Archive for November, 2007

Eighth grade English

I revisited eighth grade literature Saturday afternoon. We studied To Kill a Mockingbird together as a class that year. It was the first novel in the curriculum. We had read the novella The Red Pony the year before. It had been included in our reader, but for Mockingbird, each student bought a copy of the novel. Our teacher ordered them in bulk, and they all arrived together. We went through the novel over several weeks in the spring. Now many years later, something will bring it rushing back to mind. I blogged about it two times.

It rushed back yesterday. On my drive back to Saint Louis Saturday afternoon, I was as bored as I could be, so I started pressing seek on the radio. It stopped on someone reading Mockingbird, and I stayed tuned in as I passed through northeast Arkansas and into the Bootheel. It must have been the Classics or Southern Authors program on WYPL, the radio reading service of the Memphis Public Library. Add another item to the lists of reasons Memphis is a great place and reasons libraries are wonderful public institutions. I caught a piece toward the end of the trial. I think the reader announced chapter 18 at some point while I was listening. Although time is closing in on a score of years since my only reading of the book and I had missed 16 or 17 chapters, I was immediately into it. I enjoyed it for as long as it lasted, but my travels took me out of radio range.

Then I decided to listen to This American Life on my iPod. As I have written previously, stocking it with episodes has provided great relief from the tedium of long drives. When I hit the skip button, it randomly jumped to This American’s Life’s Holiday Gift-Giving Guide. Being utterly appropriate for the second day after Thanksgiving, I let it play. The second act was blogged Truman Capote reading “A Christmas Memory.” I think we also read it in eighth grade although I may be off by a year. It was a nice turn. Dill, the Mockingbird character inspired by Capote, played a prominent role in the courtroom scene. As with Mockingbird, hearing it largely reminded me of how much I had forgotten and how much I had never even absorbed. In the story, Buddy’s friend Sook talks about seeing the Lord long before ones death. The meaning seemed so obvious hearing it this time, but the words must have been wasted on our eighth grade eyes. Capote also wrote about Buddy drunk on whiskey at Christmas, a story not dissimilar from one from my south Alabama family. I cannot remember reading in in junior high. Maybe it was redacted from our reader. One more time through the story was a gift.

Act Three was Secret Santa. Very Secret Santa. Caitlin Shetterly told the story of a reclusive Christmas tree farmer in her rural Maine hometown. She compared him to Boo Radley. This American Life is so subtle and wonderful. I was thrilled to hear the little thread emerge from the tapestry once more.

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Michael M. on November 25th 2007 in General

Cold Mountain

I wanted to read Cold Mountain for its connections to old-time music. In a Folk School fiddle class, we learned “Shove that Pig’s Foot a Little Farther into the Fire.” Either the teacher or one of my classmates said that it had been in Cold Mountain, the movie, as “Ruby with the Eyes that Sparkle.” It might be in a different key, but it is the same tune. This post about the use in the movie links to recently blogged Bruce Molsky playing it with others in this video on YouTube.

Feeling that reading before watching a movie adaptation is better than the reverse, I checked out the book from the library, and I did find other old-time allusions. “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” collected by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. He lived in Asheville. Charles Frazier, born in Asheville, used its lyrics in the book.

The final connection involves Tommy Jarrell, one of the greats of old-time music. The Oxford American has put out great music issues for several years, each one with a CD. Recently, the magazine published this issue with a DVD. My Old Fiddle, a short documentary about Jarrell by Les Blank, father of twice blogged filmmaker Harrod Blank. In it, Jarrell tells the story of playing for a dying girl. In the book, the character Stobrod tells the same story, adapted to the novel’s plot.

I probably missed others. Cold Mountain was fun reading in itself. I also enjoyed spotting the allusions. Anyone with an interest in American folk music, especially the old-time Appalachian music, could find a lot to like in the book.

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Michael M. on November 23rd 2007 in General, Movies, Music, Recorded


This post on Kottke shocked me. The Wall family claims that they were held in slavery until the 1960s. See this post that Kottke linked. I subsequently found this post on Nubian Waves. Watch the video on YouTube. The news broke several years ago. I found this radio piece from the Tavis Smiley Show on NPR.

The Walls were in Gillsburg, Mississippi, a place I know. I found this article in the Hammond Star about a street recently named for the family patriarch. The same paper published two stories about a party for Wall this summer, and the Enterprise-Journal, my hometown newspaper, published this article about Wall back in July.

I do not know what to make of these reports. Many of the details remain unconfirmed, and some of them happened too long ago to verify. It is strange that more investigation has not occurred.

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Michael M. on November 23rd 2007 in General

Brain train

I posted about the exercise as mental training a week before this story aired on NPR‘s Morning Edition. It profiles Posit Science, another product aimed at improving or maintaining mental acuity. Michael Merzenich is one of the founders, and he has a company blog. He has another company called Scientific Learning. Along with his commercial pursuits, he is a professor at UCSF. He has researched neural plasticity in the adult brain, focusing on changes in auditory cortex. According to the NPR story, the Posit Science software trains users on simplified auditory tones in contrast to the complex tasks most brain training software use. This approach makes sense in light of Merzenich’s research approach, and they have clinical studies to see how well it works.

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Michael M. on November 22nd 2007 in General


The McComb Enterprise-Journal published this article about the Rhinestone Cowboy. It covers the museum exhibition I blogged last spring.

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Michael M. on November 18th 2007 in General

Brain and body

This op-ed in The New York Times rings true with me. The easiest boost to mental agility comes from physical exercise. Sam Wang is a professor at Princeton, and Sandra Aamodt is editor of Nature Neuroscience. Both are well known in neuroscience. I remember that Wang visited Cold Spring Harbor when I was there. Aamodt gave a talk at WashU about the editorial process in science two years ago. As editor-in-chief of one of the most prestigious journals in the field, she is in a great position to know about the research forefront. They are the authors of Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life. I went through a physically inactive period for several years, and life just was not as good. I was not as happy or as mentally sharp. At the anecdotal level of my own experience, I find their argument compelling.

My head is full of neuroscience these days. I returned from Neuroscience 2007, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. I had a great time seeing new findings and visiting with friends at other institutions. My poster presentation was a good experience. Now I need that experience to translate into a strong push on my own work.

Newt Gingrich gave one of the special lectures at Neuroscience. He talked mainly about pushing to increase the budgets of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Among his topics was learning more about how we learn. I have watched discussions about new math or whole language. They inspired great passion, but touched only sparingly on any factual knowledge about how children learn best. I am hopeful that teaching strategies will move toward more effective methods as we learn more about the general mechanisms of learning and memory and about how well different teaching approaches work.

Gingrich impressed me favorably. Some of his answers to audience questions demonstrated why he remains politically divisive. While I doubt that anybody there, with the probable exception of Newt Gingrich, liked everything he had to say, he showed himself to be a highly educated, intelligent and thoughtful person. He referred casually to historical and scientific findings. His use of neuroscience terms and ideas was accurate and appropriate. He has quite a good understanding of natural history; he discussed his talk at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontolgoists the month before. He discussed “The Two Cultures” framework advanced by C. P. Snow. In the end, he called on scientists to dedicate a portion of their lives to political action, contacting legislators and asking them to set scientific research as a high priority for the government.

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Michael M. on November 12th 2007 in General

Cracker Pageant

I attended the Cracker concert at the Pageant. Camper Van Beethoven was David Lowery‘s band before Cracker. I am a Camper fan. I like Cracker, too, though. A message from Cracker on MySpace helped push me over the edge in deciding to go. The crowd was small, the smallest audience I have seen at that venue. The people there were enthusiastic, though. Cracker played old hits including “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now),” “Eurotrash Girl” and “Low” along with songs from the new album.

I never had thought much about the band’s name. “Cracker” is fitting. Most of their songs mix honky tonk and rock. I knew the band mostly from the bigger hits, and they have less of a country sound. When Cracker started in the early 1990s, I was not interested. Cracker was popular, but I missed Camper. Even now, I enjoy Camper songs more. They, too, played country rock, but they explored more broadly into other styles. Camper spanned more musical territory. Now, though, I appreciate Cracker as well.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit opened. His Southern rock style fits with Cracker. I heard him play several times with the DriveBy Truckers. He managed to hold his own in a band that was already going strong when he joined. His played several songs from the DBT era, including “Outfit.” I had not heard about his split from DBT until just a few weeks ago. I enjoyed his role in that band, but I can report that he is doing well as a sole frontman.

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

Singing pathologist

KWMU profiled Arie Perry this morning. I blogged about him almost three years ago. Perry is a neuropathologist at the WashU School of Medicine. The Record had this article last year. He often ends his lectures to medical students with songs. Typically, he sets lyrics about neurological diseases to popular melodies. The songs are good breaks from the classroom routine.

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Michael M. on November 12th 2007 in General

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