Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pi on the piano, the first 41 digits.

When my cousin heard I was having a Pi Day party, she called me up from Missouri and suggested that we play pi as a melody. So I wrote down the first 41 digits of pi on a long piece of orange paper and played them on the piano, where 1 corresponded to middle C, 2 corresponded to D, and so on. In the left hand, I added chords and arpeggios. I was surprised at how melodic the random sequence of notes sounded when I added rhythm and accompaniment.

Here's the video, just over one minute long.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Griping about Downton Abbey, Part 2.

                        Episode 9 Trivia Quiz

I'd love to apply for the job of advisor to Julian Fellowes. I could do a world of good for Downton Abbey's beleaguered characters.

The fifth season was another indulgent peek into the upstairs and downstairs lives of a fictional great house in early 20th century England. While I'm fairly certain I wouldn't be comfortable actually living the lifestyle of the Crawley family, the unrestrained opulence continues to draw me in: the enormous drawing rooms, the impossibly long banquet tables, the clothes, the hats, the upholstery.

Executive producer Gareth Naeme enthuses that these characters are "so like us," but the Crawleys inhabit a strange and fascinating world. It is a world in which grown men and women have servants who dress them twice a day and put them to bed at night. A world where small children live almost entirely separately from their parents, paying them short visits at teatime, but adult children are expected to live with, travel with, and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with their parents.

Yes, it is an odd world to my 21st century American eyes, and it is made odder by the plot twists and turns cooked up in the writers' imaginations. In a recent New York Times interview, Julian Fellowes made the startling revelation that he is reluctant to let Downton Abbey develop into a soap opera. He wants to keep the narrative real, or at least "realish." (Realish is his word, not mine.)


Mr. Fellowes, if you're reading this, I offer you my Season 5 observations and suggestions.

On the Bateses' continued troubles.

At some point, the writers decided that, in order to keep our interest, they needed to keep the Bateses constantly embroiled in murder cases. This was a serious miscalculation.

Here's Julian Fellowes in the NY Times interview:

Happiness is quite a difficult concept when you have an ongoing drama. What you can’t do is have everything go right. Then you’re just left with a couple saying, “Did you have a good day, darling?” “Terrific, why don’t you sit down while I get dinner?”

Wrong, Mr. Fellowes. This is exactly what should happen to the Bateses. What we don't need is more time spent on a murder case that manages to be both dull and ludicrously improbable. Whatever domestic boredom you were avoiding by keeping this storyline open would be far better than the tedium we're enduring now. The Bateses are becoming all work and no play, and it's frankly exhausting.

If the Bateses' happiness bores you, then let them fade into the background as minor characters who pop in and out of the room, occasionally imparting gentle wisdom to anyone who needs it.

On premature bereavement. 


We essentially have three young widow(er)s in the Crawley family — Edith is not legally a widow, but she's close enough to count — all of whom have lost their partner at the birth of their only child, or during the pregnancy.  The love stories of all three Crawley sisters have followed the same schema: Love → marriage/engagement → unexpected death of spouse (or self) immediately upon arrival (i.e. birth or conception) of  firstborn child.

This is a cruelly repetitive plotline, a failure of imagination on the part of the writers, and it comes at the viewers' expense. Nobody wanted any of these people to die in the first place, and the fact that none of them get more than a brief moment with their child before passing on is beyond the pale.

Note to writers: Don't even think about trying this same storyline with Rose and Atticus. Should you bless them with a child, let's agree that both parents will survive for at least the first few months of their baby's life. Ideally, they'd live to see their children well into their tweens, but I don't want to ask for too much.

On Edith.

Edith's story has always been painful to watch, but this season was particularly bad. I can't possibly reconcile myself to the way Edith unceremoniously tears little Marigold away from her loving adoptive family. For Marigold, the Drews are her parents, the only ones she remembers. No mention is made of the difficulty she might have adjusting to life at Downton, away from the woman she thought was her mother. No arrangements are made for her to visit the family that have loved her as their own. Once Marigold is safely at Downton, the story moves on to the ever important topic of who knows Edith's secret. Because, clearly, keeping track of who's gossipping about Edith is more important than any attachment issues her child might have after being yanked from one family to another. That Marigold's pain and the Drews's pain have already been forgotten feels cheap and false.

More on Edith . . .

When it comes to broken hearts, Edith's resume is uniquely impressive. It's not just the sheer number of disasters; it's the quality. Her adventures in romance have been colorfully, exquisitely, gloriously bad. As a collection, they have spanned all possible levels of absurdity, from the sad-but-humdrum to the patently ridiculous. They have drawn from all walks of life, every age, social class, and marital status.

Recall her history:

Season 1: Edith suffers rejection from two different cousins, both (in succession) heirs to Downton, both in love with Mary. When she finally lands a suitor (a man older than her own father), he drops her after Mary tricks him into believing that Edith is mockingly toying with him.
Season 2: A disfigured burn victim and supposed recovered amnesiac comes to Downton with his Canadian accent (apparently a lingering effect of the amnesia), pretends to be the dead cousin Edith had always loved, wins her heart, and then leaves once the jig is up. (!) She also has a brief fling with a married farmer, before the angry wife bans her from the farm.
Season 3: The older man from Season 1 comes back into her life, then jilts her at the altar.
Season 4: The father of her unborn child, who, by the way, is married to a crazy woman he's trying to divorce, disappears. In Season 5 they find his remains.

Clearly, the writers will leave no stone unturned until they've explored all possible angles of heartbreak for Edith. We're left wondering,"What next? A depressive poet who drinks himself into oblivion? A con man who woos her and then leaves town with the family jewels? A much younger man who happens to be a pirate?"

In all seriousness though, here's my best guess: Edith will be courted by a closeted gay man who is using his relationship with her as a cover for his sexual orientation. He'll be a sensitive, sympathetic character, and she'll fall madly in love with him. Meanwhile, he'll fall madly in love with Barrow, and Edith will be devestated when she discovers the truth.

Note to writers:  Please consider the following alternative. Edith falls in love with an unmarried man, who loves her in return. They get married and both live well beyond the birth of their first child together. The revelation that Edith's foster daughter is actually her love child should provide more than enough drama for this hypothetical couple to work through, so there's no need to bother with some overblown plot development involving amnesia, secret insane wives, piracy etc.

On Mary.


In seasons past, Mary was a compelling character with a mixture of personal failings and redeeming qualities. We saw selfishness, pride, compassion, conscience, coldness, love. And despite her reserve, Mary always brought a great deal of pathos to the show.

But not anymore. Now she is vacant and superficial. She has completely moved on from her grief over Matthew's death to the point where she never mentions his name. Yes, we know that she wants to marry again, but an occasional moment of sorrow, or perhaps a loving look at a framed photograph or a lock of hair (or the son Matthew left her) would seem appropriate. And why, after losing her own husband, has she not even a shred of compassion for Edith? Why has the relationship between Edith and Mary regressed to the petty nastiness that we saw back in 1912? It's 1924 now, and these women are not teenagers; they're likely in their thirties.

Thankfully, the Christmas special softened Mary just a bit. She is genuinely moved by the Bateses' plight, and she visits Anna in prison. She holds hands with Tom and Edith in a moment of remembrance for Sybil. She sings Silent Night at the Christmas party. It is not enough.

Note to writers: I want more from Mary, and I have drawn up a wishlist for your convenience: A bit of compassion for Edith. A bit of tenderness for little George. A moment of longing for Matthew. Some depth of feeling for her next love interest and some vulnerability as a result. And, if I am going to dream big, I would love to see Mary in a situation where she must temporarily take on some simple household chores and childcare duties. I'm sure the writers will be able to contrive an appropriate storyline.

On finding love late in life.


On the rare occasions that an older character in film or television is permitted to develop a romantic relationship, it's almost always meant to be comical. Two senior citizens flirt a bit, and suddenly the soundtrack switches to the funny music.

Well done, Downtown Abbey, for taking a different tack. The characters in the older generation have more than their share of romance this season, and we're meant to take them seriously. The funny music is reserved for the likes of Spratt and Denker's chicken soup shenanigans (though that story wasn't nearly as amusing as the writers no doubt meant it to be).

I had read a spoiler, so I knew that the Hughes-Carson engagement was coming, and I was pleasantly surprised at how nicely that story played out. Mr. Carson takes himself so seriously that he is always one step away from being ridiculous. But the proposal scene was sweet and sincere, when it easily could have been silly.

I've never been particularly invested in the Isobel-Lord Merton relationship, preferring Dr. Clarkson as a potential soul mate for Isobel, so I wasn't too disappointed when that didn't work out. But I was pleased that this was a relationship that we were supposed to be invested in. This wasn't the comic relief.

The head-scratcher for me was the affair between Violet and Prince Kuragin. I found it entirely unbelievable that he should be madly in love with her, and that she should have feelings for him. He is younger and bearded and Russian and roguish looking. He doesn't strike me as Violet's type.

And I have to put in a good word for our youngish-middle-aged lovebirds, Molesley and Baxter. After her trouble with the law and with Barrow, Baxter has achieved a level of serenity that is a beauty to behold, and Molesley has finally come into his own.  Note to writers: It will be a travesty if these two don't end up happily ever after.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

ASL to zoology: Alphabet books from A to Z.

I searched our bookshelves and found that we own close to 30 alphabet books! I brought them into the living room and arranged 26 of them on the floor like this, each letter of the alphabet corresponding to different alphabet book:

Here is my alphabet of alphabet books (sort of a meta-alphabet-book, if you will). I like all of these, but I have starred a few that I think are particularly good. (See letters B, I, J, L, S, T, and Z.) All titles are hyper-lined to their Amazon pages.

A is for American Sign Language.  The Handmade Alphabet, Laura Rankin.

The illustrations for this book are cleverly done! Each page shows a hand forming a letter of the alphabet using sign language, accompanied by something that starts with that letter. The C hand is holding a cup, the E hand is being erased from the page, etc.

★ B is for Beautiful Black and White Illustrations. Pigs from A to Z, Arthur Geisert.

This is one of the best alphabet books I've seen. The whimsical pictures tell the story of seven pig siblings who build an elaborate tree house and then go home for baths and bedtime. Geisert's illustrations are richly detailed, and the reader can hunt for several letter shapes hidden in the artwork on each page.

"S is for shingling." Notice the S's hidden in the picture. There is also an R and a T.

"W is for washing clothes in a wind-powered washing machine."

C is for Cultural Traditions of Africa.  Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions, Lauren Musgrove, pictures by Leo and Diane Dillon.

The illustrators of this Caldecott winner are Diane Dillon and the late Leo Dillon, a husband-and-wife team who won numerous awards over the course of their long career, including two Caldecott medals. They shared a career and an interracial marriage, both of which began in the 1950s and lasted for more than half a century. Their Wikipedia article is here.


D is for Doll. A is for Annabelle: A Doll's Alphabet, Tasha Tudor.

This book indulges the sensibilities of my my inner 5-year-old girl, who is in raptures over these illustrations.  Tasha Tudor lovingly depicts a dainty porcelain doll with an extravagant wardrobe of Victorian dresses and accessories.



E is for Elephants. ABC de Babar, Jean de Brunhoff.

Not to be confused with Babar's ABC by Laurent de Brunhoff (Jean's son), ABC de Babar was created for French speakers. Each wordless two-page spread depicts a scene packed with objects and activities beginning with the featured letter — if you write the words in French, that is. It's great for kids learning French, but some of the French words begin with the same letter as their English counterparts (e.g. montagne/mountain, orange/orange), so the book is fun for English speakers too.


F is for Flowers. Alison's Zinnia, Anita Lobel.

This book shows us 26 gorgeous flowers and 26 girls, each of whom receives a flower from the girl on the previous page and gives a flower, in turn, to the girl who comes next in the alphabet. Alison acquired an Amaryllis for Beryl. Beryl bought a Begonia for Crystal. Crystal cut a Chrysanthemum for Dawn. Etc.





G is for Garden. Pierrot's ABC Garden, Anita Lobel.

Here's another book by Anita Lobel, also featuring growing things, but with a different style of illustration. This one is a Little Golden Book. Pierrot, the traditional French character of pantomime, gathers things from his garden to take to his lovely Pierrette.


H is for History Lesson. A is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women, Lynn Cheney and Robin Preiss Glasser.

This book is a delightful homage to the many women who have shaped our history. And yes, that's Lynn Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney. I scoured the book to see if I could find a politically conservative bias, but I didn't. (Let me know in the comments section if you have found otherwise.) 


★ I is for Ingenious. The Alphabet Room, Sara Pinto.

This one is excellent! Each letter marks a door that opens into a room. The first time we see the room, it is completely bare except for some apples. When we get to the B page, we see apples and bowls. On the C page, a cat joins the group. By the end of the book, we have a dog, an egg, a fish, and so on. The characters entertain us in new ways on each page: The dog tries on the jester's costume, the lamb eats the ivy, and everyone takes turns wearing the mustache. The painting on the wall, introduced on the P page, has its own character who changes positions and eventually drives out of the painting in his wagon. 


J is for Juicy. Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A to Z, Lois Ehlert.

My three-year-old and I can't get enough of the luscious watercolor illustrations in this book that celebrates fruits and vegetables. My husband is less enthusiastic (his assessment: "slightly below average"), but if you are a fan of artistic depictions of food (as I am), then this book really delivers. The text throughout the book is minimal, but the illustrated glossary at the end gives information and pronunciation guides for each fruit and vegetable.


K is for Kid Favorite. Gyo Fujikawa's A to Z Picture Book, Gyo Fujikawa.

When I was a kid, this was my favorite alphabet book. I pored over the pictures and used tracing paper to copy my favorites. The B pages were my favorites, though J (which featured an entire two-page spread full of jumping children), D, and V were certainly contenders. Gyo Fujikawa was a pioneer in depicting children of many races and nationalities in her picture books.

★ L is for Lovely. A Flower Fairy Alphabet, Cicely Mary Barker.

Cicely Mary Barker's work is so very lovely. Each letter of the alphabet gets its own flower fairy and poem to go with it. (She couldn't think of flowers that start with U or X, so those fairies are drawn as little characters in plain clothes. The X Fairy is a little imp, teasing his neighbor, the Yellow Deadnettle Fairy.) How can you not love these fairies with their clothes drawn to look like specific flowers? Just look at the Nasturtium Fairy's adorable little outfit! And the Fuchsia Fairy's dress!

All of Barker's books are lovely. I particularly like Flower Fairies of the Autumn and Flower Fairies of the Trees, because of all the lovely things she does with nuts and seeds and leaves. Note: I don't actually own the alphabet book as a stand-alone. It's included in The Complete Book of Flower Fairies, which I do own. The disadvantage of that book is that not all of the illustrations are full-size.


M is for Marvelous Market. On Market Street, Arnold Lobel (author), Anita Lobel (illustrator).

This is the third Anita Lobel book in our alphabet of alphabet books, and it's also a well-deserved Caldecott Honor book. The merchants on Market Street are made out of the stuff they're selling. My kids are fascinated with these pictures.



N is for Nature. Discovering Nature's Alphabet, Kristina Castella and Bryan Boyl.

Nature photographs depict the forms of each letter.


O is for Old-Fashioned Alphabet Rhyme. A Apple Pie, Gennady Spirin.

Spirin takes a traditional English alphabet rhyme and puts his own delicious spin on it.

P is for Paper Engineering. Parading with Piglets, Biruta Hansen.

So clever! The chimpanzee claps, the frog blinks, the Dalmatian's spots appear and disappear. This one appears to be out of print, though it's still available used at a reasonable price.



Q is for Quirky. Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters, Oliver Jeffers.

For each letter, Jeffers gives us a very short story, some of which are interconnected in surprising ways. My favorite story is the one for the letter W. The ingenious inventor (whom we first met at the letter I) is back, and we are introduced to the Whiraffe, a creature with the body of a giraffe and a whisk for a head. Here he is, whipping cream.


R is for Roadsigns. Backseat AB-See, Maria van Lieshout.

The illustrations are bold and visually pleasing, but roadsigns aren't exactly my thing. This book is perfect for my three-year-old son, however, who has started to pick out letters (well, mostly just the letter E) on roadsigns during car rides.


★ S is for Seuss. Dr. Seuss's ABC, Dr. Seuss.

This book is so good that I actually have the whole thing memorized. Really. And I'm not even a Dr. Seuss enthusiast, generally speaking. But stick with the regular paper-pages-book, not the board book. The board book has altered the text significantly, ditching some of the wonderful rhythmic poetry.  For example, the board book cuts out this wonderful rhyme: "Many mumbling mice are making midnight music in the moonlight. Mighty nice," which I understand is used as a vocal warm-up in some circles. 

For me, this is the quintessential Dr. Seuss, much more so than The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham. Itchy Ichabod, Silly Sammy Slick, Oscar's Only Ostrich, the Quick Queen of Quincy, and the Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz will forever be a part of my consciousness. 

★ T is for Three-Dimensional. ABC3D, Marion Bataille. 

This pop-up book is beautifully engineered. The S has wheels inside its curves that spin as you move the page. The V becomes a W when it's reflected in the shiny paper on the next page. It's really impressive.

U is for Unusual and Understated. Anno's Alphabet, Mitsumasa Anno.

Note that the line drawings in the borders depict plants and animals that correspond to the appropriate letter. 

V is for Vintage. Brian Wildsmith's ABC, Brian Wildsmith.

This book is from my husband's childhood. His mother kept it in good condition and gave it to us when we had our first child. It seems to be out of print, except as a board book.  I think that the illustrations are striking.


W is for Wildflowers. Wildflower ABC: An Alphabet of Potato Prints, Diana Pomeroy.

Potato prints of wildflowers.

X is for EXtra. Richard Scarry's ABC Word Book, Richard Scarry.

Putting this under X is a bit of a stretch, but I couldn't bring myself to leave out Richard Scarry's contribution to the alphabet book canon, and I had already used S for Seuss.

The Busytown folks are up to their usual antics in this original Richard Scarry book. Two things make this alphabet book unusual: 1) Each featured letter is printed in red, wherever it is found on the page, whether it's at the beginning of the word or somewhere in the middle. Somehow, that's very appealing to me. 2) The consonant digraphs Ch, Sh, and Th each get their own two-page spread. Smart.

Y is for Young Children Who Are Yawning. A to Z, Sandra Boynton.

This book is great for young children, especially when a short bedtime story would be strategically wise. The illustrations are attractive and fun, but they're simple enough that one can zip through the book quickly.

★ Z is for Zoological. Animalia, Graeme Base. 

Each letter gets a gorgeous page or two full of animals and other things that begin with the appropriate letter. And on each letter's page (or two-page spread) a boy with a striped shirt and glasses (but not Waldo) is hiding.

Add caption
Can you find the boy in the striped shirt? (Look out the window.)

Here he is.