Birding on the Run

Birding was the original Pokémon Go.  As with any activity that increases your appreciation of the world around you, becoming a birder can add more depth and meaning to your life.  My favorite way to bird in the Houston area is while jogging–I see the greatest number of species during my long runs.  When I lived in San Diego, I also liked to bird while cycling through the canyons and mesas there.  (In fact, unbeknownst to me for years, I routinely cycled past endangered California gnatcatchers.) The best way to see many bird species in one day, besides going to the zoo, is to not stay in one place outdoors: move around to many places, and try to bird around dawn or dusk if possible.

I’ve seen many overwintering species in the Houston area in the past month.  On December 4–a cold, rainy day–I took one of my compact binoculars (an inexpensive Olympus Tracker 8×25 PC I) on my long run and serendipitously encountered the first bald eagle I’ve ever seen in Houston!  Since then, I’ve continued to see many migrant species:  on Christmas day alone, I saw ospreys, a small fleet of American white pelicans soaring over the bayou, a flock of cedar waxwings, herons (tricolored, little blue, great blue), great egrets, a belted kingfisher, hawks (red-tailed, red-shouldered, immature Cooper’s), Eastern bluebirds, Eastern phoebes, a flock of “myrtle” yellow-rumped warblers, an immature white ibis, a blue-winged duck or ring-necked duck, two crested caracaras along the median of a road (these were seen while driving), Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and more!

If you own wild land, seriously consider not developing it.  If you own developed land, seriously consider de-developing it.  I, for one, would gladly pay an entry fee to spend some time in the serenity of a local wilderness instead of, say, paying a fee to plop down in a large theater for some escapism or going for a walk in the concrete jungle of the typical modern American city.

The following are photos I’ve taken with a smartphone and my entry-level spotting scope of some of the animals I’ve seen recently.  In order, they are a great blue heron, osprey, female belted kingfisher, and white-tailed buck.

Update 1/2/17: I added photos I took on New Year’s Day of a juvenile brown pelican and of an immature Cooper’s hawk.  The pelican preened itself while I photographed it and the Cooper’s hawk remained nonchalant as I took photos from a few feet away.  A tiny ruby-crowned kinglet, perhaps emboldened by my presence, chirped at it with curiosity from a branch directly over my head.  Ten minutes later, the hawk suddenly, explosively bolted off the branch, gliding mere inches above the paved street for half a block before suddenly sweeping itself up onto the slanted trunk of another tree, wings folding so quickly that it might as well have teleported.

The birding smorgasbord continues:  before I even left home to bird, I heard and then saw a large flock of Brewer’s blackbirds congregating in the trees beyond my living room’s windows.  At the bayou, I spotted an osprey atop a dead tree in the distance, eating a fish it had caught while flocks of cormorants criss-crossed the sky and a tireless, immature Forster’s tern circled and dived in front of me for food, not stopping to rest at all in the forty-five minutes I was there, and even feistily chasing away other terns as they entered its territory.

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The many ospreys I’ve seen recently remind me of one of the first I ever saw: on January 11, 2013, I saw the following osprey and took photos of it before my run + hike at the salt marsh adjoining Torrey Pines State Reserve in La Jolla, CA.  Two hours later, when I returned, it was circling and then dived and caught a fish! Luckily, I had my camera out and managed to photograph the entire sequence:

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Building a Simple Life Compass

In March, I wrote about creating a life plan using Hyatt’s and Harkavy’s Living Forward.  Creating my own life plan helped clarify many things.  By writing down and assessing each “Life Account” (e.g., Spiritual, Intellectual, Physical, Social, Vocational, etc.), I built a dynamic map of my life.  However, I found that “activity creep” continued to be a problem because I focused on some accounts more often than others.  (E.g., I tend to pack in more and more concrete activities each day, which means the “Spiritual” account was relatively neglected.)  I also didn’t refer to my life plan very often, because, simple as it is, it is still too unwieldy.  Time management strategies are often ineffective.

Recently, I realized that I need a concise, effective “life compass.”  Instead of slogging through some burdensome time management system, a simple life compass could guide me on an intuitive level.  So, I sat down and created one.  I already feel much better for it; simpler is pretty much always better as far as time management is concerned.  This is how I built my compass:

  1. Identify and list in rank-order the activities that make you feel most alive.  E.g., playing board games with family members ≥ hanging out with close friends > practicing medicine > hiking = birding > drawing = painting, etc.
  2. Group similar activities into categories, then rank-order the categories.  These categories are your values.  E.g., spending time with loved ones > helping others > spending time in nature > being creative, etc.
  3. Try to spend more time doing activities in categories you care more about and less time doing activities in categories you care less about.
  4. Massively increase the quality of your day with “slow time”:
    • Get enough sleep.
    • Meditate daily, preferably in the morning.
    • Consider practicing some basic yoga in the evening.
    • Allow yourself a slow morning before work.
    • Allow yourself a slow winding-down period before sleep.

What do you think of this simple life compass?  Do you have a similar strategy to keep yourself aligned with what matters most to you?

On Being a Picky Consumer, or When Hype Outweighs Value

I’m very picky about which films I watch, which books I read, and which games I play.  If I realize I don’t care for a movie as it’s unfolding, I’ll try to walk out of the theater immediately.  I may have lost a few dollars, but I’ll never get that time back.

Consequently, I don’t consume much.*  I’d much rather spend my limited time with loved ones, in nature, solving problems (usually others’ problems, since I’m a physician), or being creative.  It’s even better when I can combine what I most enjoy doing.

When I do consume films or books–and this holds true especially for fiction–I want the story to be interestingly, or at least realistically, complex.  Which brings me to watching Moana, the recent animated film by Disney.  I’m embarrassed to say that I chose to see it because it garnered great reviews.  Sadly, after seeing it, my opinion sides with the few negative reviewers.  The film reminds me of why I much prefer Pixar’s animated films–which are usually fresh, clever, and appeal on multiple levels–to Disney’s.  I’m fairly certain I don’t ever want to see another Disney film again; Moana is the final nail in the Disney coffin, as far as I’m concerned.  The only positive things about the movie from my standpoint are the gorgeous visuals, the celebration of Polynesian culture, and that it features a strong female protagonist throughout.

Warning: spoilers below!

The cartoon short presented right before the film was Inner Workings.  Inner Workings portrays a man who lives in Southern California and who goes to work every day at the firm, “Boring, Boring, and Glum”.  The cartoon presents a lot of tension between the man’s fearful brain (closed to new experiences out of fear) and his enthusiastic, open heart which longs for new experiences.  During his surfside walk to work every day, he passes by a breakfast place that offers a meal of pancakes, sausage or bacon, and eggs, which his “heart” craves, but his brain reasons that this will lead to weight gain and an eventual death by myocardial infarction.  So, he keeps walking toward his firm.  Similarly, he passes by a surfer and craves surfing but passes it up because his brain reasons that he might be killed by a shark.  And so on.

When he finally gets to work, he goes through stacks of paper and types monotonously along with a legion of similar zombie coworkers.  At lunchtime, his despondency reaches a critical low, whereupon his brain lets go of the hold on his heart and allows him to go to the pancake shop.  After having breakfast for lunch, he tiptoes into the surf, a wave crashes onto him, completely soaking his work clothes.  He then gets new sunglasses from a girl selling them at a beachside stall.  He goes back to work, soaked in ocean water and covered in sand, and then starts working with a dance beat, whereupon everyone else joins in and starts dancing, too.  Later, he marries the girl who sold him the shades.

Inner Workings imparts a few lessons.  The first is the adage, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Another is that it’s important to take some risks, to not live strictly guided by fear.  The last is that Southern California is a fun place.  Fair enough.

Since I actually did live in Southern California for four years, worked at a hospital in a coveted location (La Jolla), and lived less than ten minutes from Torrey Pines Beach by car, I feel I can say something more about this sketch.  Let me just tell you that a particularly uncomfortable physical sensation is that of walking around with your plainclothes waterlogged by the salty ocean and covered with sand.

On to Moana, a movie with the segmented plot structure of a bad action-adventure video game.  It reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which also has a plotline on rails.  (I made the same poor decision in purchasing Twilight Princess, years ago, as I did in choosing to watch Moana: I took note of the many positive reviews, didn’t pay attention to Jeff Gerstmann’s “heretically” negative review of the game for its lack of innovation–he was reportedly later fired from GameSpot for his unique opinions on games–and dived in, remembering my love of the puzzles in the previous games.  I later regretted it.)

In Moana, there’s a prelude (just as in Legend of Zelda games) that gives us important background information, followed by an opening in which the eponymous protagonist is “chosen” by the ocean, which gives her a jade amulet that needs to be returned to a stereotypically dangerous place in order to save the world.  After the opening (her childhood), she undertakes a couple of subquests (find Maui the legendary demigod, then find Maui’s hook).  This involves a couple of “boss battles,” just like a Zelda game.  After she collects everything she needs, and has learned to sail, it’s off to the dangerous final plot location guarded by the stereotypically toughest “boss.”  (Yawn.)  She’s rebuffed, reaches a low point, Maui leaves her, but then her late grandmother arrives and gives her a pep talk. So, off she goes again to the dangerous final location.  This time, she pulls some tricks that would do well in any action-adventure video game from ~1998 onward and ends up fulfilling her destiny.

Moana is the “Chosen One.”  She tells us so multiple times, but the plot also directly and indirectly reinforces her pathological egocentrism throughout the film.  Moana is clearly the only innovator in her tribe, which the movie presents as a recurring problem until she is allowed to innovate by sailing beyond the reef, saving the world (yes!), and returning to have her actions validated by her people.  She suffers from the same symptomatology as other Disney protagonists:  her privileged life isn’t good enough for her; she longs for something more; she’s fond of passionate, impulsive decision-making; etc.  There are no serious consequences for any of her ill-thought-out decisions, including sailing out onto the ocean alone at age eight on a raft.

That the movie affirms and validates these undesirable traits and actions also means that this is a movie that I would not want any children to see.  Validation of egocentrism is damaging and dangerous because it supports a worldview in which those who are not key decision-makers are expendable.  Anyone who has tried to run a clinic, or a business, or any other enterprise larger than himself has quickly realized how important everybody is (schedulers, phlebotomists, medical assistants, physicians, etc.).  Researchers may produce new treatments that greatly help some segments of the population, but with a broken healthcare system, everyone suffers.  In real life, maintainers are often more important than innovators.  The greatest irony of Moana is the protagonist’s final triumph, which occurs during some of the final scenes of the film:  after reuniting with her pet pig, Moana gets her people back into sailing, exploring, and presumably, colonizing.  The Polynesians and many other early human societies were responsible for extinctions of vulnerable species (especially those that lived on islands), partly through introduced fauna (pigs, cats, dogs) that destroyed fragile ecosystems, to say nothing of more-developed societies that later waged imperialism to create wealth while destroying weaker civilizations.

As stated earlier, the plot is almost entirely on rails.  Moana is destined to save the world.  Therefore, nearly every time Moana falls into the water, the ocean *itself* saves her and plops her right back onto the raft.  (This reinforces Moana’s specialness, especially because the ocean allowed her father’s friend to drown.)  The plot progresses almost magically from scene to scene, with plot devices so ridiculously serendipitous that the characters rarely have to break a sweat in the brains department.

Beyond the vapidity of the plot devices, and almost as ironic counterpoint, the movie features the worst comic relief I’ve ever seen:  a jungle fowl or rooster so flamboyantly dumb that it repeatedly walks straight into the ocean when it isn’t pacing back and forth–changing direction only when it runs into an obstacle in its makeshift cage on the raft.  Basically a glorified drinking bird toy, it doesn’t even try to save itself from drowning once it is actually in the water.  The ocean itself saved this poor chicken multiple times.

The rest of the characters were also one-dimensional:  Moana’s character never develops beyond being the “Chosen One.”  Her father’s character doesn’t develop significantly beyond his recurring refrain of, “The ocean is dangerous.  Don’t go beyond the reef!” (Though he does eat his words in the end.)  In fact, multiple characters–Moana, her grandmother, and her father–essentially repeat the same lines in different ways throughout the film.  Maui is represented in the movie as an abusive, wisecracking demigod, particularly frustrating for his nearly impenetrable narcissism.

I prefer it when a film presents real, potentially dangerous stakes, but then it presents characters clever enough to navigate the dangers successfully instead of being given implausible breaks time and again (much less, actually being saved by the dangers around them).  This is one reason I love Studio Ghibli films.  If a cartoon doesn’t do this, perhaps to cater to kids, then it should at least have brilliant layers of humor.  Compare most Pixar films to almost any Disney film, for example.

A note on Zelda games:  I loved the first several Zelda games (up to Ocarina of Time), because they were hard, brittle games.  They didn’t pander to the player.  They weren’t guided journeys.  Life is also hard and brittle in many ways.  Good guidance is difficult to find. Many mistakes in life are serious and cannot be recovered from.  So, when the Zelda games reached such a level of popularity that Nintendo started designing them to pander to everybody, transforming them into guided tours devoid of difficulty or a memorable story, I bailed.

I like chess because it teaches a sense of responsibility for one’s actions–if you make too many bad moves, you lose.  It’s nowhere near a perfect analogy for life, but it is analogous to some aspects of life:  early advantages are important for later success.  Even a won position can be lost by carelessness.  Chess is brittle.  Life is brittle.  Think well.

In summary the lesson I learned from seeing Moana is that I really should continue to get movie recommendations from close friends instead of getting them from review sites.**  Close friends know me best, and we’re close because we’re similar in important ways.  Therefore, their advice should carry greater weight than that of a critic I don’t personally know.  That said, one ends up following the work of like-minded critics after a while, too.  For example, I could predict what Roger Ebert, Jeff Gerstmann, and Greg Kasavin would like and what they wouldn’t, since I read so many of their reviews back in the day.  (Thankfully, this is a habit I’ve long since discarded, because I watched hardly any of the movies and didn’t play the games.)

*Recently, I really enjoyed On the Move, an autobiography by Oliver Sacks; Virunga, a remarkable documentary about the eponymous national park of the Congo; and The Dark Horse, a powerful character study of Genesis Potini, the brilliant Māori chess player.  As far as video games go, I haven’t played them seriously in many years, and I don’t feel worse off for that.  I’m learning chess right now, because it’s so much more interesting to me than other games I’ve experienced.

**For news, my first rule is to minimize exposure to it.  My second rule is syntopical reading:  I try to read high-quality news from all sides to achieve the most objective/accurate viewpoints.  I especially prefer independent news.

Quick Portraits at the ACR 2016 Review Course + A Visit to the National Gallery of Art

At ACR’s 2013 Review Course, as a first-year rheumatology fellow, I sketched quick portraits of the speakers in pen and pencil while they lectured.  I hadn’t drawn them since.  At this year’s review course in Washington, D.C., I sketched them again, broadening the range of media to watercolor pencil and ink brush pen:

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While there, my girlfriend and I were hosted by and visited with dear members of my extended family.  We also visited the National Gallery of Art, where Dutch/Flemish drawings for paintings were on display.

The exhibit emphasized the importance of drawings as the basis of paintings.  For example, drawings by one artist (Pieter van Laer) were possibly acquired by another (Philips Wouwerman) in stealth so he could base his paintings off of them.

William van de Velde the elder drew a meticulous portrait of the ship, “The Royal Prince,” that was on display alongside a later painting by his son, who used the drawing to help depict a battle at sea.

Other drawings were displayed next to the paintings that resulted from them.  It was interesting to see how often portraits (especially noses, which can be particularly difficult to draw) differed from drawing to painting.

In one case, an extremely detailed freehand drawing of the nave of Saint Bavo’s church had incorrect perspective–the arcade at the right of the nave was much lower than at the left and the far windows were too small–which the artist (Pieter Jansz Saenredam) later corrected with ruler and compass for the painting that resulted from the drawing.

What interested me most about the drawings on display was the use of sanguine, or red chalk, on prepared paper.  Sanguine, a red-brown iron oxide chalk, “allows for a degree of subtlety and control beyond what [modern chalk equivalents] offer.”  It was used for sketches and studies by the “Old Masters,” among them Leonardo and Michelangelo.

A rough modern approximation of chalk is colored pencil.  A closer equivalent is probably charcoal or pastel.

However, red chalk appears capable of more subtlety, warmth, and power than colored pencil for quick sketches.  It also appears easier to control than charcoal or pastel.  I’ve never used it.

Later, in the gift shop, I was not surprised to see that John James Audubon used mixed media in his paintings.  For example, his masterpiece of Carolina parakeets was created with watercolor, pastel, crayon, etc., not just transparent watercolor.  It’s difficult to convey a lot of detail in focused natural history paintings with transparent watercolor alone.  Modern wildlife artists who use watercolor, such as Roger Tory Peterson, use transparent watercolor and acrylic together or just gouache (opaque watercolor) for detailed, scientifically accurate paintings.

“All Through the Night” (Welsh Air) and a Scottish Folk Song on Classical Guitar

The following is my 11/7/16 performance of “All Through The Night,” the final nonsupplemental piece in volume 1 of The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method:

I worked on this piece off and on over the months, along with a bunch of other pieces.  It’s harder than many other pieces in the book because of frequent chord changes.  I still have a lot of room for improvement:  it could be more legato, and I could raise the tempo and improve the dynamics.

This is how it sounds today, after not practicing it for more than ten days (I was out of town and didn’t take my guitar):

This is how it sounded soon after I started learning it, last December:

Finally, here’s my 11/8/16 performance of a Scottish folk song (a supplemental piece in the same instructional book).

Learning “Spanish Romance”

A couple years ago, I posted that I had taught myself how to play “Spanish Romance”.  In retrospect, I really should not have attempted learning it until about two years into guitar study.  After I started guitar lessons, I learned that my fingering patterns were inefficient, I paused at the wrong points in the piece, and that there were other problems.  I was also concerned that the tablature  I had used to learn the piece wasn’t entirely correct in some parts.  (Later, I discovered that the tablature was fine: there are multiple versions of this anonymous piece.  By that point, I was able to read sheet music for guitar.)

As the first full piece I tackled (it’s a classical guitar piece of moderate difficulty), I learned it coarsely, not knowing at the time how best to learn a new song.  I then abandoned it for several months, thinking I’d later return to a “correct version” of it after I had learned more about playing guitar.  That, too, was a mistake.

This is one of my earliest recordings of this piece, from Christmas, 2013:

Two months later, it sounded like this:

When I finally returned to the piece, I learned that my problems with it were as much about a multifactorial host of other inefficiencies as about learning the wrong fingerings:  I had to prevent the buildup of hand tension (especially during stretches and barres) in the difficult second half, increase my left hand strength, figure out how to barre reliably, play with better dynamics/musicality, and start using a metronome to eliminate unwanted pauses between fingerings.  I’m now significantly more sophisticated in my approach to guitar and in learning new songs.

The saying among classical guitar students, according to my instructor, goes: “I chose classical guitar because of ‘Spanish Romance’.  I quit classical guitar because of ‘Spanish Romance’.”

It’s a deceptively difficult piece, “a ‘trap’ for beginners.”  Frederick Noad writes, “From its sound this is always supposed to be a fairly easy piece.  In fact, it needs considerable practice…”

I practiced it about three days a week for about ten minutes each time.  Later, I became more serious about smoothing out the second half and worked on specific issues in that section for several minutes every day.  (I practice/play guitar 30-60 minutes a day, most days.  If I practiced with a professional’s schedule of many hours a day, I’d be orders of magnitude better than I am now, of course.  Guitar is just a hobby for me.)

I noticed that when I don’t try to resolve specific problems during practice (and instead just play the whole piece or large segments of it), and when I don’t record myself regularly, I don’t improve.  (Of course, deliberate practice is much more effective. By not working on specific problems and not getting feedback, improvement slows down.)

This is how the piece (the version found in Parkening’s book) sounded on November 2, 2016 (no segments repeated):

I still have a lot of work left on “Spanish Romance”.  It will probably be at least six more months until I can play it significantly better than I play it now.  (I’m learning several other pieces concurrently, as I always do.)

Here are a few other recent recordings:

This one, from September 28, 2016, is at a faster tempo and with repeated segments (the way it’s supposed to be played):

Finally, these two recordings, from October 20, 2016, have been the most popular of my “Spanish Romance” recordings on SoundCloud during the past half-day that all of these recordings have been online:

My Digital Divide

Every so often, I remember that I’m no longer creative in computer science or even in programming.  I’m now far from the source of creativity in computer science, by which I mean that I’m no longer at the cutting edge.  Lack of creativity in that domain makes good sense for me at this point in time.  But I could still be a programmer; one doesn’t even need a formal computer science education for that. (This is not to downplay the difficulty of programming.  It’s just not necessary to major in computer science to be a programmer, just as you don’t need an art degree to be an artist.)

After I left graduate school, I didn’t program for years.  This was primarily because I was very busy with other stuff (medical school, residency, and everything associated with and that followed those years).  When I wasn’t busy, I was distracted.  I did have spurts of interest in web programming (Rails, HTML/CSS, etc.) and “fun” languages (Haskell, Ruby, Python, etc.), but nothing really stuck with me.  I became dismayed by the fact that so much is incompatible with so much else, and that pretty much everything becomes obsolete after a few years.

Good algorithms/ideas are forever.  Unfortunately, software itself is ephemeral; hardware is also ephemeral, and vulnerable while it exists.  The open-source movement hasn’t been as prominent as for-profit companies have been, with their proprietary software and hardware that often disable customers from taking their data elsewhere. I do invest casually in my blog, but that’s mostly writing and pictures that can be stored as hardcopy.

Much of the programming code I wrote in college, for a large variety of interesting and often fun projects, is probably no longer accessible because it was backed up to CD-Rs that are almost certainly corrupted. (I’ve confirmed that some of my old CD-Rs from my college days are corrupt now.)  When they first came out, CD-Rs were touted as a storage technology that would last at least a century.  That turned out not to be the case.

A simple, inexpensive pen or pencil can be used to write or draw on paper produced by other manufacturers, or to write on many other materials. Paint produced by one manufacturer can be blended with paint made by others, and the range of colors produced by mixing paint at home is infinite. You can even create your own pigments (some artists do this). If you learn to play guitar on one brand of guitar, you can play on any brand.

Today’s digital creator, on the other hand, is at the mercy of manufacturers, programmers, and hackers.*  The relevance of any computer-based product is short-lived. Tech culture, as it is in 2016 (it doesn’t have to be this way), is largely different from the culture of, say, art or music or literature, in which there are pieces extant from thousands of years ago that are still relevant.**

*Imagine if Apple and Google sold paint, you bought a tube of it from each company, and they blended incorrectly because of proprietary formulations requiring you to stick with one company or the other.  This rarely happens with actual paint.

**For example, there are paintings (such as the “remarkably evocative renderings of animals and some humans that employ a complex mix of naturalism and abstraction” on cave walls at Lascaux, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, and elsewhere from tens of thousands of years ago that we can still appreciate), pieces of music (such as “White Snow in Early Spring” from ~552 BC, attributed to Shi Kuang, that is still played live), and well-known poetry and literature from ancient cultures that people still read and admire.