Early Baez: A Tribute


By Gene Wilburn

Album Cover Copyright Vanguard Records

I just read on Facebook that it was Joan Baez’s 83rd birthday. I’m only trailing her by a handful of years and, in a way, Baez and I grew up together, meaning we both passed through the same turbulent time periods. Not that I ever met her. I was just another fan, but her voice accompanied me through the early folk revival years, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and her singing introduced me to Bob Dylan.

I was seventeen in 1962 when I first heard Joan Baez on my transistor radio. She was singing the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen” and I was struck by two things: her beautiful, sad, gentle pitch-perfect soprano voice, and her guitar work. She played the song in D, if I recall correctly, using inverted arpeggios.

I was just learning my first few chords on a beat-up old guitar that had a turnbuckle on the back to keep the fingerboard from snapping off. I tried imitating her playing and found I could do it, a little. I couldn’t match her singing, of course. I was a teenage male without a great voice, but I could at least sing more or less in tune.

From that point on, she became my favourite folk singer, and, unbeknownst to her, my first guitar instructor.

The next year, 1963, I was struggling as an eighteen-year-old freshman engineering student at the University of Arizona, Tucson. I was failing chemistry and just getting by in calculus and feeling miserable about my prospects, but nonetheless it was a great year for folk music. I’d been to live performances of the New Christie Minstrels, the Clancy Brothers, Mike Settle, Joe and Eddie, and those enigmatic Tucson favourites, Bud and Travis.

I had acquired a cheap used Goya flamenco guitar which I used as a folk guitar. By this time I was listening to the early Baez albums over and over to pick up more of her guitar techniques. I was learning other folk styles as well, but there was something in the way Baez played that always drew me back.

My engineering roommate and some other engineering dorm buddies and I had planned a trip to the Grand Canyon to hike down and back up the Bright Angel Trail but an unexpected event intervened. It was announced, on short notice, that Joan Baez would perform a concert in the university auditorium, so I let my friends hike in the canyon without me. There was no way I was going to miss this.

I bought a medium-priced ticket and attended the concert. I think it happened on a university break because the seats weren’t filled. But the audience was attentive, enthusiastic, and adoring.

With no introduction by an announcer, Baez simply stepped out from behind the curtains into the spotlight, walked up to the mic, turned her Martin guitar around and sang her first song of the night. It cast a spell on us. The sound coming out of the many AR-3 speakers in the hall (engineering students notice such things) was purer than any recording I’d heard. She was even better live than she was on record, and she played song after song of her early ballad material. She also played some early Dylan which we all loved.

Because there were empty seats near the front, I moved into a first-class seat close to the stage where I could watch her play.

To this day I think Baez is an underrated guitarist. She wasn’t a guitar virtuoso, and played the standard folk/country chords, but what she did with them was something special. Her guitar not only provided accompaniment to her beautiful singing, it served as a second voice. She had a deft, confident technique (I never heard a single clunker) and while she was singing a lot was going on with her guitar.

In tunes like “John Riley,” “Girl of Constant Sorrow,” “East Virginia,” “Donna Donna,” and “All My Trials,” her guitar joined her in harmony, played mostly on the bass lines. In “Wildwood Flower” you could hear that she’d been influenced by Maybelle Carter, yet she moulded the technique into her own.

Baez had a remarkable way of using her guitar as an amplifier of her sung lyrics. In both “Henry Martin” and “Mary Hamilton” her sudden light double stringing on the bass strings brought forth dramatic moments of the ballads. Subtle and beautifully effective, cradling her clear soprano voice.

I’ve been to many folk concerts since then, and heard many better guitarists, but few folk artists ever matched the exquisite combination of Joan Baez’s voice and her single guitar accompaniment.

Not long after, the early Beatles bombarded the air waves, and the folk movement was more or less washed away. This led to the psychedelic era of rock, and folk music was largely forgotten and ignored, except for established folk festivals like Newport and Mariposa.

Baez, too, changed with the times and her work became increasingly singer-songwriter oriented, including some masterpieces from her own pen, like “Diamonds and Rust.” But even in that iconic song, her lovely guitar accompaniment underscores the lyrics.

When I see photos of the current Baez, she’s smiling a lot. I get the impression that she’s lived the good life and fought the good fight, and has achieved an inner peace. She still looks lovely.

But my memories harken back to the sad-eyed, serious early Baez who started me on the path of folk singing, something I continue to this day.

I owe her a great debt of thanks. Dear Joan, to me you are forever young.


If you are new to early Baez recordings, you can sample her at https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lvlmIBhrHo_Munfas0UYXIJVsr3UhBdyk&si=KeNlIyG5sKFBwLnOhttps://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lvlmIBhrHo_Munfas0UYXIJVsr3UhBdyk&si=KeNlIyG5sKFBwLnO

Klondike Solitaire with a Twist: A New Approach to an Old Game

By Gene Wilburn

Solitaire may have started as a fortune-telling game. Image DALL-E 3, requested by the author

Origins

The game of Solitaire, also known as Patience, has an indeterminate origin. The entry for “Solitaire” on the Britannica website suggests that a group of card solitaire games originated in the Baltic region of Europe, possibly as a form of fortune telling, sometime in the late-18th century.1

The first recorded mention of solitaire comes from France, as the French name for the game — Patience — implies. Spreading through Europe and the UK, the game of solitaire had many, perhaps hundreds of variants.

The North American version of solitaire that is best know is called Klondike, or Klondike Solitaire, thought to have originated in the Klondike region of Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–1899). This, for me, has always conjured up an image of solitary prospectors stuck in primitive miner’s cabins during fierce winters, playing solitaire in what little light was available, but the sources suggest otherwise. The game seems more likely to have evolved as a gambling game to be played in the gambling establishments in Dawson City, Yukon. It was also popular in the gambling spots in Skagway, Alaska, where fortune hunters arrived from and departed for the gold fields.2

As a parlour card game, Klondike has been a pastime for thousands, possibly millions, of card-playing North Americans.

But Klondike Solitaire received its greatest boost in popularity when Microsoft included it in Windows 3.0 (released in May, 1990) as a way to train users new to graphical user interfaces how to drag and drop selected items with a mouse. The impact of this was significant because it became one of the most-used Windows programs and it spread the game as a pastime to millions of computer users.3

Later, it generated another gold rush of sorts when software developers vied for creating the most popular Solitaire app for the iPad, iPhone, and other mobile devices. Computer versions of Solitaire, along with Sudoku, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and other such games remain highly popular with users. I find solace in Solitaire when sitting in the waiting room for a medical appointment and the doctor is running far behind schedule. (The Solitaire app I use most of the time is Real Solitaire, produced by EdgeRift, Inc. because I like its design and interface. Microsoft Solitaire is also excellent.)

The Twist

The variant of Solitaire I always play is 3-card Klondike. I find it satisfactorily challenging, but I found I seldom won, despite the source that that puts the upward odds of winning at 3-card Klondike at 82%.4 However, a different study came up with the more realistic odds of 43% of winning.5 By this standard you should win at a nearly 50% rate.

The problem is that this just isn’t so. I may not be a great solitaire player, but I’m not bad, and my actual winning percentage was much lower (6%). This is so much lower that I came up with a twist to make the game more enjoyable. I decided to set a winning number (according to the traditional scoring rules) based on points. After some experimentation, I found what, for me, was the Goldilocks number: 150.

DALL-E 3, requested by the author

So, if my score reaches 150, that’s a win. If I attain what is a traditional win, I call that a “sweep.”

A simple twist, but it made the game much more equitable.

I’ve now played 3-card Klondike with this twist for a few years and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to keep track of my scores over several weeks and then take a look at the numbers.

Because none of my Solitaire apps is set up to record each game’s score, I used QuickNotes on my iPad to manually enter each game’s score in a comma-separated file. Every Sunday I would transfer this file to my laptop, then erase the contents of QuickNotes to prepare for the next week’s numbers. On my laptop I wrote a Bash script to concatenate the weekly files into a long working dataset that I could then analyze with a few Python scripts.

For this experiment I collected 14 weeks of game scores, from October 1st to December 31st, 2023.

The Results

First, the overall stats:

Items in full_list: 5854
Items in short_list: 5529
Items in sweep_list: 325
Items in win_list: 2553
Win percentage: 49 %
Sweep percentage: 6 %

In 14 weeks of playing Solitaire, I played 5854 games and recorded their scores. Of those 325 games resulted in “sweeps,” which is “wins” in traditional scoring. This means that, in traditional scoring, I won 6% of my games. No wonder I needed a new target for winning. When I add all my new “win” stats — 150 or better–I have a 49% chance of winning, though as we shall see, this is a bit misleading due to the high scores of a sweep.

The numbers came out like this:

{0: 14, 5: 24, 10: 48, 15: 41, 20: 60, 25: 64, 30: 70, 35: 77, 40: 96, 45: 101, 50: 110, 55: 119, 60: 140, 65: 133, 70: 145, 75: 152, 80: 163, 85: 137, 90: 149, 95: 146, 100: 153, 105: 144, 110: 141, 115: 159, 120: 132, 125: 121, 130: 124, 135: 110, 140: 113, 145: 115, 150: 134, 155: 170, 160: 147, 165: 114, 170: 131, 175: 96, 180: 91, 185: 74, 190: 68, 195: 97, 200: 79, 205: 72, 210: 57, 215: 60, 220: 61, 225: 59, 230: 52, 235: 64, 240: 36, 245: 62, 250: 32, 255: 38, 260: 32, 265: 23, 270: 20, 275: 37, 280: 22, 285: 21, 290: 20, 295: 17, 300: 27, 305: 15, 310: 18, 315: 19, 320: 15, 325: 14, 330: 13, 335: 8, 340: 10, 345: 10, 350: 11, 355: 8, 360: 5, 365: 10, 370: 4, 375: 8, 380: 3, 385: 9, 390: 2, 395: 4, 405: 3, 410: 5, 415: 2, 420: 2, 425: 1, 430: 3, 435: 3, 440: 3, 470: 1, 485: 2, 490: 1, 495: 1, 505: 1, 550: 1, 615: 1, 635: 1, 650: 4, 655: 1, 660: 3, 665: 3, 670: 6, 675: 12, 680: 14, 685: 17, 690: 31, 695: 47, 700: 49, 705: 47, 710: 38, 715: 23, 720: 15, 725: 2, 730: 7, 735: 4}

I got totally skunked (score: 0) 14 times, I scored 5 points 24 times, and I scored 10 points 48 times.

When the numbers are sorted by frequency, they look like this:

{425: 1, 470: 1, 490: 1, 495: 1, 505: 1, 550: 1, 615: 1, 635: 1, 655: 1, 390: 2, 415: 2, 420: 2, 485: 2, 725: 2, 380: 3, 405: 3, 430: 3, 435: 3, 440: 3, 660: 3, 665: 3, 370: 4, 395: 4, 650: 4, 735: 4, 360: 5, 410: 5, 670: 6, 730: 7, 335: 8, 355: 8, 375: 8, 385: 9, 340: 10, 345: 10, 365: 10, 350: 11, 675: 12, 330: 13, 0: 14, 325: 14, 680: 14, 305: 15, 320: 15, 720: 15, 295: 17, 685: 17, 310: 18, 315: 19, 270: 20, 290: 20, 285: 21, 280: 22, 265: 23, 715: 23, 5: 24, 300: 27, 690: 31, 250: 32, 260: 32, 240: 36, 275: 37, 255: 38, 710: 38, 15: 41, 695: 47, 705: 47, 10: 48, 700: 49, 230: 52, 210: 57, 225: 59, 20: 60, 215: 60, 220: 61, 245: 62, 25: 64, 235: 64, 190: 68, 30: 70, 205: 72, 185: 74, 35: 77, 200: 79, 180: 91, 40: 96, 175: 96, 195: 97, 45: 101, 50: 110, 135: 110, 140: 113, 165: 114, 145: 115, 55: 119, 125: 121, 130: 124, 170: 131, 120: 132, 65: 133, 150: 134, 85: 137, 60: 140, 110: 141, 105: 144, 70: 145, 95: 146, 160: 147, 90: 149, 75: 152, 100: 153, 115: 159, 80: 163, 155: 170}

Here’s what a histogram of all the scores look like in terms of their frequency:

This clearly shows that the stats are imbalanced by the sweep scores which which have a much greater value than non-sweep scores. If we remove the sweeps from the data, the histogram looks like this:

You can see that the scores are clustered around the 150 mark. In terms of 150-point and above wins, excluding the rarer sweeps, the percentage of winning drops to 43%. That makes my choice of “150” as a win just right for me. You might choose to use a slightly higher score, like “200”.

More Stats

Matching Sequences

One of the oddities is that as you play, you sometimes get the same score twice or even three times in a row. It feels almost spooky, especially when the game play is very different but leads to the same score as before. I wrote another Python script to see how often this happened and if any numbers dominated.

{10: ‘o’, 25: ‘o’, 110: ‘o’, 140: ‘o’, 145: ‘o’, 170: ‘o’, 180: ‘o’, 190: ‘o’, 200: ‘o’, 210: ‘o’, 220: ‘o’, 235: ‘o’, 300: ‘o’, 20: ‘oo’, 55: ‘o|o’, 70: ‘o|o’, 85: ‘o|o’, 90: ‘o|o’, 120: ‘o|o’, 125: ‘o|o’, 135: ‘o|o’, 160: ‘o|o’, 205: ‘o|o’, 710: ‘o|o’, 115: ‘o|oo|o|o’, 40: ‘o|o|o’, 65: ‘o|o|o’, 80: ‘o|o|o’, 95: ‘o|o|o’, 100: ‘o|o|o’, 130: ‘o|o|o’, 175: ‘o|o|o’, 45: ‘o|o|o|o’, 60: ‘o|o|o|o’, 75: ‘o|o|o|o’, 150: ‘o|o|o|o|o’, 165: ‘o|o|o|o|o’, 195: ‘o|o|o|o|o|o’, 105: ‘o|o|o|o|o|o|o’, 155: ‘o|o|o|o|o|o|o’}

An “o” by itself indicates a pair of sequences back to back. A double “o” indicates where this happened three times in a row. The vertical bars (pipes) between the “o’s” indicate that it happened again, but later, in another sequence. The only triples I got were the numbers “20” and “115”. The others were all pairs, but some of the pairs happened more frequently. The number “155” paired seven times, with the number “105” happening six times. If I were superstitious I might specify those numbers in a lottery ticket, but I won’t. I know the odds are against me.

Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks

Remembering that “150” and above is a win, and “149” and down is a loss, it’s instructive to compare winning streaks and losing streaks. My definition of winning and losing streaks is the same as for many sports: “3”. Three or more wins in a row is a winning streak. Three or more losses in a row is a losing streak.

This in some ways is the heart of gambling. When you’re on a roll, you feel you can score anything. Then comes the reality.

The Winning Streaks look like this:

While the Losing Streaks look like this:

As the numbers show, I once had a 10-game winning streak, but I also once had a 16-game losing streak.

The moral of these particular stats are that even when you’re on a roll, you shouldn’t feel too confident. Losing streaks solidly outnumber winning streaks.

Bottom Line

I enjoy Solitaire. I use the game partly the way some people finger worry beads: it gives me a mental break from writing and other mental activities and I find it calming. By setting “150” as a win, the game has more immediacy for me.

Try it out yourself, if this interests you, and let me know how you fare. See if you, too, find the game more enjoyable with a better chance to win.

1 “Solitaire,” Britannica.

2 Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike, UBC Press

3 “The History of Solitaire”, Solitaire-Palace.com

4 “Solitaire”, Wikipedia

5 Ibid.

My Mind Is Copernican, but My Heart Is Ptolemaic: Perception Is Reality

By Gene Wilburn

1660 or 1708 by Pieter

“The Sun Also Rises” — Ecclesiastes 1:5

The Ptolemaic System

For over a millennium the science of astronomy subscribed to the Ptolemaic System, formulated by the Greek philosopher and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria around 150 CE. It described a cosmos with the earth as the centre of the universe while the sun, moon, stars, and planets (and the Zodiac) revolved around it, in perfect circles. We now call this the geocentric view of the heavens.

We shouldn’t dismiss Ptolemy and subsequent astronomers out of hand, for they were excellent observers and recorders of the night sky which, in their time, wasn’t obscured by city lights. Their observations were as accurate as they could make them without telescopes. What they could see with their naked eyes was their reality.

To account for the apparent retrograde motion of the planets, they developed a set of complex, but circular, epicycles to explain these motions.

The Ptolemaic view of the heavens held sway for the next 1300 years. It had staying power, and, moreover, it was also accepted and approved by the early and medieval Church.

Near the end of the Middle Ages when new learning started spreading across Europe in the Renaissance, a new theory turned the cosmos upside down. The Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543. To say its publication caused an uproar is an understatement. It totally flipped our understanding of the cosmos.

The Copernican Revolution

What Copernicus brilliantly proposed, using only his naked eyes, was that the sun was the centre of our solar system, and that all the planets, including earth, circled around the sun. The Church didn’t much like this, nor did many of the astronomers of the time, but the Copernican system prevailed because it fit better with later observations of the night sky, after the invention of the telescope.

The Copernican Revolution shifted us from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of our solar system. As an existential side effect, it displaced mankind from the centre of the cosmos.

But as successful as the Copernican system was, it still had a few scientific rough edges and it, too, used the concept of epicycles to explain some of the retrograde movement of the planets.

English astronomer and mathematician Edmund Halley, bothered by these discrepancies, coaxed Isaac Newton to publish his ideas and his newly invented mathematics to assist with refining the Copernican model. This resulted in Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 1687, in which Newton’s laws of motion and law of universal gravitation were presented, along with the mathematical framework of early calculus.

Finally the problematic epicycles were eliminated from the Copernican view, based on Newton’s physical forces and the ability to calculate orbits that turned out to be ellipses rather than perfect circles.

The universe was still relatively small in Newton’s time. It took us until the 1920s to realize that many of the nebulae we could see with new, more powerful telescopes were actually galaxies, like our own Milky Way galaxy — not only that, but that there were a large number of them. Through red shift/blue shift spectroscopic analysis, it could also be seen that most of them were receding away from us.

As telescopes became yet more powerful, it became apparent that the number of galaxies in the cosmos numbered in the millions, then billions, and maybe even trillions, and that they were, for the most part, all expanding away from each other.

If they were all expanding, the question arose: “What was their starting point?” This led, through much research and debate, to the Big Bang Theory of the universe, which, by scientific consensus, happened about 13.7 billion years ago. And with better dating methods, it appeared that our earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Most recently, images and measurements from the JWT (James Webb Telescope) space observatory provide a hint that the Big Bang might have even happened further back in time than we currently think, but that is still up for debate.

This is heady stuff, and as a science lover from early childhood I bask in the wonder of it all. But there is one problem: Despite its scientific inaccuracy, I still live Ptolemaically.

Perception is Reality

For most of us, the day starts at sunrise and ends at sunset. Few of us think, or say, “what a beautiful rotation of the earth this evening” instead of “what a beautiful sunset.” Likewise, our perception is that the moon rises and sets, and the stars (including the bright planets) circle overhead during the night. This has been mankind’s perception of reality since probably before we descended from the trees and started living on the savannas.

We may be an insignificant speck in the universe, but most of our perceptions and goals are mundane in the etymological sense of the word: “of the earth.” We don’t wonder about being a speck in the cosmos nearly as much as we wonder who will be the next U.S. President, and if devastating local world conflicts will ever be resolved. In other words, our main focus is on “us” and “now” and “earth.”

As a species we have tried out, and endured, many different ways of organizing ourselves into social units that we call, variously, tribes, counties, cities, countries, coalitions of countries — the building blocks of “civilization.”

On a personal level, once we get beyond the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow’s Pyramid), and have enough food, shelter, and the absence of immediate threats, we begin to concentrate on personal relationships, education, careers, raising families, and pursuing any number of entertainment, academic, craft, or artistic pursuits. This is the reality most of us live by, from sunrise to sunset, and on moonlit nights.

As more recent neuroscience explains: It’s complex, but the brain is constantly generating predictions about the world, and our perceptions are influenced by our unique expectations and internal narratives. While our perceptions play a significant role in shaping our reality, they are not a perfect reflection of the objective world.

We perceive see the night sky as Ptolemaic. Although we might know that sunsets are misnamed, it’s a perception and a bias that most of us happily live with. Although I love the astronomical accuracy of a Copernican system, I perceive sunrises and sunsets as Ptolemaic.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. As wonderful as science is, it’s a poor poet. And as the poet e.e. cummings wrote: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”