Jean Ritchie – An Appreciation

I saw Jean Ritchie (1922 – 2015) perform a few times. The first time was in Louisville shortly after moving to Kentucky in 1979. It was a summer folk festival at which she and John Jacob Niles were both scheduled to appear. Unfortunately, Niles was ill and unable to attend and I would never have another opportunity to hear him. The last time was at the Kentucky Folklife Festival probably around 10 years ago. (That festival was a low-key event on the state capitol grounds in Frankfort. I had a brief casual conversation with former governor Julian Carroll while standing around a large burgoo cauldron being stirred with a paddle.)  I was able to stand in line after Jean’s evening performance for an autograph on a CD and mumbled something incoherent about how she had a tremendous impact on my life. She smiled cordially and looked over my shoulder for the next person in line.

What I wanted her to know was that (like many people, I’m sure) I had first heard her sing “Shady Grove” on a folk music sampler back in the early 60s. It was the first time I had ever heard an Appalachian dulcimer. And it was at a time when I was just awakening to the diversity of music in the world, so I began to learn about this curious instrument and about the ballad tradition. I would later find a book about making dulcimers published by Folkways records, and built several dulcimers before ever actually seeing one in real life. (At the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. This was 1969, and dulcimers were still quite rare.)

Jean has written several books including “Dulcimer People,” about the old dulcimer makers and players she grew up with in eastern Kentucky. She was a real musicologist — this and her other books remain important resources for scholars and aficionados of traditional Appalachian music.

The experience further prompted me to learn more about all the varieties of musical instruments in the world. Jean’s music stayed with me as I pursued an undergraduate degree in music history at New College of Florida. While studying counterpoint and historical eras, I was able to do in-depth study in the history and construction of musical instruments as independent study programs (New College required at least three IS courses.) I also started a short-lived local dulcimer society.

Having grown up in the frigid flatness of Chicago winters, I was not anxious to move from sunny Sarasota to a cold climate. I applied to nine graduate programs in all the top schools for Musicology. I included Kentucky in the list as a sort of fall-back, but also because I just had a good feeling about the place whenever driving through from Chicago to Florida and back. (My grandparents, and later my parents, had moved to St. Petersburg). I was accepted to all nine schools, and very nearly went to Ohio State, but then Kentucky offered me a graduate assistantship that paid my tuition and a stipend. It just seemed that my long resonance with Kentucky that began with Jean Ritchie had a sort of inevitability that drew me here.

I have lived in Kentucky since 1979, save for a few years wandering the desert in the late 90s. It is more a home to me than any other place has been or could be, and I can’t imagine that would have been the case had I never heard that old recording of Jean Ritchie singing “Shady Grove.”

 

Cushaw Pie

I use the same recipe for pumpkin, sweet potato, or squash pies. It’s from the NYT Natural Foods Cookbook (ca. 1983). I buy a crust, but the filling is just the squash, eggs, honey, and pie spices. No refined sugar and not that much honey. I don’t know why cushaw squash makes the best pie, but I make sure to buy one at the farmers market every year. They’re huge — a good sized cushaw weighs about 15 pounds and makes at least 3-4 pies. I cut it into pieces and bake it, mash it, and freeze it in pie-size amounts. It’s pretty fibrous, but I puree it thoroughly in the blender until smooth. The cushaw has a natural sweetness and silkiness that it just luxurious.

About Cushaws

The cushaw is a very large crookneck squash weighing up to 20 pounds. It is, of course, related to the other common winter squashes. There are actually two (some say three) species of cushaw: the Cucurbita argyrosperma, which is the more common type, has a green and white mottled or striped skin that resembles a giant zucchini. There is also a yellow (or “golden”) cushaw Cucurbita moschata that looks just like the green one except for the color. The flesh of the yellow type is a pale orange, while that of the green cushaw is a bit deeper orange, similar to a butternut squash. Neither is as deeply colored as pumpkin or sweet potato.

Here are my squashes from this year and last year (2016 & 2015)

Cushaw 2016

Cushaw 2015

I normally get the green type because they are more commonly available. I tried a yellow one this year for the first time and it made an excellent pie. It has a somewhat milder flavor, but is plenty sweet. Really not much difference, but if I have a choice in the future, I’d select a green one.  Last year I put my cushaw in the car next to me in the passenger seat. It weighed enough to set off the seat belt alarm.

Like most squashes, the shoots, flowers, fruit, and seeds are all edible. I’ve never eaten any part other than the flesh, but I only recently learned that the seeds are considered the most important part for Mexican sauces. I’ll definitely keep the seeds next time. It produces a lot of them and they look very much like pumpkin seeds, so I presume they can be used in similar ways.

Cushaw pie

Cushaw Pie

The recipe I use is adapted from the New York Time Natural Foods Cookbook. It includes a pie crust recipe, but I usually just buy a refrigerated pie crust dough. The main differences between my recipe and theirs is that I use less honey and little to no milk. Whether using pumpkin, sweet potatoes, or squash (but especially with squash), there is usually enough liquid in the squash itself, along with the honey and eggs, that adding more liquid in really not necessary. In fact, for cushaws I usually take the defrosted pulp and set it in a strainer for a while to drain off some of the liquid. I have used almond milk when I thought it needed it. Coconut milk works well, too, but it does alter the flavor a bit.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large cushaw (makes several pies)
  • 3-4 eggs
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup honey
  • about 2 tsp pie spice (I like a lot, so I usually add a bit more cinnamon and a dash of ginger)
  • pie crust

Prepare the cushaw:

Cut off the stem and slice the neck into slabs about 1.5″ thick, then cut into half-moons. Ideally you want all your pieces to be roughly the same size so they’ll cook evenly. Once you get to the cavity,cut vertically in half and clean out the seeds. Be sure to keep the seeds to use later if you want. Slice into sections about 3″ square, or just any way you want as long as the pieces are all roughly equal. You want to put the skin side on the baking sheet to avoid burning the flesh, so keep that in minds when cutting.

You’re going to bake the squash, then remove the skins, then mash the pulp to be used in the pies. Spread the pieces on baking sheets. It will take at least two sheets to hold them all, and you may have to bake in shifts.

Bake the squash at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. You want it soft, but not brown. Once cool, clean off any burnt edges and use a paring knife to cut away the green rind. In a large bowl, use a potato masher to mash the squash into pulp. You can then put it in freezer bags measured 3-4 cups per pie, or go ahead and make your pie without freezing.

Making the puree

There is a lot of water in the cushaw pulp. I usually put it in a strainer to let it drain for an hour or so. The pulp is very fibrous, which is a bit unpleasant. You should use a blender to mix your ingredients and run it for a while on the puree setting to really smooth it out. Just toss in the eggs, honey, and spices with your pulp. Be sure to mix it up with a spoon or on a slow speed at first in order to get a reasonably liquidy consistency throughout. Otherwise the blender won’t work well. Watch the batter while it’s pureeing. If you still see fibrous clumps of any size at all, keep going.

Pour the batter into a pie crust (I use a glass pie pan with a store-bought refrigerated pie crust). Place into a preheated oven at 350 for 40 minutes or until a toothpick stuck into the center comes out clean.  Allow to cool completely. I like it best refrigerated with whipped cream.

Stuff that bugs me: Party Politics

It’s important to remember that party politics are not addressed in the constitution. Reaching decisions by voting tends to create winners and losers, thus dividing people into factions. The parties work to expand their bases so they can be winners, and so coalitions are formed on both sides. What may start as division over one or two issues evolves into competing ideologies. And the more these ideologies compete, the more divergent they become. So we end up with “us” and “them.” (“He says this is true, but because it was he who said it, it cannot be true and I will refuse to believe it, even if I know it is true.”) It becomes harder to find areas of agreement on any issue without eroding the coalitions tied to the larger ideologies.

The primary election processes of the two main political factions in the US (the Republican and Democratic Parties) are designed to expand the bases of their divergent ideologies. Since primaries look a lot like elections, most people think they are processes of government, but in reality they are exercises by the private interest groups overseen by the Democratic and Republican National Committees. The primaries are run and paid for by each state’s government on behalf of the parties. (We pay for them even if we can’t vote by virtue of declaring ourselves independent. Taxation without representation is a core American value that was a direct cause of the Revolutionary War and our separation from English rule.) There is no mention in the constitution about how primaries are to be run or how the votes are used. In fact, the people do not vote for candidates directly, but for party delegates to the respective conventions. (Do you know the name of the delegate who will be voting on your behalf?) Some states have straight vote counts and divide delegates according to the counts, while other states have caucuses to reach consensus and may give all their delegates to one candidate. But the elected delegates are only a part of the voting delegates at the convention. In addition, there are “super delegates” consisting of elected officials and prominent party leaders. The two major parties have different rules concerning super delegates. The Republicans allow only three per state (the state’s party chairman and two district level representatives) while the Democratic Party includes all Democratic members of the House and Senate and sitting Democratic governors, as well as other chosen in the primary process.

This process has nothing to do with the constitution (and even less to do with democracy), and the eventual national candidates for each party may or may not end up having anything much to do with who people voted for in the primaries. The parties are private interest groups who make up their own internal rules to decide who they want to represent them in the general election. Those rules are made up by the party leaders and can be re-written even at the convention itself to respond to conditions the leadership doesn’t like.

Party politics are, by their very nature, divisive and undemocratic. There is no incentive for either side to find common ground because that just weakens their positions generally. It has become more about winning than about serving the good of the nation as a whole. Governmental stalemate is the logical result of putting self interest before national interest and of putting ideologies before ideas.

Call of the Wild: Perth

While I was in Perth I was very conscious of my sound environment. While walking to the university every day I would often take out my cell phone and sample the ambient noise. The most interesting sounds to me were the bird sounds. This area of Australia has a large variety of interesting bird life. Among the most common that I saw were:

The black swans that live along the eponymous Swan River. Perth lies along the Swan Valley and the river drains into the Indian Ocean at Freemantle. They are often associated with the university and are pictured on the uni’s logo, but they are not often seen on campus as they stick pretty close to the river’s edge. But I did experience an iconic Australian moment as I walked from my office to the riverfront on the evening of Australia Day to watch the distant fireworks from Perth. Early in the fireworks show a squadron (less than a fleet, not quite a bevy, perhaps an escadrille — or, more precisely, five) of black swans swam along the shoreline directly in front of the cheering crowd. I captured the event on my camera, but it was, of course, dark, so the picture was not great, but it was awesome nonetheless.

Black swans on the Swan River, Australia Day 2015

Black swans on the Swan River, Australia Day 2015

I’ve heard the famous trumpeting of northern white swans, but I never heard a sound from these blacks. But they do apparently like to surf.

Among the most ubiquitous birds in the soundscape are the Australian ravens — large black crows that commonly have a distinctive tuft of feathers (hackles) on their throats. When I first heard a raven I thought the place must be infested with feral cats in heat. One often hears them in cacophonous choirs or in solo arias.  They are so loud and distinctive, there is no way to avoid hearing them many times a day. They are also a bit aggressive about pilfering the french fries of picnickers This one made off with an entire box and landed near me to relish his find.

IMG_2694a

And here is a recording of a particularly tragic raven song:

Raven complaint     

Also common are the Australian magpies and their smaller cousins the magpie larks. They are often seen together, so it’s not obvious that they are actually different species.

Australian magpie

Australian magpie

A magpie lark on the beach at Cottesloe

A magpie lark on the beach at Cottesloe

Often competing for domination of the soundscape are the rainbow lorakeets. These are beautiful little parrots that congregate in the tops of trees and can make a hell of a racket. Curiously, while there are unmistakably dozens, if not hundreds, of these birds in a tree, and while they are known for their brightly colored heads and breasts, they are almost perfectly camouflaged in the foliage and are only visible when they take flight, which they do one or two at a time, darting off too quickly to catch a picture. I tried numerous times to get a shot and this is the best I ever did.

IMG_2400aAnd here is what a tree full of lorakeets sounds like.

Rainbow lorakeets     

There were a few things I was determined to see in Australia if possible. One was a kookaburra. The uni has a few in residence that can be depended upon to laugh at your expense at certain times of day.

IMG_1963a

Kookaburra     

The university has amazing gardens and open lawn areas where students like to gather. The lawn between the Reid Library and the Tropical Grove is called the Great Court and is especially popular for picnic lunches under the trees. There are a couple of peacocks in residence who normally hang out in a dank concrete courtyard in the Art building, but they come out to socialize at lunchtime, not wanting to miss any opportunities to be seen (not to mention to find a scrap of bread here and there).

20150331_124618aIMG_2332a

I rarely heard the peacocks calling, but I understand the art faculty are not always pleased to have them living in their courtyard.

Among the less common birds I saw, but didn’t hear were both white and and the rarer black cockatoos. I saw flights of blacks a couple of times, which I understand is unusual. I didn’t get any photos of them, but this pair of whites outside a restaurant on Cottesloe Beach were accommodating.

IMG_1913a

The other thing I wanted to see, of course, was kangaroos. JayJay took me up to see the Gravity Discovery Center up at Gingin, about an hour from Perth out in the bush. It is the site of the gravity wave interferometer array and I was interested to see it. As we were driving I mentioned I was hoping to see kangaroos. Well, there were none to be seen from the road, but on the way back, JayJay took an odd turn into a cemetery. It seemed an unusually busy place for a cemetery and it turned out to be a very large open parkland. And it is inhabited by what I have to believe must be literally hundreds of kangaroos. They are not domesticated, but apparently they know it’s safe to be there. While timid, you can actually get up quite close to them. They can be defensive, especially the large males, so it’s best not to provoke them.

IMG_2559aIn addition to the diverse wildlife, the area has some pretty spectacular trees. The university is chock full of giant eucalyptus, oaks, and a truly phenomenal Moreton Bay fig whose canopy I suspect spans nearly 100 feet (30m).

Moreton Bay fig (picture by UWA)

Moreton Bay fig (picture by UWA)

Creative Work in Virtual Worlds

With just one month to go before heading back home, I’m working hard on the public talks I’m scheduled to give in a couple of weeks. The talks are billed as a presentation and demonstration of creating work in virtual worlds. The outline for the talks is roughly this:

  • overall intro to virtual worlds, with obvious emphasis on Second Life
  • the experience of having a virtual body that is able to interact in a 3D space
  • brief tour of the current exhibition at UWA’s virtual gallery
  • brief tour of my work at my LEA sim
  • technical opportunities and limitations for creative work
  • skillsets used in creating interactive 3D content
  • a demonstration building project

This last item will likely be a simple car. Build an object, decorate it, drop an animation and some scripts in it, drive it away.

That’s a whole lot to cover, but the presentations are scheduled to last 2 hours. I’m also scheduled to give it four times, which I think is overkill given they are all at 2:00 in the afternoon on weekdays. I’ll be surprised if they go much over one hour, but it’s good to have some room if needed. The gallery has numerous publicity efforts for all its activities. They’ve produced a brochure for their season of public talks (in which I am listed first), and an iPhone poster, and this event flyer. They wanted a head shot and I didn’t have one that was current so my colleague here whipped out his phone and took this shot. I was just wearing a T shirt and needed a haircut. Was not prepared at all. I told them (jokingly) they should use my avatar because he always looks good. They actually liked the idea so they included both. Hair part is on the wrong side, but he’s otherwise a reasonable simulacrum.

Virtual-Worlds-flyer

 

 

Pur ti miro, pur ti godo

One of the most romantic and beautiful moments in all of opera is at the very end of Claudio Monteverdi‘s final opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea (Act III, Scene 7), the duet aria “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo.” Written just months before the composer’s death at age 76, the opera is the pinnacle of Monteverdi’s achievements, showing no diminution of his creative energies.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), composer - (De...

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), composer – (Detail from full painting) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently I have been able to smugly claim to be one of the few people on the planet to have seen no less than three separate live productions of Poppea, but the work has enjoyed a veritable renaissance in recent years with many new productions, so I daresay my claim no longer holds true.

My first experience was around 1978 when the Asolo Opera company presented it in Sarasota, Florida, where I was in school as an undergraduate at New College. This was a life-changing experience for me on numerous levels. It was the first full opera I had ever seen (discounting the numerous “light” operas of Gilbert and Sullivan I saw as a child when my father conducted a local orchestra hired for the touring D’Oyly Carte company), which led me to subscribe to subsequent seasons while in Florida, and to become a lifelong lover of opera ever since. It was also a revelation to learn about baroque opera, as opposed to the romantic-era opera most people are at least aware of: that of Puccini, Bizet, Verdi, and Wagner.  I was studying early music at the time and had just begun lessons on the viola da gamba, so I was especially fond of learning about the baroque continuo. But above all it made me fall in love with the glorious music of Monteverdi.

(As a curious side note, the Sarasota production featured fairy-like dancers who were dressed  in body stockings with strategically placed foliage sewn on. They did a couple of very beautiful, but very sensual dances and it seems the local authorities came very close to shutting down the production because of them. Cooler heads prevailed, but it did boost ticket sales from the local news coverage.)

The second production I saw was around 2000 when the Lyric Opera Company of Arizona State University presented it with a small baroque chamber ensemble with harpsichord and theorbo sharing continuo duties. It was an intimate production in their recital hall with student singers, but fully staged with sets and costumes. I saw a Sunday matinee performance. As part of the university’s regular opera season, the audience included a significant portion of elderly ladies hoping for lovely afternoon’s entertainment. I could almost hear the collective gasp when the scene opened on a sort of harem boudoir and the gorgeous countertenor Nerone appeared with his flaming red hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and wearing what I can only describe as a “Speedo” and not much else. I thought they would have to call the medics when the godlike young man opened his mouth and a powerful soprano voice emerged. Monteverdi operas are not easy listening. There is a lot of recitative between the relatively sparse arias. Fully half of the matinee audience did not return after the first act, with further erosion after the second. Whether it was from shock or boredom it’s hard to tell. It was their loss. Some of the secondary roles were not strong singers, but the principals were solid and I knew full well what was coming at the end and that it would be worth the wait.

The last production I saw was in 2004 at the University of Kentucky. UK rarely takes risks with their opera productions. But occasionally Everett McCorvey will have a curious whim and his whims tend to become reality as his staff scurries to figure out how to make them happen. The results are not always great choices, but they are usually great performances. In this case UK Opera hired Atlanta early music impressario Predrag Gosta, artistic director of the New Trinity Baroque, to direct the production with members of his instrumental ensemble. They chose to stage it in what I recall was a sort of 1930s gangster set and costumes which I felt clashed badly with the baroque music and classical Roman theme. This was probably the weakest of the three productions I’ve seen. UK’s opera program is extremely good, but at the time they had no one on the faculty who specialized in early music performance. Early baroque opera is very different from more modern bel canto style, especially when it comes to ornamentation. The big voice with lots of vibrato that defines bel canto is totally inappropriate for earlier opera, where complex ornamentation was the norm. (Vibrato was considered an ornament to be used judiciously.)

Monteverdi-Poppea

Monteverdi-Poppea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last few days and weeks I’ve had reason to think about Monteverdi and his ilk. I am jealous of my colleagues back home in Kentucky who are currently working hard on their May concert of music featuring several arias from Poppea and other music of the time. This is not only among my favorite music to listen to. As a continuo gamba player it’s among the most fun to play, allowing me to work with the keyboard or lute and a singer or two in an intimate collaboration. Alas, as I am currently posted at the antipodes I am unable to participate in the concert and will not even be back home in time for the performance. I am hoping they make recordings.

Additionally, I was fortunate this past weekend to have participated in a few events relating to the Perth International Arts Festival. The famed early music director and musicologist William Christie was in town with his latest showcase of young vocal talent accompanied by a fine baroque orchestra. The theme for Saturday night’s concert was “In an Italian Garden” and featured some wonderful excerpts from operas by Stradella, Vivaldi, Handel, and others, but, alas, no Monteverdi. Nonetheless, these outstanding young singers were beautifully trained in the baroque idioms and it served to further my thinking about Monteverdi’s final aria. The concert was preceded on Friday by an all-day seminar about “The Passionate Arts in the Early Modern World,” focusing on the 17th-18th century courts of the Medicis and Louis XIV. The workshop was sponsored by the UWA School of Music and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (yeah, there really is such a thing).

L’incoronazione di Poppea

The setting and story of Poppea is more or less historical fact and is not a happy tale. It is the story of the decadent emperor Nerone (Nero) who is married to the empress Octavia (Ottavia), but falls in love with Poppea. In a nutshell, Nero’s advisor, the learned philosopher Seneca, admonished Nero against pursuing Poppea, which advise Nero repays by ordering Seneca to commit suicide. There are others who get caught up in the web of deceit and betrayal and jealousy, and considering the circumstances it’s rather surprising that more blood does not flow. But in the end Nero would have his way, exiling Octavia and others so that he may live in wedded bliss with his beloved Poppea.

Pur ti miro, pur ti godo

The roles of Nerone and Poppea are both sopranos — equal voices — but Nerone is normally sung by a countertenor (historically a castrato), but sometimes performed these days by a female soprano or mezzo or even by a male tenor. But once you’ve heard it performed by a good countertenor it’s hard to listen to any other way.

As Ottavia is set adrift at sea, there is a coronation ceremony proclaiming Poppea the new empress. After the celebratory pomp things suddenly become calm. Everything is resolved. Love has conquered all and there is nothing left but for the couple to languish in their lust and adoration. The aria begins with an ostinato in the continuo — four notes descending from the tonic.  The words are a simple expression of love and adoration sung by the voices alternating and overlapping sometimes with almost painfully exquisite dissonances at the second or even minor second.

Poppea: Pur ti miro,
Nero: pur ti stringo
P: pur ti godo,
N: pur t’annodo
P: più non peno,
N: più non moro,
P: O mia vita,
P/N: o mio tesoro.

Poppea: I gaze at you
Nero: I delight in you
P: I tighten closer to you
N: I am bound to you
P: I no longer suffer
N: I no longer die
P/N: Oh my life
Oh my treasure.

Then a lighter section breaks from the ostinato with declarations of love:

P: Io son tua…
N: Tuo son io…
P: Speme mia,
N: dillo, dì,
P: Tu sei pur,
N: speme mia
P: L’idol mio,
N: dillo, dì,
P: Tu sei pur,
N/P: Sì, mio ben,
Sì, mio cor, mia vita, sì, sì, sì, sì.

P: I am yours
N: You are mine
P: My hope,
N: say it, say,
P: The idol of mine,
N: Yes, my love,
P/N: Yes, my heart,
my life, yes.
And then the first part with the ostinato is repeated.

This is truly among the most intimate, even erotic, moments in all of opera. When they start repeating “Yes, my love, yes, my heart, yes, my life, yes, yes, yes…” it’s nearly orgasmic and almost uncomfortably voyeuristic to watch.

Performances

The aria is intrinsically sensuous. There are many recorded performances and all are good on some level, but most are somewhat lacking in some detail. If you are not familiar with the piece, I suggest you start with this:

Some performances seem odd when the singers are physically distant from each other or otherwise do not appear to be really engaged.

Others are more overt about the implied sexuality:

And yet others are totally over-the-top passionate. This is a full production video. The aria begins near the end at 3:00:10. I’m not a fan of the modernist vocal styling, but this is the kind of passion this piece deserves.

And finally I wanted to share this version just so you can hear the remarkable countertenor Philippe Jaroussky

The Caged Mind

John Cage

John Cage

I have owned three books by the late composer John Cage (1912-1992) for many years. The most recent was published in 1972. On very rare occasions–probably less than once every few years on average–I pick up one of these books and, in appropriately stochastic fashion, read something at random. Without exception this exercise proves to be at least interesting, often humorous, or even more often astounding. Last night as I was heading for bed I snatched my copy of A Year From Monday and began reading the introduction.

This book, published in 1967, begins by referring back to Silence, his previous book published in 1961 and arguably the most influential of his literary works (which includes the text of his narrative piece “Indeterminacy” and manifestos on new music), noting that the current book includes writing and lectures from the intervening years. What made me stop in my tracks was the text that follows:

“The question is: Is my thought changing? It is and it isn’t. One evening after dinner I was telling friends that I was now concerned with improving the world. One of them said: I thought you always were. I then explained that I believe–and am acting upon–Marshall McLuhan‘s statement that we have through electronic technology produced an extension of our brains to the world formerly outside of us. To me that means that the disciplines, gradual and sudden (principally Oriental), formerly practiced by individuals to pacify their minds, bringing them into accord with ultimate reality, must now be practiced socially–that is, not just inside our heads, but outside of them, in the world, where our central nervous system effectively now is.”

First Internet Message Arpanet UCLA

First Internet Message Arpanet UCLA (Photo credit: Dean Terry)

This statement seems prophetic, but he and McLuhan were not talking about the future. Cage was talking about his now: 1967. ARPANET, the precursor to what we now know as the Internet, did not exist until 1969. The first hand-held cellular telephone was demonstrated in 1973. Small CATV networks have existed since around 1950, but were primarily built to provide clear signals from over-the-air local broadcasters. Specialized cable-only programming networks distributed by satellite appeared in the 1970s. What Cage was talking about in 1967 as electronic technology consisted basically of hard wired telephones, broadcast television, and radio. There were no other popular electronic communications media at that time. But McLuhan’s message about the immediate transmission of information shrinking the planet into a “global village” was a revolutionary observation on the heels of the first transatlantic television and data signals broadcast via the Telstar satellites in the early 60s.

More recent advances in technology have accelerated McLuhan’s thesis, resulting even then in the awareness of “Future Shock,” as Alvin Toffler’s popular 1970 book so clearly enumerated. So Cage’s logical extension of McLuhan’s idea is that consciousness itself has become decentralized. And this has now become a way of life for anyone who uses technology to discover, store, retrieve, or share information. We are inextricably tied to our technologies in ways that make us more connected, arguably more productive, and ultimately more dependent on each other as segments of an intellectual and social network. A network in which it is becoming more difficult to distinguish between that which is “me” and that which is “not me.” And perhaps this comes from Cage’s Zen perspective, observing that experience is inclusive–as music is not separate from the environment in which it is played, so we are not separate from the social and information networks within which we live and think. Though how one might practice Zen meditation via a social network is a puzzle, perhaps.

Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers

I have a small desk in my living room that is covered with trinkets. I think of it as a sort of shrine. There are a few Mexican objects not related to each other and for no reason other than that they came to me in various ways: a dark wood carving that belonged to my father of a seated monk reading from a book, a Oaxacan Dia de los muertos skeletal figure carving with a colorful sombrero and playing a fiddle, a native woven basket, a votive candle depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe. Also on my shrine are pictures of people I admire–a sort of personal pantheon. These include Buddha, Bodidharma (a watercolor I made myself after a Japanese original), Jimi Hendrix, Bach, Fred Rogers (AKA Mr. Rogers), and most certainly John Cage.

Among the snippets Cage later quotes from his own earlier writings is this context-less notion, which I copy here, also without context:

“Our proper work now if we love mankind and the world we live in is revolution.”

Bodidharma - watercolor by D.Newton after a Japanese original

Bodidharma – watercolor by D.Newton after a Japanese original

[N.B. I originally posted this article at FW’s Laboratory last week.]

Virtual and Real Body Consciousness

A recent study at George Washington University School of Public Health suggests that watching avatars engaged in healthy behaviors may influence the tendency to engage in similar real life behaviors. [1.] In the small pilot study, researchers tracked 8 women who had all tried some kind of diet for weight control over the past year. They were shown videos of simple avatars walking on a treadmill, shopping for healthy foods in a market, sitting down to eat (while learning about portion control), etc. At the end of one month, the women lost an average of 3.5 pounds, about what one would expect from someone changing lifestyle habits in diet and exercise.

In reporting on this news by Time Magazine reporter Alexandra Sifferlin asks, “Does connecting with a virtual version of yourself alter your perception of who you are and what you are capable of doing? And if that’s the case, could such virtual realities become a new tool for influencing social behaviors like relationships, or even lifestyle choices such as exercising, smoking or eating?” and suggests that this question is spurring new research.

The news coverage on this story has been fairly broad, but I think that’s largely due to the appeal of thinking all one has to do is play video games to lose weight, which is not at all what the actual story says. In fact, there was no interactive element at all. The researchers made their videos using either Second Life or OpenSim platforms (more likely the former since it appears to be using a recent SL viewer). The production quality of the videos, avatars, and sets is pretty awful, especially as compared to just about any of the current machinimas being produced.[2.] Further, the study had no control group and the sample seems too small to draw any conclusions about the effect of virtual reality on real life behaviors, though they do say this was a pilot study. “This is just the first step to show that women, even those who are not gamers, are interested in an avatar-based technology to help them with a weight-loss plan” (Napolitano).

The key to this study is that the women were able to select the appearance of the avatar in the video to resemble their own real life bodies. Identification with the avatar–not just as a representative, but also as an extension of the physical body–is one of the more profound and compelling aspects of working in virtual worlds. What the avatar experiences is largely felt by its operator. There is embarrassment when wardrobe malfunctions, a small avatar can feel more vulnerable than a tall one, being trapped can feel confining, objects falling on your virtual head can make you wince, etc.

The press release suggests that there were a limited number of essential body types from which the participants could choose. The mere fact of choosing a type with which they could identify could have a significant effect on their perceptions, i.e., they would be more likely to think “that is me.” How much more would they identify if they could spend time really customizing their virtual bodies–making choices on each part and selecting an appropriate outfit, making a uniquely personal avatar? Then having them move themselves through the different scenarios in a virtual world, making choices, and getting immediate feedback about their decisions? With a little more technical expertise, a study like this could be a lot more effective.

1. The study, “Using Avatars to Model Weight Loss Behaviors: Participant attitudes and technology development,” appears in the July 1 Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology. Authors include Melissa Napolitano, PhD of George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), Sharon Hayes and Gary Foster, both at Temple’s Center for Obesity Research and Education, and Giuseppe Russo, Debora Muresu and Antonio Giordano of Temple’s Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine.

2. From the GWU press release: “Using their extensive expertise in virtual reality, Director Antonio Giordano, MD, PhD, and Giuseppe Russo, PhD, of Temple’s Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine, developed a virtual reality simulation featuring such an avatar.” A sample of the simulation is available here.

Online Learning

I’ve enrolled in a mooc (massively open online courses) from Coursera. It’s not until October, so plenty of time to get all anxious about it. It’s fairly technical and I may discover that it’s way over my head. If I survive, I hope it will have proven to be a good experience.

Coursera is one of the big orgs providing moocs.  They have some stunningly cool offerings from highly reputable institutions. Many are pretty advanced or technical, others are more introductory. But they all seem to go into some depth on the subjects. As far as I’m aware all the courses are free. You get a certificate of completion at the end if you make it. Because they have no way to verify the identities of the participants, the certificates don’t really carry much weight with anyone. That could change. iphone-education

I’ve been watching these developments for several years. It dawned on me right around the time the first iPhones started appearing that this could be a game changing technology for education, and within the last couple of years my predictions have come to the forefront of issues facing higher ed. When I heard that MIT was offering its introductory course in electronic engineering online for free, it sealed the deal. What I saw was about to happen, and is happening now, is that the marketplace for higher education would be shifting rapidly to a consumer model. Rather than expecting students to line up and beg to be admitted to a 4 year undergraduate program at some university, they will be able to cherry pick their curriculum from major course providers around the world. They’ll get their history courses from Oxford, engineering from MIT, writing from Stanford, etc. The provider institutions will be competing with each other for students on a course by course level.  Students will pay a discount because they don’t need the whole physical infrastructure of a bricks and mortar school. It also means that the student base will be massively broader when people can learn from anywhere in the world. There are relatively minor hurdles, like identity verification and figuring out who is going to certify a course of study from multiple institutions as a degree of some kind (assuming that’s even necessary anymore). A degree will become less important except to the extent that employers will want some kind of certifiable summary of a student’s record of work. That can be done by an independent certification entity.
I haven’t had time to take an online course like this before, but I’ve been wanting to, if only to see how it works. I have actually taken classes in Second Life, which have been astoundingly effective. The trick is not to just put class lectures in a video archive, but to design courses from the ground up for the medium. Also, having support in the form of peer forums and so on. From what I’ve seen, there is very little in traditional education that can’t be done pretty effectively online. The ripple effects promise to be far-reaching and highly disruptive, but should ultimately mean more educated people in the world, which can only be a good thing.
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SL Viewer 3.0 and Mesh

N.B. There are lots of better places to find specific details on SL viewer and mesh. If you want more depth, follow the links in this article.

The current SL viewer is now 3.0 (V3), released just within the last few days, I believe. I haven’t tried it yet. The main difference in V3 is support of mesh technology. (More about that below.) I use several SL third-party viewers (TPVs) depending on what I need to do. A full list of certified viewer is available at: http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Third_Party_Viewer_Directory

For day to day use, I normally run Phoenix. This is by far the most used third party viewer. Pros: It’s intuitive (especially for long-time users) and has many (many) useful features for builders and just overall usability. It does support SL Viewer 2.x (V2) features such as avatar tattoo and alpha layers. Has some cool Windlight and other environmental controls that are easily accessible. Cons: It does not support certain features such as shared media (i.e., web-on-a-prim) or mesh. I also find on my computer that Phoenix tends to crash more than other viewers.

In anticipation of mesh, the developers of Phoenix have created Firestorm. This is a more V2 compatible viewer that will likely be a more robust alternative to SL’s V3. I’ve only begun to use it, expecting that Phoenix will eventually be phased out.

If I absolutely need a feature of SL V2 (basically shared media), I do use it on occasion. It was pretty much universally despised from the first day (thus the proliferation of third party alternatives), but has improved significantly since then. However it’s still awkward for builders and other “power users” and lacks many of the TPV advantages.

For taking pictures in SL, I use either Imprudence or Kirsten’s Viewer. I’ve found Imprudence to be the most stable of any viewer and it has most of the features included in Phoenix. It is my preferred viewer for taking pictures as the resolution seems to be best. (May just be an issue with anti-aliasing settings on other viewers, but I haven’t found a solution in Phoenix.) Kirsten’s was the first to implement shadow rendering. (Shadows in SL are very cool when well rendered, and other viewers have since implemented the feature, but be aware that the rendering load on your computer is massive and will tend to crash anything less than a very high end graphics card.) It has a number of other settings that are designed especially for photography and machinima (i.e., virtual cinematography), but it is less friendly for day to day use.

The major change in 3.0 is the ability to render mesh objects. As of Tuesday mesh technology (very high resolution modeling used in dedicated computer generated cinema and dedicated game consoles) is now available anywhere in SL. It has been anticipated for the last few years and has been in beta for some time. I’ve been to the beta grid and spoken to people there trying to work with them. Some of their work is stunning. http://community.secondlife.com/t5/Featured-News/Mesh-goes-gridwide-Create-sell-buy-amp-enjoy-all-new-things-in/bc-p/1058649#M6587

The consequences of this technology could be vast or minimal, depending on how it’s adopted. Creating meshes is quite a bit more complex than creating sculpts, which are difficult enough. Only serious creators are getting into it at this point. In the beta grid, users were able to create mesh objects in Google Sketchup and export them to a SL compatible file. There seems to be some question now whether that is possible with the full SL deployment. There are other free programs that can be used (most notably Blender), but there is no other “simple” tool for creating meshes as far as I know. That could change.

There has been a lot of excitement about the advent of mesh. Both good and bad. The technology itself renders beautiful complex objects. In fact, there have always been meshes in SL in the form of your avatar body, which is actually a relatively simple mesh. The important thing to know about meshes is that it is made up of many triangles in a kind of web fabric (hence the use of the term “mesh”).

At the risk of oversimplifying the situation, the core difference between a sculpt and a mesh is the number of triangles it uses. When you create a sculpt, it may be a 64×64 pixel sculpt map or smaller. You can apply that to a prim in SL and you can manipulate the size of that prim and nobody really cares how convoluted or big it is. But with a mesh you have a whole set of vectors for those triangles. And there could be thousands or tens of thousands of them in a mesh, and if you make it bigger it takes more triangles. The important point is that the more triangles a mesh uses, the more server resources it commands, and THE MORE IT COSTS. That’s right. SL in its infinite wisdom has determined a formula for assigning a Prim Equivalent (PE) Cost. So you may create a simple mesh that has maybe 1 PE, but if you just make it bigger it can suddenly show 100 PE. I saw meshes in the beta grid that went from maybe 24 to over 2000 PE just by scaling it. When a sim has a total limit of 15K prims, you can see how a bunch of meshes could quickly hit your limit. So mesh developers are motivated to use the smallest possible objects with the least amount of detail.

In a peculiar twist, the way PEs are calculated includes scripting. If you have a simple notecard giver script in a mesh, it will cost more. The mesh developers I’ve talked to rightfully think this is bogus. In any case, the promise of mesh is here, but it remains to be seen when or whether it will be widely adopted.

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