Books to sleep by

Books pile up barely read beside my bed.  They make their way from various places of origin:  the bookshelf of my office next door, the new bookshelf of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and occasionally from the warehouses of amazon.com.  I think to myself that I must read that book, yes, that book, right away and take it home with me. The problem is:  I don’t have enough time dedicated to reading books to get through many pages, let alone, entire books.  It takes only minutes before the book I chose for the night slips from my sleepy hands and falls thud on the floor.  Sleep triumphs over even the most seductive book.

Feelings on tap?

I just started reading Listen to This, a collection of edited essays by New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross.  As I sit down to write a presentation for next week, with all of Bach’s music on shuffle, one quote from Ross’ introduction pricks my conscience:  “For even as we worship our musical idols we also force them to produce particular emotions on cue.”  Guilty as charged?

Musing on books of old and of dreams

Listening to Closing the Book (CBC Ideas Jan 31, 2011) and reading Adam Gopnik’s How the Internet Gets Inside Us was a good match.

Some points that stood out for me:

  • I’m caught in two worlds: I like both the paper books and the electronic books, but the battle being fought at a systemic level. I won’t be surprised that more and more books of interest to me will be made in digital form. Also the fact that we won’t be living in a big house (which makes me a bit sad) will increase the relative advantage of digital works for me. The portability of books is appealing. I’m even toying with the idea of buying books to run on the Kindle software, specifically Complexity : A Guided Tour. I thought Philip Ball’s Music Instinct was available in Kindle form, but not so.
  • I long for software to help me order my digital life but Gopnik reminds me that a potent way to feel more grounded is to limit the amount of digital media I consume.
  • I have wanted to contribute more to “future of the book”. There are lot of good visionary ideas by Terry Jones of FluidInfo about “writable book APIs” in Fluidinfo » Blog Archive » Interview on writable book APIs & publishing at O’Reilly TOC. I wrote Pro Web 2.0 Mashups and have wanted to come back to transforming the book to a “living object”. Finding the time and energy is a challenge, of course!

Becoming an American…it’s complicated

Big personal news: I became a citizen of the United States yesterday morning. Laura and I celebrated with a big American cafe breakfast at the sunny Square Cafe.  The citizenship ceremony was quite moving. New citizens from India, Burma, and UAE provided powerful personal testimony of coming to US.  My own feelings  were complicated; I decided to pass on the opportunity to speak to my fellow new citizens and their friends.  Becoming an American is a bigger deal emotionally than I had anticipated. I was ecstatic but wiped out yesterday by the experience.

My new American identity

Ironically, it was distrust in American bureaucracy that motivated naturalization. I wasn’t in a big hurry to move from permanent residence status to citizenship. That is, until a nasty encounter with an immigration officer at the border showed me that USCIS has way too much power for me to ever feel securely part of this society while I remained an alien. Now as long I don’t commit treason or take a super high level position in a foreign country (all quite manageable tasks), I won’t have my American citizenship taken away.

On a more upbeat note, I was reminded yesterday morning that it’s all easy to take the right to vote for granted.   I will register to vote soon and look forward to voting in American elections. As a newly minted American, I’ve also become more responsible for what the US does in the world in my name; I can’t pass the buck like I used to.

Something I need to do soon:  apply for my US passport.  I find it odd that I will have to part with my hard earned naturalization certificate one federal agency (USCIS) just gave me to prove to another agency (Dept of State) to send me a US passport.  USCIS has already scrutinized me thoroughly to grant me citizenship. The Dept of State could get data directly from USCIS instead of me.   On further reflection, I probably should be glad that the government doesn’t have me all figured out.

Brahms and rap on today’s music menu

It’s time to learn German, just like it was time to do so twenty years ago, when I first wanted to feel for myself what the Bach cantatas must have have meant for Bach’s congregation.  Yesterday, it was a fun little Brahms song  Die Schwestern (“The Sisters”) ( Op 61 (Four Duets for soprano and alto with piano accompaniment) No 1.) that said to me, “you must learn German now.”  Listen and watch a version of the song by world famous singers Angelika Kirschlager and Barbara Bonney, as well as a homemade video of the Deuterettes singing at a piano keyboard.

On another musical note: this afternoon, I learned that a local rapper filmed a video at the barber shop where I get my hair cut, bringing the barber a bit of fame (and hopefully more fortune).   The video of Mac Miller is full of local Pittsburgh imagery, which is a lot of fun to someone living in Pgh.

What’s that name again?

I’ve started noticing how poor my memory has become.  I spend hours watching a television series like Big Love and can hardly remember the names of characters I’ve seen dozens of times.  I have to look up function names for Python I’ve used many times before.  Granted, if I ever want to meditate on the fine points Bill Henrickson‘s ancestry or figure out how to calculate an MD5 hash in Python, I can look those things up.   Does relying on an outsourced brain (butlered by Google) steadily erode my capacity to remember?  I can’t say with any rigor though I have my suspicions. Just don’t make me give up my notebook computer, the internet, and my phone!

Nonetheless, I’m tired of going to an Episcopal church for many weeks without having the Nicene Creed or prayer of confession (which we repeat every single week) memorized and internalized by now.  What to do?  I don’t have a simple answer to this question, though I’ve started to exhort myself to start by paying attention, being present, working to remember, and giving gratitude. I’ve spent too much of my life living in my head that I don’t pay sufficient attention to what’s right around me, every day.  Yesterday, as I swept our dining room, I couldn’t help thinking that “hey, this seemingly trivial act is the important stuff of life — pay attention because you’ll want to remember this moment one day.”  Last week, at a funeral, I was reminded once more about what people remember of a loved one’s life:  how much they were cared for and loved by the deceased person. It turns out that all those birthday parties, kind words, consistent shepherding do matter — more than a lot of the stuff I worry about. There are many times I long to be doing big, important things, when living my life in its mundane texture is the important work I need to be doing.  And I can do that job better by being present in it, fully present.

It’s funny that I should expect myself to effortlessly remember details from Big Love, given that I had to work diligently to learn facts as a student. Somehow I’ve forgotten that remembering takes work and it takes discipline.  There are no silver bullets though I never stop hoping for one.  Wasn’t Supermemo, which I read about in Wired several years ago going to make the work of learning melt away?   (I’m still hoping and plan to try a similar tool, AnyMemo for Android.)  I’m motivated to spend lots of  time writing because I’m convinced that there are few better ways for me than writing to learn and to remember; don’t forget: remembering usually takes hard work.

I surprise myself by adding “giving gratitude” to my list of methods for better memory.  It’s not a mistake.  Thinking about our past is not just about dispassionately reviewing what happened but noticing the many, many things for which we have reason to be grateful — and then actually being grateful in response to that noticing.  Laura and I pray every night before we go to bed.  When I was single, I didn’t pray that often in the evening.  But I am so grateful that we do pray because it gives me a chance to remember the people and events of the day and to be thankful.  Praying for people day in and day out has strengthened my connection to those people even when I’ve not talked to them for a long time.

NPR Music Takes Me Beyond Bach

The heart and soul of my musical life is the work of J. S. Bach. By no means, however, is Bach’s music is the only music I care about!  Bach absorbed so much music before and around him — and in turn, transformed music fundamentally for everyone who came after him.  I desire to partake in the world of music with the same omnivorous spirit as Bach had.

I’m working hard at broadening my musical understanding.  I’ve been exploring many different sources and hope to write about those sources.  (I’m reflecting on my sources not only to further my musical education but also to help me develop software to aid people to learn about music (among other things).)

Let me start with NPR Music, which strikes me , as a relatively new fan, as a vast source of musical news and knowledge.  Naturally, I’ve been consulting the classical music section to help me look more deeply into J. S. Bach but also to look beyond.  You would think that I would have already dug up all the good Bach treasures in the NPR archives, but I just found  such oldies but goodies as  “Variations on Bach, for a New Century” (from 2004).  There’s a fantastic archive of musical artists to explore. I’m slowly warming up to deceptive cadence, the new classical music blog.

I praise the intimate, informal, and energetic videos of the Tiny Desk Concerts for sparking an interest in music for which I had no previous exposure. Part of me thinks I should check out the entire archive of concerts, including upcoming live concerts. However, if I’m not careful, I can easily get overwhelmed with too many concerts to listen to.   Tiny Desk Concerts introduces new material at a good rate, not so much that I get overwhelmed; The videos are enticing enough for me to watch virtually everyone of them.

Abigail Washburn on NPR

NPR must love Abigail Washburn, who has been featured quite a bit lately.  I don’t mind.   I’ve gotten into learning about Washburn ever since I saw her Tiny Desk Concert and listened to her new album City of Refuge. Yesterday, she was interviewed on All Things Considered.  Fascinated by her connections to China (she was going to practice law there until she got a recording contract!), I particularly enjoy her rendition (YouTube) of Kangding Qingge.   BTW, Washburn is married to the legendary banjoist Béla Fleck, whom  I only recently came upon because of his appearance in Bach and Friends.