Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dramatic works at the ESO

Friday night was our first ESO concert of the new year. We'd initially purchased tickets to the Bugs Bunny and Friends show that took place last Saturday, but when I was asked if I wanted to go to the Cochrane Conference we had to exchange our tickets. Luckily, the ESO has an excellent exchange policy and we were able to switch our tickets to the show with Tom Allen (long time radio show host on CBC2) in May instead. At any rate, it had been several months since our last concert and so we (or at least I) was looking forward to this show.

The first thing we noticed when we took our seats was that the stage was filled to the brim with instruments. I don't know what it is, but I always get excited when I see so many instruments set up for a concert. Maybe it's that I'm happy that so many musicians are going to be employed for the evening; that I'm looking forward to the huge sound that so many musicians can produce; or that I'm curious to see what kind of music requires two harps, three pianos, a celesta, a small army of percussion instruments....and why is there a lone bass resting over there by the percussion section? Yeah, that was definitely one of my first questions upon sitting down--that extra bass sitting all by itself, what was it doing there? The answer to what kind of music required all those instruments was quickly answered when I saw that Leonard Berstein was on the program. Although I wasn't familiar with the piece The Age of Anxiety I could well imagine that Berstien's piece was going to be a complex and interesting symphony.

Conductor-in-residence Lucus Waldin took the podium for the first two pieces of the evening and began with a wonderfully majestic selection by Steven Stucky--which was actually an arrangement of the Henry Purcell piece, Funeral Music for Queen Mary. This arrangement called for only brass, woodwinds, and if I remember correctly timpani. Funeral Music, as you might expect was a fairly somber piece, yet it was taken at just the right tempo so it didn't drag on or feel oppressively mournful. It felt more like the music had a steady, purposeful drive like say, Bolero, or the opening bars of Also sparch Zarathustra. All-in-all, both Andrew and I rather liked it, and I'd be interested to hear the Purcell arrangement sometime.

The second piece of the evening was the Berstein, which called in the entire orchestra, plus Music Director Bill Eddins who took a seat at the grand piano positioned front and centre. There was much talk about The Age of Anxiety during the after thoughts session. In fact, I think there was very little said about either of the other selections on the bill. Where to start with this piece? Well, I suppose it should be noted that The Age of Anxiety was inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem written by W.H. Auden and was published in 1947. The basic premise (as I understand it, having not read the poem) is that it is a discussion between four people trying to determine what it means to be human. Yeah. Heavy stuff, but as pointed out, this poem was written just post-WWII, so many writers and poets were thinking heavy thoughts at that time.

The Age of Anxiety delivered what I'd expected, and so I liked. That is to say, it was different, it was challenging and complex. Andrew (who wasn't so keen) used the word frenetic to describe it, and I'd say that's reasonably apt. It felt as though the theme changed every few bars, which is in fact what it did. The first half of the symphony was meant to illustrate (through music) the discussion going on between the four characters: first a dicussion of the seven stages of aging (seven variations), then a discussion of the seven stages of development (another seven variations). This lack of consistency can make for more challenging listening, but as I've noted in previous posts, I like being challenged occasionally. As I listened; however, I did wonder if the musicians enjoyed playing this kind of music. Lucas indicated during the after thoughts talk that the first run through was difficult, and that they just had to grit their teeth and plow through. Finally, late in the performance the purpose of the extra bass was made apparent. One of the bassists walked (quiety) off stage, to return a few minutes later on the other side, by the percussionists. The second to last section of the symphony was written in a jazz-style, which called for a bass to keep the beat.

I could write a couple more paragraphs at least about The Age of Anxiety, but then I would never get this blog post done. One last thing I would like to acknowledge is that Bill Eddins is one of three people in the world who has both conducted and played the piano for this Berstein piece (one of the other two being Berstein himself). He also said that he had to play this piece from memory as was simply too busy--that he wouldn't have the time to turn the pages otherwise.

After the intermission the ESO performed Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica with Bill back on the conductors stand (conducting from memory, I might add). This symphony was initially dedicated to Napoleon; however, that dedication was revoked after Napoleon declared himself to be the Emperor of France. I enjoyed the Eroica for much the same reasons I enjoyed the Berstien. It was exactly as I expected it to be: dramatic and enchanting, it was over before I'd expected it to be--even though the play time is a whopping 48 minutes. It's funny to think after listening to The Age of Anxiety that when Beethoven's Third was first performed in 1805, it was deemed a 'danger to public morals,' and not performed again for another 40 years. I'd be willing to bet there are a number of rock songs that have also been termed 'dangerous' and haven't seen a similar ban.

As always the ESO delivered a delightful evening. Our next concert should be in March (better check my calander on that...) and our subscriber packages should be arriving in the mail soon as well. Can't wait.



Saturday, February 26, 2011

Social media in medicine: the possibilities are...endless?

Rather than blogging about the entire Canadian Cochrane Symposium I thought I would just discuss a few points from the session I found most interesting. This talk was presented by a group of librarians and discussed how blogs, wikis and Twitter can be used in evidence-based medicine. I'd read about the session before heading to Vancouver and had marked it as one I needed to attend as I use all three media (Blog--well isn't that obvious?; Twitter--yup, if you view my blog in Blogger you can see my feed on the right hand side; and I use pbworks to keep track of the plot, characters and other details from my manuscripts). This is also an area where, if I ever reconsidered my decision to not do a PhD, I would be most interested in studying.

First, let's consider blogs. They're primarily a one way source of communication. I tell you what I've been up to as of late, you read it, and if you feel like it you might comment. It's also a form of instant or self publishing. There are tons of medical and health blogs out there. I follow a couple, namely Weight Matters, Food Politics and Sweat Science. Since my interests tend toward nutrition and physical activity, I follow blogs that appeal to me, but there are many more. Some blogs are run by knowledgeable experts, some not, which seems to be one of the biggest sources of consternation among health care professionals and researchers. How successful is the average person at sorting through the plethora of health blogs to determine which ones provide evidence-based information and advice, and which ones don't? It's hard to say. Even as a researcher and librarian I don't always double check the credentials of the blogs and Websites I read--and I should know better.

One potential use of blogging that I found particularly interesting was the idea that they could be used by academics as a method of disseminating their research findings. In the present academic system I'm sure this would never fly, but why couldn't it? Journals articles can take months, if not years to publish. Why not use the immediacy of a blog to circulate research findings? I can easily imagine the first argument against this idea: it's not peer reviewed. My response, is why not? Readers have the power to comment on blogs. If a researcher blogs about their research, their colleagues (i.e. peers) and anyone else would have the power to discuss the findings in an open and public way--something that's not necessarily the case in the current peer-review system. There are many other arguments I'm sure (How would one cite an academic blog? Professors are too busy and don't have time, etc), but I think it's an interesting idea.

Then there's wikis. I think everyone who's ever searched for something through Google and found the answer provided by Wikipedia is familiar with wikis, even if they're not exactly sure what a wiki is. Wikis are collaborative Websites that allow readers to actively participate in changing/editing the content of the site (as long as they're open access, of course). Several medicine specific wikis exist such as Medpedia, and a health librarian one I sometimes use called HLWIKI Canada. An idea floated at the conference (I believe I heard this suggested in at least one other session, although which one I don't remember) was that wikis could be an ideal platform for systematic reviews. Wikis allow you to update content as frequently as needed; they keep track of changes so that readers can see how versions of pages differ over time; and contributions can be made from anywhere in the world. All these things could assist in the development, publication and dissemination of systematic reviews.

The final medium discussed in this session was Twitter. Recently, my husband asked me why I used Twitter (in absentia of his adviser who didn't understand the point of the micro-blogging service). My answer was as follows: as I hope to one-day be published author (of fiction) and I want to establish an online presence for potential readers; it's fun to follow celebrities (primarily figure skaters in my case) I admire; I can get news updates from CBC; and I've used it to post links to publications I've had come out. I also suggested to Andrew (although I haven't confirmed this) that his adviser could probably follow key academic journals in his field and receive updates about upcoming articles and research. If I wanted to, I could follow high impact medical journals such as The Lancet, BMJ and the New England Journal of Medicine to name a few.

Twitter, I think, could be a great tool for passing along evidence-based health information to the public. The problem I see, is how to you get the average Twitter user to decide to follow a feed that's purpose is to convey health information? The average individual probably uses the service to follow their friends and celebrities they're interested in, not receive reminders to wash their hands frequently to prevent the transmission of diseases. Surely if a feed like 'Sh*tmydadsays' can spawn a television show, evidence-based health information feeds can be used to inform the public of important medical advances/news, etc. Of course there's a whole other realm that needs to be considered: once you hook people into following a health information feed, does it actually change their behaviours? And who has the time, money, methods to plunge down that rabbit whole? Maybe when I can no longer resist the attraction of having the letters 'PhD' behind my name I will. Or maybe someone already is, I don't know.

So there are a few of my thoughts. Attendees at the session had a lot to say regarding social media; however one fellow ended the session by putting up his hand and saying: We're all going to be okay. Throughout history there has always been someone out there trying to sell snake oil to cure your ails, but the majority of us have always managed to determine for ourselves whether or not that claim is true. Humanity will survive the social media craze too.



Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Visit to the Island

If you follow my Twtter feed, you may know that I was in BC for most of last week. First, I attended the 2011 Canadian Cochrane Symposium, then Andrew and I took the ferry across to Vancouver Island to visit family. I will *try* to get around to blogging about both (which mostly likely means I'll blog about the vacation part of my trip and never get around to commenting on the business part), but we'll see. We've got our first ESO concert of the new year coming up this Friday, so I may get distracted.

The ferry ride from North Vancouver to Nanaimo takes approximately 1 hour 40 minutes. Last Friday afternoon when Andrew and I made the crossing the trip was rather pleasant (albeit a little late to depart). The sky was clear (until the sunset--then it was just dark) and although an announcement was made to alert passengers to the choppy water conditions, neither of us found the ride rough. When we reached Nanaimo we were picked up by my brother-in-law and his wife, and then we drove to Duncan where they live (or close to it--they aren't actually in the city). Being dark by this point I couldn't see much of the landscape we passed, but when we reached Duncan we hit up a local brew pub for dinner. After a pretty decent meal (I had a tasty 'Santa Fa' veggie burger before over-indulging in a rich chocolate brownie) we drove out to the farm where my brother-in-law lives. Again, having arrived at night, we couldn't see much of the farm. Even though it wasn't terribly late upon our return we were all tired and opted to head to bed.

Saturday morning started off with beautiful sunshine (and remained sunny all day). After breakfast we took a short stroll around the area with the farm dog, somewhat unfortunately named, Bobo. The area around Duncan is far more picturesque than Edmonton, what with the mountains and lakes in the background. Plus, we were able to walk along a groomed gravel trail that had once provided a railway connection between Duncan and Victoria (apparently it goes on for ages--I'd love to walk it further sometime). Upon returning to the farm we (eventually) set to work. Before our trip Andrew had been quite keen to help prune the raging grapevines growing along one side of the house (they were quite the mess) and took the job with gusto--although not without reservation (there was some lingering concerns regarding just how much should being cut away). I helped clean up the trimmings for a while until my sister-in-law and another one of the farm roommates went to shovel chicken maneuver--oh the glamorous life of farm work. I didn't really mind as I'd come to help out and I had gloves and rubber boots to wear so it wasn't a big deal.

After lunch I was a little less enthusiastic to work. I hadn't really brought enough warm clothing (I had primarily gone to BC to attend a conference, after all), plus we were expecting Andrew's sister and her husband to drive up from Victoria for dinner, so I wanted to whip together a desert and help get a start on dinner. Before setting to work in the kitchen I assisted in digging up the last remnants of the winter beets and turnips in hopes of finding something suitable for dinner. The beets weren't in great shape, but there were enough to make cake--yup beet cake. Yum! The turnips seemed to have weathered better. There were plenty for dinner plus several more meals to come. Dinner was delicious with a plethora of veggies and a roasted chicken (raised on the farm).

Our last day in BC, Sunday started almost exactly the same as the previous day--glorious sunshine. It's much easier to get out of bed in the morning when it's sunny, rather than still dark or gray and rainy. The plan for the last day was to drive down to Victoria and have brunch with the family. The drive from Duncan to Victoria took an hour, made all the more enjoyable by the abundance of beautiful scenery (I may be living in the wrong province). When we arrived at Andrew's sister's apartment it was decided that we should head out to the beach and pick up some picnic fare on the way. Although the sun was out in full force it was still a trifle cool on the beach. Lots of families seemed to have the same idea as us; however, and we wandered about the nearby playground as our young nephew played on the swings and a octopus slide/climbing structure. Shortly before noon we piled back into the car and were dropped off at the ferry terminal to return to Vancouver, and then to Edmonton.

All in all I had a great week and weekend. Our summer vacation plans for this year are to return to the farm for a week and help out picking fruit/vegetables and doing anything else we can help out with. Suggestions were also made that we should try out 'disk golf' (apparently this is an island, low-key variation on golf that requires players to have a beer in their free hand at all times...) and possibly go sailing.



Sunday, February 13, 2011

Write the end, Doritos contest

Hello lovely blog readers (all what, three of you?),

Doritos is holding a 'Write the End' contest for their new Dorito flavour. The winner is partially determined by the number of votes their entry receives. My chances of winning are pretty slim, however; if everyone can take a few minutes to click on the link below and vote for my entry I'd be much obliged. You can vote once a day, so don't forget to go back and vote as often as possible.



Updating the opera: Abduction from the Seraglio

On Thursday night Andrew and I attended the Edmonton Opera's production of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio. I'd never heard of this opera until a groupon message arrived in my inbox offering me a great deal on two tickets for the show. I sent the message onto Andrew to see if he was interested and since the price was good we thought we'd go for it. I briefly checked out Edmonton Opera's Website to get a gist of what the opera was about (spies and romance with a 1960's, James Bond-equse twist, how could it go wrong?) and ordered the tickets. Since attending the opera I've learn that this was one of Mozart's first operas commissioned by Austrian emperor Joseph II as a part of his Nationalsingspiel project--an effort to produce German lyric operas.

To be honest, the production wasn't exactly what I'd expected. It felt more like a Gilbert and Sullivan production (Edmonton Opera is performing The Mikado next year--I'm very excited) with it's corny jokes and, in general, very silly atmosphere than a Mozart opera. If I had to guess, this staging was an effort by Edmonton Opera to engage a younger audience and encourage a new generation of patrons. I had been expecting and looking forward to the 1960's setting, but only half of the opera was sung (therefore does it still count as an opera?). Actually, according the ever-wise Wikipedia, this is how the opera was originally performed. The songs were sung in German and the spoken sections in between were in English. And the spoken sections had been clearly re-written to incorporate modern day references (including those to Facebook, YouTube, Mike Holmes and I believe even a reference to Weird Al's movie UHF).

I think it was the hyper-updated references that put a bit of an odd taste in my mouth (like how my meal last Friday at the Blue Chair had tiny bits of cucumber, thus decreasing my enjoyment ever-so-slightly). It felt like the jokes had gone a little sour with too much effort, and if they had stayed away from the uber pop culture jokes it might have been more effective. Now, I should point out that people did laughed. As the joke about Facebook was set up, the audience giggled and continued to do so when the punchline was thrown. It just didn't suit me. I think I would preferred dialogue that had been translated more closely to the original German text and only updated where the references to eighteenth century Vienna wouldn't make sense in twenty-first century Edmonton.

I did like some of the original things they did. For example, the Edmonton Opera made an opening credit film. While the opera's overture played the film was projected onto a screen. It showed Belmonte (the Bond-like character) striding onto the screen and striking the traditional Bond-gunshot pose, while the background colour turned red with blood. They used the screen again later on for the chase seen, which I also liked. As with the other Edmonton Opera productions I've seen, the set and costuming were all excellent, and I really did enjoy the sung parts. I find I actually rather like opera (at least when I'm seeing it in a theatre as opposed to listening to Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC). Unfortunately, Andrew doesn't much care for it. We went to see Carmen a couple of years ago and he found the storyline too base, or too simple...too unbelievable, perhaps? And he doesn't much care for the operatic singing style either. At least he likes Gilbert and Sullivan, and so is happy to see The Mikado with me next year.

All-in-all? Abduction from the Seraglio was okay--but not as great as I'd been hoping it would be. We didn't pay full price for tickets, however; and it was an opportunity to support Edmonton Opera. I think we'll probably stick with patronizing the orchestra for now.



Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dinner and a show: Little Miss Higgins at the Blue Chair Cafe

A few weeks ago while listening to In Concert on CBC2, they featured Little Miss Higgins. I'd heard a few of her songs played on the radio before, although I wasn't otherwise too familiar with her music. The concert played on CBC2 sounded fun, then at the end of it they announced that she would be touring throughout Alberta including Edmonton. I asked Andrew if he would be interested in going to a concert and I looked up the details: she was playing at the Blue Chair Cafe (we'd only been once before, when the string quartet of a co-worker of mine was performing there). Cover charge was $15, and we could opt to have dinner there beforehand. I made reservations the next day, and as it turned out the timing of the concert (last Friday) was perfect as I've had a couple of tough weeks at work.

The menu at the Blue Chair isn't huge, but it's interesting (with many vegetarian and vegan options) and they have specials, which seem to change weekly. By some weird twist of fate I ended up with two courses that included cucumber. I hate cucumber, I can't even stand the smell of it when Andrew chops it up for his lunch. The first cucumber containing item we ordered were the salad wraps, which when dipped in the delicious spicy peanut sauce that came with it, the offending ingredient wasn't too noticeable. For my entree I ordered the kefta pita, which came with a nice colourful salad-type thing, which again unfortunately included cucumber. However, when I paired it with the absolutely delicious kefta's (a type of black bean patty) and topped it with goat cheese is wasn't too bad. At the end of dinner Andrew and I both ordered our own 'giant cookie,' which was exactly what I wanted to end the evening. A chocolate chip cookie with cashews and ice cream. Yum.

About halfway through our dinner the show began. For those of you who haven't been to the Blue Chair, it's a fairly averaged sized restaurant. One section (near the windows) is on a slightly higher level then the back half of the restaurant (where we were sitting). There's a stage nestled in the back corner of the room with the necessary sound equipment--a very cosy and intimate setting to be sure. Not knowing a whole lot about Little Miss Higgins (and having only ever heard her on the radio) I assumed that she only sang, and had a band who backed her up. Therefore, I was quite surprised to see her strap on a guitar. Not only did she play guitar, but she was lead guitar and fantastic! The group was completed by Joey Lorer on bass and Foy Taylor on stomp box and guitar.

Little Miss Higgins seemed to have as much fun performing for us as I had listening to her. I told her later (when we were in the lineup in the women's washroom) that my cheeks were sore from smiling. I liked that occasionally she seemed to change her mind about what they were going to play (by saying to her band members, 'hey let's do...') I'm not quite sure how to describe Little Miss Higgins sound. The placard on our table described her as roots/blues, which was maybe just a catch-all phrase for a mashup of: swing, big band, 50's rock, blues and country. Whatever it was, it was fun and I could have happily danced all night except for that I was eating during most of it. Some of the songs I enjoyed the most included: The Tornado Song, The Dirty Ol' Tractor Song, Slug on my Boot (followed by a humours story about how it came to be), Glad Your Whiskey Fits Inside My Purse (also accompanied by a good story) and possibly my favourite: Bargain Shop Panties.

All-in-all we had a great night. I would definitely go see Little Miss Higgins again if she came back to Edmonton, plus Andrew and I are planning to go back to the Blue Chair Cafe on Valentine's Day. We don't usually make a big to do about Valentine's (it being a fabricated holiday and all...) but it happened that while there we heard there was supposed to be a jazz harpist playing that night and well...we (Andrew) couldn't resist the idea.



Thursday, February 3, 2011

Everyday ordinary: Gardening

Perhaps the first week of February seems like an odd time to talk about gardening, but once again, I have two reasons for doing this: 1) I failed to give a final wrap up of how our balcony garden from 2010 worked out; and 2) Andrew and I are now planning what we're going to plant for the upcoming season.

Last year we saw a modest harvest--we are attempting to grow vegetables on a balcony twelve floors above street level, so to expect a haul that will keep us going all winter long is unreasonable. We did see an improvement over our previous attempts, I would guess in large part due to our two vermicomposters. The nutrient rich soil the colony of worms hanging out in our storage closet produced is perfect for our vegetables and there was no need to add fertilizer. Our major challenge last year was weather. Our summer was cold and rainy. We didn't have a day over 30C all year, and we received more rain than normal in desert-like Edmonton. I don't feel too bad about our limited success considering many of the farmers at the market struggled to fill their stalls with quality produce.

Nonetheless, we manage to produce a small collection of tomatoes, most of which went into make a batch of delicious sourdough tomato hamburger buns. Green-red peppers, which were delightfully crisp and sweet and pretty much used up in one roast. We were also able to pick greens over a period of one or two months to add to our salads. Our potatoes were disappointing. I had fostered high hopes that when we dug into our blue-bin we would find a treasure trove of potatoes--the plants were tall and bushy and I'd thought for sure we'd be 'in the money,' but I think we ended up with a dozen small 'taters (thanks for digging in the dirt, Michelle!). Our zucchini plant was also disappointing. The plant started off well, but developed rot (most likely due to the damp weather) and we only managed to harvest one summer squash before it died. The carrots were small...and deformed...but we kind of knew they didn't have enough room to grow, so I don't call them a disappointment...but not a success either.

Valient the grapevine did very well this year. We hope he survives the winter.
Our one successful zucchini, gone in one meal.
Bright red tomatoes. The made delicious buns (I'm not that big a fan of tomatoes, actually).
Green peppers, which eventually turned partially red.
So, what are we going to plant this year? This year we're taking advantage of our Friends of Devonian Garden membership, which allows us to pick out up to 25 seed packages for free (we can purchase more, if we wish). Since a number of these seeds are for heirloom plants native to Edmonton or at least Alberta, I have high hopes that we might see even greater success this year. We've picked a rather eclectic bunch of plants including a dwarf pomegranate tree, native grasses, rye, beans with vibrantly coloured flowers, and another variety of beans that's supposed to taste like asparagus. We've also ordered seeds for the Alberta rose. We'll be taking a trip out to Devonian this weekend to tour their greenhouses (they're hosting a 'winter pick-me-up') when we get to pick up our seeds as well. We'll see how things go once the weather warms up.