Friday, December 29, 2023

Review: How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy

This year we had a 12 year old Taylor Swift fan on our holiday gift list. I thought I'd get sneaky and do a bit of research into Ms. Swift to find a unique gift. One aspect of Swift's career that jumped out at me was how young she was when she started creating music. In fact, Swift's first song, Lucky You was written when she was 12. I thought, aha!, I'll get our Swifty a gift to help her write her first song. That way, she can have a unique connection to one of her favorite artists.

Looking around on Amazon, Jeff Tweedy's How To Write One Song jumped out at me as what I had in mind. Using the Amazon preview feature I read the introduction and it sounded promising. Still, there was a bit of salty language and in the end, I got nervous that it may contain themes that were a bit much for a tween. I was delighted to see that our library had the audio version of the book, so I could dig deeper and find out the whole story.

In short, I was blown away by How To Write One Song. You should probably just stop reading this review and go listen to it. I can tell how impactful a book is by how frequently I find myself trying to explain its attributes to Shira. And poor Shira needed to hear over and over again how on target Tweedy's text was. I'm sure she was relieved when I finally finished the book so she could stop hearing these disjointed explanations.

Part of what makes the book so successful is that it's the right blend of motivational speaker, cheerleader, coach and workbook. The book, in equal parts, convinces you that song writing is a good idea, that you're the person to do it, how to generally approach the task as well as concrete exercises to painlessly craft your first song. As I read the book, I found my thinking changing from: I want to assess this book's value as a gift; to hmm, looks like even I could write song; to I definitely need to write a song; to I must stop every creative pursuit I'm undertaking and write a song this very moment!

Ultimately, I backed off from this last goal, but I have added song writing to my 'Blog Ideas' spreadsheet where I track projects I want to take on and remain eager to give it a go. And I'm not talking about focusing on arguably what would be in my comfort zone: generating my song via code; I'm talking about me belting out a love song, while strumming my canjo. Tweedy has me convinced that the journey of discovery that I'd undertake to write this mythical love song will be well worth the effort.

The value of How To Write one Song goes well beyond song writing. I'd argue its blueprint can help with any complex creative endeavor. It probably won't surprise you when I suggest that by changing the song writing exercises, you could easily have the book "How To Write One Novel" or "How To Sculpt One Sculpture." What may surprise you is the suggestion that Tweedy's philosophy and approach works equally well for pursuits that on the surface don't appear as creative arts. I'd argue that by tweaking the specifics, you could publish "How To Write One Web App" or "How To Run One Ultramarathon."

When Tweedy talks about needing to redefine success, find and savor flow, the importance of reading and stealing from existing work, he's giving the same advice I'd give a want-to-be programmer. If you watch videos from top level ultra distance runners, they talk at length about the joy of flow, overcoming self doubt, finding your why and figuring out how to break down an impossibly large task into approachable parts. That's exactly what song writers do, and Tweedy gives you the tools to get this done.

The audio version of How To Write One Song is read by the author and contains some nuanced and creative content. It's one of the few times I can recall where listening to a book had clear advantages over the paper version. Still, I've rented the hard copy of the book because I want to see and work through the exercises.

This past weekend we visited our nieces and nephew in Florida. 10 year old G told me she wanted to be a singer when she grew up; though she explained to me that she'll probably have a songwriter. I suggested she could write her own songs, and for about 8 seconds I had her rapt attention. Then she lost interest and moved on to a new topic. If I'd had some of Tweedy's exercises at the ready, it's possible she would have given them a go. In short, adding song writing skills to my Uncle/Foster-Dad toolkit seems like a smart move.

Now that I've been through How To Write One Song, I'm confident that the language and themes are almost certainly fine for a twelve year old. Like an R-rated movie, there are a few well placed cuss words, but I'm sure it's nothing kids haven't heard before. There is some talk about drugs and alcohol, but that talk is positive, reinforcing that the creative process doesn't need these to be successful.

As for older teens and adults, I'd say that How To Write One Song should be required reading. There's huge value in creative endeavors, and the roadblocks that keep us from embracing these pursuits are real. But How To Write One Song can help break these down. And for that alone, it's worth your time.

Hmmm, maybe I should be writing a song about that. Let's see, what rhymes with roadblock? Sunblock. Cuckoo-clock. Aftershock. Johann Sebastian Bach. Yes, that's it. And we're off and running!

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

US Open 2023 - Day 1 - 9/11 Memorial Museum and The Dinner That Almost Didn't Happen

[Composed 8/31/2023]

After browsing the amazing treasures exhibit at the New York Public Library, we headed downtown to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. We figured we could walk the nearly 4 miles to the Museum and still make it for the last timed-entry slot of the day.

As our good fortune would have it, our path to the museum took us by the Long Lines building. Atlas Obscura describes this address like so:

An uber-secure, windowless tower of doom in the center of Manhattan is an NSA spyscraper.

Oooh, a tower of doom. How cool, is that! We snapped selfies and ogled the facade. As towers of doom go, I think the building checks all the boxes.

We made it to the museum right on time and started our self-guided tour without incident.

Our experience at the museum was split into two phases. In phase one, we browsed various art installations and large objects on display, information about the creation of the Twin Towers, and spent time in the In Memoriam room. This room puts faces to the 2,983 people killed on both 9/11 as well as an attack from 1993. While moving, this was all relatively gentle when you consider the horror of 9/11.

The art work, especially Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning really touched a nerve with me. It conjured a vision of a sort of round-table discussion among various professions.

The doctors stands up and say: we'll make the world a better place by healing people. The lawyers stand up and say: we'll make the world a better place by seeking justice. The architects stand up say: we'll make the world a better place by designing infrastructure that brings us together. And so it goes. Finally, all eyes turn to artists and ask: so nu, what good will your paints and brushes be to the world? They stand and say: when unspeakable tragedy has befallen you, we'll be there to help you make sense of it.

And so Trying to Remember does this. In a simple, unexpected and brilliant way, its 2,983 tiles speak volumes about memory, loss and the unspeakable experience of that day.

The second phase of the museum began when we were told to put away our cameras and we entered the Historical Exhibition. It was here that we went through the timeline leading up to, through and beyond 9/11. Artifacts were deftly chosen to tell the story of the day. Some of the media was familiar to me; some I experienced for the first time. A number of the air traffic control recordings fell into that second category and I found myself moved by their raw directness. The most haunting artifact hit me by surprise. What started as a seemingly random alarm tone, came into focus as the sound of firefighter's Personal Alarm Safety Systems. This man-down system sounds alert when a firefighter remains motionless for more than 30 seconds. The exhibit explained that on 9/11 ground zero was ablaze with these alarms; each signifying a dead or trapped first-responder. You can hear a measure of this event in this recording. In the span of 20 seconds I went from confusion, to understanding to heartbreak.

Maybe it was because we caught the last time slot of the day. Or, more likely by design, we found our walk through the Historic Exhibition to be a crowded, jockying affair. If the designers of the museum wanted to impart a tiny sense of the confusion, crowds and urgency of that day, then mission accomplished.

I left the museum humbled and thankful by what we'd witnessed. I was initially struck by how foolish it was to try to squeeze this museum in as a sort of add on to our day. But, upon further reflection, I appreciated that one trip to this museum was never going to be enough to take it all in. To fully absorb what this museum has to offer I'll need multiple trips. Better to visit today and start our journey rather than try to wait for the perfect day; which will still be insufficient.

After the museum Shira and I considered our dinner options. While we could have sanely called it a day, we opted instead to head back to midtown (smartly taking the train this time) and hit up Spiced NYC, a seemingly fancy Kosher grill. When we arrived at the address the place looked shuttered. There were no lights on and no indication that it was even a functioning business. Wasn't that just typical: the web made promises that real-life couldn't deliver. On a whim, Shira tugged on the door handle and to our surprise, the door opened. We were greeted with the sight of an elegantly lit dining room.

From the moment we walked in, we were impressed. The ambiance, our server, the food, everything was perfect. Between the food and the service, it was among the most delightful dining experiences we'd ever had. I'm so glad we didn't mis-interpret the dark store front and call it a day. The pastrami empanadas and BBQ pulled brisket flat bread were both unique and exceptionally tasty. Shira asked for a burger, and the waiter kindly brought it disassembled so that she could make it just the way she wanted at the table.

After a full day of walking (32,552 steps baby!), we finally made it back to our hotel in Flushing. Tomorrow the real fun begins: all tennis all day! Wish me luck.

Monday, December 18, 2023

US Open 2023 - Day 1 - Visiting with Winnie-the-Pooh and His Remarkable Roommates

[Composed 8/31/2023]

After an easy (yet chatty!) flight to New York, Shira and I met up with one of my customer's for lunch at Norma. The food was delish, and I knew it was authentic because most of the menu items required a translation or explanation before I knew what I should order. I spend the vast majority of my time interacting with clients virtually, so it was a special pleasure to sit across the table and do some old school kibitzing.

After lunch, Shira and I dropped by the nearby and iconic New York Public Library Building. The impressive facade and the Atlas Obscura's promise that we'd see The Real Winnie the Pooh & Pals got us into the building. I assumed we'd wander around a bit, look at a small display case containing some ancient stuffed animals and be on our way.

We did start with the wandering part, which was pleasant enough. Apparently there are tours of the main reading room we didn't manage to catch. Still, the interior of the building we did see was  impressive. On the way out we then headed into to the Treasures Exhibit, where I assumed I'd find Winnie.

We walked into the exhibit and I found myself face to face with the massive 1874 Topographical atlas of the city of New York hanging on the wall. It took a few minutes to wrap my head ahead around the map's age and incredible detail. When I did finally move on, I made it only a few more steps when I found myself stunned by another impressive map. And so it went as I moved from topic to topic and artifact to artifact.

While I expected a small display, I found myself in a room filled with dozens (maybe, hundreds?) of the most precious literary creations every produced. We're talking a hand written copy of the Bill of Rights, a 1623 edition of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, a 1896 edition of Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, a 3rd century BCE(!) cuneiform tablet, and yes, Winnie-the-Pooh and Friends. They had a Megillah Esther produced in 1686, a haggadah published in 1731, and a 14th century mahzor on display. And these are just the beginning. There are many more impressive works in the collection to see.

To call this exhibit the library's treasures is still somehow a gross understatement. To stand among these works is a privilege and a testament to human achievement. Needless to say, I'd go back in an instant to browse these gems.

After the library, we decided to head downtown to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. We'd been to the memorial before, but hadn't yet toured the museum. Frankly, I was a bit smug about visiting the museum: I'd lived through 9/11--did I really need to go to a museum to tell me about it? Living a mile from where one of the planes struck the Pentagon, that day is etched in our memory. What could this museum to have to teach us?

Stay tuned to find out.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

US Open 2023 - The Flight and The Committee

[Composed 8/31/2023]

Whenever I fly a committee of voices in my head joins me. Despite this being an absurdly short flight to New York City, the gang was all there; everyone playing their part. The committee consists of a Business Man, Scientist, Artist, Terrified Teen and 10 Year Old boy. As soon as we arrive at the airport, the discussion among the members begin.

Business Man (in an important sounding voice): You know, we should have free Wi-Fi on this flight. That makes it the perfect opportunity to knock out some e-mail and get some coding done.

Scientist (ignoring the business man): Isn't air travel amazing? Just think, 115 years ago what we're doing today would have seemed like a fantastic fantasy. And now, air travel moves nearly 6 million people every day! We travel in a few hours what would have taken previous generations days, weeks or even months. Did you guys know, that first passenger flight took place just two miles from where we live?

Every else (groaning): Yes, we know.

Terrified Teen (because he can't resist): Don't forget, 10 days after the first passenger flight Wright crashed at that same spot, causing the first air fatality.

Everyone else (in unison): not helpful.

Artist (saying, brightly): I'm just excited to get some unique views of the landscape. Maybe this flight is the flight we'll capture the perfect views of DC and NYC?.

10 Year Old Boy (tentatively): Guys, do you think we'll get to watch some TV this flight?

Business Man (scoffing): TV? Not likely. We have important work to do.

Scientist (thoughtfully): Sorry buddy, I wouldn't count on it. Our Garmin Watch has some breathing exercises I've wanted to try out. Plus, we should really put in some time with Duolingo. Any remaining free time should really be spent getting caught up on podcasts.

Artist (exasperated): Consume, consume, consume. Is that all you guys can think about? Instead of consuming content, we should be creating! I mean we're going to take pictures, but why stop there? We've got a pen and paper, so we could definitely do some journaling and drawing. But why stop there? We've never written a screenplay. Why don't we try our hand at doing so on this flight? We can use the people around us as inspiration for the characters. Creative endeavors are so very worth their efforts!

Everyone else (even more exasperated): Ugh, this guy.

And so the chatter in my head goes as I made my way through security and to the gate. Once at the gate, I peered out the window at the plane waiting to take us to New York.

Terrified Teen (sarcastically): Oh great, it's a tiny plane. That means we'll feel every bit of turbulence. I hate this. This sucks.

Scientist (authoritatively): And what's so bad about turbulence? The pilot is obviously well trained and experienced. He--or she--would only take us up if the conditions were safe. Don't forget, nearly 1000 planes take-off and land at DCA everyday. This might be scary for us, but for the people who work here this is a humdrum job.

Terrified Teen (losing it): Yeah well...turbulence equals shaking...and shaking equals rivets loosening...and rivets loosening equals planes falling out of the sky!

Scientist (reassuringly): Uh, that's not how that works. Shall I Google how wings are attached to...

Artist (interrupting): Guys! Guys! Guys! Look! A plane is landing and you can see the Washington Monument in the background. I bet nobody has ever taken that photo before. Let's be the first!

Boarding our flight, the committee mostly falls silent. The artist pipes up now and then suggesting pictures that are just too important not to capture. The Scientist, at suggestion of both the safety briefing and a book I read nearly 13 years ago, thoroughly examines the safety briefing card. He looks around and finds the closest emergency exit, knowing full well it may be behind me and counts the rows to get to that exit. I immediately forget this number, but it makes the committee feel better to let the Scientist do his thing. Once buckled in, the Scientist makes a show of taking charge.

Scientist (calmy): OK, we've reviewed the safety instructions, found our nearest emergency exist, felt under the seat to confirm we have a life jacket and visualized where the oxygen masks are going to be deployed from. Remember, grab ours first and then help others with theirs. This is just a normal day at the office for the crew. They wouldn't be here if this was dangerous. We're fine.

Artist (distractedly): Huh? What did you say? The view out our window reveals remarkable cloud cover that combined with our extra wide angle lens is making for a breathtaking composition. How fortunate, we haven't even got off the ground and we're treated to a stunning visual display!

Terrified Teen (alarmed): Did you say cloud cover? That means a bumpy take off for sure!

Scientists (reassuringly): We don't know that. And if it is bumpy, it will just be for a moment or two. Relax. We got this.

As we taxi to the runway, the committee falls silent. They remain silent until we we start careening down the runway. At the moment of lift off, the Terrified Teen always chimes in.

Terrified Teen (in a panic): I DON'T LIKE THIS. CAN WE GO HOME NOW!

Scientist (firmly): Give it a second, we'll be fine. Count to 40 and the hard part will be over.

Artist (excitedly): Guys! Look out the window! This view is amazing. The monuments! The buildings! What a treat this is!

Terrified Teen (relaxing slightly): OK, maybe this isn't so bad.

(the plane continues it's impossibly steep rise, banking sharply and shaking with the smallest bit of turbulence)


Everyone else: (silence)

Scientist (panickily): I know, let's all grip the arm rest for dear life. That should help.

Everyone but the 10 Year Old Boy (enthusiastically): Yes, yes. Let's do that.

10 Year Old Boy (curiously): Why are we holding on to the arm rest? If the plane plummets from the sky, how does holding on to the plane itself help?

Everyone else (loudly): Shut up, kid. You literally know nothing.

10 Year Old Boy (sheepishly): Can we maybe watch TV now?

Everyone else (exuberantly): Yes! Yes, let's watch TV. TV good.

And so we rise to our cruising altitude, alternating between capturing photos of the views and watching Heart of Stone on Netflix. The photos and movie keep the committee occupied, leaving a surprisingly small amount of bandwidth to panic.

After our impossibly steep ascent (thank you DCA and your crazy flight patterns), we soon level off and things smooth out for bit. At this point, the Business Man makes a great show of taking the helm.

Business Man (pretending he wasn't just scared): OK, now that we're at crusing altitude, it's time to turn off this drivel and get to work.

This, of course, is all for show. The Business Man is hoping against hope that Wi-Fi will be down. In that case, he can make a large show of disappointment and get back to watching the movie.

Alas, this flight the Wi-Fi is functional. E-mail is read and responded to. Though, the artist is pretty relentless.

Arist (eagerly): Guys! Look out there - it's some sort of air field! Check it out. (Zooms in digitally, snaps pics). I bet that's an airforce base and those are planes ready for quick deployment. That's so cool.

Scientist (apprecatively): I think you're right! That is cool. I wonder which base it is. I wonder what type of planes those are. I wonder what role they play? I wonder how long it takes for them to be airborne. So much to research and learn about. I can't wait.

10 Year Old Boy (impatiently): the planes are cool, but can we get back the movie?

Everyone else (unguardedly): oh yeah, for sure, defintely.

After a mere 25 minutes, the plane begins to descend. That's how short this flight is. A flight attendant announces that it's time to pack up, and the the Business Man groans, giving off a "well, I would have done more work, but you know, rules are rules" vibe. It's all for show, he's as eager as the rest of the committee to get back to watching the movie.

As we approach New York City, the committee's chatter starts to intrude on the movie.

Artist (breathlessly): GUYS! Look! The sun is catching those container ships so beautifully. And look, I think we can capture the sillouhete of that bridge! The light is amazing!

Everyone else (annoyed): Yeah, yeah, yeah. Can we get back to our movie?

Artist (equally annoyed): In a minute! You can watch that movie anytime, but this moment we are experiencing is special. We're literally flying, an activity that for thousands of year was considered the stuff of Science Fiction. You guys should be ashamed of yourselves for burying your heads in a screen when you're participating in one of the great privileges of our age.

Scientist (timidly): OK...take your pictures. It's just that I'm finding this film so riddled with plot holes that mustering the imagination needed to accept its premises is offering an interesting thought exercise.

Business Man (confidently): And Gal Gadot is HOT!

Terrified Teen (momentarily dropping his guard): Heck yeah! (They high five)

Artist (miffed): You guys are impossible. Oh wait, more buildings! These lines should form quite the composition, don't you all agree? I wonder how this would look using one of the black and white filters on Google photo. Who's excited to find out?

Terrified Teen (troubled): GUYS. We are accelerating. Should we be accelerating? I mean, we're going awfully fast, even for an airplane. And the ground is getting very close to us. How sure are we that the runway will actually be there? I mean, it doesn't look like there's a runway anywhere around here, does there? Would it help if we screamed in panic? I think that would help. Let's scream. Let's scream for our lives.

Everyone else: Chill out and watch the damn movie.

All: (movie is put back on, everyone momentarily forgets their mortality)

And so the banter about watching the movie, snapping skyline pics and panicking continues until we finally, and far from gently, land. As we taxi to the terminal, the committee does one more round of discussions.

Scientist (a bit too confidently): See, I told you we had nothing to worry about. Air travel is impressively safe.

Terrified Teen (reluctantly): OK, that wasn't too bad. I guess I was wrong when I said that we were absolutely going to plumet to our deaths.

Business Man (scoldingly): Next time, we really should come better prepared to get work done. When Wi-Fi is no longer available, we should have other tasks we can complete. After all, this is precious time to put to use.

Scientist (agreeing): Agreed. And really, we must try the Garmin Breathwork app. Perhaps the breathing exercises could help us fly more calmly. And we didn't even open Dulingo. C'mon guys, we can do better.

Arists (exicitedly): Ooh, the Manhattan skyline. Isn't it magnficent? Better get another round of pics of it.

By the time we deplane, the committee has disbanded. I know that in a few days, when we head back to DC, they'll be back. While the chatter will remainly largely the same, I know with absolute certainty that the only activity that will be done on the flight home is to watch Gal Gadot smash bad guys and I can't wait.

New York and the US Open, here we come!

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Review: Skybase 50-1000x Wi-Fi Microscope | Low Cost, Solid Performance

I added the Skybasic 50X-1000X Wi-Fi Microscope to my Amazon Wishlist for both practical and creative purposes. On the practical side, I wanted to use it to help identify and solder tiny electrical components. On the creative side, I'm always looking for novel photography ideas, and I thought the scope would give me a unique way to capture the world around me.

My parents bought me the Skybasic for Channukah (thanks Mom & Dad!) and I was eager to play with it.

I unboxed the device, turned it on and installed and launched Max-See, the companion app. The app had me connect to the microscope via Wi-Fi and in a few moments, I had an image on my screen. In terms of setup, I was impressed: the device and app more or less worked flawlessly out of the box.

After a bit of adjusting the focus / zoom and positioning the scope, I captured this image:

That red smudge is one of these dots:

While hardly great art, it does give a sense of how zoomed in one can get using the device. The Amazon description for a device like this is always hyperbole. There's no way a $40 device is capable of the 1000x high def view that the description promises. But, it's certainly significantly more zoomed in than my Galaxy S22+ can do on its own. The app is easy to use and the images are more than adequate. Sure, there are limitations in the magnification, focusing and depth of field. And because the wireless connection works over Wi-Fi, you can't access the web when you're using the microscope. But for $40, it's hard to argue with any of this.

Over the last couple of days Shira and I have been cataloging jewelry that were part of her parent's estate. I found the Skybasic to be surprisingly functional in helping us learn about and capture the details of a number of pieces. Here are some examples of my S22 vs. the scope:

In these examples, the zoomed in view is sort of nice to have. We could probably have discovered the same markings by digitally zooming in on the cell phone images. But that's not the case on this Lucien Piccard watch. The cell phone's shot makes it appear as though the back has no markings, while the Skybasic clearly shows the model number and 14 caret gold stamp.

I have to say, I'm impressed by what this budget microscope can do. I expected it to be a novelty, but it's already proven its worth as a functional tool. Sure, I'm excited to take this on my next hike to try capturing some interesting field pics. And I'm eager to have my nieces and nephews play with this, to let them experience a unique point of view. But it's already earned a spot in our kitchen's utility drawer for doing quick, close up inspections. And for that, it's already a winner.