Is This Photo Unrelated to This Article or is it Just Me?

Most days I take a quick look at articles posted online instead of reading a printed newspaper. I keep noticing that file photos attached to articles are often only surface-related, like in this Reuters article entitled Runaway mouse delays flight. The article is about a mouse that somehow ended up on a Boeing 777 scheduled for a flight to Tokyo, but the following photo is of a lab rat: Runaway Mouse, or Not?

I'm trying to wrap my mind around why they chose this photo. Could it be that Reuters assumes the average reader's I.Q. is so low that they won't know what a mouse looks like? Is there any modern-day adult anywhere in the world who has never seen a mouse? Maybe the staff photographer, Alessia Pierdomenico, gets a little money every time a photo is posted online and she's dating the person who wrote the article. Probably not, as the Reuters employee reported from Hanoi. No, I think Reuters is just plain lazy. It would have been much more interesting if they could have obtained a photo of the mouse in question, at least so it could have had its fifteen minutes of fame before they killed it.

Open Letter to My Friends in Iceland (I mean, Inwood)

A few years ago my wife Victoria and I moved from Thayer Street in Inwood to Hell's Kitchen in Midtown Manhattan, or Clinton as some people call it. More accurately, we moved from Washington Heights, as Thayer Street is technically 199th Street, and Inwood officially begins at Dyckman (200th Street), at least according to maps. (New Yorkers become experts on where one neighborhood ends and another begins, which can quite literally change from block to block.) Depending on the day and which section was deemed hipper in a given conversation, we would often change neighborhoods. As an aside, no one in Hell's kitchen that I know calls where we live "Clinton," which Manhattan realtors prefer. Sorry, it just doesn't sound as cool as Hell's Kitchen; it doesn't have that scrappy ring to it. Besides: with it's former Westies history, mix of cultures, car exhaust and asphalt as far as you can see, it really is more like hell in some ways than sissy-sounding Clinton. Actually, I'm being hard on my new neighborhood: we have some great neighbors, excellent restaurants and we're pretty close to the waterfront and Central Park, so it is not so bad.

When we moved, we inevitably lost a few friends, mostly musicians. Washington Heights and Inwood are packed with artist types, at least these days, and you pretty much can't throw a chunk of rosin or a drumstick without hitting a musician. Not that we're not still friends with our former neighbors, but there is a strange phenomenon in NYC: when you move from one neighborhood to another, you are often treated like you have moved to another town, or another city, or even another country, like Iceland.

Admittedly, when we lived there and a few of our friends moved to Brooklyn, or shock of shocks, Queens, we often jokingly said, "it was so nice to know you. We'll visit someday, we promise, if we can find a cheap flight or cruise liner deal." Then we would give them a big hug and a Manhattan-style pseudo air kiss and wave goodbye. We treated these defectors as if they moved to Papa New Guinea or some other far off land. There is truth in that after they moved, we almost never saw them again, as both Brooklyn and Queens have their own distinct and wonderful artistic cultures, and residents of these boroughs are often very proud and entrench themselves in their newfound homeland.

One time, when we lived on Thayer, I tried ordering a few cases of paper from an office supply store in lower Manhattan. The office supply guy said "We can deliver in Manhattan, no problem. Where do you live?" "Thayer Street" "Thayer? where's that? I've never heard of it." Mumbling, anticipating what might be coming, I said, "It's up near Dyckman, 200th street." "200th Street? What are you, NUTS? We can't deliver up there, that's God's country! We'll ship it to you, FedEx."

I kid you not. This is what he said—as if we lived in Alaska.

One side issue I have with my fellow New Yorkers is how they always call anything above New York City "upstate." Can we stop that, right here, right now? New York Cityites are so full of themselves sometimes. Just because NYC is on the absolute lowest tip of New York State does not make everything else "upstate." Upstate should be anywhere north of Syracuse, then there should be Midstate and downstate and the exurbs of New York City (we can call that, for lack of a better term, Greater New York City), with a distinction for Western New York as well since it kind of juts out. That's that, case closed.

But anyway, back to our friends, I just want to say that we love and miss you, and you are always welcome down here in Havana, I mean Hell's Kitchen. In turn, the next time we can find a cheap flight, we will schedule a vacation and visit you Northerners.

Thoughts on the Demise of Tower Records

Tower Records Closing "You hear that Mr. Anderson?... That is the sound of inevitability... It is the sound of your death... Goodbye, Mr. Anderson... "

The Matrix (1999)

Like the subway car about to roll over Neo in The Matrix, Tower Records was run over by the Internet. Unlike Neo, Tower did not adapt or get out of the way—it just got crushed, owing creditors about 200 million dollars.

The demise of Tower Records stores is on almost every musician's lips. My take on it is that it is a good thing. The Internet is the new unifying force, and luckily, independents are thriving in the digital world. Even Tower Records will probably still survive online.

Tower Records was never that friendly to independents. Sure, you would find a few local bands in the bins, maybe a few independent classical CDs, but they did not know how to market anything other than the largest names on the biggest labels, and that is primarily because they had the money to provide them with display cards, posters and other advertising paraphernalia. Half the time I walked into Tower, the staff had no clue about classical music, jazz or anything other than mainstream pop.

What is truly scary about Tower closing is that Wal-Mart might be taking its place, online or not. Wal-Mart is not the friendliest, except to its investors and the millions of people who want something cheap, or to its sadly brainwashed, horribly paid workforce. (Ironically, you may purchase something cheap at the time, but the cost to everything—local and small businesses especially—is staggering.) Without the occasional mom n' pop store or the Internet, independent musicians and labels would die.

My lovely wife Victoria recently started a record company, Lumiere Records. Luckily, Tower closed right before she began distribution, so she did not send any units to Tower, never to be seen again. If it was not for the internet, she would not have a business. It is just too much work to go to every single independent record store (the ones that still exist) and market her CDs, one store at a time.

On a related note, yesterday we saw High Fidelity on Broadway, the second to last show (it just closed last night). We really enjoyed it, by the way, and I think it is better than Rent, as rock musicals go. If you have never seen the movie or read the book, the story takes place in and around a record store. In the old days, the release on an album was a big deal: people lined up outside record stores, performers and bands showed up, and the albums themselves were more spectacular. There were big, bold covers, often lyrics and lots of liner notes, and you really felt like you were holding something substantial. But best of all, there was a sense of community. I am not saying that there is not some sort of community online, or that there will never will be (with video chatting, this will probably change), but right now, it is just not the same.

Why is this significant? I think that physical stores that sell CDs will be celebrated the same way in the not too distant future. Everything is going digital. There are over thirty sites that sell, stream or rent digital downloads and this is only going to become even bigger. Soon (if not already), you will bring your iPod or other device to a concert and upload the concert instantaneously, having your credit card charged instantaneously. You will not even have to pull out your wallet, and you will be able to do it via a wireless connection. Live concerts will not only be processed in real time, but you will leave the concert will a cleaned up version as you leave the arena or concert hall. You might even leave with program notes, lyrics and other goodies already uploaded to your device. To my mind, that is difficult to beat.

The one aspect of physical stores I will really miss is getting advice from knowledgeable staff. Of course, with stores paying minimum wage, this went the way of the Dodo anyway, but I really think the wave of the future will include hiring people with expertise, online or not. Perhaps this is already happening in a micro-meshed way with millions of real people giving their two cents, their 15 minutes of cyber fame to an Amazon review, but someone needs to separate the wheat from the chaff, and currently, it is not Amazon or even sites like Wikipedia. They are trying hard, and even I go on there occasionally to find some little tidbit of information (and yes, it is often pretty darned good), but that is not always the case. Intelligent people are key, whether with an online encyclopedia or a record store, physical or not. People believe too much of what they read without intelligently sorting things out.

It sure will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years.

Why I Became Vegan

Many people ask me why I am vegan (pronounced `vee-gun'). Up until my last two years as an undergrad student at the Eastman School of Music, I would never have thought I would become vegetarian, and certainly not vegan; I ate meat, dairy and eggs like almost everyone else. I never entertained the thought of becoming vegetarian because I could not see the reasons behind doing something so “unnatural” or “extreme.”

I had two jobs while a senior in undergraduate school. The first was working at the front desk in the dorm during the summer. One of my tasks was sorting and alphabetizing incoming mail. I noticed that a few students were receiving a magazine called Peta, and I was curious, so I asked one of the students it if it would be OK for me to look at it before I put it in the pile of mail to be put in boxes.

Looking through those issues of Peta that summer exposed me to some of the most shocking, horrific pictures I have ever seen to this day or probably ever will see. Many of the images were of animals being used for experiments and “product testing,” crippled animals left to die on the side of road who were unfit for human consumption, baby calves taken from their mothers, multiple chickens in crates the size of record album covers, etc. These magazines disturbed me so much that I sent away for a pile of books that discussed vegetarianism. I am usually only convinced of something by researching it thoroughly.

One of the most important books was a one by John Robbins entitled Diet for a New America. I can gratefully say that that book changed my life, for the better. I almost failed all of my classes at Eastman the following semester because I spent so much time reading about vegetarianism.

My second job during my senior year also had a major influence on me: I was working as a server for Eastman dining services. Obviously, after reading all of these books, serving ribs, chicken, hamburgers and other dead animals became less and less bearable. People would ask me “what's good today?" My usual reply was “nothing,” or “the salad bar.” What I should have said with was, “Your friend...—he would probably taste just about the same as this pork chop if you cooked him the right way and used a little hot sauce.” I guess I was not cut out for a lifetime of work in dining services.

That summer, I was living very frugally. I still remember the exact moment when I made the transition to becoming vegetarian. I was going to the grocery store in MidTown Plaza in downtown Rochester, NY to do my weekly shopping. I had approximately $20 in my pocket. I was standing in between the meat isle and the vegetable section. I remember thinking I could buy two boneless chicken breasts and perhaps a steak or two, or I could use the money for a whole basket of vegetables and fruits. That day, I decided to try becoming vegetarian for a week. One week grew into two, two weeks into two months.

Within the next few months, I gradually became vegan. I lost about twenty pounds, and believe me, I was not even trying. I love to eat. I not only lost a little weight, I also felt better.

Ironically, the more I learned about vegetarianism and the more I cooked vegetarian food, the more I really fell in love with cooking. If you have never had a gourmet vegetarian dinner, you have no idea how amazing it can taste. One of my favorite pastimes is to cook vegetarian food for guests. I consider the meal a success if guests say that they do not miss animal products, or sometimes can not even tell if the food I prepared was even made with animal products! If you don't believe how good vegetarian food can be, try one the recipes in cookbooks like Friendly Foods or The Millennium Cookbook. I am certain you will not be disappointed.

The Millennium Cookbook

The Millennium Cookbook

There are three main reasons someone usually becomes vegetarian: the first and probably most talked about is animal cruelty. You would have to be very ignorant to not realize how much pain and suffering animals go though in order to reach your dinner table. I always find it interesting that humans process animal flesh in ways that are completely different than how animals kill and eat their prey; a wolf can not use a gas grill, and a mountain lion has no idea what barbecue sauce is.

The second main reason someone becomes vegetarian is to improve their health. Again, you would have to be living in a vacuum to not be aware of all of the positive aspects of eating a plant-based diet. The information is all around you. Almost without exception, there are only two times when you will read literature that supports an animal foods-centered diet: when the literature is from the meat, egg or dairy industries or when the information is coming from an ill-informed, poorly-trained, not-so-up-to-date nutritionist.

The third reason someone might become vegetarian is because they have figured out how much damage the large-scale consumption of animal products does to this planet. This reason was the single largest reason, at least initially, that I became vegetarian. I was appalled—and still am—at how much wasted energy and resources go into producing animal products. The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is a prime example.

You might think that it could not possibly be that bad, but stop and think for a moment: where does a large portion of water pollution usually come from? Animal waste run-off is one of the largest pollutants of our drinking water. Most farmland is used for growing animal feed. A large percentage of our fresh water supply is used for animals. Many poor people in the world are starving and dying not just because of poor farmland and financial misfortune, but because of our enormous greed. Deforestation (primarily for farming and overpopulated areas) is also contributing to global warming.

If everyone in the United States would stop eating animal products, and we used the feed given to farm animals to feed people, there would be much less starvation in poorer countries. In fact, there would probably be no starvation in poorer countries. America is essentially hemorrhaging precious resources in order to fuel a careless, national desire for cooked dead animals.

A simple way to make a difference is to eat one vegetarian meal, or vegan meal if possible, in place of a meat-based meal you might normally eat. For example, eat a vegetarian burger for lunch instead of a hamburger. Or, eat a good bowl of cereal with soy or rice milk for breakfast instead of bacon and eggs. If everyone in America who is not vegetarian does this, millions of dollars in resources every year can be diverted to people who are trying to survive, and our water bills, energy bills and taxes can be lowered. Taxes, you wonder? The government generally subsidizes animal producers, but not vegetable farmers (at least as far as I know).

It always fascinates me that our society uses a label for what seems to be an abnormal eating choice: eating a vegetarian diet. It always seems to me that it should be the other way around: vegetarians should be considered normal and meat eaters should be labeled as "abnormal."

Although I am obviously passionate about being vegan, many excellent books cover much more information that I mention here. One of these books is the previously mentioned, Pulitzer Prize nominated book Diet for a New America by John Robbins. Another more recent book is Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, by Erik Marcus.

In the end, a vegan diet is not the cure-all for all of the world's problems. We still need to curb overpopulation and emissions, and you still need to exercise. Obviously, you need to be mentally healthy as well. Eating a vegan diet will not do you much good if your life is full of pain and stress. If you do choose to become vegan or vegetarian, you still need to eat a healthy diet. Just as there are healthy people who eat meat, there are unhealthy vegetarians. In the end, becoming vegan or vegetarian is only one step, but for me, becoming vegan has definitely been a step in the right direction.

Why Website Navigation Matters

I am in the process of re-designing my website as it is sorely in need of a total re-haul. I designed it a long time ago before I knew anything about website design or navigation. In order to get some ideas, I spent the better part of an evening looking at a LOT of composer websites, and I have concluded that most composers do not have a clue as to how others will look at their sites. It seems like they often do not test their site with friends, family or anyone else. Composers usually create in a solitary environment and these days, often do everything themselves: composing, copying, promoting, recording, performing, publishing and even designing their own websites. They are used to living in a bubble. However, not having anyone check you site before you "go live" is a mistake. You may think it is amazing, but everyone else might not understand it and think it is a navigational nightmare. Websites absolutely need to be user friendly.

Here are ten key points I think composers—and for that matter, almost anyone else—should remember when designing their sites.

1. Navigation, Navigation, Navigation!

This is the single most important design element. If people cannot find what they are looking for, they will leave quickly. All the bells and whistles, pretty graphics and Flash effects will have little effect—and may even be hugely irritating—if your site is a virtual maze.

Here's a test: get everyone you can to look at your site while you watch them. If you can, shoot a video of the screen and ask them to talk out loud to themselves about the site while they are perusing it. Give them seven seconds to find certain pieces of information. Keep in mind that seven seconds—and that's being generous—is about how long someone's patience will last before they become aggravated. Ask them to find a program note, sound file, your biography, etc., anything that you would want to be found quickly. If it takes them more then ten seconds to find it, your site is too inefficient.

It is wise to have your website seriously criticized. It is meant to sell you and your music, and if people can't maneuver through it, what does that say about you and your work? To me, it sends a subtle message that your work is not worth finding, or that you don't value my time. As a composer, conductor, performer, artistic director, professor, and as someone with a family, my time is valuable. If I can't find what I am looking for right away, I will move on and look for composers who value my time more than you.

2. Navigation—on Every Page

One particular aspect of navigation is so important it deserves its own number. Except for the home page (and personally, I even think the home page should be like the other pages in this respect), each page should have the same navigational structure, and the navigation links or buttons should be on every page. Why? Because otherwise, we'll have...

3. The Back Button Blues

I hate the back button. Using it takes me out of your site and causes me to look up and down, mousing and scrolling like crazy. Websites should have their own internal structure, and it should be elegantly designed. Relying on browser buttons to get the job done is just plain lazy.

4. The Basics

At the very least, your website should have the following:

• List of works • Bio • Photo • Contact Info.

If you are really with it, you will have:

• Sound files • Program Notes (if you write them) • Two bios, both a long and a short version • Detailed info on sheet music purchase/rental (publisher info, payment options, etc.)

And if you really have your act together, you will also have:

• Upcoming Concerts and a Recent Events page or info. box • Links to CDs or purchase info. for digital recordings of your music • A link to high-resolution photo(s) for print • A links page

Why upcoming concerts and recent events? This should be obvious: let people know what you are up to. As for links, some people don't like them, but I do. Isn't this one of the main advantages of using the Internet? I like to know what sites you find interesting, who your friends are, what groups have played your music, etc.

Everything else is just frosting.

What don't you want?

• A welcome page: this was cool for about ten minutes back in the '90s. Not anymore. • An awards page: they are amateurish-looking. People who are either not good web designers or want to feel powerful give out most awards. Do you really want them passing judgment on your website?

5. Sound Clips

It is irritating to not have sound clips on a music website. There's really no excuse. Unless you are world-famous, like Philip Glass and have a bazillion recordings on Amazon, and everyone knows your music, not having sound clips sends a negative message. Even if you are ultra-famous, I still think it's wise to have them. Not having them is like a painter having no images of their work or a writer having no samples of their writing. You don't need many, just a few to give people an idea of what your music sounds like.

6. Frames are Dead

The are so many reasons not to use frames. I won't go into all of them here, but the most important reason to avoid them is that people should be able to enter your site at any point, not just on the home page. Frames make it difficult for spiders to index your individual pages. You want this. Here's an example: if you write a string trio about bananas, and someone looking for string trios for their banana festival and does a Google search for banana trios, they'll have a really difficult time finding your work if it's part of a website made with Frames. If the trio information is on its own individual page, then it will be more likely to come up in a search. There are many details that come into play when making a site that is search engine-friendly, and there are plenty of articles and books out there that explain how to do this, so I won't bore you with the details here.

7. Scrolling is for Monkeys

Humor aside, if you have to scroll more than a page worth of information down or scroll sideways at all, then your site is probably not designed efficiently.

8. Flash is Usually Trash

I want to be able to bypass it or turn it off if possible. Personally, I hate it, but I know some people—particularly those who have a lot of time on their hands or who are new to the Internet—find it interesting. OK, I'll admit it: if it's done well, it can be pretty snazzy, but usually it's just a bandwidth-sucking, coma inducing waste of time. Unless you are good at implementing it or have tons of dough to hire a great web designer who is a Flash expert, I would avoid it.

9. Fast Load Time

Have you ever visited a web page and waited more than a few seconds for it to finish loading? This shouldn't happen. Everyone knows now that there is a difference between photos and images optimized for print and those optimized for computer screens. Simply put, make sure everything looks as good as it can but use the smallest file sizes possible. (Obviously, this does not include images or photos of you that you have links to that are meant for print.)

10. Page IDs on Every Page

This should be obvious, but every page should have a title bar or something that indicates that it's a page from your site. You would be surprised at how many sites out there have random-looking pages that seem to have no connection to their parent site.

In a huge way, most composers are the masters of their own demise. I think many of them believe that few people visit their site or care, so they put very little time into thinking about design issues or even content. I think this is the wrong attitude. If your website is elegant, carefully laid-out and has obvious attention to detail, it will go a long way toward enticing others to be interested in your music.

(Final note: hopefully after reading this and looking at my soon-to-be redesigned site, you will think I practice what I preach.)

I Need More Time

Have you ever felt like there is just not enough time in the day? With the addition of Dylan to our lives, it has become difficult to find enough time for work. And free time? Forget it. I keep trying to figure out how to squeeze more time out of the 24-hour day. Like Nigel's amplifier knobs that go to eleven in This is Spinal Tap, I need something more. A few extra hours would really make all the difference.

One idea is a clock with extra hours:

Paterson 13 Hour Clock

A clock like this is amazing: it gives you two extra hours a day, and all you have to do is shave off five minutes from every hour. Would we really miss them? If I am teaching a class, will the students really notice or care? They would probably love to leave a few minutes early, but give them an inch, and they will take a mile. Soon, we will slide down that slippery slope of wanting even more hours, until our days consist of micro hours smaller than seconds, time becoming a proverbial Phoenix needing to be reborn.

Many college courses only last for 50 minutes (with a few minutes to get to the next class or smoke a cancer stick), and really, normal hours seem a little long anyway. So let's corral all those extra minutes into a couple of extra hours. I know what you are thinking: 13 is a very unlucky number for half a day. Also, dividing a day up evenly becomes very difficult. But you cannot have a better world without sacrifice! Two extra hours might make all the difference.

I have always been fascinated with time, especially flexible, melting time, like in The 1931 painting Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali.:

Dali - Persistence of Memory

Influenced by this painting, I even wrote a movement of a Wind Quintet entitled Melting Clocks. Each instrument plays a pulse at a different rate, and I represent little baby clocks and grandfather clocks ticking their respective tocks, all at different speeds.

Perhaps other people are fascinated with this idea, so much so that you can purchase a real melting clock:

Melting Clock

Maybe I am living on the wrong planet. Many planets have longer days. On Mercury, apparently, ca. 1,407 earth hours equal one day. If there were ever aliens on Mercury, did they all die from sleep deprivation? That seems like overkill. I would be happy just to have an extra hour or two.

Or, maybe I am a member of the wrong species. Although I would not want to be a cat or dog, a tortise might be cool, except that they move so slowly. Maybe that is why they are blessed with extra years.

Ultimately, the best idea might be to just embrace longevity through healthy living. I recently read Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough To Live Forever by Ray Kurzweil. I was curious about this book since Kurzweil made synthesizers a long time ago (he then sold the company), and they rocked. He is a true modern Renaissance man.

Finally, maybe we all just need more of ourselves, as I have mentioned before, like in Multiplicity or Being John Malkovich.

Or, maybe the ultimate way to have more time is to not waste it.

Nuff said...

What are The Most Effective Ways to Communicate?

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is being able to learn how young people really feel about certain issues, and in a relaxed environment. Yesterday I had a conversation with some of my Advanced Tonal Theory and Composition students at Sarah Lawrence College about which interactions between people are more or less personal. Interestingly, there was a consensus about certain forms of communication—phone conversations and one-on-one contact, in particular—but everyone was more opinionated about more recent communication techniques such as Text Messaging. At the risk of stepping on Miss Manners toes, this is what we came up with. The following types of communication are ordered from most personal to least personal. Face to Face Contact If you want to connect with someone in the strongest possible way, you should meet face to face. No other form of communication really takes the place of this. It involves all of our senses—visual, aural and olfactory. Plus, your body language and facial expression will be clearly visible, which in many cases, can be a big plus when trying to get your point across.

Jetsons Video Phone

Video Phones Video phones have not really caught on yet, but they will soon. You can see and hear someone and body language and facial expressions are clearly visible. Video Conferencing is also very personal and is really just the same thing on a larger scale.

Video Chat Video Chatting is not much different from using a Video Phone, except that some people still have an aversion to computers, and it still seems a little more stifling to sit in front of a computer, but technologies are merging more and more every day, and in ten years, there will probably be little difference between the two.

Phone A phone conversation is still a good bet, and obviously very easy, but you can not see the person (or people) on the other end and it's more difficult to read someone. People can modulate their voices and talk in a way that is not reflected by their body language. It is also easy to hang up on someone, and often times, people talk differently on the phone than in person, often without realizing it.

Personal Letters This was one of the most debated forms of communication with my students. Most of them do not send letters, and of course, a few students brought up the great point that a form letter is very different from a personal letter, but as they pointed out, who sends personal letters anymore? No one really communicates via snail mail anymore if they can at all help it. Yet, sending a carefully thought-out letter is a warm gesture, especially if it is hand-written. It shows that you took time, and hey—you even paid for postage!

Instant Message Instant Messaging is at least as personal as a hand-written (or personalized) letter, and more personal than email, but perhaps less effective than a phone call as someone can just walk away from their computer.

Message Board This is similar to email in that you can carry on a written exchange, albeit it will not be in real time, and posting a message definitely does not guarantee a reply. Message boards are popular with specialized online communities.

Email Email is the least effective way to communicate if you are trying to connect with someone. When I receive an unsolicited email message, especially from a business, I cannot hit the delete or Junk Mail Button fast enough. It is just too easy to ignore an email message. However, it is also the least intrusive way to communicate, so some people prefer it to any other mode of communication.

Text Messaging This is probably the most controversial type of communication. It is highly personal, and can be seen as a phone call or instant message in level of importance. This could potentially be included above instant messaging above.

What can we learn from this? Some of these technologies are more or less engaging, mostly depending on how you use them. However, when trying to connect with someone, I would say that of all the usual modes of communication, personal interaction is best, a phone call next, then a personal letter, then email. Everything else falls somewhere inbetween.

Thoughts on Noise Pollution

Perhaps it is because I am a composer and have sensitive ears, or maybe it is because I live in noise-filled Manhattan, but I think there is way too much noise pollution. There is probably not a spot in the entire world—except maybe a tiny island in the Pacific—where you can go and have true peace and quiet, or at the very least get away from man-made sounds. Vehicles are the main culprits. Hundreds of years ago, there were no cars, planes, trains or ships. You could be virtually anywhere in the world and find a spot away from the din of humanity, a place where you could feel truly alone and forget that there are millions of people just like you walking the earth. Even when you think you are really in the middle of nowhere, off in the distance, you will probably hear the low hum of cars speeding down a highway, an airplane overheard or the lonely sound of a train whistle.

Of course, there is a difference between really loud sounds that damage our hearing and the soft sounds that are just slightly annoying. It is fascinating that we have become so accustomed to man-made noise pollution that we almost forget that it is there, or shockingly, are even comforted by it. As I write this, I hear traffic in the background, the hum of our refrigerator, the whirring sound of the fan in this laptop, the ticking of a clock and a train way off in the distance. I have become used to these sounds, and they are fairly soft depending on proximity, but there are others that are so ear shatteringly loud that they can damage our hearing or at the very least, cause us to have psychological problems. Jackhammers, those insanity provoking Mr. Softee songs, and those extremely irritating car alarms top my personal list, but there are many other sounds that just drive me nuts.

Shockingly, some people are so used to background sound that even when presented with a golden opportunity to cut noise levels, they are not interested. Auto companies that make electric cars have recently begun installing devices on cars that actually add artificial noise to offset the relative quietness of the cars. I guess one argument against silent cars is that the blind will have a difficult time hearing them when they cross the street, but surely we can figure out a solution. Maybe electric cars can have an internal "noise" device and those who are blind can also carry a device so that when they go out, their device will make a sound that let's them know that a car is approaching or in the area. Or, maybe electric cars can be programmed to make sound in cities and towns with crosswalks, but not on highways. Nevertheless, I am sure we will eventually get used to quiet cars and wonder how we lived without them. But for now, noise is still a huge problem.

Can anything be done about this?

I think we all have to make it a priority to put an end to noise pollution. There are so many ways we can cut down or even eliminate man-made noise, and as usual, it starts with putting communities' interest above that of corporations and making governments around the world really listen (no pun intended). Our health should matter much more than Mr. Softee’s bottom line. I should not have to hear a car alarm in a sleepy town in the Midwest. In fact, car alarms should be banned. It has been proven that they have little effect on crime anyway. As for more innocuous forms of noise pollution like clocks and refrigerators, all modern inventions should be cleverly designed so that noise levels are as low as possible, or even non-existent.

Maybe it is because we live in such a visual society, or perhaps it is because we have just become so used to it, but noise is everywhere. I would sure love to live in a world where I could have an afternoon of true peace and quiet.

If They Can Be Friends, Why Can't We?

This summer Victoria, Dylan and I stayed at Victoria's parent's place and took walks on the beautiful country roads in rural Vermont. One day, we were surprised to see the following: Friendly Birds

If you look closely, you'll see two ducks (a male and female), a turkey, a chicken and a rooster. They all seem to get along just fine. Interestingly, the rooster leads the pack and all of them generally stand behind him.

This reminds me of a recent story about a baby hippo forming a strong bond with a giant male tortoise:

Turtle and Hippo Getting Along

You would think that if these birds can cohabitate, and this baby hippo and turtle can get along, that people could stop killing each other. I know, it's obviously not that simple, but it sure is fascinating how we think of ourselves as an enlightened species.

What Really Causes Obesity

Obviously, I am not a nutritionist or food scientist, but there seem to be some obvious reasons why the majority of Americans are overweight or obese that few scientists are addressing, First, let’s get this out on the table: most Americans are overweight. According to a USA Today article (I know, not the most scientific of journals, but what I could find in a pinch), 62% of adults and 34% of children are overweight or obese. Adults are considered overweight if they are one or more pounds over a healthy weight. They are obese if they are thirty or more pounds overweight.

What causes this? We all love the easy scapegoat: it’s my genes; there’s something wrong with my body, i.e. physical damage with my pituitary or thyroid glands, etc. But what really causes overeating most of the time? What’s really the underlying problem?

Personally, I think the industrial age is the culprit. Crazy? Hear me out.

With modern machinery, mechanical farming and pesticides came fast food. With processed food came additives, preservatives and flavoring agents. I think the true culprits in our obesity epidemic are high-fructose corn syrup, white flour, white sugar, salt and trans fats. It’s that simple. If we stayed away from these foods entirely and even banned them, we would be a much healthier society. The problem is that these ingredients are in most foods the public-at-large eats, especially at easily accessible fast food restaurants.

Another issue is that since we no longer eat primarily—or entirely—locally grown, seasonal produce. Produce is now genetically modified and engineered to withstand traveling great distances so it won’t bruise or decay. This is why no one likes veggies and even fruits. They often taste horrible.

If you talk to older folks, they will tell you that tomatoes used to taste better. Strawberries never had that awful-tasting white center. Peaches were sweet and juicy. Sure, you can still get great produce if you know where to find it, or if you are a farmer, or if you purchase locally-grown, organic produce at the local co-op, but the majority of Americans are unaware and are eating bland, tasteless, cardboard-like veggies, especially at fast food restaurants. Therefore, the food industry compensates by adding high fructose corn syrup, oil and salt to enhance food that should taste good to begin with. It is no wonder why so many Americans hate veggies.

One move that would help cure all of this is to ban high fructose corn syrup altogether and put a limit as to how much salt should be in a given serving of food. We should also standardize what a serving size is. How many times have you held a plastic Coke bottle that says serving size: 2? A small soda bottle sold in a vending machine should never have two servings. Of course, you know that the person purchasing it will often drink the whole thing.

Furthermore, the government should not be allowed to subsidize any industry that contributes to the obesity problem. America’s poor cannot afford fresh produce, so they fill up their grocery carts with highly processed garbage. There should be hefty taxes on junk food and large subsidies for fresh fruit and vegetable growers.

We also need to ban factory farming and subsidize small, local farms. A farmer who sells produce to his own community should be able to make a comfortable middle-class living—period.

We should also ban pesticides. Millions of people know this, yet the government lacks the courage to actually put this in motion. If pesticides were banned, crops would have to be rotated more often and grown on smaller plots, and grown together. This is why Native Americans grew the Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash:

“The corn provides a climbing stalk for the beans; the beans provide nitrogen to the soil to nourish the corn; and the squash leaves spread out, preventing competition from unwanted vegetation and shade for corn’s shallow roots. This kind of intelligent farming is more difficult to do on a factory farm, but maybe this kind of farming would do away with factory farming all together.”

Heirloom Tomatoes

Another problem is that we grow too few varieties of veggies and fruits. If people had more variety, they might enjoy eating produce. Anyone who has tried heirloom tomatoes can tell you this. They taste fantastic, but since they don’t look or even taste like the cardboard tomato wedges plopped into that McDonald’s salad, people are not interested. The public is afraid of the unfamiliar. Yet, eating the same thing day after day, your whole life can be incredibly boring, and so you hate those yucky veggies even more.

There no easy solution to the obesity epidemic, but we can start by electing officials that are accountable and not subservient to industry lobbyists. We need a government that acts on the will of the people, not corporations. We need a government that looks out for our best interests.

What is the immediate solution? Purchase as much locally grown, in season, organic vegetables and fruits as possible. Not only will they taste better, but you’ll be supporting your local, community farmers and helping to put an end to these horrible factory-farming practices as well. Avoid trans fats and highly processed foods. If we all pitch in, we can get our collective health back more quickly.

Hoping for an Apple Cell Phone

I love gadgets, and if I had to have just one gadget in my life, it would be my Palm Treo. The biggest problem I have—and judging from what I find on the Internet, I am not alone—is getting the thing to sync correctly with Apple software. Granted, I try to do more complex maneuverings that most, such as syncing my Treo’s large address book with my wife’s, using almost all of the available fields in Address Book, syncing with our computer’s address books, etc., but why does this have to be so complicated? We can send ships to other planets and cure diseases, so why can’t the geniuses at Apple figure this out? The reason millions of people stay away from certain technologically-advanced devices is because they are either too complicated, poorly made or filled with bugs and glitches.

I am really, really hoping that Apple comes out with their own brand of cell phone that will do away with synchronization problems. What I would like bundled together is the phone, all of the features of the iPod (with a 10,000+ song capacity), an interactive address book, iCal, blazingly fast wireless sync (when I walk into my office, it should just do it automatically, if I so choose), a great camera and a memo pad. Everything else is great, but for me, it is just fluff. And I want it to be able to sync automatically, in the background, with my wife’s cell phone and BOTH of our address books on our computer, without .Mac, which seems to never sync right anyway (the fields never seem to sync correctly). Is this so much to ask? Is it really that complicated?

My prediction is this: the minute Apple designs a cell phone/iPod/information manager that does everything I mentioned above, and does it well, their market share will explode. Perhaps if Apple comes out with their own phone, and we use their software, all will be right with our geeky world. I’m crossing my fingers.

To see what one of these things might look like, check out this EverythingiPhone site.

Here is a cool mock-up someone Photoshopped of what it might look like:

Fictitious Apple iPhone (or iChat Mobile)

It looks great, although I would want a Treo/Blackberry-like keyboard.

What really matters is saving time. If this gadget makes it to market, those of us who are inclined to use such devices will hopefully be able to save more time than ever. What's funny is that in ten years, we'll probably be debating when Apple (or Kiwi, the new Apple company) is coming out with that new brain communication chip that will allow us to wirelessly communicate with no gadgets at all.

The Future of Personal Renewable Energy

There is a special section in the recent Wired magazine that highlights their annual Wired World’s Fair, aptly titled NextFest. There is one invention in particular that caught my eye—and my breath: the 6.5 foot tall AVX400 turbine made by AeroVironment, Inc.. It is not yet advertised on their site, but this Treehugger article explains it well. Here is a photo from Treehugger:

The AVX400 turbine has amazing potential: co-op communities in NYC could install these on the tops of apartment buildings, and it’s not like they would be an eyesore, as most NYC apartment buildings are ugly to begin with. If the company manufactures and sells millions, it will only be a matter of time until custom-designed turbines are made that match the building's décor and the surrounding environment.

What it’s really about is scale: chipping away at this problem little by little, one person or business at a time.

The possibilities are endless. What about solar power? One company, Solardyne, makes solar panels and other renewable energy equipment and high efficiency appliances, but cells are currently too expensive and the initial cost is off-putting for most middle class folks.

Personal waterpower could also prove valuable. There are hundreds of millions of homes around the world that could easily install personal hydropower (waterpower) turbines in small rivers. They could be designed in such a way as to not affect wildlife, and perhaps to be virtually invisible. For many folks, it’s about whether these devices are eyesores or not. Although personally, I think transmission lines, power plants and smog are bigger eyesores, but hey—everyone has a different opinion.

Renewable energy devices could be attached to every single machine we own. In fact, many devices we use day-to-day already use this technology: solar-powered calculators, watches and clocks, laptop batteries, etc. Now we need to apply these ideas to everything else. What about solar cells that can be easily attached to your water heater? What if you live in an area where the wind and the sun are strong, so both types of power could offset each other?

I often wonder why scientists have not figured out a way of harnessing the lost energy of vehicular travel. With millions of cars traveling the highways, the least we could do is figure out a way of capturing every last bit of energy they release. Perhaps highways could be designed so that the constant pressure of cars and trucks could power stop lights. I am not an environmental scientist, and this seems tricky, but there has to be a way.

And what about health clubs? Every exercise machine should be rigged wth a Pedal-A-Watt Stationary Bike Power Generator. Perhaps large health clubs could pay their electricity bill by retrofitting each machine with this device or something similar.

To some, these renewable energy devices might seem highly inconsequential, but we need to look at the big picture. It’s about whole buildings and communities embracing this technology and chipping away at the problem little by little. If our government and others around the world will not tackle the global warming problem and our dependence on oil head-on, then it is time for all of us to take personal responsibility and fix this problem ourselves.

Unfortunately, most people don’t even know that these devices exist. The public is not really educated about the potential of these inventions. Sure, we see an occasional article in the news, but usually there is some sort of negative tone attached to it that dissuades everyone from giving this a chance. Many of the papers, magazines and TV programs are in some way run by businesses that are somehow attached to the oil industry, so many amazing inventions never see the light of day. This is common: throughout history, great ideas have been bought and shelved or considered too strange to manufacture on a grand scale. Think Nikola Tesla.

It seems to me that if you put the power of the people behind renewable energy sources, they could really take off. In the end, it is all about cost, availability and personal responsibility. So far, only products like electric cars and solar-powered laptop batteries and calculators are mainstream. If families, individuals and small businesses could easily purchase affordable devices that would either offset or replace their reliance on the power grid, we might be on our way to a much less oil-based economy.

Why I Love The American Inventor TV Show and Really Hate Graco

What team of geniuses designed Graco Care Seats? Am I the only parent in America that thinks they were designed by monkeys on crack? One afternoon, after Dylan spit up and drooled all over the padded seat cushion of our Graco Car Seat, Victoria decided to remove the seat cushion and run it through the wash. All was fine, until she asked me to put it back on. I am the resident tech support “go to guy” in the family, so it’s always my job to deal with this stuff. Despite my being somewhat highly educated—I have a doctorate, so I guess that should count for something—it took me at least a half hour to put the stupid thing back together. That was with the help of Victoria's father, a retired college president, who also had a difficult time figuring it out. I guess I am lucky that I was not trying to reassemble it right before getting into the car, or that the fate of the world depends on my reassembly skills or lack thereof. I can just imagine: Dylan fidgeting and crying, getting a late start, fussing with this ridiculous contraption. It isn't really the cover itself that's so annoying, mind you, it's how the safety straps weave in and out of the slits in the cover and how they connect to the back of the plastic seat. I guess the secret is to never take off the cover and let it fester with baby drool. Yuck!

What gives? What team of idiots designed this thing?

You would think that of all products, a child’s car seat would not only be designed with the utmost attention to safety, but ease of use. They could have easily pasted clear directions all over the plastic shell (I mean, c’mon—it’s not like you need to make a fashion statement with your baby’s car seat), but no, you either need to have the manual on hand or practice taking it apart and putting it back together—like any parent has a half hour to dedicate to yet another idiotic chore. I wish I had pictures to illustrate how puzzling the underbelly of the seat is, but Victoria’s out of town right now with Dylan and the car seat is with her.

On a related note, I happened to catch the last episode of the American Inventor TV Show on May 18. I usually hate “reality shows”, but this one rocks. It rewards ingenuity and creativity and encourages people to take potentially world-changing ideas to the next level. I was particularly excited when American viewers elected Janusz Liberkowski as the winner. The other inventions were OK—an innovative Double Traction bike, a game called Word Ace and a Receiver’s Training Pole, but this is something that will potentially save lives.

For those who did not see the show, here is a description of Liberkowski's invention:

“Spherical Safety Seat - A new kind of infant car seat where the baby sits inside nested spheres instead of the usual seat. In a collision, the spheres spin and automatically position the child's neck and back so that they are perpendicular to the impact force, thus shielding the baby from the destructive force of the impact.”

This is such a fantastic idea! Liberkowski totally deserved to win, and regardless of how ingenious his design is, how can you not empathize? The man’s daughter died in a car accident because of a poorly designed car seat (a Graco?). I can see it now: millions of parents, just like me, hating their stupid Graco Seats, all of us imagining the ultimate horror: a similar disaster with our own children.

So, what’s the solution? If Liberkowski’s car seat really works well and actually makes it to market, speak with your wallet! Purchase it if you have a small child and show Graco that great design does matter.

Perhaps I’m the only parent who cares or thinks Graco’s are designed poorly, but I would rather speak up than ever have to go through what Liberkowski must relive every day for the rest of his life.

And like James Dyson, “I just think things should work properly.”

Where The Sidewalks Begin

During the past few years, I have done a LOT of driving all across the country. Something that you'll notice, if you have a moment to actually get out of your car, is that there are virtually no sidewalks in most American towns, particularly in suburbs. Unless you've had your head in the sand—or in a tub of ice cream—you know that America has an obesity problem. This all centers on cars (and high-fructose corn syrup, but that's another story), which inevitably, currently centers on the oil industry. One of the surest ways to fight big oil and obesity is to build more sidewalks. Think about it: this will create more jobs, everyone can walk more and ride bikes, get fresh air and drive LESS.

In addition to sidewalks, every town in America should have excellent walking trails. I just spent a part of my summer at the Copland House in Cortrandt, NY, where I had a residency. There was a local trail called the Briarcliff Peekskill Trailway that I hiked almost every day. It was so wonderful to have that nearby, but guess how many people I ran into on the trail? Just four: a woman walking her dog and a family of three riding their ATV recreational vehicle—that's it. Perhaps it's that all of the locals go to Bear Mountain, but I think it's that:

A. Many of them don't even know it exists. B. They're all working so they have no time for trails. C. There are NO SIDEWALKS!

It's extremely difficult to get to this trail unless you drive. There are no sidewalks leading to the entrances, and only one entrance has a patch of dirt for parking. There were may days when Victoria and I took Dylan, walking along the road, worried that we would be hit by a car since there were not only no sidewalks, but few or no shoulders either. We were usually the only people walking anywhere in this area, so we felt out of place, like the locals were looking at us strangely, thinking "what's wrong with them? Why aren't they driving? Mybe their car died." This is one trail in one small town, but you get the point.

One reason New Yorkers (city, not state) are generally in better physical shape than many other folks is that they walk everywhere. This is a very broad generalization, but arriving back in the city, it just seemed like people are a little more in shape. Obviously, NYC has problems, such as too much car exhaust (note to self: post another entry on why all NYC busses and taxi's should be electric and general traffic should be banned), but at least most people walk.

If there's an organization out there that promotes the building of sidewalks in America's cities and towns, let me know, because I would love to join.

My First Entry

Wow—I never thought I would create a blog. For those of you who actually read this (all two of you), don't worry: future postings will most likely not be this long, but hopefully you'll cut me some slack as this is my very first entry. I finally relented and decided to create a blog because I've had a lot of ideas going through my head lately that are somewhat brief, but hopefully interesting, and/or are not appropriate for formal essays on my website. Also, I occasionally feel like writing a diary-like entry, but the thought of pulling a Rorem and writing daily entries, whether it's interesting or not, is just not me. I think it needs to be somewhat spontaneous.

This also took me a while to figure out because I was confused about which software to use. I did a lot of research and finally ended up using WordPress, but I still need to figure out how to integrate this with my site, which I desperately need to update, but I'll get to get to that this fall. I chose this black "skin" for now (it looks so "cool" and composer-like, don't you think?) but I'll change it later on to look integrated with my site.

Currently, my blog is divided into a few different categories:

• Music • Environment • Family • Misc. Ideas

I might add more later, or even remove a couple (or create separate blogs?) but for now, this seems pretty reasonable.

So, why did I choose these topics? Music is obvious: I'm a musician, so of course, I want to write about it, especially since I love what I do. What might not make sense to some is why I have an environment category. For those who don't know me well, I have always been passionate about environmental issues and am vegan, so I want to start jotting down some ideas that have been floating around in my head and see what comments I get back. As for my family, my beautiful wife Victoria just gave birth to Dylan, our wonderful, amazing baby boy, and I have so many comments about him, his toys (what's with that Baby Einstein crap? More on that later...), his children's books, etc. that I just can't hold back anymore—I just have to say something! Check back in a few days for writings on this topic. As for misc. ideas, I have way too many for one lifetime, and hopefully someone out there will see something interesting and take it to the next level.

On a related note, a film I often mention when talking about not having enough time is Multiplicity with Michael Keaton and Andie MacDowell. Not the greatest film of all time, but don't you sometimes wish you were multiple people? One to do the work, another to go to that recital you're dreading, etc.? I know: just like in the film, it would ultimately be more trouble than it's worth, but it's a fascinating thought.

I guess I'm done for now—back to composing. If you've made it this far, thanks! Please feel free to make comments...