Thursday, January 31, 2013

single tracks or whole album? an iTunes rule of thumb

A friend asks about what he calls a tough economic decision: $1.29 for a song in iTunes, or the whole album for $9.99? I have yet to find my iTunes tipping point. If liking one song means I should buy the single, what about two songs? At almost $4, is three songs the tipping point for purchasing the whole album as opposed to singles? There must be an algorithm out there for this.

My answer is two-layered. The first is simple math: your tipping point is only reached if the price of the singles exceeds the album price. In the case of iTunes's $1.29 tracks, it's seven songs. Only if you buy the eighth is it worth buying the album. Simple market economics. Pay less for less.

The second layer adds one subjective variable. You might be buying from an artist who you think doesn't get enough attention for what they're offering, in which case you can consider the greater expenditure as not only purchasing more music (albeit which you may enjoy less) but also — crucially — giving business and support and, through your clicks, attention to a deserving artist.

So, that's one way of doing things. Glad to be of very little help.

Monday, January 28, 2013

the pratt. or, the shelby. or, the shell.

I consider myself a sartorially informed person. No doubt there are huge gaps, particularly when it comes to women's fashion, but, really, if you wonder which of your friends cares about gauntlet-button placement, or which will enthuse about the club collars in Downton Abbey, or which will get excited about a really good un-blingy cufflink, you won't be wondering too long, right? That's because you know that I'm a fan of all that stuff and truly enjoy dressing right.

That's why it's so odd that, at the age of 45, I'm just now finding out about the Pratt knot, also called the Shelby knot, also called the Shell knot. It's a way of tying your tie. Every man knows about the big studly Windsor knot, and its slighter but perfectly symmetrical half-Windsor, and the insouciant four-in-hand, which I've been using almost exclusively since college.

But now I find out about the Pratt knot! Crazy! It's like finding out there's a fourth primary color. How on earth can it be? As it turns out, the Pratt is fairly similar to the knot of my own invention that I used throughout high school, where I developed it as a way of conserving tie length when I wore loosened ties with untucked shirts — a casual, preppy-but-not-fussy look if you can pull it off — starting in about eleventh grade. (I wore a tie to school just about every day of my junior and senior years.) 

Anyway, you start off kind of backwards from how you'd start off doing a Windsor or four-in-hand, with the seam facing out and the skinny end on the other side of your neck. The result is a pleasantly puffy, very symmetrical knot that's good for tall guys and stylishly versatile.

I apologize in advance for the maddening format of the article I'm linking to: it's one of those where they make you click six times, reading a few paragraphs each, to get through the article. Phhhht. Stop doing that, folks. But it's a pleasure to see and try, and to scroll through and see who's been seen wearing it.

Behold the Pratt knot.

Friday, January 25, 2013

please don't help my kid

Just the other day, I was at the playground with Greta. There's a climbing wall that goes up to a platform where there are two slides. I helped her learn to place her feet on the footholds, then I went and sat down on the bench. Greta started and stopped, tried and failed and tried, and for the most part did an admirable job of getting up that wall.

A short while later, a very nice mom came up with her kid, and, while the kid played around, the mom helped Greta take each step and then boosted her to the very top, the whole while saying "Good job!" and "You're doing it!" and "Wow, you're really great!"


I was friendly to the mom, and she was friendly to me, but when she finally left Greta started at the bottom of that rock wall and grunted and pushed her way to the very top, at which point she raised her arms in triumph and said, "I did it myself!"

I said, "Yep, you did."

And now today I read this article. It's a complete statement of a parental philosophy. I feel some combination of thrill and relief that others feel the way I do.

Monday, January 21, 2013

mlk and jazz

Happy Martin Luther King day. Rather than rehearsing the same old sound byte, take a look at what the man said about Jazz.

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

a matter of diction

Several times now, Catherine or I will be talking with Greta, and one of us says or does something amusing, and Catherine or I will say, "That's silly!"

At this point, Greta will invariably say, "That's not silly; that's funny."

Is that Brake or Wiltse DNA? I'm delighted to say it's impossible to tell.

Friday, January 18, 2013

all happy novels resemble one another

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

rg3, brubeck, and sustainability

I'm thinking about the latest news of Baylor hero RG3. (That's Robert Griffin III, a terrific young football player.) He had a pretty bad injury, but played anyway, as footballers too often do; his coaches let him, as coaches too often do. The result is that he's now out, and his future in his chosen field of endeavor is in question. That future is certainly affected, no matter what.

I'm also thinking about Dave Brubeck, recently departed at the age of 91. He was gigging right up until the end. If you do it right, you can play piano forever. Musicians, whether classical or jazz or pop, often enter into a Master Wizard period, becoming better than ever, while everyone else they went to school with has hung up the towel.

This is why I'm so glad I didn't get into ballet, or boxing, or any other sport or career or activity or hobby that gradually destroys your ability to engage in it. Why on earth wouldn't you do something that rewards your dedication rather than punishing it?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

downton and lydian

Catherine and I enjoyed a special holiday treat while waiting for our new little daughter to come: we watched season three of Downton Abbey. It's now airing in the US, but we watched it from a British website, and so we got to see the whole thing nice and early. Satisfyingly soapy, with beautiful men and women, superb period fashions, great interiors and exteriors, and lots of zingers from Maggie Smith.

One thing that gives the show its character is the music. It's instantly recognizable, and reminds us of the show itself, with its upscale sheen and urgent drama and slightly piquant taste and luxurious feel. The main theme is in A-minor, with a piano hammering out a high simple melody against a lush string texture. The sound, though, that I most associate with the series is when the music shifts down to an F-major chord, with a prominent G-major triad shimmering high in the strings. The conductor and performers always lean into this chord whenever it appears in the score, and the result is both sweet and bracing.

That's partially because it offers a glancing reference to the Lydian mode, a scale whose raised fourth degree always gives it a fresh kick, from the Norwegian Peasant Dances of Edvard Grieg to the latest John Williams movie score. As I've noted before, the Lydian mode has, by now, a shorthand "movie-magic" sound. And, at least for now, it doesn't seem to get stale in people's ears.

Downton's composer, John Lunn, doesn't really use it in an extremely Lydianish way, though: we still hear the context of the A-minor that we've left, and to which we'll be returning shortly. It's a nice way of symbolizing the back-and-forth of joy and sorrow, contentment and drama, in the show itself; and that hovering bitonality, the G over F, seems to fit the overall theme in the series of modernity intruding on the traditional.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

inducing lyrics

Of course, quite a few instrumentalists play melodies without any thought of the lyrics that go with them. They add notes, take notes away, and more. But, sometimes, you can hear the lyrics an instrumentalist is thinking just by listening to the way they play the notes.

For instance, this melody...

... is different from this one, ...

... which is different from this one.

Any guesses as to which set of lyrics the person in each case might be thinking of? Interesting, right? If you're an American, it's likely that you'll hear the third one as the one that feels right, because most Americans think of this as "Have you ever seen a lassie." But a German might gravitate to number two, "Oh, du lieber Augustin." And a Brit would hear the first one as the one that feels right, because Brits know it as "The more we get together."

So, now you have good reason to ask a jazzer the difference between "C Jam Blues" and "Duke's Place."

Sunday, January 6, 2013

the actual path(s) of the magi?

Remember when you were a kid and asked each other questions like "Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman?" or "How much Force Power could Yoda output?" or "How much energy would it take to lift everyone on earth?"

Well, there's at least one guy that'll take you seriously, and that's the guy who writes "What If?" on — week after week he answers with serious scientific calculations based on best-guess approximations of those comic-book-world conditions (here are the answers to the Yoda question and the lifting-everyone question). He often goes into advanced physics, using simple illustrations to help you believe you know what he's talking about.

For the Epiphany season (which starts, you recall, on the 12th day of Christmas, and celebrates the arrival of the magi), he considers the quite reasonable question of what would happen if you actually followed the path of a star on Earth. What if you were to walk towards a star at a fixed speed? Constantly following it even when it's "below" you during the daytime? What path would you trace on the Earth? Does it converge to a fixed cycle?

It's an Epiphany hoe-down. Check out his answer.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

it's a girl

Say hello to Clara Eleanor Howard Brake, born New Year's Day 2013.