unexpected jam session

9 Sultan 165 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Jammin’”

The other night a group of people from a local Meet-Up group I occasionally hang out with organized something they called an “Amateur Musicians Night.” The idea was for people to bring their own instruments and music to play and share with the group. It was emphasized that participants need not be professional or even necessarily performance-ready—the idea was to simply have fun.

I have sort of a funny relationship with music. I put a lot of effort into developing myself as a musician when I was young, but, starting in my early twenties, I put those efforts on the shelf. For about five years as a child, I took piano lessons and was quite serious about developing myself as a musician. But I quit at the age of eleven because I’d lost interest in it. I took some guitar lessons for a couple of years afterwards. Then in high school I bought a Roland Juno 6 synthesizer and had ideas of joining a band. I jammed with a couple of bands in college, and took a semester of jazz piano.

The jazz piano class was interesting. I was made to spend weeks practicing seventh chords that are frequently used in jazz, even though I’d known what a seventh chord was since the age of seven. Then, one day, the instructor sat next to me at the piano and started to play a bass line in the lower registers, and he said, “Okay, play.” “Play what?” I asked. “No, just play.” I again asked, “What should I play?” He said, “Just play what comes natural. Play what sounds right,” and before I knew it, I was improvising.

But I didn’t take it beyond that. The second band I played with in college kicked me out due to me being rhythmically challenged, and I didn’t take any further jazz piano lessons. I still own the guitar and synthesizer. The synthesizer is in a basement of a friend’s house—he’s turned part of his basement into a studio and he likes to hold jam sessions down there sometimes. The guitar has stayed with me—an old Harmony guitar that my grandfather restored years ago. I pick it up sometimes, but don’t often do much more than tune it.

So when I heard about this “Amateur Musician’s Night,” I had some hesitation. I rarely pick up the guitar, and am at the point where, at best, I remember five major chords and a couple of minor chords. But I decided to take my guitar with me to the event, anyway.

We met in the back of a coffeehouse in my neighborhood. When I arrived, I was surprised to discover that the organizer of the event was setting up a stage with electric guitars and a synthesizer. I was expecting a bit more of a fire circle type of event involving just acoustic instruments. As I explained later, I said, “I thought we were going to do the Kumbaya thing.”

What ended up happening was something more resembling karaoke, except that people were invited to come up and play instruments as well as sing. Initially there were almost no takers, but a couple of guitar players came up, plugged into the amps, and sat in a a couple of sessions.

At one point a guy got up and initiated a blues jam. As I watched three guitarists jam, I realized that I was familiar enough with blues scales to go up and join them on the keyboards, and after some hesitation, I finally did. I was nervous and stiff as heck. I hadn’t improvised like this since college and I’d never done so in front of an audience, which in this case numbered about fourteen people. But I eventually relaxed a little bit and had some fun. I came up again later for a jazz jam. I realized I’d forgotten a lot about jazz chords—I never quite knew what key we were playing in, but I played what I thought sounded right.

To my surprise, the guitarist who initiated the blues and jazz jams complemented me on my keyboard playing. I didn’t expect this at all.

I’ve been DJ’ing now for almost two years. That was my first foray back into music. I’m now thinking of calling my friend who has my keyboard to see if he’d like to jam sometime.

I’ve also been nursing this fantasy of developing my own little home studio. Nothing fancy or expensive. It would include a dual CD DJ mixer unit so that I could practice DJ’ing at home. I also have a copy of Audacity, a sound mixing program. I’ve thought about bringing my synthesizer home, though I’d have a difficult time finding room for it in my bedroom here. I know of a website that encourages people to mix their own music using available MP3’s provided on the site, and I’ve even entertained ideas of even mixing my own music.

I don’t know if I want to go in this direction or not. It’s a little bit of an investment, and I often ask myself if this would be the best use of my leisure time. I guess it’s something to think about and pray about…

peace, linux and happiness?

19 Sharaf 165 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: A Skillz and Krafty Kuts, “Tricka Technology

Last July, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I decided to employ the nuclear option.

I’d had enough of Microsoft Windows. I backed up all my computer’s data onto DVDs, put a Ubuntu Linux installation disc into my computer’s DVD drive and clicked the Install button.

The Ubuntu logo stood there innocently over an orange bar that indicated the completion rate of the project. Meanwhile, inside my desktop computer, files and programs vaporized into thin air. Nothing was left in its wake except empty storage spaces on my hard drive. Then slowly, the Ubuntu Linux operating system began to establish itself in the barren wasteland that had once been a Windows environment. Step by step, a new operating system and new programs made their home on my computer.

It’s funny–I’d considered myself a Windows guy for years, despite the fact that the rest of my family owns Macs. I think I got into Windows because it was cheaper and because it was being used at work.

But my frustration with Windows have been building up for years. I worked with several versions of Windows–3.1, 95, 98, Me, NT, 2000 and XP. Each time it seemed like things were getting more and more complicated. In my opinion, I’ve felt for a while that the writing has been on the wall for Windows.

I’ve been intrigued by the notion of Linux and open-source programming. I like the idea of the source code of an operating system or software can be made available to anyone who wants to improve upon it. I became more intrigued when a friend of mine told me that my older desktop computer would be a good candidate for Linux because of the efficient way Linux handles files and memory. Given the excesses of our throwaway culture, it made sense for me to find a way to keep my current computer as long as possible, especially since computer waste has a negative effect on the environment.

In June, I bought an Asus Eee PC that came installed with Linux. I noticed the difference right away. It boots up in 10-20 seconds. That’s unheard of. And despite just 512 MB of RAM, it has little difficulty with video files.

Meanwhile, my PC with Windows 2000 on it began to struggle. I kept on having to uninstall and reinstall my USB wireless port because I kept having Internet difficulties. One day, I discovered that the system had become confused as to whether it was installing or uninstalling a program. That’s when I decided to push the button.

It’s now been six months since I switched over to Ubuntu Linux. What do I think of it now?

The quick boot-up I noticed with my laptop also exists on my desktop. Maybe not quite as fast, but oodles faster than Windows. One of the reasons for is that many programs that operate on Windows operate in the background even when they aren’t being used. This adds a lot of time to booting up and also can slow down whatever program you might be working on.

The Add/Remove programs feature on Ubuntu is also neat. First of all, it cleanly installs and uninstalls programs. Many programs written for Windows are hard to fully remove—they often leave code or entire folders that can’t be removed and which take up space. But what’s even better is that this feature actually accesses a huge online library of free software that is highly compatible with Ubuntu Linux. It’s like being a kid in a candy store.

Open Office is every bit as good of a program as the Microsoft Office Suite, and it doesn’t gobble up nearly as much memory. I would say that Open Office Writer is less buggy than Microsoft Word. You can even save files in the Word format, as well as in a PDF format.

Ubuntu Linux doesn’t complain when I plug things into the USB ports. It’ll quickly display the directory of any USB memory stick I put in and it’s easy to transfer files back and forth. My version of Windows made me jump through hoops to do the same thing.

The Linux life isn’t without its disadvantages. I find I still have to do some significant troubleshooting and problem-solving. I struggled to get the system to pick up the wireless Internet router we have in our house. I ended up getting help from the community of Linux users on the Ubuntu website, who gave me some commands I had to enter in “terminal mode.” I was a bit nervous about entering code in this way, but it worked. I get error messages every now and then that require me to consult the Ubuntu website to get fixed.

There’s some third-party software that I miss. One of my favorite little programs was an excellent and graphically attractive Baha’i calendar which I always loved to reference. It required the installation of Yahoo Widgets which, in turn required Windows. I haven’t found a replacement for it yet. There is a program called Wine that can run some Windows programs on Linux—I was grateful to discover that I can run Ocean, a program written by a Baha’i that allows the user to use keywords to search thousands of religious texts.

I can’t purchase music through ITunes because Apple won’t play with Linux. (It doesn’t play with Windows 2000 anymore either.) It took me a few months to figure out how to download music from the eMusic website. While there’s a Linux program written to replace the eMusic download manager compatible with Windows, I couldn’t get it to work, and so, I finally figured out how to download music directly onto the desktop and from there transfer it to a folder in the music section of the website. A little more clunky, but it gets the job done.

It was a little bit of a challenge to find an MP3 player that was Linux-friendly. Many MP3 players require the user to install Windows software in order for the player to play well with the computer. For this reason, I couldn’t use my cellphone as an MP3 player, even though it has that capability. The way I finally did it was to search Amazon.com’s media players with the phrase “Ogg Vorbis.” Ogg Vorbis is an open-source music file format that can be found on Linux, (though my media player can also play MP3 and other formats). I found and bought the Cowon iAudio7 MP3 player and I’m pretty happy with it. It came with few instructions, and I’m still trying to figure out a lot of its capabilities, but it has great sound, and I was able to transfer my audio files pretty easily.

I did have to upgrade my computer a little bit. I found that 512 KB of RAM for some reason wasn’t working as quickly as it did with Windows 2000. Maybe that’s because the computer, designed for an operating system that came out in 1999, would simply have more difficulties working with an operating system written in 2007. I upped the RAM to 1.5 MB, and installed two USB 2.0 ports in addition to the four USB 1.1 ports I have. My vintage 2004 machine operates quite smoothly now.

No doubt, I will run into further challenges with Linux, and continue to troubleshoot from time to time. But for now, I’m pretty happy with my Ubuntu Linux system and am not really missing Windows too much.

eve of something, hopefully good

2 Sharaf 165 B.E. (Baha’i calendar)

Soundtrack in my head:  The Beatles, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”

Earlier today I got an email from the year 2009.  It came from a friend of mine in Japan, and they’re fifteen hours ahead of us.  Most of the world now, as I write this, is in the year 2009.

I have always found New Year’s Eve to be a slightly surreal experience.  Not necessarily in a bad way.  Time sort of stands still and goes through a transition and at the same time it doesn’t.  The divide that establishes the new year, established in the Gregorian calendar (that’s the one we all use, in case you didn’t know) is, after all, an artificial marker.  The year is very real–it’s the time that it takes to go around the sun, but deciding where to mark a complete year is a human decision.  So, in essence, we draw a line, we cross it, and then we celebrate crossing it.

Again, this is not a bad thing.  I can’t imagine life without a calendar to mark the time and you have to set the new year somewhere.  And it is a good time to reflect–to reflect on ourselves and the world at large,  It’s a good time to take stock and begin anew.

But it’s a rather funny tradition we have.  The noisemakers, confetti and cheap hats seem like they are borrowed from the birthday party my parents organized when I was seven. For better or worse, this will be the last year people will be able to have those funny round glasses that have the number 2 on one side and the appropriate integer marking the new year on the other side, with the two zeroes in the middle forming the glasses part. 

In the past, before I became a Baha’i and stopped drinking, I’d start the new year somewhat hammered, and begin the first morning of the new year with a hangover.  Now I do things differently.  Tonight, I and two other housemates will stay home, hang out, and enjoy each others’ company.  The temperature’s in the single digits, and I don’t really want to take chances on the roads.  We have a bottle of sparkling blueberry juice ready to uncork at midnight to toast in the new year.

I look forward to the new year.  I also look forward to the Baha’i new year, which we celebrate on the evening of March 20th.  That’s a neat way to mark a new year, too.  The Baha’i day starts at sunset, so ringing in the new year is as simple and as beautiful as watching the sun go down into a new year.