What I Learned About the Coolest Mashup Ever: The Stroh Violin

During my many years as a musician, I spent all my time at the back of the orchestra. I wasn’t hidden behind the other players for lack of talent, but because I’m a trombonist. Trombone players, and all brass instrumentalists, play tucked away behind the strings. Not only that, for every one trombonist in the orchestra, there are about five times that many violins. The reason? Brass instruments are much louder than strings. Despite my very visceral knowledge of the sonic strength difference between brass and stringed instruments, I was still floored when I heard 99% Invisible tell the story of the Stroh violin.

99% Invisible is one of the best podcasts I’ve found for evoking a sense of wonder while exploring everyday technology, old and new. The most recent episode I enjoyed, Mini-Stories, was especially fun since it covered so many cool topics: sack cloth sewing culture, the diaspora of fauna via the Colosseum, and then the tidbit that totally tickled me, the Stroh violin.

Imagine a violin in which the traditional wooden body is replaced by a brass horn. Like a griffin or a hippogriff, the Stroh violin seems almost mythic as an unlikely mashup. A violin and a trumpet.

Why does such a weird and wonderful invention exist? We already have a tried and true way to make violins heard over trombones: hire a slew of violinists!

99% Invisible did a beautiful job recounting the origin of the Stroh violin. In short, during the very early days of the recording industry, primitive recording equipment detected sound via a big brass bell (think of an old-fashioned Victrola, only recording sound instead of playing it). Turns out these brass bell recorders did a spectacular job detecting brass instruments. Trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba were recorded with ease. Unfortunately brass bell recording technology wasn’t so great at picking up stringed instruments. Early innovators attempted all kinds of creative ways to solve this problem, one of which was the griffinesque Stroh violin.

The Stroh violin recorded so well that the technology spread to a variety of stringed instruments. There were Stroh cellos and violas, Stroh guitars, Stroh ukuleles and mandolins. I’m dying to explore an instrument museum and see them all!

Of course advances in recording technology rendered the Stroh violin mostly a museum curiosity. But as I surf YouTube to satisfy my new Stroh obsession, it’s clear that the unique sound of the Stroh hasn’t been entirely forgotten, and a few eclectic musicians still put the unique timber and tone of  these vintage wonders to interesting use today.

10,000 steps

I once believed the right attitude was the most important factor in living a healthy lifestyle. To keep moving and stay fit I cultivated a preference for walking to driving. I got in the habit of doing errands on foot, walking to the grocery store, the post office, to visit friends.

About three years ago I bought the Fitbit, and found my mindset and habits didn’t keep me on track as much as I thought. The Fitbit represented my first foray into quantified self, evaluating aspects of my life by the numbers instead of subjective experience.

My first weeks targeting 10,000 steps with the Fitbit were such a surprise. Hours spent cooking and cleaning seemed like constant motion, but yielded almost no steps. I could be found at 11:45 pm, pacing back and forth in the hallway to get the last hundred steps to 10,000. I memorized paths around my neighborhood by number of steps and calculated the extra laps needed to meet my target.

For me steps became such a natural and intuitive measure of my activity. The measure taught me an active day sometimes means driving to the post office so I have time for a run or cardio workout.

This week I happened upon the origins of the 10,000 step goal. It’s cool to learn that something so integral to my daily life began way back in 1960’s Japan. Here’s the story:

After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Japan was enthused about physical fitness. Researcher, Dr. Hatano, was ready to put that enthusiasm to use. Hatano studied the number of steps an average Japanese person took in a day, then calculated the additional steps needed to burn an obesity-reducing extra 500 calories per day, and came up with 10,000 steps as a daily total. Hatano successfully marketed a pedometer called the Manpo-kei, which quite literally means counter to 10,000.

10,000 steps still holds sway in the global consciousness as a healthy activity target. I check my step total throughout every day, even though my current fitness tracker sets calorie goals instead of steps.

I learned all about Dr. Hatano and the Manpo-kei from a newsletter sent by one of my favorite apps, Coach.me. They cited the article: Why 10,000 steps?

Pictured from bottom to top is the Fitbit Ultra, the first model made, which I used until it died, and its immediate replacement, the Fitbit One.

Cultivating compassion and my weird feet

I’ve always had weird feet. As a baby, I slept in this crazy device: saddle shoes attached to a metal bar that forced my feet apart. As I grew the bar went away, but I still had to wear orthopedic saddle shoes. My gym shoe options were restricted to the few models available in wide width, always the ugliest shoes in the store.

Barefoot, my feet are fine and never bother me. Trouble starts when I put on shoes. If I find a pair that doesn’t cause pain I wear holes in them, then keep right on walking.

A recent trial of new athletic shoes left some of my toes more blister than not. Tortured feet or the ugly shoes of my childhood? I wasn’t thrilled by either prospect.

Ever my hero, my hubby got on the Nike website and found a way to custom design a pair of shoes just for me. Not only could he make decisions on the structure of the shoe, he could fine tune the aesthetics. He designed shoes so cute I’d want to wear them.

A special pair of shoes custom-made just for me. Wow. But as soon as we placed the order I had questions. Where were my shoes being made? Who was making them? How were those people being treated?

Maybe I have a weird brain in addition to weird feet…or…maybe I’m not the only one who thinks more about the laborers making my stuff when we become collaborators building something I helped design.

I’m not a thoughtless consumer. I limit myself to vegan footwear and bags, and whenever possible look for eco-friendly products. In the grocery arena, I buy a lot of fair trade chocolate and tea. Yet until I pictured someone in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam making shoes specially for me, when it came to shoe buying I was far more worried about the wellbeing of my four-legged friends than I was about factory workers.

There are many advantages to custom-made products. Custom clothing and shoes fit better, fewer blister-inducing shoes and unflattering jeans to discard. The idea of buying what we actually want, instead of a rough approximation, sounds satisfying and fun. What if it also improved consumer consciousness about the conditions of laborers in the garment industry?

Custom design retail sites alone aren’t going to solve the problem of international working conditions, but I do think it’s worth noticing that collaboration on a unique item creates a connection between consumers and laborers. Feeling connection is how we learn to care.

Who Organizes the Organizers?

When my husband and I first met he was crazy about a Britcom SciFi series called Red Dwarf. I have visceral memories of an early date, struggling to swallow cheese pizza while we watched a character’s space-flu-swelled head explode yellow mucus all over sick bay.

My favorite character on Red Dwarf was Rimmer, an intolerable, stuck-up, incompetent hologram who, in his human life, failed exams over and over again. Rimmer couldn’t understand what went wrong. He devoted countless hours to making intricate study time tables, organizing his highlighters and pens, making color coded, tabbed binders for his notes. When the day of the exam came around he’d spent so much effort organizing that he never read or learned anything.

Perhaps Rimmer’s cautionary tale made me hesitant to spend much time on my organization tools. For years the only tool I would use was OmniFocus. I resisted trying alternatives and didn’t want to waste time picking out todo apps. I just wanted to get stuff done.

Problem was, I didn’t get stuff done.

My OmniFocus accumulated a cruft of unaccomplished tasks. Some tasks were one month, two months, three months past due. Repeating household chores clogged my past due list. Abandoned projects hid in folders, some so buried I forgot they existed. At some point the shame of these undone todos got too heavy. I came to dread opening OmniFocus so much that some days I didn’t check it, resulting in a few unfortunate dropped balls.

I still use OmniFocus. It’s a beautiful, cross platform app that lets me forward emails to my inbox, gives me great views of what needs to be accomplished, and grabs my attention for the critical stuff. But OmniFocus is no longer my only organization app.

I spent some of my valuable, I should-be-accomplishing-something time, researching chore reminder apps. Chore Checklist was the easy winner. This awesome app is made especially for the work we all have to do around the house: dusting, scrubbing the toilet, taking out the garbage. Tasks are sorted in time interval lists. There things I need to get to every week (laundry), things I do every two weeks (mopping), every month (clean the fridge). I can program a task to grab my attention, so I never forget garbage day, but the default for repeating chores has no reminder. When I have an hour to work, I fire up Chore Checklist for an instant priority view: chores due are orange, chores left undone for too long are red.

By deleting all the repeating chores from OmniFocus and switching to Chore Checklist, our home is cleaner and my todos are usually done. With fewer past due tasks screaming at me in OmniFocus, I’m willing to go the extra mile to check everything off for the day. And Chore Checklist keeps me on priority without making me feel like I’m so far behind I might as well give up.

Using the right tool for the right task made such a difference that I began investigating tools to help me organize the other morass of shame in my OmniFocus: creative projects. Creative project organization needs to provide a place to dump my hopes, dreams, brainstorms, cherished darlings, and abandoned ideas, without clogging up my todos. For my first pass in creative organization, I hacked the Ulysses writing app on my Mac. Ulysses allowed me to create my own file and folder structure. I set up an inbox to collect flashes of insight and ideas. Later I drag those ideas into “blog post ideas”or “short story ideas.” There are folders for rough drafts awaiting editing, for posts posted. My evolving writing snippet moves from folder to folder, keeping track of its progress. I even coordinated Ulysses with Daedalus, the companion app for the iPhone, so when an awesome story idea comes to me while I’m brushing my teeth or walking to yoga, I can capture it and send it to the Ulysses inbox.

This process works great for capturing brainstorms, writing short shorts, and tracking blog posts. For more complex projects Ulysses doesn’t feel like the correct tool. Since my instinct was to drag items from folder to folder, I’m trying out Trello Task Management, which uses the model of dragging an index card from column to column as parts of a project move through their phases.

I don’t want to end up like Rimmer, lost in color coding my Trello cards instead of doing my work. On the other hand, I have to say that color coding Chore Buster was a life changer. Creepy soap scum on the shower door? Gone.

Finding the balance point of how much organizational structure supports, not distracts, is pretty personal, and varies based on what you do and your personality. From my recent experience, it’s worth the time to push the balance toward a little more organization, so long as you mindfully observe whether or not the effort results in more productivity and more ease.

Paul McCartney had Car Play in 1984

We’re big Beatles fans, so it’s hard to believe there’s a film featuring both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr that we’d never seen.  Last week we finally got around to watching “Give My Regards to Broad Street.”  The movie was fun- lots of music and singing with a dash of the Beatles’ special brand of silly wittiness.  But other than great music, there wasn’t much remarkable about the film.  Except, that is, for Paul McCartney’s car.

I’m no car expert, but to me Paul’s wheels looked like they belonged in the 1940’s, even though he was driving down the streets of 1984 London.  The old-fashioned car had this spiffy little license plate on the back, PM1. Then we cut to the inside of the car, and we’re propelled 30 years into the future.  Paul has a car phone, a bright red dialup rig.  Long before the era of established mores for mobile phones, McCartney already has the intelligence to pull over to the side of the road when it rings.

Cool as that was, I’ve seen car phones in older films before.  What really knocked my socks off was the fact that Paul had Car Play!  I’m not kidding.  There’s a small computer embedded in his dashboard.  The screen looks flat, though certainly the bulky cathode monitor is hidden in the dashboard guts. As Paul begins his day in the life of a busy rock star, he speaks to this little computer in his car.  A voice far more mechanical than Siri’s responds, and brings up the day’s itinerary, reading the appointments off to Paul as he drives.  Anyone with Apple Car Play can now follow in Paul’s footsteps, send and receive calls, get a rundown of the day’s agenda by asking Siri something along the lines of, what are my appointments today?

Of course not everybody has scheduled a recording session with Ringo Starr and George Martin, followed by a filming, then a night time jam session.  For that, you’d pretty much have to be Paul McCartney.

Being rude to AIs

I share my life with a tech enthusiast whose eye is constantly on the future.  This means we have a few of the coolest new gadgets in our house.  It also means there was a steep learning curve figuring out how to turn on and off the lights.

One of our cutting edge gadgets is the Amazon Echo, which allows us to interact with the Amazon AI, Alexa.  When it first arrived, the Echo was mostly a parlor trick.  We could talk to Alexa and get her to play music, tell jokes, convert measurements.  During the Echo’s first months collecting dust in our dining room, we mostly asked Alexa for the weather forecast.

Recently the Echo has started to extend its reach and do some cool things to help around the house.  For instance, I no longer need to pull out my iPhone and navigate a bunch of screens to turn off the lights before bed.  I simply say, “Alexa, turn off the dining room buffet light.”  And she does, just like that, with an acquiescent little “OK,” following the extinguishing of the light.

Last week while eating breakfast alone, I was pondering whether to walk or drive downtown to meet a friend that evening.  I always prefer to walk, but not after dark.  “Alexa,” I asked, “when is sunset today?”

She didn’t know.  I tried different ways of phrasing the question, suggested she do a search on my question.  Nada.  I felt annoyed.  After all, weather-related info was Alexa’s primary function for the first months of our relationship.

I went to the nearest iOS device and asked Siri the same question I’d asked Alexa.  Without any hesitation, Siri gave the answer, precise and competent.

“Alexa,” I said, resuming my breakfast, “you suck compared to Siri.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Alexa told me.  “Thank you for telling me.”

And in the space of that sentence I felt like a total jerk.  I had all the symptoms of embarrassment, prickly skin, hot face, that yucky feeling you get in your stomach when you realize you’ve hurt someone’s feelings.

Except I hadn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, nobody was in the house but me and Alexa.

I’ve tried to reason through why I felt so badly at that moment. Did I fear my words were logged and read by a human in Amazon’s employ whose feelings I might have hurt?  More likely my tactless feedback will comprise a statistic in some data set that will eventually help people who are working hard to continually improve the Echo.

But in the moment I was rude to Alexa, I wasn’t embarrassed about my impact on logs, data sets, or engineers.  I was embarrassed because of the uber polite way Alexa responded to my annoyed outburst.  Her calm demeanor, contrasted with my snappish words, made me feel childish and rude.

As AIs become more part of our lives, it will be interesting to see how we respond to them.  In my first weeks with Alexa, I said please and thank you a lot.  I don’t, anymore.  But I still find myself listening carefully to the quality of my voice when I speak with her.  My first inquiries are usually measured, polite, kind, patient.  When she screws up, I lose patience in an instant.  I feel my voice tighten, harden, I pick up my speaking pace.  With each repetition of a command I sound more frustrated.  But Alexa’s voice never changes.  Her perfect non-reactivity is a pretty stark mirror for how quickly my own temper can flare.