Friday, October 31, 2008

Lost In The Clouds

I've looked at clouds from both sides now.
From up and down, and still somehow.
It's cloud illusions I recall;
I really don't know clouds at all.

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

The circle is almost complete. Everything old is new again. In our 21st century western society, the network has become almost ubiquitous. Computing power and accessibility has moved so far along the curve propelled by Moore’s Law that we older persons occasionally forget how we lived “BC” - before computers.

The talk these days is of “the cloud”. This is the 21st century term for what we dinosaurs once called the Internet. Web 2.0 has moved services and applications from your desktops into “the cloud”. ThinkFree Office, Open Office, NeoOffice and GoogleTools all offer you the tools to create Microsoft Office compatible documents and the ability to access then over the network wherever you can reach the Internet. eMusic and the iTunes Store are virtual music, software and book stores. This trend points back to the ‘good/bad old days’ of your applications and data living on a server and you connect with a dumb terminal or thin client computer with little or no storage and limited processing power. All the heavy storage and processing is done on the server.

This model fell into disrepute during the development of the personal computer. In the personal computer model, applications and documents were stored locally. You had to buy software and install it on your floppy disk or eventually your hard drive. You can work wherever you are. No one else has control over your access to the processor. That’s right, the processor. In the early days of computing processing time on central mainframe computers was allocated and your job would be scheduled to be run by the administrator - usually a man in a white lab coat carrying a clipboard. Processors were expensive, as was memory and storage space. I recall the joy when I inherited a friend's old 5 MB serial ProFile drive. At last I could run a complete install of HyperCard! Eventually I could afford to bump up the computer’s memory to four MB. Then SCSI hard drives came down in price and I could purchase a fast 10 MB drive...and thus onto the slippery slope.

In a historical perpective, processors, RAM and storage essentially cost nothing today, so computer services are tending to use a variant on the old model. Herewith, three scenarios of the progression in contemporary Internet usage - from server to cloud. 

(Web 1.0) Our AMIS web site lives at a certain web address. Using FTP software on my computer I connect directly to that IP address of that server and modify the files stored on the server, downloading and uploading between the server and my personal computer, my personal computer doing all of the processing for editing and changing the files.

(Web 2.0)My Facebook page is addressed through a web site gateway and as I change it using the application living somewhere on the Facebook server farm appearing in the web browser running on my computer. That data is then updated on my “live page” on Facebook and instantly published.

(Web 2.5) I open my iPhone, snap a picture with my camera. I send it as an E-mail to Evernote and the optical character recognition application in the Evernote server recognises the text and indexes it. I then send the file to either my Flickr gallery, Facebook Gallery or MobileMe service and publish it using the web servers and applications of the respective firm. Or I could go all “old school” and E-mail it to my friends from my phone.

We don’t yet know what Web 3.0 will be. Somewhere, someone is working on it right now. All that we know for certain is that the computers used to access it will be smaller, faster, more powerful and less expensive than they were eighteen months ago.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Only the beginning

Inside something there is a rush of
Who knows what stands in front of
Our lives
I fashion my future on films in space
Tells me secretly

James Rado & Gerome Ragni
“The Flesh Failures” from Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
We start this year as we do every new year at the same place that every piece of music ever written or improvised begins: with an inhalation of breath in silence. All of our journeys lie before us. The ground before us is untrodden. The plough has yet to break the soil. In our ears and in the air around us are the reverberations of the past.

We may have a plan for our journey this year. Concepts, style, manner, repertoire and expectations are some of the things we bring to the door of our classrooms. Our students will return to school refreshed and changed from the students who left at the end of the previous year. Not only because of the transient nature of the international school. Our students are growing and changing daily and they certainly did not stop over the summer. How many times has your best treble boy singer left in June excited about the prospect of Middle School Honor Boy’s Choir and not returned in the autumn because the family has suddenly been transferred to a new city?

You have been changed over the summer as well. You have reflected on your season and made mental (or physical) notes about what to do differently. You may have taken part in a workshop or course that has radically revised your pedagogical approach. You may have explored, if you followed the advice in last year’s finale, new software and played your way into a new appreciation and understanding of technology or even a new instrument. Whilst we expect our rate of growth and change to be somewhat slower than out students, we are all still growing and changing.

One tip from the world of the technology is the excellent iTunes Store. It used to be the iTunes Music Store, but it has grown and expanded with the addition of movie and TV rentals and sales, the iPhone Applications Store, and iTunes U.

ITunes U is a companion to the wonder that is YouTube. The Observer recently ran a feature on the 50 Greatest Arts Videos On YouTube. Here is a teaser from their Jazz section - John Coltrane performs 'My Favourite Things', 1961; Billie Holiday sings 'Strange Fruit', 1959; Ella Fitzgerald duets with Dinah Shore, 1960s; Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie perform 'Hot House', 1952; Barbra Streisand on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, 1961.

Fine art performances abound as well – Nureyev dancing The Nutcracker, Jack Kerouac reads from On The Road, accompanied by the jazz stylings of Steve Allen, Callas, Von Karajan, Bernstein. Follow the tinyurl link above and then start searching to compile your list of performances.

Back to iTunes U. I open iTunes (free ar and go to the iTunes Store. I click on iTunes U. At first glance I see Smithsonian Folkways Recordings for those looking for archive recordings of folk and world music. There are videos, discussions of music and technology and an outlined series of lesson plans using Smithsonian videos and music to introduce music of world cultures. I do a search for Jazz History in the iTunes store and find the NPR Podcasts. First few titles: Jimmy Smith: Organ Grinder Swing; Village Vanguard: A hallowed basement; Betty Carter: Fiercely Individual. How About Marin Alsop’s Clueless About Classical Music, also in the podcast area.

Best thing about these resources? They are free. Yes. Free.

Download iTunes, go to the iTunes Music Store, stock up your library of teaching resources for free. That should help fill your year with the colourful reverberations of happy voices and instruments.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Play To Learn and Grow

In a very short time technology has changed an entire generation’s behavior radically, and it behooves all of us who are not from that generation but whose daily life involves interaction with them, such as parents and teachers, to learn as much as we can about the new behaviors.

(If you are someone who doesn’t think behavior can change that fast around technology, try to think back to how quickly, when telephone answering machines first appeared, the norm went from “It’s rude to have an answering machine” to “It’s rude NOT to have an answering machine.)

Marc Prensky
The Emerging Online Life of the Digital Native 3

Many of us are reminded daily that we are strangers in a strange land. We approach the field of play in the classroom from a different direction than our students. What is normal to us is quaint to them; what is normal to them is unknown to us. Luckily for us, we have a weapon that many of our colleagues in other disciplines lack: our work as performing musicians has a strong collaborative element to it. We ask our students to work together, share, criticise themselves and their peers and synchronise sounds created by various anatomic or mechanical means to achieve a collaborative result. The group can achieve what the individual cannot.

Likewise we have a strong individual component to our subject where there are levels of performance - benchmarks for want of a better word - against which performers can measure their technical and artistic prowess as they progress in their studies. There are competitions, festivals, master classes and more where students perform for a "master teacher" and are critiqued and helped to work through problems that may be holding them back in the advancement of their studies.

Or discipline also contains the "experimental" branch where an individual sets themselves against the task of transcribing what they hear in their head to paper, or analog waves or bits. Tonalities, tunings, harmonies, melodies; combinations of instruments. voices and, well, who knows what in order to create "in the air" what previously only existed in their imagination.

How lucky we are in this digital age, that many of the tools of our trade have become ubiquitous objects in the household and school environment! Our digital native students can't imagine not being able to use a sequencer with realistic sampled sounds to program a piece of music. Creating music tracks and burning CDs, editing and creating DVDs, stop-motion animation - all with edited original soundtracks or mixes and mash-ups of their favourite music. They think nothing of creating formulae in spreadsheets to simplify their calculations and explore "if, then" questions. Digital images, instant messaging, blogging, Facebook, MySpace, Meebo, Twitter are the ways that they communicate. The mobile phone that we digital immigrants struggle with, is the everyday tool of choice for the digital native: camera, SMS, for starters and the more advanced phones include GPS, radio, Internet browser and access to the normal "office" style applications. We digital immigrants buy CDs - our digital natives download, usually from a Peer-to-Peer source or a Torrent that is outside the normal legitimate channel of distribution that the record companies have created.

We ask them to record reflections and progress on worksheets: they would prefer to have a wiki where the entire group can reflect and interact as well as individuals have individual pages where they can "soliliquise" and accept comments from their friends. Our concerts are posted on YouTube and the performing groups organise sites on Facebook. I am inspired by my fellow teachers who have taken the first steps into social networking and used Facebook to organise reunions and school celebrations. I am also inspired by, and more than a little envious of, my colleagues who tell me that the audition materials we supply are posted on their school provided web sites and the students download them, record the audition, evaluate their own performance and submit their best efforts back to their teacher via E-mail or the department shared space.

What is the end of year message in al of this? Ah, grasshopper. As the spring turns into summer and we begin to de-compress and re-create, all of us digital immigrants need to take a little step out of our comfort zone and explore some of the technology around us. If you have an interactive whiteboard, prepare a set of flipcharts for a favourite lesson. If you don't have an interactive whiteboard but have a projector or beamer in your room, prepare some PowerPoint or Keynote presentations of a lesson that you teach. Explore that mobile phone. Grab the digital camera and take a photo essay of your your holiday and use one of the free or inexpensive photo editing tools or web sites such as Picasa or Flickr to share your images with your friends, family and the world. Open up that copy of Garageband, Acid Pro, Cubase, Sibelius, Finale or whatever new music tool you have and play. That's right. Play. Arrange a song, write the Romantic Composer Rap, score that arrangement that you've always heard in the the back of your head.

Enjoy exploring the technology and enjoy some of the "new ways" of approaching our subject.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hope is the thing with feathers

Why is Alice called Alice?
This is one of my favorite questions. It always lets me know the question asker is thinking in the correct direction. After all, the ability to name something is a tremendous power, and in this case, there's a terrific reason.

Alice pays homage to Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Carroll was a mathematician, novelist, and photographer. Most important, he could do intellectually difficult things but also realized the most powerful thing was to be able to communicate clearly and in an entertaining way. This inspires our efforts to make something as complex as computer programming easy and fun.

Randy Pausch, answering "Why is Alice called Alice?"

Many of you devoted readers know my affection for the work of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and that his characters feature quite regularly in the jumping-off points for these missives. The whimsy and surprising logic of his world never ceases to amaze and enchant me. The software he is describing, Alice is a piece of free software that is a 3-D, graphics based computer programming tool. Bear with me, technophobes. It seems that in this day and age of everything computer, there is a significant drop in students enrolling in computer science courses in universities. Apparently the students are put off by rigourous courses that require hours of practise at a keyboard and a strict dedication to syntax and coherent expression of creative vision arising from the simplest of materials. To many of us, it sounds like the courses you had to take featuring the work of Palestrina and his 16th century polyphonic colleagues, and it is similar in many ways.

Alice was developed to offer a visual form of computer programming where it was impossible to create syntax errors in programming and to produce an engaging product. Many of you will remember the glory days of computer education for teachers when we were all expected to learn to program in order to use a computer and the lack of a bracket or semicolon would send your precious programme which printed a line of text or moved a coloured square across the screen into a tailspin. Alice uses the metaphors of story telling or creation of an interactive world to teach programming concepts. This is in some ways related to the visual programming now available in the music world in programmes such as Garage Band, Reason and other loop based compositional tools. You music tech historians may also remember the visual programming language Max.

It is not this programming language, but rather one of the men behind it that is the real focus of this article. You may recognise the name of the quotee - Randy Pausch. He has been featured heavily on the Internet and on the Carnegie Mellon University web site. You may of heard of him in conjunction the phrase "The Last Lecture". This refers to a tradition where a retiring or dying professor presents his final lecture and is feted by the academic community where he has toiled. Randy Pausch is a very young man who has delivered his last lecture - he is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer and has only been given months to live. He chose not to give a momento mori complete with the spectre of the grinning skull looming in the background in the background. He gave us a gift, what I would like to call a a momento spero - a remembrance of hope entitled Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.

He begins by telling us what he won't be speaking about - cancer, his wife and children, religion. He does, however admit a deathbed conversion: he bought a Macintosh. His theme speaks of the things that probably brought many of us into the teaching profession. He talks of facing brick walls, of being honest, of doing good things, and of love. He tells of the people who he met who believed in him and who helped him get over the brick walls he found in trying to achieve his dreams. Many would say that as teachers, helping achieve dreams is a part of our daily life. We've seen success and failures: we've seen brick walls fall as well as stand resolutely despite the best efforts of all concerned. I can not really do justice to any of the themes or ideas he brings to the speech – the transcript of the talk runs to twenty-six A4 pages, Nor do I want to give away any more of his illustrations, other than this one as it applies to us who work at bringing music into the lives of others:
And I think that that’s one of the best things you can give somebody – the chance to show them what it feels like to make other people get excited and happy. I mean that’s a tremendous gift.
Please look him up on Google, YouTube or via the Carnegie Mellon web site and watch and learn from his lecture.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Look to this day

Look to this day for it is life,
the very life of life...
For yesterday is already a dream and tomorrow is only a vision.
But today, well lived, makes yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a dream of hope.

Sanskrit Proverb

It seems as though the academic year just started. New faces; old faces; the hubbub and clamour of the academic wheel starting its relentless revolution. Now it is mid-February; March is just around the corner and the end of the year is zooming towards us. What happened to the time?

Our calendars are our saviours. They measure the days, mark the passage of events and help keep our disorderly lives relatively ordered. This year, the AMIS calendar has been available on the iCal site. This means that you are able to view the calendar with all the festivals and their attendant deadlines and way-points online. Not only online, but live. One change is made in the master calendar, and it rolls out automatically to all of its subscribers. The dates for next year are beginning to appear in it. Despite being "Made on a Mac", the AMIS calendar uses an open protocol called ICS. This means that any program that can read .ics formatted files can access the calendar. One open source and free calendar program that supports .ics files is "Sunbird" from the Mozilla Organization. It is also cross platform - available for Windows, Linux and Macintosh.

Why is subscribing to calendars a "good thing"? Every time you open your calendar program, all of your calendars and the calendars you subscribe to are displayed. Vista users, there are calendars that can live in your side bar. Macintosh users, iCal is free and comes installed as part of your operating system. Also, If you are a .Mac subscriber it is a one click task to publish your calendars so others may subscribe to them. You create the calendar on your computer and publish the changes. The next time your subscribers open their calendar, your calendar is fed to them - all the latest changes automatically published. Sound useful for extra rehearsal schedules? I'm sure that you can think of a few other uses that might make your teaching life easier.

How does one subscribe? Visit the AMIS calendar. linked from the top of the News section on the AMIS web site or the web version directly. If nothing else, bookmark that page in your favourite browser and visit it occasionally. That still requires you to open the bookmark - let's go for the fully automatic version. Once on that page, in the lower left hand corner, you'll find buttons allowing you to subscribe, download, or set preferences. If a Macintosh user clicks "Subscribe", the free iCal program will automatically open and start the subscription process. Once you have subscribed to the calendar, you can then set your calendar program to automatically open when you start the computer. Macintosh users, go to "System Preferences" and open the "Accounts" pane; Windows users will depend on the version of Windows you are running.

As the academic year begins its slide on the downhill slope to the end of the year, harness the power of Web 2.0 and let your computer take some of the strain. It may even help avoid the state relished by Douglas Adams when he said, "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."