are major distortions in the article. As with anything inflammatory, it is hard to tell how well each side represents the truth and whether later comments are simply attempts to control damage already done.

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Michael M. on August 30th 2006 in General

Hunting down guitar tabbers

Now the Music Industry Wants Guitarists to Stop Sharing” in The New York Times has the news that lawyers are going after guitar tablature sites again. It has one notable mistake. Google Groups is not what the article claims. It is a frontend to the much older Usenet news. The news is sad. I have learned many songs via tablature sites. The tablature search at Harmony Central has been my favorite for years. Back in the day, there were FTP sites. I frequented starting in 1992 and then Nevada hosted OLGA, the OnLine Guitar Archive. It was a big day when UWP made the archive accessible via gopher. That first round of tablature sharing fell apart when the Harry Fox Agency attacked. I found this post on /. from 1998. Many of the sites went overseas. I have not followed what sites are big now. The Nevada archive’s descendant, was taken down again in this round. Again /. covered it.

This comment on /. makes some interesting points. I have mixed feelings. Copyright was invented to let creators of reproducible art make money. On the other hand, music is for singing and playing, not just listening. Learning to play a song adds to my understanding and appreciation. I do have legal books of sheet music. They are typically very expensive for what they are. The Internet is an amazing distribution system for sheet music. There ought to be some reasonable compromise, but I do not see one on the horizon.

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Michael M. on August 30th 2006 in General, Music

Mississippi luthiers

I visited luthier Dewey Alexander of Foxworth, Mississippi with my father. He happens to live on Old Morgantown Road. I played three or four of his fiddles, a couple of mandolins and a banjo. I had to fake mandolin and banjo playing, but I like faking. I hope to learn basics sometime, though. Despite the temptation, I did not buy anything. I have tried to find out whether there are other active fiddle luthiers in the area. He may be the last.

After taking my car for service a few days later, I stopped at Brookhaven Music. The store has guitars and both mountain and hammered dulcimers made by George Magee of Monticello. The clerk said that he could make anything and gave me his number. He does not make fiddles although I suppose he could. He said that a now deceased Red Hutcherson of Brookhaven had made fiddles and that his relatives might still. I might write some family members to ask.

On the store’s Battle of the Bands page, I noticed a Brandon Nations, now of GILLIANFRITZ. The Nations Brothers were an old-time string band from Brookhaven who had tunes on Mississippi String Bands, Vol. 2, a birthday gift I received. They were the only band included from my part of the state on either volume. I wrote to ask about kinship. It is interesting possible connection.

I also made email contact with the Magnolia State Bluegrass Assocation and the Mississippi Old Time Music Society. Both organizations seem quite active, and I know where to look next time I am home long enough to try some playing.

Finally, I wrote guitar luthiers, two in my hometown, Edward Kalil and Tom Catchings. One did not reply, and the second spends his time more on other projects lately. Although the family names of both are familiar, I knew neither, and I certainly had no idea that my little old hometown had two luthiers.

It was a musical trip. I wish I had found even more. I also made the recently blogged detour through Avalon and trips to several shops that I hope to write about soon.

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Michael M. on August 29th 2006 in General, Music

Mississippi John Hurt visit

I explored Avalon, Mississippi on a trip down home and took a few photographs with my hacked PV2. I snooped around the Mississippi John Hurt Museum and played a little on the front porch after driving past it a time or two without seeing it. It was hard to find the sites. I think I located St. James Church on the very edge of the Delta, but the building was unmarked. I did not locate its cemetery. I did find Hurt’s old house, now a museum at a new location near its original one. The map was helpful, but it was very difficult going on little gravel roads. I also must have passed through Teoc, his birthplace. As I blogged previously, Teoc is also the ancestral home of the Fighting McCains of Carroll County. John McCain‘s ancestors owned Hurt’s mother, and Hurt was born on that plantation in 1893. I hope to post soon about the other musical parts of my visit.

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Michael M. on August 27th 2006 in General, Music

Going with the Current

My program had a float trip this weekend to welcome the incoming students. We floated with Current River Canoe Rental and camped at neighboring Pulltite Campground, part of the National Parks Service Ozark National Scenic Riverways. It was my third trip there. My colleagues are a fun group. I also floated the Meramec last summer. The Current is less crowded and more beautiful. The Ozarks are wonderful on the whole. They are grossly underappreciated in the world I inhabit. I wish my STL life were less estranged from them. The trip reminded my of what a country person I am in some respects.

At night, we saw the Milky Way. It was fantastically visible. We searched in vain for Mars. The story about its being very close now is a hoax. It explains why we failed to locate Mars. There was also an excellent meteor that helped make up for missing the Perseids this year.


Michael M. on August 27th 2006 in General


This post on Boing Boing brought local news. An exhibit of two-headed animals in ongoing at the City Museum World Aquarium. The Post-Dispatch has this story. I have not been to the City Museum in quite a while. I should return.

Update August 23: The Commonspace Blog has this post about the same wonders with slightly different linkage.

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Michael M. on August 21st 2006 in General

The devil came down to my house.

I was inside today when I heard the sound of rain, but the curtains indicated a sunny day. Through the window, I saw the rain coming down in the middle of the afternoon with the sun still shining brightly. It was very hot. I try to go outside every time the devil beats his wife.

I grabbed one of my previously blogged cameras and took a couple of short videos to show the events. I posted them to YouTube.


Michael M. on August 21st 2006 in General

Hacks of sound and vision

I installed iPodLinux a week or two ago. My intent was to enable recording. The available recording devices for iPods only record poor audio quality. The new video iPods are supposed to be able to record at 44.1 kHz, but the microphones for them have not been released. The TuneTalk looks overpriced. iPodLinux allows recording through the left ear bud. The level is way too low, though. I have been on the lookout for a cheap amplified microphone, but I have not found one yet.

This post on Hack A Day revived my interest in the CVS disposable camcorder. I bought a few of them a while back and tracked the community. This post at the Make blog was probably the first place I learned about the original hacks. Pure Digital successfully thwarted hacking for months by changing the unlock procedure for the cameras. Then hackers recently made a cleanroom program to generate unlock keys after Pure Digital distributed software that revealed how challenge and response keys are related. The story on digg, too. Pure Digital has since stopped distribution of the key generation software. I am sure that it continues floating around. After this revival of interest, I picked up a new CVS camcorder and a PV2 still camera. They are great little toys. Future planned project include adding a USB port to each camera instead of having to use an unreliable hacked cable and turning one of the camcorders into a night vision system.

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Michael M. on August 21st 2006 in General

What was that song on the radio?

Thanks to Waxy Links, I now know how to find out.

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Michael M. on August 15th 2006 in General, Music


I saw this post on /. about how Americans do not believe in human history and Icelanders do. It references this article in The New York Times. The primary article, requiring subscription to view, is in Science. The second author is Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. The paper has a mathematical model of how beliefs on evolution relate to other beliefs and to personal knowledge. The findings are not surprising.

When presented with a description of natural selection that omits the word evolution, 78% of adults agreed to a description of the evolution of plants and animals

For example, only a third of American adults agree that more than half of human genes are identical to those of mice and only 38% of adults recognize that humans have more than half of their genes in common with chimpanzees. In other studies, fewer than half of American adults can provide a minimal definition of DNA.

The mention of Iceland caught my attention. It brought to mind “Building in Iceland? Better Clear It With the Elves First” also in The New York Times. It reported that Icelanders have strange beliefs of their own.

Polls consistently show that the majority of the population either believes in elves – generally described as humanlike creatures who are fiercely protective of their rocky homes – or is not willing to rule out their existence.

Presumably, we Americans do not share in that weirdness. Icelanders believe in elves. Now I wonder whether they misheard the elfolution question.

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Michael M. on August 15th 2006 in General

Frank and Kelly Joe

I saw Frank Black perform at the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill on Friday. The man at the door told me that it was sold out, but he still sold me a ticket. It must have been unclaimed or returned because it had somebody’s name on it. The concert was a lot of fun. I am a Pixies fan who never really followed the subsequent solo work. To my delight, he played “Song of the Shrimp” with minor chord accompaniment. I knew this Elvis song from a Townes Van Zandt live album I borrowed from the library. Frank Black also learned it via Van Zandt. From the Pixies songbook, he performed “Monkey Gone to Heaven” including the line “Rock me, Joe.” “Where Is My Mind?” was a highlight with the crowd supplying “Woo-ooo.” He also played “Wave of Mutilation” and a few more Pixies tunes I have since forgotten. Strangely, I saw three other people from my graduate program, and I think we all had come independently.

I also caught Kelly Joe Phelps Saturday at Off Broadway, wonderously free of tobacco smoke. He is an excellent fingerstyle guitarist. I enjoyed his show back in April, and this one was very similar. “MacDougal,” a tribute to Dave Van Ronk, was probably my favorite. Van Ronk seems to have been relatively rare in the folk revival for his guitar mastery, and Phelps is a master in his own right. After the show, I coughed up the bucks for a CD. Once Beatle Bob stepped away from him, I talked to Phelps for a minute. I had heard him on A Prairie Home Companion recently, but it turns out that the show was a rebroadcast from a few years ago. He plays a Martin 000-28EC that sounded great. I would like to have one. I also asked him about tuning. He retunes often, but he really only goes between standard tuning and double dropped D. I appreciated his taking the time to answer my questions.

As far as I could tell, I was the only person who went to both shows. They was very different, but the basics were similar. Each one featured a veteran musician with only his guitar and his voice. Once in a while, I go on these weekend musical binges. It was a good one.

I also got to play a little music this afternoon at the Folk School open house. My experiences there have been fun, fun, fun. The next session of classes will start in a week. If you are thinking about playing and love that old-timey sound, I recommend starting. I only wish I had begun sooner.

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Michael M. on August 13th 2006 in General, Live, Music

Whip the whipping boy

I have followed Jeff Smith’s campaign in the news, especially after seeing the documentary about him. When I saw this post on StL DiatribeR linking to a page from KWMU with his victory speech (mp3), I decided to listen. It sounded like typical victory speech. Nothing was too surprising until the 2:52 mark when I heard his intent “to tell people like Governor Blunt that we don’t want to be… our aspiration is not to be the next Mississippi.” The crowd noise rose with laughter.

My mood sank. He went for the easy pickings, and the joke went over well. I went to his contact page and sent email. I wrote that I expected better and that he should choose somewhere besides our backs to grandstand. Six minutes later, I received an apologetic reply. He informed me that he is a fan of Faulkner. Maybe he has Mississippian friends.

I wrote about another Mississippi joke. I understand, but it is the spirit that bothers me. They are “people like that” digs. By circumstance, I am one of “those people.” People are often surprised. I think others sometimes expect me, as a Mississippian, to be either a monster or a repudiator. I hope that I am not a monster, and I need not treat any place as a monolith for approval or disapproval.


Michael M. on August 9th 2006 in General

Mr. Smith

I saw Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? at the Landmark Tivoli. Although slow in parts, I came away with a good feeling about STL and about how political people can be. Jeff Smith is running again. This time, he is vying for a seat in the Missouri Senate rather than Congress. I would vote for him in the election this Tuesday if I lived in his district.

I enjoyed the local color of the movie. One speech shown in the movie was given at a political rally thrown by friends of mine in 2004 in Tower Grove Park. The man with the speech advice was a familiar face. I even liked the scenes of the broken down neighborhoods.

The movie also shows some ugly sights that I cannot like. The monarchy mindset is prominent. Names matter. If the movie can be trusted, many individuals and groups decided not to support Jeff Smith because he was unpopular and unlikely to win. I can understand why a group might want to endorse the winner, to get favors. I do not understand why an individual voter would care. The current election is brining out more ugliness.

The documentary also got me thinking about runoff elections again. Missouri does not have them for party primaries. Russ Carnahan won the nomination in 2004 with 22.9% of the vote. Nobody should win a political office with a minority of the vote. Since the Republican candidate had no chance in that election, Carnahan effectively did. Instant runoff voting has been proposed as a way to avoid these situations. I read somewhere that the system can lead to relatively unpopular candidates winning in certain scenarios although I never understood how. It must be better than the system we have now.

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Michael M. on August 7th 2006 in General, Movies

West Nile

A friend’s younger brother got West Nile virus. The Enterprise-Journal covered it. I first found out about it when he posted about his recovery. It is scary because he was young and healthy.


Michael M. on August 6th 2006 in General

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