Friday, December 30, 2005

Unga Bunga - Thirteen

There was once the dreaded 16 Semester Hours of the undergraduate days, but this stint of 13 graduate hours, though somewhat shorter, was as tough or more so, given a 10-year college hiatus. In my insanity, I--for some reason unknown to myself--took Organic Chemistry, Genetics, Organizational Behavior, and Infectious Disease Epidemiology. So I’m basically a crack smoker. After a week or so of organic, I visited my graduate committee and respectfully beg--uh--asked if I could change course and go with more of a management focus. In other words, can I please drop the organic chemistry--sniff, sniff, whimper? Their sadistic responses amounted to saying, “Shut the whining and get on with it.” They were right. I was wrong. I made it through and appear primed to go all the way in the realm of biochemistry and molecular biology. I actually find chemistry, including organic chemistry, fascinating, but the Brainiac from the Planet Krypton who was teaching it--we’ll call him Dr. X--made it very intimidating. I learned and understood a lot, but there’s so much more I don’t understand. Stereochemistry is the devil.

But I also gave myself a break. I opted (whimped out) and decided on the non-thesis option. None of our ideas were really panning out towards a workable project, so I’m instead writing up a mishmash of special problems--molecular techniques comparison, bioterrorism, and a molecular CBT for med techs. I’m still sticking with my plan--a mix of science and management. The science foci will still be in molecular biology and related areas. No matter what, I will ultimately be an administrator, so I must keep myself immersed in this area. It doesn’t pay to ignore it.

On the music front, during the break I’ve been working on a project planned for nearly two years. My life seems measured by completed audio projects. Around 6 songs are semi-finished except for mastering. Many more are laying around on the hard drive much like parts of a thalidomide baby--maybe an arm, leg, or head--but lacking the entire body. I’ve found I’m not as efficient when I work on too many things at once. It’s better that I take one piece at a time, so I’m going to head back to that after this project. Sometimes it’s hard because of all the ideas swimming around in the noggin’. The real problem now is time. Quality and options abound because of my trusty Macs and software, but there’s not enough time with the strains and demands of adulthood and fatherhood ever present.

The year has been hell. In just over a year, I went to Iraq in the middle of the Sunni Triangle (where I was mortared just about daily); lost my Dad; flew home for two weeks and then back to Iraq to finish my deployment; finished in North Carolina and moved here; lost my Mom (back to NC to take care of her arrangements); came back here and experienced the wrath of Katrina; and then went through a semester of academic torture. Other than that life is great.

Friday, May 13, 2005

USM and a decision

I made it down to Mississippi and met with the Medical Technology Department Chair, Dr. Jane Hudson, of the College of Health at the University of Southern Mississippi. We discussed a few potential plans of graduate study for me. One plan has me taking classes that are more closely aligned to laboratory management--mostly management courses with a few science courses thrown in and a thesis or several academically-documented projects related to molecular microbiology or bioterrorism. The other route has me going through a more intensive scientific plan of study, which will unfortunately require me to go back and at least audit undergraduate organic chemistry and genetics (I didn't get these courses in my undergraduate study). This way I could get biochemistry and then molecular biology; I could choose or not to do the thesis, but I really want to get the experience of higher level graduate writing with the added defense requirement. I have no idea if I'll go on and seek a Ph.D. currently.

I've spent time visiting with old friends in MS; we've had a great visit. I played tennis here with buddies who've advanced tremendously in their playing abilities since I lived here, but I managed to hold my own. I had a lesson with my first tennis teacher, Torbjorn Fasth. Tomorrow we head off to Myrtle Beach for a short weekend before returning home in NC. We have only a short few months before we make our move to MS. I'll have around one month to settle in at our new residence before starting school. It's only a matter of time now before I launch into full-time graduate study.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Stick Man and Dan

I just received a terrific CD, Stick Man, from a good friend of mine, guitarist Neil Haverstick, out in Colorado. One of the many tremendous attributes setting Neil apart from the ocean of competent, fervid guitarists out there is his use of microtones. Neil doesn't typically dabble in the ubiquitous 12-tone realm that most of the rest of us are trapped in; he takes an octave and, instead of dividing it evenly into 12 steps as is the prosaic Western way, he splits it into 19 or 34 equal divisions--hence the label microtones. The resulting music can be very challenging to the banal, jaded listener unwilling to tramp unfamiliar, enigmatic sonic ground. This music can sound out of tune, even to the most highly-trained, educated musician fancying herself tolerant of new or different things.

I'm personally not so jaded in my own listening that I find his non-12-tone music offensive to the ears. Actually, I find it quite refreshing, and I find his exuberance and enthusiasm in its perpetuation and promotion inspirational. I've also read his book, The Form of No Forms, and found it a staggering instructional tool, advancing a new way of learning to understand, compose, and play music. Come to think of it, being the eclectic composer and artist he is, all of Neil's CDs are terrific listening digressions into tasteful, exceptional experimentalism. I've been a fan of his since 1993, and I first read about him when his music was reviewed in Mike Varney's Spotlight column in the December 1985 issue of Guitar Player magazine. At that point I had been playing guitar not even one year, but I remembered how cool he looked holding his ES-335 with the Yin-Yang emblem prominently adhered to the guitar's body; Neil was no posing shredder like the other chaps in Varney's column, trying to convince the magazine's readership he was the next incarnation of Yngwie Malmsteen--all the rage back in those days. It was that review that led me 7 years later to contact Neil and purchase his book, The Form of No Forms. From there we became friends, exchanging our latest projects and occasionally phoning and emailing each other. Since that 1985 review, Neil has appeared in numerous magazine reviews, has played with many prominent, renowned musicians, and has been praised by many of the same. He's among those I count as a musical influence.

Neil introduced me to another master experimentalist named Dan Stearns, who likewise has been honored by many of the same publications that wrote about Neil. I could use many of the same encomiums I listed above and apply them to Dan without inaccuracy. He's just a plain nice guy with extreme loads of talent. Dan plays a fretless guitar and invents his own forms of musical notation to address the microtonal systems he employs. Another really cool thing about Dan is his use of polyrhythms, which is another realm of modern music that can confound all but the most adventurous auditory spirits. Frank Zappa and Steve Vai, two of my other influences, are (in the case of Frank--were) huge proponents of polyrhythms, where you apportion base elements of one meter into odd tuplets ad infinitum. Dividing a quarter note from 3/4 time into 5 sixteenth notes with the last sixteenth further subdivided into 3 thirty-second notes would be a sample polyrhythmic occurrence. Clearly all but the most technically talented of us can conceive and, much less, accurately play such forms, but Dan can do this stuff blind-folded. His guitar playing sounds almost computer-like in its virtuosic, accurate rhythmic interpretation of these fast tuplets. He's got chops for days. I'm lucky; Neil and Dan are two guys I know personally who just happen to be big influences on my own music and my life. I think other guitarists would benefit by adding them both to their influences list.

So if you're interested in discovering some great, oft overlooked musical giants, visit Dan's and Neil's sites. Read about them and buy some of their music. Support them because they're the real pioneers out there. They're the Lewis and Clark of 21st Century guitar playing. These guys are doing it for the art...not to be the next pop sensation.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Acceptance and Vomit

Great things can transpire in the same week. A few weeks ago, I finally heard from my preferred grad school that my application was accepted. So now what do I do? I have to actually act like a graduate student--a scientist/researcher wanna-be. This could be interesting. My hope, of course, is that I will maintain the required 3 GPA to retain my funding and academic stature. I've been told by those who've trudged the path before me that grad school mostly amounts to perseverance, discipline, and organization; it has less to do with brain power. This gives me optimism, though I'm certain some amount of intelligence is required. That stupid GRE proved it. Man, I sucked at the GRE. Clearly I can't think my way out of a paper bag at hypersonic speeds; I need increased time and clambering to get to the same place others will easily reach in an ephemeral time. So is this acceptance a blessing or a hex?

Somewhere along the same timeline of the acceptance news (and speaking of hypersonic), I was given the opportunity to fly in the back seat of an F-15E Strike Eagle. This is a twin-engine jet fighter with more than adequate horsepower to elicit the loosening of various digestive sphincters, which keep stomach juices and contents in their proper places. I was given some initial training, to include instruction in the so-called G straining maneuver, which is the way you should tense up your lower body and breathe while under the affect of positive G forces. I had to go through a miniature flight physical and get fitted for my flight suit, G suit, and body harness. Other training topics included means for emergency egress, both in the air and on the ground; egress simply refers to exiting the aircraft in a hurry, so I was somewhat alarmed to learn how to eject my seat and collapse my body upon landing, after floating to the ground on the end of a parachute.

Sparky and Shane

So there I was--the guy who doesn't partake of roller-coasters, bungie-jumping, sky diving, rock climbing, or any of the other various X-game type behaviors--walking out to row Juliet among a multitude of fighters, where my F-15 and its maintenance crew awaited. They took time to tether me securely to the airframe: first, my seat kit; next my lap belt; followed by my shoulder harness straps; then my G suit connection; and finally my oxygen connector and radio connections for my helmet. My assigned pilot, Sparky, was a very nice chap and took it easy on me, but there's no real tranquil way to fly in an F-15. Even though the take-off, flight, and landing can be conducted in the same manner as a commercial airframe in terms of speed, altitude, and turning, the fact that one can easily view anything 360 degrees in any direction through a transparent canopy really forces one to come to grips with what's actually happening; our dispatch, though no more remarkable in speed or maneuver from a Delta Airlines flight, was quite exhilarating and simultaneously terrifying, as I was forced to actually notice our extreme acceleration when the landscape turned into a blur-scape and the jet pulled up and away. Our jet's mission call-sign for radio purposes was DIME 41.

Once airborne, things felt fairly normal (as normal as they can in a fighter jet), as we made our way to our assigned mission airspace, where we would be free to perform some "aerial acrobatics". Our sortie was part of a two-ship formation, so Sparky, being the lead pilot, demonstrated various ways he could communicate intentions to our sister F-15, DIME 42, (the pilot's handle was Sloppy) by merely jiggling his wings a certain way. This is quite a weird feeling too, as one never feels this sensation on a commercial flight unless something is very wrong. I thought to myself this is a portent. Sparky shook his wings side-to-side and Sloppy obediently maneuvered his F-15 from our right side, went under us, and came up on our left side. Another neat aspect of this trip was just observing the other jet get close enough to see and wave to the other two fellows inside it; I felt almost as if I could jump right into their jet, though one should obviously take that only for illustrative purposes.

Finally the time came when we had arrived at our airspace and Sparky asked, "So Shane, are you ready to try some Gs?" My reply was a weak and tepid, "I guess so." He instantly banked abruptly right and accelerated, and I felt my first positive G-force--a weak 2 G turn (my body felt twice as heavy as normal), which for me might as well have been a 9 G turn. As we came out of it, Sparky asked, "How was that?" "Uh...okay I guess." I felt myself becoming squeamish. The turn, even with the G suit and G straining maneuver, made my lips and skin tingle. Then a hard bank left into a slightly stronger 3 G turn. My body was suddenly three times it's normal weight, and my lips and skin went numb for a second. I immediately opened up my airsick bag, unlatched my oxygen mask, and proceeded to dry heave a few times. "I'm not doing too well with those Gs," I told my pilot in a feeble voice. "Okay," he replied. "We'll just fly straight and level for a while." I'm such a wimp.

At around this time, Sparky gave me the stick saying, "You've got the airplane." I wiggled the stick as he had instructed me before the flight and replied, "I've got the plane." He had explained before our sortie that there was nothing I could do to hurt us or the plane by taking the stick, but I found myself just gently banking the plane, first right then left. The whole time the nose of the jet was rising, and Sparky told me, "Dude...we're climbing outside of our ceiling. Nose it down a bit." I pushed down on the stick minutely but sharply, and the jet dove quickly down a story or two and took my stomach with it. I couldn't believe how responsive it was. Sparky told me the jet would literally respond to exactly how I manipulated the stick. Jerk it sharply left and that's what will happen to the jet. Push forward and to the right and you perform a diving right turn. What a sickeningly good time.

After a time, Sparky made another suggestion. "At this altitude, you really don't get a good idea of how fast we're going. Let's drop down to cloud level and get a reference point for you to look at." That day we were flying at a ceiling of 18,000 feet. Below us was a nice, fluffy blanket of clouds extending from horizon to horizon, and above us was pure blue sky. After a few seconds we had gently descended down to the clouds, and I noticed them begin to zing by at a rather high rate of speed. He was right; a reference point definitely clarified things. "We're going about 215 mph right now," explained Sparky. "Let's punch it up a little bit." He hit whatever knob, button, or lever that controls the throttle, and two seconds later he said, "400," meaning 400 mph--in just two seconds! Then he said, "afterburners," and two additional seconds later our airspeed was up around 600 mph as the afterburners kicked in. So in a mere four seconds we had tripled our airspeed; the cloud cover transformed from a discernible cottony field into a sheet-like white blob. We hadn't even neared passing the first Mach level the plane is capable of hitting. I immediately exclaimed, "Dude, I'm going to throw up!" So he killed the throttle and we moderated back to a more acceptable airspeed. So far I had managed to avoid actually puking.

We met back up with Sloppy and his passenger and dumped some fuel to be light enough for the landing. Then we flew a straight vector back to our home base. As we approached the airfield, Sparky said, "Shane, we're going to have to do some turning to line up for the landing. One of the turns has a little more G action than you pulled before, but don't will be over quickly." We flew straight over the airstrip far too high to touch down; then we banked hard right, flew in a semi-circle vector parallel with the ground, and pulled 4 Gs. The G suit squeezed me tightly and I strained the way they taught me under the G-forces. My pilot never uttered a sound; obviously a puny 4 Gs was nothing to him. We seemed to travel the length of the runway again, and made an additional diving tight turn, this time without any Gs thank goodness. As our wheels touched down on the glorious Earth, I proceeded to vomit into my airsick bag a few times, and I caught Sparky smiling at me in his rearview mirror. I somehow had survived this brush with the Top Gun experience and definitely underscored the fact that I'm currently in the correct line of work. I wasn't meant to be a pilot or any other sort of flying person; I belong in a laboratory behind a microscope or in a studio behind a guitar.

Sparky told me that my incentive ride was pretty typical; I guess most non-flyer types can't handle the 7-plus Gs that the F-15 routinely pulls on a sortie (the F-15 can pull up to 9), but I also think Sparky felt sorry for me and was just attempting to boost my ego up a bit. He told me, "No matter can say you've flown in an F-15 Strike Eagle. Not many people can say such a thing." And this was true. I had flown in it and flown it, even if for only a few minutes. Man, am I dumbass or what? I'll never do that stupid crap again! But I faced my fear and did it anyway. Like I said...dumbass.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Grad School? Who me?

Right now, I await the news on whether I've been accepted to graduate school. All signs point to the affirmative, but one never knows; in one reassuring correspondence, the professor at this university told me she didn't see any reason, given what she knew of my academic record, that I would be turned down. I did very well in undergraduate study, but I admit that I'm trepid, and probably unnecessarily so, when it comes to thinking of myself as someone capable of higher science.

After all, we're getting into some difficult, challenging material here--research--hypothesis and experiment design--and the mental skills required to pursue the research to a sound, academically-acceptable conclusion. I never dreamed of myself as a potential researcher, and that was probably out of that sinking fear that I sometimes get. Somehow or another, it always comes down to math. Ha! Self-doubt as a scientist equals self-doubt at mathematics. After all, I'm the guy who stares into space when asked to quickly convert some value in my head. I go off poking around for a calculator, or else some Brainiac from the Planet Krypton computes the figure before I can mutter the first befuddled, quizzical "uh".

But then again, I am a geek--a classic oddball computer-and-science-loving nerd. I can't disappoint the inhabitants of geekdom; I can't mar the reputation of all those claiming the moniker, who have traveled the technical and academically-bound road before me. I have a high standard to live up to. Who said geeks don't feel pressure!

Friday, February 25, 2005

Vai and "Reflections"

real_illusions_tournews.jpgThere's nothing like the anticipation of going to see Steve Vai live in concert. I've seen him on three other occasions and actually met him on one of those. I would describe his guitar playing as infinitely accurate and his engineering chops as some of the best I've ever heard. I still don't think there is a rock guitar player living or dead who has surpassed his technical expertise, but that's just my opinion. I'll be seeing him and his band, The Breed, at the Jacksonville, Florida show. In my older days now, I'm not as turned on by guitar technique as I once was as a teenager. Ironically, I now have a lot of those chops that once eluded me when I really wanted them. Maybe that's for the best. Age and wisdom are growing a new musical beast within.

While I was in Iraq I wrote and recorded around 5 new songs on this very Powerbook. I started about 3 more that are unfinished. I'm not sure when I'll finish a complete project, but I've got some new distribution ideas. I'm no longer going to charge for my music. This may seem silly to some, but I don't earn my living via the music I write and record. To be honest, writing and recording hasn't earned me very much at all in the nearly 20 years I've pursued it. Comparitively, I've earned only a penurious, slightly larger amount by playing live music in the 15 years I've been doing it. Basically, music is a tough business to live on. I'm a clinical lab scientist during the day; in my off-duty time I'm a composer, guitarist, and studio engineer. There are a lot of great composers, guitarists, and engineers out there, and the Internet age is making it possible for all of us to discover each other. Since I have no fantasies that I'm going to suddenly become famous and earn millions through my hobby, I'd rather just share what I do with the world; my compensation will come only through the knowledge that my music is enriching someone else's life besides my own. Maybe my music, and not compensatory benefit, is how I'm to leave my mark on this planet.

So I plan to put most of my music up on CNET and make cover art and labels available on my web site for download. If someone finds they'd rather forego the time required to download and produce their own CD of my music, they can just pay a minimal amount to cover the cost of the disc and postage, and I'll make it for them and mail it right to their door. If they'd rather just use the new model and put the music only on their hard drive and iPod, that's cool too. But that's going to be my new music distribution model--shared freely with the world.

I'll only ask that downloaders not use my music for profit without my permission. Other than that...share and share alike!

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Composing in Iraq

I've returned from my hellish travels abroad. One might be inclined to believe that an Iraqi winter is a mild experience in contrast with Iraqi summers, but though the temperatures moderate considerably, the monsoon season turns everything that isn't paved into a soupy morass. In short it was a miserable experience, except for the wonderful friends I made and the terrific Cuban puros I indulged in. I won't even discuss the mortar attacks; some things are better left unsaid.

So we smoked a lot of cigars to pass the time (there are few better pastimes). I've been accepted for graduate school funding; now I must get accepted to graduate school. Let's hope all goes well.

I wrote a lot of music in Iraq, but I'm not sure when I'll publish it. Everything comes down to time.