Saturday, May 30, 2015


Don Music is a trademark of the Children's Television Workshop and The Jim Henson Studios
Sorry if you're too young to get the reference

An open letter to the staff at Piano Nanny


I recently attempted to use your Piano Nanny website to learn how to play a keyboard I recently acquired. I say attempted, because I hit a brick wall at "Starter Studies" Lesson Eight: Page 1.

Now, maybe you've been playing piano long enough to make the natural transition from Lesson Seven to Lesson Eight, but as the most raw of beginners I have to tell you, in no uncertain terms, Lesson Eight is a deal-breaker. Anyone who gives up learning to use a piano, organ, or keyboard will give up at Lesson Eight, and I can tell you why: The transition from Lesson Seven is way too steep.

Allow me to explain: you literally go from, "tap this one note to the beat," to, "play these two notes, then these two notes," to, "Use one hand to play these five notes, then the other to play these five notes, then switch the positioning of both hands and play these notes using different fingers simultaneously." The average, uncoordinated oaf (such as myself) can't do it even after an hour of practicing over and over. It might be simple to you, an experienced pianist, but to the rest of us it is too much too fast. There has to be a better way to teach it (or perhaps some people will just never learn to play the keyboard no matter how much they try). In any event, all excitement that I had about learning using your system died with Lesson Eight.

I am looking for alternative teaching methods at the moment, but I will probably not be coming back to your site, and will not be recommending it to any other beginners that I come in contact with. So as someone who makes a living creating instruction manuals I'm going to give you some tips:

  1. Be more basic. The problem with the "sink or swim" method is that most of your students are going to drown. You'll get a few that will keep going, but you're going to lose your audience if you expect far too much too soon.
  2. Don't be as basic. You know what "play one note in time with the beat for three minutes" really teaches your students? That music is boring. Give them a little credit -- work on coordination with multiple fingers and notes BEFORE tedious muscle memory exercises.
  3. Focus on one thing before moving on to the next. Which is more important, learning to move your hands to play higher notes, or learning to use both hands at once? I know that you want to break people of the "leave your hands in one place" method of playing as soon as possible, but most of us aren't coordinated enough to press two keys at the same time let alone two keys with two different hands even if we're using the same fingers, let alone two different ones without substantial practice. Figure out which is more important (or better yet, which is easier for your students to learn) and teach that before combining them into a key-smashing bout of frustration.
  4. For Pete's sake make sure the media is easy to use. The MP3 files on your site start IMMEDIATELY on the first note and then have a substantial rest towards the end that makes timing on the loop EXTREMELY difficult to anticipate and compensate for. A simple edit to the timing (and even a longer loop) could fix this and make the loop less likely to throw the beginner, well, for a loop. 
  5. Enforce the language before moving on. I can't read music.  I have never been able to link the sound of "C" to a note on the staff. After studying musical notation in preparation for this project, I have concluded that musical notation is dumb. It is needlessly complicated and too gated to be understood by the layman. I know that you, as a musician, are used to it, but to someone with a background in say, computer programming it is obtuse. We use strings and symbols to differentiate, and mere upticks on the scale are not easy to identify or visually helpful. I understand the basics of what it is trying to accomplish, but I'm not sure that it is enough for beginners. You should make more substantial notation on your sheet music to compensate.
Not being a music student or teacher, I'm not really sure what the best method of teaching people this incredibly inefficient skill is, but I do know one thing: It's not the method on your website.

Thank you anyway for trying.

Does The World Need A Superpower?

Calm down, "Avengers" fans

The scope of this article has nothing to do with gamma radiation or Norse gods (although I'd be happy to have that conversation in the future). No, I'm using the term "superpower" in a geopolitical sense (i.e. "The United States is the world's only remaining superpower") which might not be sexy, but is at least a little more grounded in reality. Perhaps some background is in order:
I am a regular listener to NPR (and I really hope to one day be able to donate to them again, but when you're struggling just to have enough gas to make it to work that's not really an option -- and I feel terrible about it) and in particular the program "On Point" which is usually hosted by Tom Ashbrook. "On Point" is an interview call-in show where Mr. Ashbrook fronts a panel of one or more guests, and takes viewer calls to put questions to them. I like the show because he frequently has guests that are more than a little informed about the topics they cover, but it is not a microphone for strictly liberal ideas. Anyone can make a case, and Mr. Ashbrook leaves the judgement up to the audience. If you have any interest in current events, check it out, I highly recommend it. Lately there have been a LOT of programs about the state of the world and the role of the U.S.A. in the grand scheme of things, and more than a few about the state of our domestic economy and ways to improve it. These realities are not mutually exclusive, and I am in no way, shape, or form a political scientist, but from a historical standpoint I think that there are some frank discussions we need to have.

Defense spending is out of control

When were we spending the most on our defense budget? Why, World War II, of course. The decades following "the war to end all wars," the so-called Cold War was no slouch either; every decade saw a solid increase in our defense spending to build up our nuclear arsenal, radically expand our standing military, and to manufacture all of the weapons and vehicles needed to fend off an incursion by the USSR. It's no secret that the Reagan strategy was simply to out-spend the Soviet Union, bankrupting them by forcing them into a war of virtual attrition that their communism-based dictatorship could not support. And we won, so defense spending had to be reduced, right?
Not so. This 2012 Washington Journal article by Dan Matthews is pretty damning. It alleges that defense spending is higher than it's ever been, even after discounting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That leads to my big question: Who are we trying to outspend now?

No returns

The sad truth is that during World War II and the Cold War, we were war profiteers. I'm not saying that the ultimate goal wasn't noble (though I think that could be argued as well), but we extended credit to our allies for real material protection against an impending threat, and we made a fair amount of profit from it. With the biggest military threat (the USSR) defeated, there's no real profit to be made from that kind of defense network. As much as the Balkans and Russians might squabble, we aren't directly involved and we wouldn't even attempt to provoke a military conflagration. Our key pressure now is economics in the form of sanctions, but that might be coming to an end sooner than many could predict.

Our strength is our weakness

The most powerful economic country in the world is rising. It hasn't emerged fully yet, but the displacement of economic water as it lifts itself out of the sea is palpable even on this side of the world. It is not the United States. While we spend a good chunk of our blood and treasure trying to remain the world's only military superpower our infrastructure crumbles. The coffers of cities and states across our land are running on empty. Millions of people in the world's last superpower go without healthcare, the ability to buy a home, or even feed themselves. Despite some recovery, jobs are scarce and the most well-paying require a level of education and experience that makes them out of reach for even the most qualified individuals. It's truly a terrifying time for those of us on the bottom of the economic pile. Why are we spending so much to police a world that doesn't want or need a military superpower anymore?

Patriotism starts at home

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: Buckle up, this is going to get a little preachy from this point on) You know what I admire most about the so-called "greatest generation?" You know, the people who lived and fought during World War II? It was their, "We're all in this together" attitude. Okay, so it was only white people who were invited to participate in this particular sentiment, but it was a grand sentiment nonetheless. That's not where we're at now. If you're poor, you're equated to worthless. If you're not racially white, you have no political representation. If you're an employed citizen in the United States, you have given up the right to a livable wage and to drive to work without the threat of bridge collapses, power outages, or potholes big enough to swallow your whole car. Your water well might be poisoned by hydrofracking waste, or an oil or coal company could cause an economic disaster simply by not paying for the minimum safety equipment despite record-breaking profits (and because they've lobbied to keep their legal recompense cap disgustingly low). These are America's REAL problems, because they're happening to REAL people. A $160,000,000 fighter jet that will be obsolete in a few years thanks to new drone technologies isn't going to pay for your grandmother's prescription medication, and it isn't going to dissuade religious zealots from car-bombing a school for girls. It helps no one and hurts everyone. We need to bring the focus back to the US -- back to us.

Where to start...

So rather than elect another Tea Party politician who wants to cut your taxes by literally letting this country rot from the inside out, why not look to people who want to put the government's (read: OUR) resources to the good of its citizens. You want to remain the world's only remaining superpower? Fine -- just cut the defense budget by half. It's no secret that we spend more on defense than the next eight countries combined (a distant second is China). That will free up over a quarter of a trillion dollars of money over the next year alone. And EVERYONE wins -- the US will have to reduce its presence overseas and close military bases, which means that we'll have to take a more diplomatic role in the world, we free up money that can be used to fund building new infrastructure and subsidizing new public works projects, which will lead to more brick-and-mortar jobs and architectural technologies, which we can in turn sell to other developing countries for profit.

Why building is better

Hey, you know what everyone in the world needs? Reliable Roads. Affordable Homes that can protect people from the elements. Clean, disease-free water. Steady electrical power. Schools that can offer education. What are we offering instead? Tanks. Rocket-propelled grenades. Missile defense systems. What if -- and bear with me here -- instead of blowing up Afghanistan we were actually trusted enough to go in, and help them to build an actual infrastructure. Something that they could be proud of and might consider protecting, rather than arming one group of religious nut-jobs over another group. Would it be expensive? Yes, though arguably no less expensive than trying to police an entire state while building a temporary infrastructure. What would the difference be? For one, they would have a hand in building their own country back up. One day those disenfranchised masses of Afghan people might finally start to stand up and get mad at the people who are wrecking all of their stuff and destroying their works, rather than throwing up their hand like they couldn't do anything about it. National pride is built by people who have something more to lose than just freedom. That's kind of the problem here in the States: We don't build anything anymore. We don't take the initiative. We only maintain what we have, we don't look to replace or improve it because we don't have the money. And why don't we have the money? Because we're trying so hard to protect what we have. This is a stupid, sick cycle that will continue until we get over ourselves and instead of professing patriotism actually do patriotic things for our country's people. All of those people.
And you know what the worst part of this is? Anyone that makes this argument will be painted as a biased liberal rather than a rational human being. We have the power America, why not use it for something good?