Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bias in the New Scientist

Last month, the New Scientist published an interview with psychiatrist Simon Wessely. Wessely has made a name for himself promoting the view that people with ME/CFS -- as well as Gulf War syndrome, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome -- are just thinking themselves sick.

In his own words:
Often there is an organic trigger like glandular fever. That's the start, and usually most people get over it, albeit after some weeks or months. But others can get trapped in vicious circles of monitoring their symptoms, restricting their activities beyond what is necessary and getting frustrated or demoralised. This causes more symptoms, more concerns and more physical changes, so much so that what started it all off is no longer what is keeping it going.
You can read the whole article here. The telling bit is not so much in anything it says, but in what it doesn't say:
  1. Though Wessely states that there's no organic cause beyond the "infective trigger," he provides no evidence to back up his claim.

  2. Wessely fails to mention the mountain of evidence that ME/CFS is a biological disease.
And then it gets interesting.

Following the Web version of this article are, at this writing, 562 comments. The thread began on March 15 and it's still going. The vast majority of commenters vehemently disagree with everything Wessely said. If you don't have the hour or two it would take to carefully read all the comments, here's a sampling.

From Michael Tomlinson, in response to Wessely's assertion that severely affected ME/CFS sufferers need to exercise:
Most of us have tried anything they could. We've tried exercising, physio, chiro, massage, weird diets, acupuncture... you name it! ... All exercise did for me was add to the number of limbs that are inflamed; and this was carefully supervised by a fully trained personal trainer. I had to stop after 18 months or I wouldn't be able to use my arms at all! ...

I was incredibly fit before - I rowed in the head of the river, did competitive downhill skiing, rock climbing at a high level, bike riding, swimming, and more. I can no longer do any of those activities. Can you really understand how horrible it is to be unable to do those things? That's why I'm depressed! It's NOT the other way around.
From Balbuie, challenging New Scientist to interview biomedical scientists about the disease:
I could suggest scientists like Dr Judy A. Mikovits, Director of Research at the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Immune Disease in Universtiy of Nevada, Reno. Here is some of WPI's latest work:

Cytokine Volume 43, Issue 3 September 2008, page 245, Special Issue, Abstracts and Reviews

"Our analysis has revealed distinct pathogen associated signatures with significant 5-200 - fold differences between patients and controls for the inflammatory cytokines Il-8, IP-10, MIP-a and MIP-1b, as well as the procytokines IL-6, TNFa and Il-1b ..."

And also Dr Jonathan Kerr, Sir Joseph Hotung Clinical Senior Lecturer in Inflammation, St George's University of London who has published several groundbreaking papers on gene expression in ME/CFS.
So here's where I'm confused: Why is New Scientist presenting the Wessely angle exclusively? As the above commenter noted, they could have found any number of scientists who would have been happy to provide an alternate view.

If they couldn't be bothered to procure quotes from other scientists, how about a few probing questions for their subject? For instance, how does Wessely respond to the biomedical research demonstrating that the disease is organic? Or, if we know that there are legitimate serious chronic illnesses -- multiple sclerosis, for example -- what makes ME/CFS different?

Who knows. Maybe New Scientist just figured that stories about how people's own minds make them sick are sexier than stories about pathogens and inflammatory cytokines. But standing by their flimsy, biased work after getting hammered by their readership for a solid month? It doesn't make sense.

So what now? Will it help for us to add to the still-growing list of comments? To contact an organization like MediaWatch and try to get them to nudge the journal into doing the right thing?

Your suggestions are welcome.

Smoke gets in my eyes (and lungs)

Every performance provides an opportunity to learn something, whether it's about musicianship, showmanship, or what have you. Saturday night's gig -- playing at a block party in Ron the Drummer's neighborhood -- was no exception. The lesson: if meat is cooking on a huge freaking barbecue, and wind is blowing the smoke right in my face, it makes for less-than-optimal singing conditions.

Granted, I probably could have guessed that on my own.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why Ron does all our booking

Walking into a grocery store the other night, I noticed someone in the checkout line who seemed vaguely familiar. She looked a lot like the woman who ran the computer lab I frequented back when I was in grad school several lifetimes ago. I didn't think it was likely to be the same person, though, until I noticed that she was giving me second glances as well.

Not only was it her, but in line ahead of her was her husband, who had taught a couple of my statistics classes. We talked for a minute or two about what they had been doing, and then they asked, "So you're good?"

I said yes and they were on their way.

Not until I was in the car going home did I realize I'd missed an opportunity. My answer should have been, "Yeah, I'm doing great. My band's in the Folk Festival this year." Who knows, maybe they would have gone.

This is why Ron does all of the promotional/networking stuff. He would've been all over that.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lyrics vs. technology

Lately I've been going over songs that we haven't rotated onto our set lists in a while. It's a good idea to dust these off every now and again, as it's easier than you'd think to forget the words to your own stuff.

To that end, I practiced a song we hadn't performed in ages, "Good Intentions." In the process I realized that it could do with some revision. The basic setup: the narrator has been sitting around at a diner for an hour, waiting for a friend who never shows up. The problematic passage:
Slide the quarters in the pay phone
Softly ask your answering machine why you're not there
I wrote this in 2002, back before absolutely everyone carried cell phones everywhere. (Or maybe I was the only holdout. I don't remember.) Should I change the line, I wondered? On the one hand, there must still be people out there who can't afford cell phones. On the other hand, pay phones are nearly extinct. If I leave the lyrics as they are, listeners won't assume the narrator is poor; they'll assume the lyrics are dated. Which they are.

No problem, I mused. We never put "Good Intentions" on an album, so I still have the opportunity to bring the lyrics in line with current realities. It wouldn't be that hard.
Dial your number on my cell phone
Softly ask your answering machine why you're not there
Perfect. Except ...

It's one thing to wait an hour before heading to the pay phone to confirm you've been blown off. I can imagine myself doing just that. But it's another thing entirely to wait an hour before reaching for a phone that is attached to your person. Change "pay phone" to "cell phone" in the hypothetical scenario, and any sane human being would wait 15 minutes at most before calling to ask what's up. Change "pay phone" to "cell phone" in the song and it says something about our narrator's character that I hadn't intended to say.

Oh geez. I hadn't thought of this until right now, but the answering machine bit is dated too. You wouldn't call the friend's house first. You'd call the friend's cell.

Maybe I should just leave it alone ...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Our Glass Onion debut

You know what's cool? When you play an atmosphere gig at a coffeehouse and people actually listen. When you can tell they're listening because they're not only applauding, but nodding along to the beat.

And smiling.

And, in some cases, signing up for your mailing list and buying your CD.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

A late bloomer makes good

Chances are you've already seen the video of Susan Boyle's audition for Britains Got Talent. But if you haven't, you should watch. Right now. I'll wait.

If that didn't make you grin, I don't know what will.

Funny thing, though. All those people in the audience assumed she'd make a fool of herself. More than that, they were looking forward to laughing at her for it. Yet, a half-second in, when it became apparent that she was really, really good, the crowd went wild. Every person there became her new best friend.

Maybe any hardened, mean-spirited cynic will turn into a marshmallow after hearing somebody sing like that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wherefore Twitter?

In a recent post, fellow songstress Jannie Funster seeks enlightenment on everyone's favorite Interwebs phenom:
I’m frightened by Twitter.
Don’t really understand it,
neither the why nor how.
Several blogging friends
have tried to explain but I
just don’t get it. Am I the
only one missing the boat?
@janniefunster, that’s me.
Seeking any and all advice
on why and how to tweet.

I was right there with Jannie up until a few months ago. The first time someone described Twitter to me, my reaction was, "Why would anyone want to do that?" I didn't get the appeal of posting 140 characters at a time, or reading 140-character posts. Still, I gave it a try. I set up a Twitter account for cinderkeys. I found people to follow and micro-chatted with them. I tweeted random thoughts. I announced what I was doing. And it still felt like I was missing something.

Until I created a work account. Then I got it.

See, the purpose of doing Twitter at work is spreading goodwill about your organization. You find people who need help with stuff you specialize in, and then you help them. And they love you for it.

It's way fun.

Twittering at work, I'm an expert with useful things to say. Twittering from home in musician mode, I got nuthin'. I don't think there are too many tweeples out there looking for advice about songwriting.

My corporate persona is more interesting than my band persona. So sad.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Score one for the idiot savant

Events of last week have convinced me that I have to make it in the music biz.

Here's what happened.

Wednesday, April 1, 1:30 a.m.

Up way too late on a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, I get e-mail from Robyn Landis. Robyn has a crazy proposition for me. She's in the final stages of recording her CD, and she wants to include this one piano song. The local pianist who was going to create the keyboard track broke her collarbone.

Do I have the capability, technology, and knowledge to produce a MIDI file from my keyboard, she asks. If so, am I interested in learning and recording it?

Can I do it by Friday?

I write back. Yes, I'm interested. No, I'm not set up to do home MIDI recordings. No, I can't do it by Friday.

I do, however, know someone who does studio work relatively cheap. What's the real drop-deadline for this project?

Wednesday, April 1, afternoon & evening

Having received word from Robyn that she could push the deadline out a couple days, I contact Hank Childers of VGB Studio. He still has affordable rates. He could fit me in on Sunday.

Friday, April 3

Robyn sends me a rough recording of the song and lyrics. The song is called "Shrink the Sky." It's lovely. I listen to it over and over again, trying to commit it to memory. Before I go to bed, I attempt playing to it. Results are mixed.

The song isn't all that complicated. As I see it, there are two big challenges. The first is technical. Robyn and Janni Littlepage recorded "Shrink the Sky" on a little handheld recorder. There's no way to isolate Robyn's vocals from Janni's piano, which means I can't accompany Robyn by myself. If I play to the recording, I'm playing over the existing piano part.

The other challenge is stylistic. Robyn wants this to sound as much like Janni's playing as possible. This is a reasonable request, as Janni cowrote the song and came up with something quite nice. It's just not the way I usually play.

This will take some work. Still, with work, I might be able to carry this off.

Saturday, April 4, afternoon

I strap on the iPod and get to it. The chord progressions keep tripping me up, going in places I don't expect. I'm not used to playing anyone's songs but my own. I get out a pen and chord up some of the lyrics, then play the song over and over again.

Saturday, April 4, late at night

While I was gigging, Robyn sent me e-mail containing a new file. She's recorded a scratch vocal track that I can play to when I record tomorrow. Hooray! This means I don't have to waste valuable studio time recording myself singing a song about an octave out of my range.

Sunday, April 5, morning & afternoon

Earlyish in the morning, I try playing to Robyn's vocal-only track. Uh oh. I'm messing up a lot of these chords now that I can't follow the original keyboard. I'm also speeding up everywhere. It's going to take all my concentration to play this without rushing. And now I've spent too much time on this -- I'm going to have to break serious speed limits to get to Hank's studio on time.

I arrive at the studio five minutes late. Due to budgetary constraints, we have two hours to get this down. Fortunately, Hank has saved us a lot of time by fashioning a click track to Robyn's new recording. Now I can keep the beat without my head exploding.

We do eight takes, with Hank fiddling with settings in between. I keep screwing up this one part over and over again, but nail it the sixth time around. The last three takes are solid.

I send the three good takes to Robyn. I'm satisfied with them technically, and I think I've made it emotionally nuanced. The question is whether I got the feel she wanted. She and her engineer send me e-mail a few hours later, very enthusiastic. "Shrink the Sky," with my keyboard track, is going on her album.

Yay! I did it!

Sunday, April 5, night

I put some water on the stove to boil, and I don't notice that the water isn't getting any hotter. Then I smell burning plastic and see smoke. I've turned on the wrong burner. I've also melted part of the plastic ladle that happened to be resting on said burner. Later, I open the refrigerator to find a totally empty snap box. Apparently I put it there after washing it instead of the dish drainer.

This, folks, is why I have got to make it as a musician. I'm clearly better at music than activities of daily living. If I become a world-renowned singer/songwriter/keyboardist, maybe everyone will think my complete inability to function is a sign of creative brilliance. That I'm too consumed with music and ideas for my next song to think about mundane crap like which burner to turn on.

* * *

Robyn's upcoming CD is called Many Moons. She is currently praying to the Printing Gods that it will be ready by the Tucson Folk Festival.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

No one listens to the lyrics

It's an odd thing sometimes, being a songwriter. You work so hard at crafting lyrics that will move your listeners in some way, trying to get every word right ... and you forget that those listeners mostly don't pay attention to the words. Or they do, but only in a superficial way.

This is why you get people who play songs like James Blunt's "You're Beautiful" at their weddings. They hear "You're beautiful, it's true" in the choruses without ever catching the "I will never be with you" bit at the end.

I was reminded of this last night while playing at Cottage Bakery. A couple of people were actually listening to us (a beautiful thing at an atmosphere gig), so I tried to keep them engaged by occasionally telling them something about the songs we were about to play.

"This is 'Sky Palaces,'" I said. "It's about daydreaming."

"I thought it was about procrastination."

Casual listener? Loyal Cinder Bridge fan? Nope. That came from Ron. The drummer.

Maybe I should sing louder ...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Should musicians have to market their own music?

John Mellencamp has an interesting article up on Huffington Post about what he thinks of today's music industry. Brief summary: not much.

On My Mind: The State of the Music Business

As no one has welcomed Cinder Bridge to the machine just yet, It's hard for me to know how much Mellencamp's perceptions of a golden bygone era are fueled by nostalgia. However, I do have some thoughts about his take on the musician as marketer:
These days, some people suggest that it is up to the artist to create avenues to sell the music of his own creation. In today's environment, is it realistic to expect someone to be a songwriter, recording artist, record company and the P.T. Barnum, so to speak, of his own career? Of course not ... The artist is here to give the listener the opportunity to dream, a very profound and special gift even if he's minimally successful. If the artist only entertains you for three and a half minutes, it's something for which thanks should be given.
Hmmm. Okay. Marketing the band isn't one of my favorite activities, and I'm not all that good at it. I like the idea that this is because I'm a sensitive important artist who's above such things. And yeah, it would be great if Ron and I had a team of people who did it all for us.

But here's the thing. Even if Cinder Bridge built a time machine and launched itself into the early 1980s (or the '70s, or the '60s -- pick any era you want), is it likely we would get that lucky break? That someone would discover us and raise us up to John Mellencamp's level of fame? No. What the Internet and cheaper recording technology and social media and all that offer people like us is a middle way. A path for people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and find their own audience. Yeah, it's annoying and it's hard and we'd rather just concentrate on making music, but guess what? The world doesn't owe us a living.

On a highly tangential note, Mellencamp's article left me feeling nostalgic for my college days. I went to Indiana University. During my four years there, I don't think a week went by that I didn't hear "I Need a Lover Who Won't Drive Me Crazy" at least once or twice. Sing it, John.