Archive for July, 2007

Cahokia 2007

This weekend was good for music. The Folk School Saturday jam session moved from its usual location to the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market. I had a good time fiddling with other schoolers. Sunday was the bigger day. Last summer, I blogged about the Cahokia Old Time Music Fete at the Cahokia Courthouse. Tom Thach‘s Taum Sauk again took the stage, opening the show this year. We had a good time. I mostly played guitar and sang a little harmony, but for “Cripple Creek,” I fiddled and largely held it together. Other musical groups were O’Fallon Folk, Country Folk, Mile 16 and the Lodge Brothers. I hope I did not forget any musicians. There was also jamming under the trees.

The Thunder and Lightning Cloggers put on a good show. I still remember my first exposure to clogging. I think it was first grade, but maybe second. My school district held an annual art fair. For my first few years of school, it was wonderful. The whole school system stopped classes for a few days to experience visual art, music and dancing from both local and touring artists. It was pared down to nothing special within a few years, and then it disappeared altogether. My class watched cloggers in a tent set up on the school grounds, and they were a smash with us. A few months ago, I watched the movie Talking Feet via Folkstreams. It documents the solo dancing traditions of the Southern Appalachians. Clogging grew out of those traditions and borrows heavily from them even though it usually is choreographed for teams dancing to recorded music. Clogging music is often too heavily produced and too silly. With music and dance, though, the start of the tune pushes those concerns aside in favor of a good time.

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Michael M. on July 29th 2007 in General, Live, Music

Idiocracy seen

Around the time I posted about Idiocracy, I entered a request at the library. There must have been many requests because it took a long time. The notice finally came in the mail earlier this week. I picked it up yesterday and watched it tonight.

The movie is funny although I would not call it a riot. I only laughed out loud a few times. Watching was more a continuous state of amusement. The movie pillories the current world using an imagined future. Some critics expressed concern that Mike Judge advocated eugenics with it. I saw it more as a warning against dysgenics and, more importantly, against rudeness and stupidity. The heroes are not great citizens or profound thinkers, but normal people who take on challenges. Because it praises the courageous everyman, the charges levied against it do not hold.

For a movie against rudeness and stupidity, it has loads of both. It is an achievement. As a Beavis and Butt-head fan, I both enjoyed the same garbage as the main characters and laughed at them for it. Idiocracy offers the same opportunities with material to satisfy the mind and the glands. I do not know whether I will watch it again, but I am glad that I too the time to see it once.

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Michael M. on July 26th 2007 in General, Movies

A famliar name in race and genetics

Following my recent post, I was searching for news stories about Noah Feldman. I found this post about a study by Marcus Feldman and Noah Rosenberg. In fact, I blogged about the same article in the Science Times. I last saw Noah at a Cold Spring Harbor conference where he was presenting a poster on the genetic ancestry of different Jewish groups and other related populations. I happened to recognize him in the cafeteria, and I stopped by his poster later. We shared a major in college and had quite a few classes together. He chose to use his mathematical skills in the study of population genetics. It is good to see him doing well, and I wish I had mentioned him in the post about the Science Times evolution edition.

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Michael M. on July 26th 2007 in General

Outside inside outside Jewish faith perspective

Orthodox Paradox” in The New York Times Magazine is a good read. Noah Feldman, its author, is a professor at Harvard Law. He received an Orthodox Jewish education at Maimonides School, yet went on to a lead a life that conflicts with his upbringing in many ways. Although not officially excommunicated from his old community, his divergence has strained the relationship. The school, however, clearly played a large role in his personal successes, and he provides a picture containing both praise and criticism.

Update: I found this article about Feldman written by Shmuley Boteach, Feldman’s friend and former rabbi.

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Michael M. on July 22nd 2007 in General

Convergent devolution

Islamic Creationist and a Book Sent Round the World” in The New York Times covers a peculiar story. Despite the tone of the article, the story should not surprise anybody who has spent time in scientific research. Everybody has wrong ideas about the world, and some people become deeply impassioned about theirs. They write books about their ideas and distribute unsolicited copies to established scholars. Some science departments have files dedicated to these submissions, and I have seen entertainingly bizarre ones posted to bulletin boards.

The article reminded me of my old post on “Religion and Natural History Clash Among the Ultra-Orthodox” in the Times. There are Jews, Muslims and Christians who fail to reconcile their beliefs with observations, and there must be examples from other faiths. While it is often tempting to blame whatever religion in these cases of defiant dogmatic devotion in the face of frank facts, it seems more accurate to blame people and their particular peculiar exegeses. Wrong ideas about how things are come through many channels other than religion, and religious ideas that are erroneous are just one type of the many varieties of flawed concepts that attract adherence even though the evidence indicates otherwise.

I am intrigued by the descriptions of the production quality of the book. Of this weird literature distributed to scientists, the books I have seen were poorly produced. The typesetting was bad. The paper was cheap. The organization was confusing. In contrast, accounts of this book often comment favorably on its appearance, and the financing behind this project must have been substantial. The full text of this book is available, and it did look good until I looked closely.

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Michael M. on July 22nd 2007 in General

SiCKO

I saw Michael Moore‘s SiCKO last weekend at the Chase Park Plaza Cinemas. Emotionally, it is very powerful. Moore has a talent for telling people’s stories, often by letting them speak for themselves. The raw material is easy to find because the American health care system generates tales of gripping horror and disgust. Anecdotes are a good way to move people, but not necessarily a good way to portray the total system. Examples, however, do serve as existence proofs. The system that generates these individual stories is severely flawed. The movie only seasons the stories with statistics, and statistical information is the right kind for making decisions about huge public concerns.

The controversy surrounding Moore’s statistics has flared in the media. It played into my decision to go see the movie. Moore has argued with Wolf Blitzer and Sanjay Gupta on CNN. Both sides take umbrage. They quibble over who took what figures from where. After a while of following it, I do not care. The magnitudes of the errors, whoever made them, are negligible compared to the sizes of the main figures and especially when compared to the real problems at hand. Seeing these people sucked into this empty debate instead of conducting the real discussion we should have is disheartening.

I like that the movie included the insurance system. Too often, the public debate gets carried away discussing the how many people have insurance without considering how valuable insurance is. Insurance is better than nothing, but not by much. Insurers can decline to cover a variety of helpful treatments, and they can terminate coverage. They will do both to the extent that it is profitable.

The drug companies received far less criticism in the movie that they deserve. I have not read why Moore decided not to treat them more directly. Perhaps they simply do not fit into the scheme of the movie very well because they lend themselves less to personal stories. In the subsequent news stories about the movie, I have seen Moore denounce pharmaceutical companies and the media’s relationship with them.

I like the comparison of health care to police and fire protection, and it has been popular when discussing the movie with others. Removing the health care system from private corporations is often disparaged as socialism. What other major public welfare initiatives are entrusted to private hands so extensively? I would have added military defense to the list of comparisons. While all these agencies are subject to corruption and bureaucratic gridlock, the overall public opinion on them seems favorable. We generally hold soldiers, sailors, marines, fliers, firefighters and police officers in high esteem as dedicated public servants, not as agents of creeping socialism. Few people would favor moving those services into the realm of for-profit corporations.

On aesthetic grounds, I enjoyed the French section of the movie. The music is wonderful. France has a tradition of pop songs that can stand with any country. It reminded me of an NPR Weekend Edition story I liked a few years ago. The soundtrack page at IMDb provides some leads.

Moore released this movie ahead of the presidential elections. Our current approach to health care provides poor results at high prices. As SiCKO shows, the current system has bought its place in society effectively through advertising and political donations. I do not know when we will have viable candidates willing to buck the system. They cannot emerge too soon.

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Michael M. on July 21st 2007 in General, Movies, Music, Recorded

Place concept albums

Inspired by my trip to Avalon, I purchased two delightful albums. In both cases, I had learned about them in the past without ever getting around to ordering. I present them in no particular order.

Greetings from Cairo, Illinois by Stace England drew comparisons to Illinois from multiply blogged Sufjan Stevens. England resides in Cobden, Illinois. Wil Maring and Robert Bowlin of Shady Mix also live there. It must be some town. I found it by searching for “Going Down to Cairo,” one of the few southern Illinois fiddle tunes, on iTunes. It is one of the most played tunes in Folk School circles. As mentioned previously, I sang a verse I picked up from the iTunes clip at a Folk School showcase. The version on the album was sung by a men’s chorus to great effect. The other traditional tune is “Cairo Blues.” The song was part of Andy Cohen second set at the Mississippi John Hurt Festival. It was recorded first by Henry Spaulding and then served as a favorite tune of Saint Louis blues legend Henry Townsend. The other songs are originals by England about Cairo. The most prevalent style is country rock, but it ranges. The deep black humor in the lyrics covering the rampage of a lynch mob is excellent. My desire to see Cairo for myself, which I have had for a while, has grown.

I mentioned Harry Bolick‘s Carroll County, Mississippi in my post about visiting Avalon in Carroll County. Since then, I bought a CD and a shirt. The album mostly covers fiddle tunes played by Narmour and Smith along with tunes from other players in that region. One of the tunes from other musicians is “The Last Shot Got Him.” As we discussed on the Mississippi John Hurt forum, his “First Shot Missed Him” and the Mississippi Possum Hunters‘ “The Last Shot Got Him” come from the same source, an old rag from 1912. When I came across the two, I had the idea to recombine them. I even tried to get a local fiddler to play “The Last Shot Got Him” at a party to make it happen, but she did not know it. Bolick’s version does it, and it was recorded well before when I had the idea. In 2000, Carroll County had only 10,769 residents, and it could not have had many more back in the 1920s and ’30s when the source material was recorded. Its musical history, however, is rich. Bolick had to pick and choose among the areas musical legacy. He made some good decisions.

In addition to being good musicians, both of them are friendly fellows. I ordered directly to maximize their profits and minimize my costs. I am happy to offer my small support. With both of them, I received friendly notes of thanks inquiring about how I encountered their albums. The concept of using geography to organize albums allowed production of some quality music. I recommend these musical and geographical detours off the main roads.

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Michael M. on July 20th 2007 in General, Music, Recorded

Dan Gellert

Dan Gellert visited Saint Louis the weekend after Independence Day. I caught two of his four or more engagements. He conducted both banjo and fiddle workshops at the Folk School on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Between the two, he played a house concert Saturday night. He also played the Childgrove dance Sunday night.

Gellert is a big presence in the world of old time American folk music. It was a success of the community to have him here. He has studied the first recorded folk musicians closely, and he has great insight into how they played. A major part of his music is the African influence. It seems difficult to believe considering the current social associations of hillbillies. The music of rural America long ago diverged from British and other European traditions. Canadian fiddlers, much more than American ones, sound a lot like British fiddlers. More than talking about it, he showed it by playing a four string gourd banjo, two fretless banjos and a fiddle. I now know enough to stick around after the real show. It took a while, but the jam was great, too.

The next morning, I went to the fiddle workshop. It was my first music workshop, and I did not know what to expect. I took away some bowing advice that I am now working to employ. We worked on Uncle Bunt Stephens‘ “Candy Girl,” but it really was a vehicle for trying to let the bow dance more than a tune to learn. There is very little left hand work in the tune. I continue my battle with the bow, but now with new approaches.

I am not the only one who enjoyed it enough to blog. You can read another account of the weekend from someone who also made it to the dance. I hope this visit is the first of many more for Gellert and the first of many more experiences learning from top players for me.

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Michael M. on July 19th 2007 in General, Live, Music

Charter woes

This blog’s connection to the Internet went down just after noon on Saturday. I noticed when I returned later in the day. I called Charter. The first time, I went through the automated system for a while before reaching a real person who promptly put me on hold and never returned. I called back. That person thought my cable modem was broken. It was not. He offered to let me swap out my modem at a local Charter location. Since it was obviously not the problem, I had him send a technician out. The technician came this afternoon and fixed the problem in a few minutes. How? Somebody, presumably a Charter employee, had disconnected my cable in the locked box on the outside wall on Saturday. He reconnected it. My upstream power is still at maximum much of the time, and the connection is not reliable. I felt dumb for missing the opportunity to ask the technician. I have not mentioned Charter in a long time. At least it mostly works and a more consistent basis than it used to.

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Michael M. on July 16th 2007 in General

Let them eat bluegrass.

Let Them Eat Art, a street fair, will happen this Friday in Maplewood. On the eve of Bastille Day from 6 to 11 PM, shops will stay open late, and artists, entertainers and vendors will fill the streets. Here is the PDF poster. I will be one of those entertainers. A friend I met through the Folk School has mustered a bluegrass group to play at Gisele’s, a French boutique owned by his wife. We have fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar and upright bass and plans to trade off on instruments and vocals. We have rehearsed a few times. It ought to be a good time.

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Michael M. on July 12th 2007 in General, Live, Music

Mississippi John Hurt Festival

I was a pilgrim. On Independence Day, I awoke early and enlisted the canine assistance of Ralph to wake Lib. Then we headed up to Avalon. I had wanted to go to the Mississippi John Hurt Festival last year, but then I did not feel at liberty to spend the time away. I am a big fan. When I visited home later in the summer, I made a detour. It was too quick. This time, we arrived early and started with a trip to the St. James cemetery that I could not find last year. Then I soaked in the whole afternoon of music. I could have stayed longer.

The music was good, but the people were the real treat. I met Mary Frances Hurt Wright, Hurt’s granddaughter, who heads the foundation. Hurt’s oldest granddaughter was there, too. I tried to catch her reminiscences as she toured the old house that has been converted to the museum. Art Browning, the curator, gave tours and told stories. He even picked a little “Payday” for us.

I had a good time talking to some people from the forum. Novalis was down on a tour of musical sites. Jonathan Beech, who posts on the forum as Manchester Jonny, made the festival the center of his American vacation. Early in the festival, he stepped on stage to tell us about how he came to the music, and he played us a few fine tunes. He called it “a dream come true,” and it was great seeing him up there. A professional illustrator, he presented his depiction of “Louis Collins” to the foundation later in the day. He posted it on his blog. He also posted about its role in one of Frank Delaney‘s projects. I have wondered about “Louis Collins” for a while. Hurt seems to have made the song based on a local murder. Reportedly, Delaney has found some census records and other material that will soon shed light on the story behind it.

Also playing country fingerstyle were Lost Jim Ohlschmidt and Andy Cohen. Lost Jim played his tribute “Dear Daddy John.” An earlier recording is on the mp3 page. He recorded a whole album of MJH tunes. Cohen played a wide variety of fingerstyle music with a Hurt tune or two toward the end. A fellow named Donald Kincaid who has sung with the Jackson Southernaires also performed.

Super Chikan played some of his contemporary electric blues on his folk art painted guitars made from recycled objects. As announced at the festival and in this post on his agent Charley Burch‘s blog, Chikan will record some Mississippi John Hurt songs. On stage, he talked about hearing his father fiddle. I was intrigued. I have been curious about the huge role of African-Americans in country music and the enduring affection of many African-Americans for country music for a while, my latest focus being the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Between his sets, I asked Chikan about it. He never learned to fiddle. He said that somebody, I think his grandfather, played banjo. He lacked guitar skills at the time to second well and had only played along a little on his diddley bow. He could not remember any tunes they played. It was a disappointing part stuck in a terrific day.

I also spotted a few Mississippi folks, familiar and new. Lib and I talked to the Ellen and Jim Steeby, parents of a high school friend of hers. I found this post on robwire.com, the blog of Robert Neill who lives near Avalon, that features one of his photographs of the festival. I also found this post from a fellow named David Rosen who must be spending the summer as an intern at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I believe we toured the museum with him and his friend. I had a good talk about Mississippi roots with a newspaper reporter covering the festival, but I have not found her article yet. At the end of the day, a lady came to hand me a flier for a store. I had helped her adjust the arms of her chair at the beginning of the afternoon. I only recognized her at the end of the day. She runs the Little Big Store in the old Raymond train depot. Two people from the Mississippi Old Time Music Association sat down behind me. One I had played with on Sunday. The other had not been at the jam, but I remembered his name, Tim Avalon, from the society’s CD. He will publish a book on Mississippi fiddle music that I look forward to reading.

I talked to a man wearing a Carroll County t-shirt with fiddler Willie Narmour on it, trying my best to encourage him to follow his desire to take up fiddling. Harry Bolick designed the shirt. He also made an album about his ancestral home, Carroll County, Mississippi. I placed an order for the t-shirt and the CD. I have listened to snippets of the album, and now I want to hear the whole thing.

Musicians love to talk and play just a little more. After the festival, Andy Cohen and I traded a few fiddle tunes in the twilight. I played “Carroll County Blues” there within the eponymous territory. Art Browning and I traded a few MJH tunes along with Novalis. After a brief conversation earlier in the afternoon, I visited more with Phil “Delta Dan” Ratcliffe about the MJH book he is writing, swapping notes with him and Mary Wright and the lady from the Little Big Store. Mary invited us in, but it was past time. The light had gone from the sky.

Now that I am back from vacation, I have to watch myself. The trip so affected me that I will expound if I sense the opportunity and the denial is not too harsh. I quickly become animated. When I told Rebecca about my journey, she brought up Schultze Gets the Blues, recommended to her by her parents. This review of it mentions Genghis Blues. I am not much of a moviegoer. I never have belonged to Blockbuster or Netflix. These movies were small films in the American market. Somehow, I have seen both of them. A German friend in my old research group loaned me Schultze. I borrowed Genghis Blues from the library after stumbling across it while browsing. I do not know why I neglected to blog about them until now. Now I, too, have traveled an isolated rural path seeking the roots of the music I love. Fictional Schultze became entranced by zydeco and headed for the bayous. Paul Pena‘s love for throat singing led him to Tuva. I rode my passion to Avalon.

Update July 23: Jon Beech posted his reminiscence of the day.

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Michael M. on July 10th 2007 in General, Live, Music

BugMeNot NPR

BugMeNot is designed to allow web surfers to bypass registration. NPR‘s Morning Edition covered it. A search revealed that All Things Considered had this story two years ago. I have the extension for Firefox installed on most computers I use. I do not have very much luck finding working accounts with BugMeNot, but I appreciate the effort.

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Michael M. on July 2nd 2007 in General

Evo-Devo

From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes” in The New York Times covers news from evolutionary developmental biology, evo-devo for short. My old lab used genetic constructs built from the gene Pax6 to study eye development. Although the work was much more devo than evo, the evo came up sometimes. Cascades of genes that act in developmental processes link genetics and small genetic changes with morphological changes that can be big. There is too much astonishment in the tone of the article. Anybody possessing a passing familiarity with developmental biology understands the basic story. While I was truly happy to see the article, a few shortcomings of the article stand out. It jumps too freely from a factor closely tied to anatomical patterning during development, BMP4, to calmodulin, a very different type of protein that is widely expressed in many cell types throughout the lifespan. It also fails to consider the ways that existing developmental pathways limit what can evolve in the future. Only certain changes are possible with the given genetic toolkit while other changes are prohibited because they would disrupt other parts of development too greatly.

Some computational biologists search for optimality principles. For instance, the principle that the brain is arranged to minimize the total length of cell-to-cell connections might explain the arrangement of processing areas in the brain. I always have wondered how worthwhile the search for optimality principles is given the constraints posed by development and by the changes that could happen via the available evolutionary pathways. Since there are only certain genes and they can only change certain ways, does it make since to look for optimization in such general terms?

The whole Science Times section is dedicated to evolution. “Fast Reproducing Microbes Provide a Window on Natural Selection” is another good one. Although the article does not point it out, it speaks to a common misconception about evolution, that evolution lacks predictive power or is purely retrospective. Of course, observational science is still science, too.

Humans Have Spread Globally, and Evolved Locally” looks at lactase evolution in humans. I have blogged twice about lactose tolerance. It mentions several of the same researchers as previous stories and then goes on to discuss other genes affected by selection in the history of modern humans. The previous topic of mutations in genes regulating brain development. As before, the article tiptoes around topics we will have to reckon with someday soon. “The Human Family Tree Has Become a Bush With Many Branches” looks to much older questions of human genetics.

Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force” is, as the first article mentioned, too uncritical, but it inspires some speculation. Will many theologians take up the real task at hand, to explore what religion might be in the light of recent discoveries? The classic pattern is to deny the facts and attack the messengers. Nancey Murphy brought up the Copernican controversy. I doubt that souls will ever disappear in puffs of logic. What souls are and are not, however, will become more defined and circumscribed.

Human DNA, the Ultimate Spot for Secret Messages (Are Some There Now?)” brings up ideas of data archiving in DNA.

If cockroaches can be archives, why not us? The human genome, for example, consists of some 2.9 billion of those letters — the equivalent of about 750 megabytes of data — but only about 3 percent of it goes into composing the 22,000 or so genes that make us what we are.

I could not help but notice that 750 MB is only a little bigger than a CD. The problem I see is with robustness, but it appears that redundancy questions have been considered well by scientists who have explored this idea. The article mentions the White Album regarding secret messages. We could not store all that much information in DNA. Our whole genome takes up less storage than the White Album

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Michael M. on July 2nd 2007 in General

Mississippi Old-Time

Sunday afternoon, I fiddled with the blogged Mississippi Old-Time Music Society. The Vicksburg Post published this article about them earlier this year. One of their regular jam sessions is at the Clinton Visitor Center on the Natchez Trace Parkway, and I met them there. They said that the crowd was smaller than usual with the upcoming Independence Day, but the pickers that showed were a lot of fun. I would join the society if I lived in Mississippi, and I hope to play more with them on future visits home.

I bought their CD O’Possum on a Rail, named for the old-time tune “Possum on a Rail” recorded by the Mississippi Possum Hunters. Although we did not play it, we did play previously bloggedSullivan’s Hollow,” an old-time Mississippi tune recorded by Freeny’s Barn Dance Band and more recently by Uncle Earl. In addition to the fiddle tune, Sullivan’s Hollow is the notorious subject of a book and many legends. Both songs were collected on Mississippi String Bands, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. I had learned the tune from the two recordings, and I have wanted to play it with others for a long time. Today I fulfilled that wish, and the CD made for good listening on the trip back home.

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Michael M. on July 1st 2007 in General, Music

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.