The Missing Piece of Information

Do you know anything about music--or specifically, music notation? Even if you don't, you may be able to answer this question. Here's a note on a musical staff. Do you know what note this is?

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Wait, don't answer yet! Here's a illustration of which note goes where on a staff with a treble clef, as we have here:

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Okay, so what note is in that first picture? It's a D, right? I mean, it says it's a D right there on the picture, and then the chart on the bottom confirms that the second line from the top is, indeed, a D on the treble clef.

But I have recently discovered that this note, in a certain context, is not actually a D at all. Let me expand that original picture to give you that context:

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Some of you may be nodding your head in comprehension now, but for everyone else, let me lay it out. Those open and filled-in circles at the bottom, along with the small T, are indicating which valves to press on the French horn to play this note. So what difference does that make? Well, it turns out that French horn music is notated a perfect fifth above the actual note. That means that when the music indicates you play this "D," the actual note is this G, a fifth lower:

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I discovered this fact in the course of helping my daughter, who has taken up the French horn in middle-school band. But I only just discovered this fact this week, at the end of the first term, after weeks of trying to help my daughter hit notes well above her expected range.

It turns out that most brass instruments are notated differently than the actual "concert" pitch, and of course this is common knowledge to brass players--but not to beginning brass players, or their parents. But my daughter's French horn exercise book didn't tell me about this transposed notation, nor did her instructor tell her anything. The instrument itself is no help, because you can usually sound a note and the higher fifth using the same fingering.

So here's my point. I know a lot about music in general--notes, scales, keys, chords, and so on--but I know little to nothing about the French horn. My daughter has learned a good bit about how to play the French horn, but she knows very little about music in general. I tried to apply what I knew about music to help her, but I was missing one key piece of information. Without that information, everything I was telling her was off-kilter. I even bought her a contact tuner so we would know exactly what note she was playing, but that only works if you understand the transposition.

I think a lot of communication gets fouled up this way. We all have accumulated experience and wisdom to share with others, but sometimes we're missing the key that will allow us to translate that in way other people can use. And there's no way to know what you don't know, so it's hard to be on guard for this kind of mistake when you are the one trying to impart knowledge to someone else. Instead, I think we should be watchful for potential problems on incoming knowledge. Ask yourself: How might someone working in an area related to mine get confused? If you're a math teacher, for example, consider including "translations" for current math terminology to those of previous generations, so parents can usefully be involved with their children's math work. The world depends upon knowledge journeying from one mind to another, and we have to ensure that it survives the trip.

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Timeless Thoughts About Children's Literature

On a shelf in my office sits Collier's Junior Classics, a ten-volume collection of children's stories from authors both famous and forgotten, from all places and all times. My parents bought this collection when my sister was born, and now I read from this collection to my daughter, and maybe one day she'll read from one of these books to her child. Even just glancing at the spines recalls to mind the wonderment of youth:

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The introduction printed at the beginning of each volume by series editor Margaret Martignoni is timeless. It is, firstly, as magnificent a defense of the value of children's literature--or literature in general--as I've ever read. But then it lays out, in unshakable language, the qualities that great children's literature must possess. Martignoni had been, among other things, a public librarian in Brooklyn, and her work on this series is a reminder of a time when the importance of libraries and librarians were still widely understood (I may be biased here, since I am married to a wonderful librarian.)

Martignoni begins her introduction by explaining the importance of literature for children:

We are children only once, and then only for a few brief years. But these are the most impressionable years of a lifetime. Never again will the world and everything in it be so eternally new, so filled with wonder. Never again will physical, mental, spiritual growth be so natural and unavoidable. During these years, habits become ingrained, tastes are developed, personality takes form. The child's whole being is geared towards learning. He instinctively reaches out for truth and, having no prejudices, seizes upon that which is good, just, beautiful. For these reasons, a child deserves what Walter de la Mare has called "only the rarest kind of best."

And then she lays out her criteria for great children's literature:

What do we mean by "best" in a book for children? Best books reflect universal truths with clarity and artistry. Such books reveal that man is essentially good and that life is infinitely worth living. They do no deny the existence of evil, but rather emphasize man's thrilling struggle against evil through faith, courage, and perseverance. They awaken the young reader's imagination, call forth his laughter as well as his tears, help him to understand and to love his fellow man. The reading of such books constitutes a rich heritage of experience which is every child's birthright.

As I've often said in my reviews of children's movies, it's easy to fall into the trap of rating films and books for children on the basis of what they lack--do they avoid bloodshed, vulgarity, and uncomfortable sexual innuendo? But we should start by asking what these stories have to offer: not what bad things they avoid, but what good things they do. A great book can do more than improve a child's vocabulary and reading comprehension. A great book can make its reader a better person. Great stories connect people with each other and with their inner selves. They explain the history and necessity of civilization better than any textbook could, and help children take their places within that civilization.

If you are a parent, teacher, or other adult with children under your care, what book have you given those children that could meet Martignoni's definition of "best"?

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Whither Now, Microsoft?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been circulating among the media recently, talking about his book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone. My advice to Mr. Nadella is this: aim lower.

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In the excerpts I've read and in interviews, Nadella talks a lot about empathy and empowering people to better their own lives, and almost cosmic questions such as how to balance technological innovation against concerns for the workers that innovation may displace. Nadella sounds like a genuinely nice guy, and these are worthy considerations for anyone. But here's the thing: I just want Windows to work.

This past week, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what was pinning all the performance meters on my Windows 10 laptop, reducing it to a crawl. I won't go into the details, but then I don't have to. Everyone who has used computers has had experiences where things don't work at intended, or when a capability that a program could have is missing, or the interface is too confusing, or any number of other issues.

When I read that Nadella has all these big-picture issues in his head, I worry that he and others may be forgetting why most of us use technology to begin with: to get things done. Technology is largely a means to an end. Asking Siri or Cortana a plain-language question that automates into a search through the vast Web to find a particular page is gee-whiz technology, but in the end it's all just a warm-up for the main act, an act millennia old: reading text.

Microsoft has clearly been suffering from Apple envy, and with little wonder. Apple is making piles of money. Many Apple users are hard-core fans who are willing to pay a stiff premium for Apple products. And certainly, their CEO Tim Cook seems to be a nice guy who cares a lot about other people.

In the end, though, I think the reason so many people gravitate towards Apple is that their products work. They are elegantly designed, both in hardware and software, are easy to understand and use, and tend to give users less fuss than competing products. And if they do cause trouble, Apple will take care of you at an Apple store.

If Microsoft has dreams of being another Apple, I hope these dreams don't last long. The world already has an Apple and doesn't need Microsoft to become its pale imitator.

Microsoft, please: make great products. Give users back their choices. Stop introducing products and technologies and then abandoning them. Avoiding a Windows 10 update that creates havoc for multitudes of your users is a worthy goal, and unlike vague notions of empathy and human empowerment, it's a goal you can achieve and measure. 

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On the Use of "Velcro"

So the Velcro company just put out a video about not using the word velcro in a way that would weaken its trademark.

The video is clearly trying to be funny but the company appears to be serious about the dilution of their trademark. Well, I think they are way too late on trying to change public habits on this, but what is really strange is when they say, in the text description of the video:

So please, do not say “velcro shoes” (or “velcro wallet” or “velcro gloves”) - we repeat “velcro” is not a noun or a verb.

Um, guys, the word velcro is being used as an adjective in those examples! The company may be displeased with having the word in lowercase, but those examples are using the word in the form they actually want it used, as a modifier to a noun. The problem with these examples is actually that the clasp in question may not be an actual product of the Velcro comapny, not the part of speech.

It's a good rule of writing: if you don't know what you mean, your reader won't know, either.

I also notice that the people at Velcro, Inc., want us to write the word in all-caps: VELCRO (with a registered trademark symbol affixed). But Velcro is not an acronym, as explained right there on the Velcro web site. I know that companies are always fudging the rules of capitalization (and punctuation and everything else) in a bid to make themselves and their trademarks more noticeable, but there's no reason in the world for the rest of us to play along. These requests should be distributed among Velcro's own PR department staff and to overly-compliant news outlets. Putting this kind of content in front of the public is not a good look!

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What If We Had to Start Over?

I've done a lot of writing that tries to explain how technology works, but the technology I write about has all developed over the past fifty years or so. I think we forget how much accumulated technological knowledge is required to make our world run the way it does. Start with a finished product we all use, like a house. How many of us could build a house, or even a simple shed, using whatever we find at a Home Depot? Then work backwards from there. What if you didn't have power tools but could buy all the materials needed to make an electric motor. Could you build one, even a crude one? Or how many of us could fell a tree with a handsaw without endangering our lives?

These are the thoughts that went through my head when I saw the following video, showing a young man who is first creating mud bricks, then using the bricks to make a kiln to fire clay tiles, all using materials found in the woods.

(Note: there's no narration--you can turn on captions for more information but it's easy to follow the idea without them.)

If something happened to our civilization and we needed to start over, this is the place where we'd begin, with the knowledge we can put to use with just those things found in nature. These ideas are foundational, both in the literal sense (bricks) and intellectually.

More broadly, we take the workings of the world for granted and forget how much knowledge we need to pass on from one generation to the next. Of course, no one person can absorb it all, but we must each learn and pass on as much as we can. I'd like to think I'm doing my part, but with programming for people all over the world, and with more general topics like mathematics and music with my daughter. How about you?

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