Friday, August 11, 2006

Book of the Month: The Best American Science Writing 2002

I don't read as often as I used to, but I still manage to polish off two to three books per week. It is inevitable that some books will make me so excited I wish to share them.

The Best American Science Writing 2002, edited by Matt Ridley, is a fascinating and gripping book. It is comprised of magazine articles, most of them in the 4000 to 5000 word range, that were published in 2002. The topics are always relevant, usually controversial, and most assuredly thought-provoking. I think Clare would like this book - the quality of writing is top notch, and the jargon is not technical at all. Each article can raise your awareness to the point that you decide you want to drop your career to make a difference in that field - very powerful stuff.

I am not going to detail all the articles here, but the following I found particularly fascinating:

- An article on a plastic surgeon, who is the foremost emergency repair artist on the East Coast (fixing up burn and cancer victims, for example), but who also dreams of implanting wings in humans. It examines the ethics of body modification, and explores the concept of people as art. It is horrifying, but probably the best article in the entire book

- An article on breeding for parts. Parents of Fanconi anemia (a fatal childhood disease) desperately try to have more children, hoping that one of them will be a bone marrow match to save their dying child. This has now led to in vitro fertilization and ultimately, experimentation on embryos - get as many viable embryos out there and then pick the best one before you implant in the mother.

- An article on cloning. Why would you clone? A clone may be a genetic copy, but will not be "you". A clone will start out again as a baby, so cloning can not replace a dying 30-yr-old sone, for example. The person will be alike yet different. Also, most clones are imperfections, so you would have to destroy hundreds of clones before getting a healthy one

- Medicine and Race; there are known differences between the way white people and black people in the US react to chemical treatment, but because that is considered racist you are not allowed to act on the knowledge - and it is killing people

- The War on Cancer; thirty years later mortality is still as bad. It discusses the flawed model used by the US, and the political funding decisions that are not in the public's best interest, and why the most promising avenues are not able to be explored (politicians are killing you!)

- Dietary Fat; 50 years and millions of dollars of research have failed to show a problem with regular fat intake; since the switch to low-fat diets, though, obesity has risen and other diseases taken hold. It details the commercial and political interests in the low-fat craze, and its deadly consequences.

- Brain Cells; long thought to die but not renew, new evidence has shown we can grow new brain cells. This has implications with late in life learning, and recuperation form diseases. This information was stalled for ten years by one person who's powerful position was threatened if it turned out to be true

- How the Universe Began; a scathing critique of the scientists who claim to know it all (this has nothing to do with religion)

There are myriads of others, including the inconsistencies in quantum theory, global data that shows the world is actually getting better, the effects of melting icecaps on arctic birds, etc

I wish everybody could read this book - it is the most provocative book I have read this year

Friday, August 04, 2006

Performance and Practise: Perfectionism, Pragmatism and Pride

Sally lent her guitar method book to me last year, and I have been studying it daily. The first solo piece that you come to in the book is entitled "Spanish Study". As you can see in the small snippet pictured, the first section has pairs of eighth-notes, and the second section has triplets.

There is no speed posted for the piece, and I originally learned it about 60. It is simpler than it looks as the high note is a drone on the open E. At a speed of 60, I am playing two notes per second in the first part, and three notes per second for the triplets. The triplet is awkward, but I eventually got it to not sound too ragged, and then worked on improving my speed. I stopped at a speed of 96, pleased with the overall sound of the piece. Still, a nagging part of me wondered what the tempo should really be ...

I found out. I was listening to Liona Boyd play a piece called Asturia, by Isaac Albeniz. Suddenly I heard the theme! "Spanish Study" is a brief excerpt from a longer piece called "Asturia"! Well - the tempo was pretty quick. Very quick. I fished out my metronome and tried to measure it. My metronome only goes up to 208, so it was too slow. My best guess is she is playing at a speed between 220-240, and she was doing it fluidly and effortlessly.

I was devastated. My puny 96 was mocking me. I knew I was not going to be able to play at 240 (approximately 12 notes per second), but surely I could gain some speed and salvage some sense of self worth. After three months of practise (I practised other things also) I was up to a ragged 132 and feeling topped out. Should I drop it down to 120 and play it smoothly? Is that good enough for performance? After all, who will know what speed it should be at? Those were the thoughts of my pragmatic side, which wins out quite often. But shouldn't I try to play it perfectly for a performance? My pride and sense of professionalism was trying to have its say. 240. 240. 240. The chant was maddening.

I decided to do something I hadn't done in a while - I looked at the music. Imagine my astonishment to see "p i a" for the right-hand fingering on the triplets. I had carelessly been playing it "p i m", probably because the opening couplets were labelled as "p m". (Terminology note: p=thumb i=index m=middle a=ring). Unfortunately, "p i m" pulls your hand out of alignment, which was why I was struggling with the speed. In classical guitar, all else being equal, your top three strings each belong to a specific finger, and since I needed to play the first and third strings, the first and third fingers were obviously called for.

So I decided to try the new fingering, and even with the awkwardness of using the ring finger, I could sense the difference. Once I brought the strength in my ring finger up to par, my speed increased dramatically. I decided to set myself a goal of 176 for the tempo, which would be a nice quick speed and still reachable. I would then polish it, perform it, and put it away. What I didn't realize was that I would hit my speed target in three weeks.

So now my inner demon is saying "176 is not too far away from 200 - you can do it". I'm not really sure now when to quit. Is it "good enough", or do I try for "better"?

I face this dilemma in anything I try, but rarely is it as clear cut an issue as in this piece. I would love some feedback from my sisters on their thoughts between the drive for perfection in performance, and willing to settle for "good enough"