Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tuesday Tool pedicure edition

Today's tool is a hoof trimmer.  It's actually a cheapo pair of small garden shears, and I'm too beat to go out and take a picture of the thing, so I'll encourage you to use your imagination. 

I spent the afternoon trimming the ewe's hooves.  I'm getting better at it; you gotta catch the sheep give it a hug, lift it up and sort of sit it on either its left or right buttock, and lean it back against your thighs.  With its four hooves up and out, it usually doesn't squirm too much, and you can trim the horny bits off.  Some people prefer straight bladed shears, some curved, some serrated, some flat--I haven't noticed much difference, other than between sharp and dull--sharp is good.  The most important variable, I've found, is the squirminess of the sheep.  I only cut one hoof to the quick, which got me a few drops of blood and a dirty look, and I sliced a little bit off of one of my knuckles, which anointed all the subsequent sheep with a bit of my blood.

Most of our ewes are pretty easygoing.  No real problems catching or flipping or clipping.  A couple of them completely relaxed, and sort of flopped over while I was working on them.  Two of them were hard to get, and being larger and wilier, much harder to flip.  One was absolutely awful to catch--I had to do the flying football tackle to get her, and do some TV-style wrestling moves to get her on her butt.  Once there, it was all squirm, all the time.  Of course, she was the one whose pedicure was interrupted by my cell phone ringing.  She finally got done, but feh! she was a pill.  I don't think she's going to be part of our flock by the end of the year.  Nice fleece, but good looks will only get you so far. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday Musical Innovation

I have to admit that I’ve never loved the “historically informed performance” movement.  This is the whole scheme of playing the music of the Baroque and Classical eras, on musical instruments of that era, in (what is supposed to be) the style of that era.  The movement is about as old as I am, and become mainstream in the classical music world. I’ll concede that the “period performance” movement has had a corrective effect on some 20th century excesses.  However, I still prefer Bruno Walter’s Beethoven to Norrington’s, and Szerying’s Tartini to Wallfisch’s.  But, a recent scientific breakthrough may lead me to change my mind.

To be completely honest, I’ve got several problems with the “authenticity” thing.  Some minor issues are that I just don’t think Locatelli was that great; that the players usually play too darn fast; that vibrato is, in fact, a good thing, and so on.  There’s a larger philosophical issue—we simply can’t recreate 18th century performance style.  The 20th century is a complete anomaly in the history of humanity and music, in that sound (and performance practice) is no longer ephemeral, but the performances of Mozart and Bach—the sounds they made—are lost forever. 

However, the biggest problem I have with “authenticity” is the instruments.  I simply don’t like the way they sound.  I hate the timbre of the harpsichord, and “fortepianos” sound like John Cage’s “prepared” pianos and can’t stay in tune.  I’ve played excellent baroque violins, and they’re interesting, but there are reasons that just about every Strad and Guarneri and Amati has been modified to modern spec and played with a modern bow.  To my ears, authentic instruments don’t sound good, so imagine my surprise when I found that problem is with my ears, or what’s around them.

A really neat paper came out recently about the interplay of acoustics, acoustical aesthetics, and fashion.  The lead author, D. Avril Poisson, is more noted as a researcher in the biological sciences, but like the noted geneticists Jacques Monod and James Crow, she is an accomplished amateur string player.  Like me, she had always been irritated by the sound of “period” instruments, and like me, she had always assumed the problem was with the unique timbre of the instruments—their signature collection and arrangement of overtones.

The bolt of lightning that inspired her to change her mind was quite literal: it fried a transformer at an electrical substation near her workplace, Miskatonic University, one evening last winter. Dr. Poisson is as dedicated to her art as she is to her science, so the evening’s rehearsal of the Miskatonic Pro(-Am) Musica went on according to schedule, in a chilly room lit by candlelight.  Dr. Poisson found herself wearing a sort of hunter’s cap with earflaps and LED lights in the visor so she could read her score, and found that her viola sounded radically different.  The ear flaps, though they did not cover her ears, seemed to amplify certain frequencies of sound from her viola and quench others, and her modern instrument took on a radically different character.

As soon as she could, Dr. Poisson borrowed one of her fellow enthusiast’s violins—a 2003 reproduction of an Andrea Amati in its “original” condition with gut strings and a baroque bow, and played it with a variety of headgear, ranging from the hunter’s cap to a sombrero.  Although, to her ears, the fiddle never sounded great, it sounded quite different with each topper—different enough to spark a possible breakthrough in “authentic” practice.

Collaboration with Amy Vieuxtemps, a historian, and some creative work with a costumer provided Dr. Poisson with a variety of periwigs and perukes such as might have been worn in the time of Bach and Handel.  These all featured curls of stiffened wool immediately adjacent to the wearer’s ears, and unsurprisingly, radically altered the wearer’s impression of modern and baroque violins.  Dr. Poisson found, to her surprise and delight, that the annoying features of the baroque violin’s timbre vanished when she wore a gentleman’s wig of the late-17th century German style.  The fiddle sounded great. 

Dr. Poisson, a noted experimentalist, realized that this was an extremely subjective observation, and so, set about to gather some data.  She rigged up a manikin with microphones and a variety of wigs, and collected sound spectra of several modern and baroque violins.  She was able to identify certain clusters of tones that the wigs filtered out, and others that they seemed to amplify.  The result was not surprising, given what anatomists knew about the effect of different shapes of bats’ ears on their sound perception.  Also, the result was robust enough that she developed a computerized filter that could be fed a digital waveform from a baroque violin, and would produce a “wigged” version of the sound.  In a blind survey of the 107 Miskatonic students enrolled in a music history class, 83 preferred the “wigged” baroque violin to the “naked” fiddle.  Similar results were obtained with a reproduction of a 1691 Flemish harpsichord, and the university’s prized 1780 Stein fortepiano.

There is some fodder here for historians of fashion.  Ornate wigs were absolutely required for men of any standing in society from the mid-1600s on.  Fashion, driven by royal vanity, is usually cited as one reason, along with the desirability of a shaven pate and removable hair in a milieu rife with head lice.  Along about 1800, such wigs rapidly become intensely unfashionable (outside of the English legal system).  Given the eternal nature of both royal vanity and parasites, the reason for the wig’s demise has long been a mystery. 

At the same time wigs were on the way out, Francois-Xavier Tourte revolutionized the design of the violin bow, giving the instrument much more power, and the violins of the Cremonese masters were having their necks replaced and strings tensioned.  John Broadwood was expanding the length and width of the piano, balancing the increased tension of the strings on a stronger, cast-iron frame, and harpsichords generally became kindling.

According to Poisson and her colleagues, this synchrony is no coincidence.  I have been taught that the interplay between composer/performer and instrument builder was a closed cycle: the musician wanted more powerful instruments, driving to the builder to make a more powerful instrument.  Then, the instrument maker built something with even more oomph, and the composer expanded his vision to encompass it.  Poisson suggests the radical hypothesis that this vicious cycle also killed the periwig, as, by 1800 its major use (according to her) was as an acoustic filter.  The itchy, unpleasant thing was no longer necessary and was summarily discarded.

Although fashion is constantly recycling old ideas and calling them new, it is unlikely that the clock will roll back far enough for the powdered periwig to re-enter the mainstream.  The fashion of playing the music of the Baroque on unimproved instruments is also unlikely to perish (especially since so much money has been invested in modern reproductions of these instruments).  I am always hopeful that I will be able to enjoy such performances, but must I go and get a wooly wig?

Not to worry.  Poisson, in conjunction with the global mega-instrument maker Yarnaha, has developed a product called “BarokEerz.”  These are a disposable, clip-on set of curls made of synthetic fibers that can be worn to any event featuring period performance practices.  The concept is on firm scientific, artistic, and financial ground.  Yamaha acousticians have confirmed that BarokEerz exactly replicate the acoustic effect of a periwig, and can even be specially tuned to maximize enjoyment of music from the early Baroque through the late classical period and account for variations between Italian, German, French, and English fashion.  Endorsements have been secured from a variety of the most pure-minded and rigorous period performers.  And, they are inexpensive enough that they can be included in the price of a ticket to any major concert venue.  I look forward to hearing the Baroque with fresh ears—or, though I shudder at the spelling, Eerz. 

Poisson, D. Avril, and Amy Vieuxtemps (2013).  Acoustic and Perceived Timbre-Modifying Effects of 17th-18th century Gentlemen’s Wigs.  J. Hist. Informed Perf. 33: 430-440. 

Kuc, R., (2010).  Morphology Suggests Noseleaf and Pinnae Cooperate to Enhance Bat Echolocation.  J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 128 (5): 3190-3199. 

Poisson, D. Avril, and Bella Sone (2013).  Wigger: A Software Package for Modernizing Ancient Instruments.  Proc. Southeast. Indiana Acoust. Soc. (A), 12: 72-77.

Yarnaha (2013).  You’ve Never Heard Baroque Music Before—Hear It With New Eerz! [Press Release]

je ne regrette rien

A belated happy Purim, to those who celebrated.  If you want to make your own, I'll send you a very good recipe. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Waiting for goat doe

A couple of days ago, I received an email from our friend MB; she had injected one of her goats, who was hugely pregnant, with deximethisone, so she should be giving birth in exactly 36 hours, at 8:30 in the morning on Sunday.  Would I like to watch, learn, and assist?

In the words of Butterfly McQueen, I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies, so I accepted the invitation.  Sunday morning chores ran a little long, so I called MB at a little after 8:00 on Sunday, asking if arriving at 9:30 would mean missing the show.  I was reassured that I probably wouldn’t miss a thing, since the goat, Madeline, showed no signs of starting labor. 

I arrived at MB’s farm, and found MB trying to convince Madeline to get started.  The very knowledgeable vet was adamant that "deximethisone + 36 hours  = birth," but
Madeline apparently was not buying it.  However, she should have been.  She was huge and uncomfortable, the kids inside her stretching her to over twice her normal width.  (Nigerian Dwarf goats, when gravid, are about as wide as they are long.  They wheeze and snore because their lungs are compressed, they waddle and creak because their cartilage is softening, they urp and burp at a higher than normal rate because their rumens are squoze.  No uncomfortable waddle matches that of a doe great with four kids.  To pregnant humans they give the dubious consolation that it could be worse.)

As the day wore on, MB and I spent hours watching Madeline.  The tendons in her tail softened and practically disappeared.  “That’s a sign,” said MB, that labor is imminent.  What does imminent mean?  An hour, maybe two, or maybe a couple of days.  Madeline sat like a dog, her enormous belly making her look like a Buddha.  “That’s a sign,” said MB, and she’d give something that looked like a contraction—and then produce a cud.  She’d grind her teeth in pain—“Sometimes that’s a sign”—and yawn—“that’s a sign too”—and her abdomen would heave…and she’d produce another cud.  I stayed until 5:00, when I had to go home and feed my critters.

I returned later that evening; I had nothing else to do, and I needed to stay up late to meet the Real Doctor at the airport.  Besides, Madeline had started whimpering, and was making a nest—“those are signs, usually”.  As of 1:00 AM, nothing had happened.  MB checked on her every couple of hours through the night.

The following day, the Real Doctor and I got to MB’s farm around noon.  Nothing had happened overnight, and while the morning had not been quiet (a barn full of massively pregnant goats is loud, with all the wheezing, whining, and complaining), no signs of labor had been noted.  However, by early afternoon, Madeline had firmly settled into a nest and had started real, non-cud-producing contractions.  However many kids were inside her massive belly, they had realigned themselves.  She was no longer as wide, but so distended that if she walked, her belly practically dragged on the straw. 

Real, productive labor started mid-afternoon.  I won’t go into the details of the process, other than it involved a little intervention from MB, and a deal of justifiably loud complaining from Madeline.  Over the course of about two hours, three does and one buck came into the world and started suckling, complaining, sleeping, and being cute. 
I wanted to learn about the birthing process so I’ll be ready when our goats start kidding later this year.  I still need to know more (and fortunately, MB has a bunch more gravid does), but MB pointed out one clear lesson from the 72-hour vigil for Madeline:  goats haven’t read the textbooks, and they will do what they do when they do it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wednesday Words Hunger Game edition

What's the common theme?
a) Kwashiorkor
b) Pellagra
c) Beri Beri
d) Marasmus
Answer will appear later this week.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tuesday Tool Muddy Mire edition

Today's tool--this week's tool--the tool of the last couple of weeks--is the combo of the drywall mud pan and the mudding knife.  I've been spending a lot of time with these recently, trying to get the drywall in the new bathroom finished.  The job was started by a professional drywall guy, because the tile guy needed to have the drywall in place to do his job.  However, the job was not finished by the drywall guy because I am cheap.  Rather than pay the pro to do the taping and mudding, I am doing it.  I feel like I am atoning for something.

Mudding drywall is harder than it sounds.  The tape (if you use paper tape, which the pros do*) loves to bubble and buckle.  The mud loves to clump and cling to the knife (which is really a spatula).  I've asked various people (including the drywall guy) for advice.  All have given me advice, then either suggested I get a pro to do it, or said "that's why drywall guys are paid so well."

I haven't even got to the sanding yet.  I don't think I'm rich enough for the Tuesday Tool to be the Porter Cable power drywall sander that I saw at Oregon Tool.

*The fiber tape costs about ten times as much.  If you're not a pro, for pete's sake, use the fiber tape.  You will not regret it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Testosterone surge

We entered winter with sixteen Shetland sheep, all ewes, and six Dwarf Nigerian goats, all does. So far, we’ve been increasing our herd by buying animals—the Real Doctor has done hours and hours of homework, carefully selecting those animals with good genetics and good conformation.  It’s kind of like fantasy baseball, choosing a squad that’s as good as possible, but fantasy is constrained by realities of availability and cost.  We’ve also obtained a few animals that weren’t exactly our first-round draft picks, but that were very good deals, because the seller was moving or getting out of the sheep biz. 

This mode of herd growth suits me just fine, but the Real Doctor assures me that there is another way.  Strange as it is to me as a microbiologist, the Real Doctor tells me that you can both increase the number of animals and reap the benefits of genetic recombination by combining haploid cells from two animals—but you need male animals to do this.  I admit, I have had some reservations about this way to grow a herd.  Consultation with textbooks has reassured me about the biological plausibility, but the male animals themselves give me pause.  

First, there’s some terminology: male goats are bucks, not billys.  Goat people give you the hairy eyeball if you call male goats billys.  So, bucks.  Bucks are weird.  They have some behaviors that simply are not fit for polite society, impolite society, or any human society. There is a medical term, hircismus, describing “offensive odor of the axillae,” or foul body odor, and tellingly, the word is derived from a Latin word for a he-goat (sorry, buck.  I keep forgetting).  Bucks have an earned reputation for single-minded lechery.  And, they butt.  One of the contractors who worked here related the story of a friend of his who wanted to see what butting was like.  So, he donned a football helmet and challenged a buck.  One bop, and the contractor’s friend was k.o.’d. 

Well, we don’t have just one buck, we now have two bucks.  There’s Guy Fawkes, the seasoned pro, and Arion, the naïve yearling.  
Guy (left) and Arion (right). 
 Having just one buck is a problem—goats and sheep are herd animals, and keeping one by itself makes it go crazy(er).  They do have their unmentionable behaviors, but if you don’t watch them, you do don’t see them doing it.  They smell, though not as bad as I had feared—every once in a while, there’s a breeze that smells like an accident in a feta cheese factory, but that’s all.  They are lecherous, but fortunately my resemblance to a female goat is so slight that they don’t try anything with me.  And so far, the macho posturing has been minimal—they’ve been polled, so between the two of them, they have maybe six cm of horn.  They don’t butt each other much at all.  They’re not all that noisy; their call is an embarrassingly effete, quiet, apologetically squeaky “mee-eh-eh-eh-eh.”  They are a bit dumber than their sister-folk.  I can’t say I like them as much as the does, but I guess I’m reconciled to them. 

Then, there’s rams.  With a polled, fifteen-kilogram buck that comes up to your knees, there’s not too much to be afraid of.  However, rams are scary, and anyone who works with rams knows that you have to watch your back when you’re with them, even cute little Shetland rams.  They lack the bucks’ rich bouquet of personality quirks—everything seems to be about butting.

We now have two rams, a pair for the same reason we have two bucks.  We got them a week ago, much sooner than we were planning on acquiring any rams.  However, a friend had a ram with excellent genes, but just didn’t get along with any of her other animals—so, as long as our friend can use his services, he’s ours.  Also, our friend has a buddy who is shutting down her sheep operation, and she had a really nice ram, and another ewe, going at a fire sale price, so we picked up both of those animals too.

Rams, like any ruminants, need at least one companion.  However, they also need to know their place in the herd hierarchy, even if the herd is only two.  So, at first, they spent most of their time butting each other.  We were advised to keep them in a small pen rather than an open pasture, so they couldn’t gain too much momentum before impact, so I built them a 5-by-8 pen and closed them in.  After that, I couldn’t watch; I don’t like violence, and even though I knew it was their program and that they weren’t just built for it, but they needed it, I found it disturbing enough to turn my stomach.  Going to bed at night, it sounded like distant artillery—a steady, muffled “whhhump… … …whhhump…” that would go on for a half hour, then pause, then resume.  It continued in the morning. 

After a couple of days, the rams seem to have sorted out the general terms of their social contract (Glenfiddich is the boss, Pirate is the underling; both have the scars of negotiation on their heads).  
Glenfiddich (left) and Pirate (right) in their momentum-limiting pen.  Blow up the picture to see the battle scars.
There are still occasional collisions to iron out the details of their relationship, and we’ve been advised to keep them penned up for a week or more to make sure that everything is resolved.  It’s been a week, and for the last few days their efforts have been less focused on damaging each other, and more concentrated on damaging their pen.  They have smashed the door of their pen three times, and I’ve spent a lot of time and hardware reinforcing it.  Instead of waking up to the noise of a distant artillery duel, I woke up this morning to the sound of splintering wood.

This doesn’t endear them to me; I don’t appreciate my work being trashed, and I don’t appreciate having to fix it in the cold and dark.  It’s especially unnerving to do work on the inside of the pen when the rams are pawing at the ground and looking at you as if they’re wondering exactly which of your ribs they’d like to break on their scarred foreheads.  So, while I like the ewes and does and most of the chooks, and I am even getting along well enough with the boy goats—no, with the bucks—the rams are still a problem for me.  I hope they calm down, and that we can at least achieve détente.  And we should see lambs and kids ere too long, and they are loveable. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday Fungus...purrrrrrple

Still too wet and wintry to have Friday Flora, but the fungi are loving life.  Here's another fine specimen from a few weeks ago, sighted along the North Umpqua Trail:

Probably Cortinarius violaceus.  About 4-7 cm across, and a deep purple color that just doesn't photograph well in the murky gloom of a thick cedar forest.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why didn't I know about this?!?!?!

In case you were wondering about my musical tastes, there's some things about which I'm an unabashed enthusiast. 

I really like Bach's "Goldberg" Variations.  I started off falling in love with the 1955 Gould recording, then getting seduced by the 1981 Gould recording, attended a good performance by Peter Serkin and a great performance by Jeremy Denk, not to mention the great recording by by Simone Dinnerstein.  The Goldbergs are one of the desert-island ten; I'd have a real hard time deciding which recording to take. 

I am an avid fan of what some see as excesses of late 19th-early 20th century Romantic pianism--the overcooked exuberance of Godowsky, Brahms, Liszt, Busoni, and their ilk.  I especially like it when they took the music of an earlier era and reworked it for their own ends; I have oodles of recordings of Bach in transcription.  Chasing this genus of genius leads one to the music of composers who are still really good, just not well-remembered, such as Rheinberger and Reger.

Also, I've always been a great fan of piano music for four (or six, or eight, or one) hands.  My first piano teacher, Mr. Bangs (really, that was his name), was really into the stuff, and his enthusiasm spread.  He got me and brother M. to play some of the Dvorak Slavonic dances, and ever since, whenever I meet someone who is also a pianist, I work my way around to see if they're interested.

So I wonder how it is that I only found out about the overlap of these sets

just a couple of days ago? Joseph Rheinberger--friend of Brahms, teacher, composer mainly remembered for tons of organ and choral music, but also author of lots of excellent chamber and piano stuff (not to mention some good 4-hand music) decided that the Goldbergs needed to be popularized.  They're awkward to play, being written for a two-manual harpsichord, so he figured he'd split the music between two pianos.  And, being a romantic, he felt that the writing was a bit spare, so he fleshed it out, just a bit.  A few decades later, Max Reger* a composer of similar sympathies, felt that the arrangement was OK, but needed a little more.  So, there we have it.  And there it sat for a hundred years. 

Well, no matter.  Pretty much as soon as I became aware of it, I went and purchased a recording
 and downloaded the score from IMSLP.

It's fabulous, meets and exceeds expectations, scratches all my itches and pushes all my buttons.  There's a You Tube video of a few minutes of the piece, if you want to get a taste. 

*Today, Reger is most famous for his reply to a music critic: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. Your review is in front of me. Soon, it will be behind me."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Wednesday Wordage...eeew

"Living Green" may be a perfectly acceptable brand name--it conjures up vitality and ecological virtue.  Toilet paper is also a good thing, although the preferred euphemism for selling it seems to be "bathroom tissue".  However, when the package says "Living green bathroom tissue," vile images run through my mind.