Shortlink

In Search of Popcorn

Since I was a kid, I have loved popcorn. I’m crazy about the stuff. I remember making it with my family, enjoying it while watching movies or just the regular Sunday night “Wonderful World of Disney.” I remember what the popcorn used to be like at movie theatres, before it became more of a profit center and less of an art. I have spent years perfecting my technique, and I can say without the least bit of modesty that my popcorn is the very best you’ll ever eat. If you don’t believe me, ask and I’ll make you some. Or if you’d like to know how to do it yourself, read my instructional post from a few years ago:

A Guide to Making Perfect Popcorn

In the past few years, though, I’ve suffered a real loss. You see, the Ellis family of Murray, Kentucky used to produce the world’s best popcorn. It was called Ellis Blue Ribbon Popcorn, and it was, in a word, perfect. It had a great butterfly/mushroom ratio, it had massive kernels that popped out big and fluffy, it had the perfect color and texture, and it had very, very few “old maids” (kernels that don’t pop). For a while, living in Atlanta, I had talked a concession supply company into selling me one 12.5 pound bag at a time. Then they folded, and Ellis was nice enough to ship me the same amount at an even lower cost. Then tragedy struck.

ellisfireOctober 5, 2011. A fire broke out in the warehouse and processing facility of Ellis Popcorn. The fire devastated the 60-year-old company. Rebuilding the destroyed facility was infeasible. In December, needing to get back to selling popcorn quickly, the family purchased an existing popcorn processing facility in Ridgway, Illinois and immediately began packaging and shipping product. But being 120 miles from their previous growers took its toll. The popcorn wasn’t the same, and every customer knew it. The move was a fatal mistake, and as of today, Ellis Popcorn Company no longer exists.

The growers, of course, are still there, but they’re no longer being held to the same standards, and no one knows exactly where to buy the popcorn that was once at the zenith of the industry. So as of January, 2012, I had no source for known good popcorn. Nobody can make perfect popcorn from mediocre kernels. This was bad.

Oh, I tried. For a while I popped Orville Redenbacher’s stuff using my methods, and despite being far from perfect, it wasn’t bad. Popcorn is one of those odd commodities where there’s no quick, easy way to judge quality. You can smell coffee beans, you can squeeze cantaloupes, and you can taste some things, but a good popcorn kernel and a crappy popcorn kernel look, feel, and smell exactly the same until you pop them. There are only two ways to find the really high quality stuff: trial and error, and reputation.

Fast forward to 2014 and the trip home from Chelsea’s wedding. Allison, Raymond, and I stopped as we usually do at Panorama Orchard and Farm Market, near Ellijay, Georgia. We usually shop for apples, but they carry a lot of different farm products. On this occasion, I noticed that they had some popcorn in two-pound bags, labeled “Amish Country Popcorn.” There were a couple of varieties, but a bag marked “Extra Large Caramel Type” caught my eye. Impulsively, we decided to give it a try.

I held little hope. In fact, the sealed bag sat there in the cabinet for several months. Finally, I decided to pop some up and try it. WOW!!! This stuff blew the lid open on my popper! It popped vigorously, and as advertised it puffed up into very large, well-formed kernels. It took butter well, tasted great, and had perfect texture. I had stumbled onto some truly excellent popcorn!

Now you can stumble too. I tracked down the source Panorama gets the stuff from, and you can order it directly from their site. (No, I don’t work for them, nor do I get paid for inviting you to buy from them. I’m sharing a secret with you.)

Amish Country Popcorn: Extra Large Caramel Type

So popcorn is a treat again at our house. Maybe it will be at yours, too. Enjoy.

Shortlink

Dog Days of Summer

I hate being forced into decisions. Life is already a series of tests; artificially created ones just make it harder to face the real ones.

Back in July, a woman Allison and I both know from theatre work was facing a tough situation. She needed to move to a new place, and since she was pregnant, she was having trouble caring for her Bernese Mountain dog while preparing for the move. My wife, Allison, an experienced animal rescue person, was asked if we could take care of the dog for three weeks — just until after the move.

When Allison discussed the idea with me, I was dead set against it. I wanted to help, don’t get me wrong, but in the first place, we had a new dog in the house already, and the presence of another dog would make it very hard to get him to concentrate on learning the rules. In the second place, I saw it as the potential source of a lot of drama at a time when we didn’t need more drama. We had a fairly ugly argument over it; I lost. So I did my best to accept the situation, and tried to help keep the dog (we’ll call her M) happy and healthy. Eventually I put away my objections because we were doing the good, kind thing for someone who was truly in need.

The drama didn’t take long to surface. M has a terrible allergy to flea dirt, so we needed to get her on flea and tick meds. Allison, who handled all thus, quickly became frustrated. Getting the owner to communicate was like pulling teeth. We’d send a message and hear nothing back for days. But after a lot of wrangling — and paying for it ourselves — we finally got the meds on board.

In the three weeks M was here, the owner never even visited. Her two kids asked about the dog every time they saw me at the theatre, though. They really seemed to miss their dog, and grilled me (in a cute, kid-like way) about how well we were taking care of her.

Three weeks passed. The move happened. After a bit, we inquired as to when the dog might be picked up, and we were informed that there was a small problem there. The owner had signed a lease at her new house that expressly forbade pets. There were various explanations for how such a thing could happen (we were told she didn’t know, somehow), but we were assured that she’d call the landlord and get it worked out.

It took a week before we heard that the landlord had refused to accommodate the owner. She now owned a dog she could not have in her house. She assured us that arrangements would be made.

Again, getting information was difficult. Allison would send messages and get replies days later. There didn’t seem to be any progress in re-homing, boarding, or otherwise semi-permanently lodging M. Friction developed between Allison and the owner, mostly due to the owner’so refusal to keep in touch, and at one point a few weeks ago, I got tired of Allison always being upset. I also found out that the owner had been bad-mouthing Allison to anyone who’d listen. The bickering and public trashing needed to stop, so I stepped in as mediator and point of contact. At this point, Allison was done and just wanted M to go home or go wherever she needed to go, and I was right there with her.

I sent a long, long message to the owner, explaining that she was to deal with me, and that since she and I had had no problems before, I expected that we would handle things within a framework of mutual respect. The reply — a day later — was substantially agreeable. I asked to be kept up to date on the effort to find permanent arrangements for M, and mentioned that sending me a text every couple of days wouldn’t take any more time than I spend giving M a treat every day.

It had now been a month. M was scratching herself raw, so it was clearly time for another dose of the flea and tick meds. I contacted the owner and asked that she make arrangements with her vet. She did, and despite the fact that she only called in one of the two meds, and despite the fact that I had to leave work early to go get it, I was at least a little encouraged.

But the pattern continued. A week later, with ticks becoming a problem, I contacted the owner again and asked that the tick meds be called in. She balked at first, then said she’d call it in on September 15, a week later, when she got paid. At this point we also asked for some help with M’s food, since she is a big dog and eats $75 a month’s worth of dog food. The owner said she’d order M’s special food on the 15th also.

I heard nothing for a week. On the 16th, I asked what was up. She said she’d ordered the food, and that it would arrive in two weeks! She asked the name of the tick meds, and I sent it. There was no reply on that Tuesday, nor the rest of the week. Nothing was called into the vet’s office.

Allison and I had a talk on Saturday and agreed that enough was enough. M’s owner was clearly not going to communicate with us regularly. She’d had weeks to work out arrangements and there’d been no progress. Meanwhile, we were quite literally changing our day-to-day lives to accommodate her dog. At best we were being taken for granted; more realistically, we were being used. The situation was not improving and my communications were being ignored.

I did the only thing I felt I could. I sent a message saying that ignoring our communications did not fall within the framework of respect I’d proposed, and that the arrangement was not going to work. I asked the owner to arrange to pick up M by Saturday, September 27. It was hard to do this, knowing the real victim here is M.

That’s today. There has been NO REPLY at all. None. Indirectly, it has come back to me through the grapevine that the owner was “livid” upon receiving the last message. I’d much rather hear at least an acknowledgement that we’ve taken care of her dog for more than three times the period we agreed to, and that we’ve gone above and beyond the standard of care that any boarding kennel would have provided. We have treated M like a member of our family; she has wanted for nothing. We simply can’t keep taking care of her forever; she isn’t our dog.

I’m sorry to have taken this public. But our line in the sand has apparently been danced across, since if she intended to pick up M today, I’m sure we would have heard. Meanwhile, half the town has probably heard from the owner. I’m pretty tired of her complaints being the only voice heard in this situation. I’d also like to appeal to your excellent judgement. What’s next? A certified letter? It certainly seems to me that after ignoring communications for 10 days or more, she’s essentially abandoned the dog. Let me know, either in the comments or on Facebook, how you would handle such a situation.

Shortlink

Sesame Street, Eleven, and Pekingese

When I was in elementary school, mainly in first and second grade, we watched Sesame Street almost every day. Our teacher would wheel in a big black and white TV on a cart and plug it in. There were no VCRs then — we watched it live. The TV plugged into an antenna outlet on the wall. My dad explained that this was called MATV (Master Antenna TV) and that it was very cutting edge for 1969. A big dish antenna on the roof brought in WCVE, channel 23, a public TV station in Richmond, about an hour east. Modern technology, or so we called it then.

I liked Sesame Street. It was corny and goofy, but it was still quality entertainment. Bert and Ernie cracked me up. Kermit was cool. Big Bird was the voice of reason. Mr. Snuffleupagus didn’t even exist yet, in those days. And the songs were very catchy. I’ll bet there’s not a kid who watched the show in those days who could not sing the entire “One of these things is not like the others” tune from memory.

Those of you who know me are aware that I have a very weird mind. When I don’t understand something I hear, it is absolutely maddening to me, and I am driven to find out what I missed. One day in second grade I remember watching an episode of Sesame Street that was sponsored in part by the number eleven. There was a song about the number eleven, and a pair of lines jumped out at me because they didn’t make any sense.

Eleven little birdies in the trees
with bright yellow beaks and pekingese.

Pekingese? Those little dogs that look like they’ve had their faces flattened with a brick? And they’re in the trees with the pretty birdies? WHAT?

None of my classmates got it either, nor did my teacher, but every single one of them thought I was a nut for even caring what the words meant in a song about the number 11. I tallied up my options, realizing that the only way I’d ever get an answer was contacting the show, somehow. For a second-grader, this would have required some parental assistance, and since my mom shared my teacher’s opinion that I was nuts for even wondering, no such help was forthcoming. But it bugged me. I saw a rerun of the show when I was a couple of years older, heard the song again, and it bugged me then too. It bothered me so much that I remember it today, though I hadn’t thought about it in a decade or three.

This morning, for no good reason, the eleven song ran through my head. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven! Eleven’s the number for me.” Immediately that verse came back to me.

It occurred to me that I now had in my possession a piece of truly remarkable modern technology, something that made MATV look like arrowheads hewn from flint. My smartphone. So I pulled up Google, searched for “Eleven’s the number for me,” and within 30 seconds I had the lyrics to that entire song in front of me.

“Pinky knees.” The birds had pinky knees. What a ridiculous lyric! It’s so unusual a turn of phrase that when I Google it, in quotes, the lyrics to the “Eleven” song come up on the first page, only five or six items down.

But how wonderful is that, really? I remembered a snippet of a silly Sesame Street song I hadn’t heard in more than 40 years, typed it into my phone, and got the lyrics! I think sometimes as I go through life, I forget what an exciting time we live in and the advantages we enjoy. When I was seven years old there was no Internet, there were no practical home computers, and a phone was still something that plugged into the wall and was owned by the telephone company. It had a dial, not buttons. If you wanted to know something, you went to the library, searched through a bunch of drawers full of cards, and then went and retrieved books from shelves. No Google. No Internet forums full of people with dubious advice and shaky information. If you were lucky, like me, you had encyclopedias. If it wasn’t in those, and you didn’t know somebody who knew the answer, you were just out of luck.

We live in the information age. It’s the kind of access to information we all dreamed of when watching Star Trek, and Spock could access a library comprising the total knowledge of mankind. All he had to do was ask, and Majel Barrett’s voice dispensed the information immediately. Siri has replaced Majel, and Wolfram and Google have replaced the library computer, but we have the same power.

May we live long and prosper.

Shortlink

Of Tuning Forks and Invisibility

ThreeProngedTuningFork

A tuning fork. Design by M.C. Escher.

I love what I do, and by that I mean being an audio engineer. I’ve been recording, mixing, and playing with sound since I was in my early teen years, and I am still the happiest when I’m sitting at a console, mixing something beautiful and sensing the energy of it flowing beneath my fingers. It’s an invigorating, energizing feeling.

Mixing is an art. You can learn to operate an audio console in a few minutes, but to train your ear and learn the subtleties that separate passable mixing from really fine mixing takes years. That’s why after a concert, theatre production, or broadcast, I feel the same sense of accomplishment that the musicians do. I played my instrument well, as well as anyone else in that chair could have. Maybe better.

Here’s the thing, and it’s what makes my art a little different from the musician’s art. When my job is done correctly, I am invisible and inaudible. I am generally sequestered in a space far from the audience. No one sees me. And if I do my job well and correctly, not a single person will be conscious of hearing anything I do. Good mixing presents the music to the audience faithfully and transparently; it never yells, “Hey, listen to me!”

Negative attention is easy to garner. If I draw a big, ugly feedback squeal, every head in the house will turn in search of a target for the stink-eye I so richly deserve. If I miss a mic cue and an actor’s line isn’t heard, I have just made my existence known in a way I will forever wish I hadn’t. But if I’m doing it right, I’m not there.

That is not to say that what I do isn’t rewarding. There’s an old movie about a golfer called “Tin Cup,” and in it, the central character, Roy McAvoy, played by Kevin Costner,  has a line that’s both cheesy and introspective.

“A tuning fork goes off in your loins. Such a pure feeling is the well-struck golf shot.”

I know that feeling!

Mixing, like so many things in life, is about balance. Any fool can make every voice and every instrument heard. The skill and the challenge lie in layering and blending those sounds together with a respect for the character and timbre of each, and striking the one perfect balance between them. When you’ve got 6 or 8 instruments, several backing vocals, and a soloist, for example, there exists a “sweet spot” for each of them. And in live mixing, you’ve got to find that sweet spot right away, and hang onto it as the song changes and flows. It’s a moving target, and your search for it is like a mathematical asymptote — you’ll approach it ever more closely, but you don’t actually expect to ever quite get there.

But sometimes — for a fleeting, wonderful, sublime moment — I do get there. For a second, or a few seconds, or at some rare times for a whole song, I manage to strike and hold that perfect balance. Every sound is in its place. Every voice is perfectly blended with the others. The vocals themselves are floating along atop an ideal blend of instrumental music, smooth and powerful. And a chill runs down my spine; there is an actual, physical feeling of joy and elation! It’s not exactly a tuning fork, but it’s a sensual, almost orgasmic feeling, coupled with an intense concentration as I tweak the faders, knowing that even a tiny move, a fingernail’s thickness, can make or break that moment.

At those times, it doesn’t matter to me that no one notices what I’m doing. Out of a house of 500 or more people, there might be one or two who will notice the subtle difference between a good balance and that elusive near-perfection I’m feeling. Maybe no one will, but I notice. And that feeling, that wonderful shiver I get is addictive! Feel that just once and I can promise you’ll want to feel it again.

Someone asked me once why I do so much mixing for live theatre, and particularly for musicals. Fearing I might not be able to express this as I’m doing now without sounding like a lunatic, I dodged the question. But why indeed? Setup is hard. Tech week is grueling and exhausting. Giving up several weekends straight is inconvenient at best. There must be a reason, and there is. It’s those moments.

Those moments, when the house is full and the stage is alive with color and light and the microphones bring lovely sounds to my console, and I’m honing and sweetening and adjusting and turning them into exactly what I want to hear and sending them back out to the audience in a fiery, sizzlingly hot mix and that tingle is running up and down my spine, those moments! They are my reward, my passion, my addiction, my weakness, my reason for continuing to come back, again and again. When I don’t mix for a while, those moments are what I miss. Actors and directors talk about “post-show depression,” and I know exactly what they mean, because I feel it, too. I want to be back behind the console. I want that feeling again.

The audience will never know me. No one clamors to meet the tech crew after a show. But they will  have felt my gift to them, born of my quest for perfection and my pursuit of Roy McAvoy’s tuning fork. And when a compliment does come, I take it to heart. When someone takes the time to compliment the work of an invisible man, I know that someone shared those moments with me. That gives me great pride.

Shortlink

Small-Town Evil

[UPDATED 6-26-14] Four years ago, I moved from the metro Atlanta area to a small town in North Carolina. The culture shock was extreme, and it took me a long time to settle in here, but I have come to love life in our little community. My wife and I live in a small town called River Bend, adjacent to New Bern and convenient to my job and Allison’s. We rented a house in this town from a company called Management Services. Don’t EVER rent from these people — they are a nightmare. We once almost got levied a fee for having too many leaves on our roof.  They snooped through our entire house multiple times on the pretense of changing AC filters. They even held onto our rent checks for a week, multiple times, just so they could post the rent late and get a late fee. (They didn’t get away with any of this, but they kept trying.)

So we bought a house, thinking that would get us away from this one evil company. It did, but we found another cache of evil that had been hiding in the guise of propriety for the whole four years. The Town of River Bend itself.

I’ve never been happy with our water service. The water is so laden with calcium and lime that showerheads and sink aerators are useless after a year. Glasses and dishes are never REALLY clean, even with a rinse agent. Laundry doesn’t get as clean, either, and even our hair (well, back when I had some) doesn’t wash properly. It tastes like crap. We contacted the town; they advised that proper treatment of the water would be too expensive, and that we should use a water softener and drink bottled water, at our own cost, of course.

For this we pay water rates that are THREE TIMES the national average.

Still, we try to be conservative with water. We don’t water our lawn, we don’t wash cars in our driveway, and we don’t have a swimming pool. Our monthly water bill is still around $60. We have paid it without too much complaint; we like the house, we like the neighborhood, and there’s nothing we can do about the water — this is the result of the lack of competition.

We went out of town last week — Allison left Wednesday and I left Friday morning — for Allison’s daughter Chelsea’s wedding. We weren’t to be back until Monday night. We usually pay our water bill online, but Allison was rushed and barely had time to write a check and drop it off before she had to go.

Sometime while we were in Georgia, they called and said they weren’t going to accept the check — they wouldn’t even put it through, because apparently a couple of years ago, we’d bounced two checks. (We had a checking account disaster — one of those bank reordering things, but that’s another story.) They demanded a payment by credit card by Monday night or they’d shut us off. So as soon as we got to a computer Monday night, we paid the bill online. $58. No big deal.

This morning, we got a call from the water people. They said that because the bill had been paid after their 4PM deadline on Monday, they were charging us a “late fee” of $70. (Yes, bigger than the bill itself.) Furthermore, if we didn’t pay that fee immediately, they would shut us off. I called them back, admittedly somewhat unhappy but still being civil, and asked them to justify this. They said it was a “standard” reconnect/late fee. “Reconnect?” I asked. Our water was not shut off — I had just brushed my teeth. Their condescending reply was that we were warned, and they were under no obligation to justify their large fee. I then informed them that I would be disputing this fee with the state utilities commission, and that if necessary we would see them in court.

A few minutes later they called me back. The woman, Mandy, seemed to be rambling, restating things that had already been stated — I see in retrospect that her purpose was to keep me on the phone and distracted, but I didn’t realize this in time. Sure enough, when I finally restated that I was going to the utilities commission and hung up, I went to take my shower and discovered the water was off. She had kept me distracted while her crew turned the water off at the meter, and they were gone. When I called back, she told me she now had justification for her reconnect fee, and to let me know how it went with the utilities commission. Can you imagine the evil of that?

Well, going to work with no shower made me mad, and when I get mad, I do something. So I checked the North Carolina Utilities Commission rules for water utilities. (Emphasis is mine.)

Rule R7-20 (d) Disputed Bills. — In the event of a dispute between the customer and the utility respecting any bill, the utility shall make forthwith such investigation as shall be required by the particular case, and report the result thereof to the customer. In the event that the matter in dispute cannot be compromised or settled by the parties, either party may submit the fact to the Commission for its opinion, and pending such opinion, service shall not be discontinued.

Rule R7-20 (f) Reconnection Charge. — Whenever the supply of water is turned off for the violation of rules and regulations, nonpayment of bill, or fraudulent use of water, the utility may make a reconnection charge, approved by the Commission, payable in advance, for restoring the service. The fee shall be no more than fifteen dollars ($15.00); except, if the utility proves that its actual and reasonable cost for restoring the service is greater than fifteen dollars ($15.00), the fee may be set at no more than the proven cost. 

So they broke the hell out of those two rules. So I composed an e-mail to the River Bend town manager, one Mr. Havens, CC’d the town mayor (John Kirkland), and of course by-the-book Mandy. In it I outlined the story as I’ve told it above, including the rules. I also opined that in light of the fact that this is a small town, I generally don’t expect this sort of garbage. Small town people take care of each other, and certainly don’t throw fees at each other just because they can — even if it were justified, which this wasn’t.

I offered, as a small-town courtesy, to give then 24 hours to work this out and either refund the $70 fee or apply it (in writing) to our next bill. I graciously promised that if they meet that deadline, I will consider the matter closed and take no further action. Otherwise, the NCUC would be brought into the discussion. Their move.

I can’t seem to get away from evil.

UPDATE: 24 hours passed and my e-mail was ignored. The following complaint was made to the North Carolina Public Utilities Commission:

To whom it may concern,

I would like to register a formal complaint against my local water utility, the Town of River Bend, for violations of the rules relating to public water utilities set out in Chapter 7 of the Commission’s rules and regulations as follows:

1. On June 25, 2014, the utility levied a reconnection fee of $70.00 for late payment of a bill of approximately $58. I believe this to be in violation of Rule R7-20 (f) which sets the fee at no more than $15 unless actual higher costs are proven. In this case, costs would include ten minutes of labor by a water operator and transportation costs for a one-mile drive; this cannot reasonably be set at $70.

2. On June 25, 2014, the utility’s personnel (Mandy Gilbert and Chris) were both informed that I would be disputing this charge with the appropriate regulatory authorities (i.e. this Commission). Moments later, they disconnected our service. This is in violation of Rule R7-20 (d), Disputed Bills, which clearly states that pending the Commission’s opinion, service shall not be discontinued.

Additionally, representative Chris stated that if the reconnection fee was not paid immediately, dispute or not, service would be shut off.

3. At the time the reconnection fee was levied, the bill had already been paid and service was not disconnected. Only after I disputed the reconnection charge was the service disconnected. I believe this to have been done in retaliation to my dispute of the charge.

I have attempted to resolve these issues with the utility. I even went so far, as a courtesy, of contacting the town manager and mayor, informing them of the errors and violations and providing an opportunity for them to correct them. They have failed to respond to my communications since the disconnection.

We paid the $70 reconnect fee because the utility gave us no choice in doing so. However, I do and will continue to dispute this charge. It is so high that it reaches the level of usury, and it was paid only under duress because we need our water service.

I am willing to provide affidavits, further details, and sworn testimony should such be required.

Shortlink

Dad, you should see it.

It’s been a while, Dad. Nigh on 30 years, I guess. I’m telling you, Dad, the way the world has changed in those three decades is something you’d have to see to believe. You still might not buy it, but oh, how I would enjoy trying to explain it all.

Remember those nights we sat up talking about computers, and what they could and couldn’t do? And how, even before I did any work there, I used to sneak into the basement at the University of Virginia just to try to grab a little time on those big mainframes? Remember the silly excuse for a computer my high school had, with 8K of memory and a 6502 processor chip?

Well, I now have a computer on my desk that has a million times the memory of that little computer. It’s got a full-color display that can reproduce pictures and video so clear you’d think you were looking through a window, and it outperforms those mainframes I used to feel so lucky to get access to.

Remember how we loaded programs into computers with punched cards and cassette tapes? And, later on, do you remember those 8-inch floppy disks that held, what, 180K or so of information? Well, a short time after you left us, something called a hard disk drive made its way into home and small office computing. Suddenly desktop computers had 10 or even 20 megabytes of storage readily accessible. It was a bonanza — there was more space on those drives than we could ever imagine using. And then they started to grow. The hard drive on my desk now has 50,000 times the storage as those early ones, and is one sixth the physical size. You can’t even hear it spinning at over 7,000 RPM in a quiet room.

The Internet, which you never heard of, has changed the world a lot, Dad. Not only does it connect most of the world’s computers into a massive network and allow almost instantaneous communication worldwide, but it’s also spawned whole new communities, new avenues of discourse and means of social interaction. I can chat and exchange information, pictures, and video with someone half a world away without even thinking about what I’m doing. That’s both the advantage and the danger.

A technology made possible by the Internet is the World Wide Web. It’s like a distributed, searchable treasure trove of information provided by millions and billions of people around the globe. It’s the world’s largest encyclopedia, the world’s biggest newsmagazine, and the world’s most plentiful source of apocryphal information, all rolled into one. When I was in high school, my set of encyclopedias and the library were my only real sources of information. Oh, if I were really desperate, I could go to the University library, or have a research librarian help me, but for the most part, it was slow going.

Now, if I have a need — or even a passing desire — to know who invented the field effect transistor, or what the density of 30-weight oil is in pounds per liter, or how many people have successfully gone over Niagara Falls in a “barrel,” I can have the information in seconds. It’s the best research tool ever made, and you don’t have to pay anyone a dime — except the people who give you your connection to the Internet.

You’d think this would have revolutionized education, wouldn’t you, Dad? Well, in a way, it has, but not in the way you’d hope. You’d think that with so much information and so many resources so readily available, kids would be held to a higher standard, wouldn’t you? They’re not. In fact, standards are lower than when I was in school. Grading scales are more forgiving, and instead of having to learn a subject thoroughly, kids just learn what they need to know to pass standardized tests. The government seems to like this. Teachers hate it but for the most part are powerless to change it. The end result is that our public school graduates are dumber than ever before, in an information-rich environment.

Everything’s digital now. Television is digital; there are no more analog TV stations in this country at all. Radio is slowly going in the same direction, although no one can agree on the best way to do it. At most stations, the audio console is digital, and so is the audio processing. And there are no more carts and very few CD players. Everything comes from a computer. Television’s the same way. You’d like HD television, Dad. The sharpness is absolutely amazing. TV stations have had to rebuild their news sets (and up their makeup skills for their anchors) because HD shows every detail.

My car, a Prius, has many times more processing power in its onboard computers than most computers of your day. It runs on unleaded gasoline because that’s the only kind we have now. It is partially electric in its propulsion (a hybrid) and has a type of battery (Nickel Metal Hydride) that didn’t exist in your day and has many times the energy density of lead-acid batteries. On my dashboard is a navigation system that derives its position information from satellites and has, on average, an accuracy of 60 feet (sometimes much less). It has maps of the entire continental US inside it, and it speaks directions as I drive. It sounds like something straight out of The Jetsons, which we used to watch together, but self-driving cars are just around the corner and are in fact already being tested.

Our manned space program is in the toilet. Our current president and his predecessor conspired to strangle it by cutting the budget. The Space Shuttle was a success, even though we lost a couple dozen of our bravest people during the program. Then the budget was eliminated. Now when we want to go into space, we have to hitch a ride with the Russians.

I’ve changed a lot, too, Dad. The growing up thing, that took a while, and I still don’t think I’m quite done doing it, but I feel a little closer to adulthood every day. Marriage? Well, once was enough for you, but I’ve failed twice. The third time seems to be the charm, though. You’d like her. She’s pretty, sensitive, loving, tough, and determined, and has a huge heart.

I don’t sing much anymore. I know that would make you kind of sad, but I just don’t find the opportunities, and I don’t think I’m nearly as good at it as I used to be despite what people tell me. I work around too many people who are real, professional vocalists, and that makes singing a bit intimidating. But over the years, I did manage to learn your favorite song. If you’re looking down as I suspect you are, you might have heard me sing it in the car where no one but the steering wheel is there to judge. I’m saving it for when I see you again.

I think you’d be baffled at the world I live in, Dad, but I think you’d like it. So many things that were nothing but improbable dreams the last time you walked the earth are now miracles of technology, real and perfected.

You’d be a bit baffled by me, too, but I think there might be a few things about me you’d be proud of.

Until that happy day when we meet again,

Love, Scott

 

Shortlink

Woof.

pennyThat beautiful girl to the left is Penny. I’m told her full name is Penelope P. Piddlesworth, but I’ve never called her anything but Penny.

The title of this post is Penny’s vocabulary. All of it. One word, spoken in a million different ways. She could express a lot in one word.

I’m not going to try to tell Penny’s whole story. I don’t really know it; by the time I came along, Penny was an adult dog. That part of the story is my wife’s to tell, and I know she’ll tell it when she’s ready. Instead, I’m going to do my best to tell the story of my time with her, from my own point of view.

The first time Allison asked me to her home for dinner, back in 2005 when we were first dating, I met her dogs. Keiko, a big, shaggy, friendly Akita who seemed to perpetually have a silly, goofy grin on his face, had no problem with me at all. He slobbered all over me and wagged his tail. Penny, a beautiful copper-colored Rottweiler mix, figured that I was trouble. She barked, she growled, she postured, and in several more subtle ways she let me know that I was NOT welcome. When Allison and I sat close together, she was hypervigilant, constantly watching for anything that looked like an aggressive move from me.

I haven’t been a dog person most of my life, at least not consistently. I had three dogs as a child. Two ran away and one was hit by a car while we were visiting my grandparents. I became a cat person and stayed a cat person until around 1995. That year, meaning well, my now ex-wife bought me Sadie as a surprise. I arrived home to find this huge, beautiful black Lab sitting in our living room with a red bow around her neck. I was actually horrified, but I tried to be open-minded. Sadie, a very intelligent, friendly, eager-to-please dog, managed to stick her nose into my heart and wedge the rest of herself in. After a year or so I didn’t know what I’d do without her, and then I was forced to find out; a burglar casing houses in the neighborhood came through and poisoned several dogs with antifreeze, including my Sadie. That was it. Nope, nope, nope, no more dogs for me. It hurt too much to lose them. Back to cats!

So I wasn’t planning on getting too attached to Keiko or Penny, but Keiko had different plans from the start, and after a while, even Penny stopped growling and barking. For the first week or two I still couldn’t pet her; she’d back away, growling, at any attempt. But it was clear she was softening up. One day, she didn’t back away. She still growled, making sure I knew this wasn’t her idea, but she let me pet her. Later, the growling stopped, too. Tolerance became indifference, then acceptance, then affection. Allison tells me Penny never liked men much, and that her willingness to bond with me was very unusual. I was flattered. Allison must have taken her dog’s judgement pretty seriously, because she hung onto me, too.

I still had to be careful. One morning, before either of us had gotten dressed, I was sitting on the edge of the bed. Allison playfully pushed me onto my back, intending to lie down with me an instant later, but Penny made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join in. She lunged up and nipped me on the nearest body part she could reach. A few moments later, when I could see, breathe, and speak again, Allison and I had a good laugh about Penny’s efforts to neuter me. She didn’t do any harm nor even break the skin, but I learned that it was a really, really judicious idea to get fully dressed before putting Penny into a playful mood.

To help us bond, I started giving both dogs a biscuit each evening when I got home from work, at Allison’s suggestion. Predictably enough, they started getting very excited when I came through the door, which Allison was very happy about. They would behave very politely, as Allison had trained them, approach me, and sit. Then (this part was my idea), I would say, “WOOF!” to each of them. They would respond instantly with an enthusiastic “WOOF!” and I’d give them their treats. “They just want the treats,” I would protest. “It’s not me.” Allison differed.

One evening I came home and gave the dogs their treats and noticed something. Keiko wolfed his down. Penny, after showing her usual enthusiasm, went and set hers aside, only going back to eat it later. A light went on. Maybe they weren’t just dying for a treat … maybe they just enjoyed the interaction, the game of sitting and speaking. When I related this theory to Allison, the response was something like, “Duh.” :)

By this point, I had — without the least intention of doing so — become a dog person again. I loved both Keiko and Penny very much, but Penny was much more determined to bond with me and to win my heart. We played together, we hung out together, and got so close that on several occasions, Allison jokingly accused me of stealing her dog. I even took a stab at training her.

She already knew sit, stay, lie down, and heel. Allison is a terrific dog trainer. Penny was one of the most well-behaved, well-adjusted, perfectly socialized dogs I’ve ever seen. Her only weak spot was nervousness with strangers, and that was only because of her fierce loyalty and protective nature. She would let NO ONE she didn’t approve of anywhere near her people. So I didn’t have a whole lot to teach her. I thought I’d try to teach her to shake hands.

I didn’t like “shake hands.” It was too … humanizing. So I settled on “Paw.” For days upon weeks I would say “Paw,” and reach for her paw. I’d repeat the lesson several times each day. It didn’t work. Allison saw me trying and realized that I had no idea what I was doing, so she talked me through the right way to teach that behavior. It still took time, but one day I had Penny sit, said “Paw?” and had my breath taken away as she ever-so-carefully raised her paw and dropped it into my hand.

Penny had a very insistent nose. Some mornings I would be in my recliner, and Penny would want attention. She would shove her whole nose up under my elbow and use it to pry my forearm out so I’d pet her on her head. So I’d pet her for a while … five minutes or so, usually. Then I’d stop and put my arm back on the armrest. If that was enough, she’d lie down with a sigh and keep me company. But if I wasn’t yet done, she’d wedge my arm out with her nose again and I’d continue. The puppy nose could be very convincing, and downright dangerous if I had a cup of very hot coffee in that hand.

Hugs were something she needed to be a part of, too. If Allison and I were ever to embrace for more than a few seconds, we were never surprised to find a Penny-nose wedged in somewhere. If she for any reason couldn’t get into the hug by sheer nose action, she would bark until we noticed her.

The tradition of Penny woofing for a treat remained a constant. As her teeth got older, the biscuits became soft treats, but if I came through the front door, whether I’d been gone five minutes or five days, she expected a treat, and she got it. She always met me at the front door; I would see her face in the small vertical window beside the door, grinning at me. I’d ask if I could come in, and she would reply, “Woof!” By the time I sat down in the living room, she’d be right there at my right foot, sitting pretty, usually offering up her paw before I even asked. I’d get out her treat, ask her, “What do you say?” and she’d bowl me over with a big, enthusiastic “WOOOF,” then take the treat gently from my fingers and go devour it.

Penny wasn’t a retriever, but she liked to play. Whether it was play-chasing each other around the living room, or just tossing her rawhide bone and watching her run and grab it, she loved any interaction we’d give her. She loved when we’d get down in the floor and wrestle with her, or just stay down there and let her curl up against us.

She was a very sensitive creature. She knew when someone was upset, sick, or injured. I can remember many, many times when I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through a day, and then Penny came over, laid her head on my knee and looked up at me with those big eyes and wagged her tail. No matter what kind of person I thought I was, and no matter what anyone else thought of me, to Penny I was great. She loved me no matter what.

She loved us both so much that we often presented her with a dilemma. When Allison went to bed very early in the evening and I stayed up very late, she couldn’t decide where she wanted to be. She usually ended up taking up a position near the bedroom door, just about halfway between us. Other times she’d spend a few minutes in each place, moving back and forth. She needed to keep an eye on both of us. From what Allison tells me, she missed me terribly each time I went out of town, sometimes sleeping by the front door as if she needed to be there in case I came back in the middle of the night. She did the same when Allison went on trips.

She had her quirks. She never quite learned to localize sounds. I once had a doorbell sound that announced text messages on my phone; I had to change it. Each time it went off, she was SURE someone was at the front door, and it became very stressful for her. Doorbells on TV fooled her, too. She wasn’t dumb; she erred on the side of caution, and I loved her for it even though I did occasionally laugh at her. We had to be very careful to keep her from freaking out when we played Wii Golf. People swinging their arms around worried her. But she loved her people, and she watched over us, a fierce, loyal, loving guardian.

And now she’s gone.

I don’t want to go through the whole story of the disease process that eventually claimed our sweet dog; I don’t want to remember her that way, and I don’t want anyone reading this to remember her that way. I want to remember every moment we spent together, every cuddle, every “paw,” every “WOOF,” every dog kiss, and the way her grinning face looked when she woke me up. I want to remember the smiles, the laughter, the walks, the trips we took together. I want to look back and smile about what a wonderful, one-of-a-kind dog she was. There will never be another Penny, and I’m pretty much inconsolable.

We said goodbye to our beautiful dog at 9:30 this morning, and it seems this day will NEVER end. I’m at work — I don’t really want to be, and I’m not being very productive, but at the moment, nothing seems as terrifying and sad as going home to that house, which despite a background noise level provided by seven birds and one cat, is going to seem so, so depressingly quiet. I don’t want to go look in through that window by the door and see no happy dog face greeting me, or to look at that jar of dog treats sitting by the end table. It’s ironic. Penny would worry herself sick if she saw me like this.

So I will go home. I will try to draw close with my family tonight, both of whom are as upset as I am, if not more so. My wife raised Penny from a tiny sick puppy into a beautiful, huge, wonderful dog. So much of what Penny was came about because of the kind of woman who raised, trained, and loved her. Penny was a reflection of my wife’s love, affection, dedication, and knowledge.

Penny had beautiful, intelligent eyes that were windows into her beautiful, innocent soul, but they were also mirrors reflecting our love for her, and particularly my wife’s love for her. Penny will always be a part of me, a part of us. I don’t think any of us are going to be the same after this, but we will go on, and we will remember her and honor her memory. She would want that.

Shortlink

Nostalgia

I want to go back.

I miss the cool, late summer nights of my early teen years in Virginia, lying in bed, the only light coming from the pilot lamp of my old Emerson Ingraham radio. It had been my father’s radio when he was a boy. Now it sat on a crude wooden table beside my alarm clock, bringing in voices from places like Wheeling, West Virginia, Cleveland, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. To a young boy who had never traveled anywhere, those places were as exotic and exciting as foreign countries.

I want to return to those long summer days spent conquering the tulip poplar trees in the yard, building hideouts in the forest behind our house, drinking from the garden hose.

I want to go back to cool autumn days when my sole priority was building ever higher piles of raked leaves to jump into. In those days, 25 feet of nylon rope became the tool facilitating a thousand imagined rescues, and my bicycle was the vehicle that carried me on countess open-ended voyages of exploration.

I want to go back to a time before cellular phones, when walking out of your house made you absolutely unreachable until such time as you chose to be reachable once again. It was actually a lot more fun to talk with friends on the phone then, because the phone wasn’t omnipresent.

I want to go back to all the firsts: the first time I drove a car, the first time I saw the ocean, the first time I kissed a girl, the first time I slept in a tent, the first time I flew a plane, the first time I took a trip to a distant city.

I want to go back to a time when my mind had more questions than answers, when the world was a cornucopia of new things to discover and experience.

Growing up is overrated.

Shortlink

Over the Horizon

Taking road trips to see interesting things is something that’s as natural to me as breathing. I think a lot of people are probably wired that way; it’s just my definition of “interesting” that differs from most.

[NOTE: All of the photographs in this post are presented as largish thumbnails. You can click each image to enlarge it to the width of your browser window for detailed viewing.]

The seeds for this road trip were sown when I discovered an odd-military-looking base on the Virginia/North Carolina border while exploring on Google Maps one day. It seemed to have a lot of interesting features. A big circle of cleared land marked where a huge, 1000-foot-wide direction finding antenna, nicknamed an “elephant cage,” once stood. There were several towers, antennas of various types including several largish dishes, and lots of buildings. Something I thought was a landing strip caught my eye. At 1.6 miles it was certainly long enough to be a runway, but as I zoomed in, I saw pairs of vertical antennas instead! (A very small piece of the array, near its center, is pictured below.) What was this? After some extensive research, I had my answer.

Receive MonopolesDuring the cold war, the government developed and deployed a technology called OTH-B Radar. While most radars operate at microwave frequencies and are restricted to line-of-sight operation, OTH-B could see over the horizon, to a potential range of 3,000 miles, and operated at HF frequencies (2-30 MHz, what some people call “shortwave”).

At the height of the cold war, stations in California and Maine searched diligently for incoming bombers using this technology. Antenna structures were huge on a scale that can scarcely be imagined. As the cold war ended, these facilities, now quite long of tooth, were dismantled. (The buildings and fences remain; take a look at the area just north of Moscow, Maine sometime on Google Maps and you’ll see the footprints of three mammoth OTH-B antenna arrays.) Ironically, a new generation of over-the-horizon radar was ready for deployment . Raytheon’s ROTHR (Relocatable Over The Horizon Radar) was all dressed up with nowhere to go. But aside from bombers, there’s another type of aircraft that the government would love to see coming a thousand miles out — drug-smugglers. So the ROTHR system, fresh from testing on Amchitka Island, Alaska, was set up here, trained south, and is still in use today for drug interdiction and homeland security purposes.

rothr-diagramBoth the old and new generations work the same way. A transmitter sends out very, very powerful signals in a tight beam which is swept across the area under surveillance. The signals bounce off the ionosphere, a group of layers in the upper atmosphere that are ionized and reflect radio waves. The waves come back down and strike objects in the target area, and return the way they came. A sensitive array of receiving antennas picks up this “backscatter” and it’s sent to specialized computers for analysis. Because over-the-horizon radar essentially looks DOWN on its targets, they’re mixed in with a lot of ground clutter, but moving targets create a doppler shift in the backscatter signal that can be detected and processed to enhance the target.

I thought it would be a lot of fun to drive up and see if I could get close enough to this sprawling base to get a few pictures of the antenna array. It seemed plausible that there might be gaps in the trees or vantage points along the roads, so I set out with my camera to see what I could find.

ROTHR-1As it turns out, one does not simply take a picture of anything inside this base. I drove all the way around the base, exploring every road, every footpath, and every gap in the trees. That last part was easy, because there weren’t any gaps. In fact, despite dogged determination, I managed to see not a single hint that there was any major hardware in the area. To the casual observer, the base might as well have been a supply depot. The only hint that I was in the right place at all was a water tower painted with the words “NSA NORTHWEST.” (The sign at the gate clarified that NSA stood for Naval Security Activity, not National Security Agency.) I saw some very nifty base housing, a base medical complex, and a lot of very stern signs warning that proceeding beyond them cause very nasty things to happen to me.

Of course, this site is only the receiving array. The incredibly high power of these radars requires the transmit site and receive site to be separated, probably so that the multi-megawatt pulses from the transmitter don’t fry the receivers. A short talk with a local before I left town seemed to indicate that the transmitter site, which is not on a military base, might be somewhat less impenetrable.

ROTHR-2It was about 100 miles away, farther from home, and I hesitated until I realized that the most wonderful barbecue joint on the planet was right on the way there. Cue the sound of a Prius peeling rubber.

Pierce’s is worth a minor digression here. Located just west of Williamsburg along I-64, and in business for more than 40 years, it is a Virginia landmark. When I posted on Facebook that I was at Pierce’s, my high school physics teacher commented that he can’t make a trip east without stopping there on the way, and again on the way back. When I lived in Charlottesville, my modus operandi was exactly the same. The meat is cooked in a pit out back, the old fashioned way, and Doc Pierce’s barbecue sauce may be the most perfect combination of spices ever to grace a piece of brisket. Needless to say, lunch was the highlight of the trip — so far.

Off I went in search of the transmitter site, and a couple of dozen back road miles later, I began to see signs that I was in the right area — literally.

ROTHR-3ROTHR-4

At the end of a gravel road lay my quarry, and it was quite a sight. There were a total of 36 towers that I could immediately see, several shorter structures, and miles of antenna and guy wire. I could get no closer than a hundred yards or so, but considering the amount of RF power that drives this array, I was happy to keep my distance. As it was, my digital camera and my car radio were having difficulties, since I was in front of the antennas. I was able to find some sweet spots where my camera wasn’t being dazzled in order to take the following photographs.

ROTHR-11

Here we see the high-band transmitting array. There are sixteen towers, all of which are grounded; they’re merely support structures. The actual antenna consists of numerous dipole pairs strung between the tower tops and the low poles in front of them. Each section of the antenna has several dipole pairs. By feeding the antennas with signals at varying phases, the signal is formed into a tight beam that can be scanned vertically and through a 60 degree azimuth range.

At the time the photo was taken, I believe that the low-band array was in use, which would explain the willingness of those crows to perch on top of the towers. Also I seemed to have less RFI trouble when I was in front of this high band array.

ROTHR-6This is the low-band transmitting array. These towers are 60 meters tall due to the longer wavelengths at these low frequencies. Other than that, the construction is much the same with 16 supporting towers and around 200 dipole pairs for steering the beam. The blue building to the right is the transmitter building. The vegetation in the foreground is a civilian farmer’s bean field between the road and the perimeter fence. Security was pretty low here — had I wanted to, I could have easily hopped across the low, plastic rail fence. The gate, which you saw earlier behind the canted sign, was wide open. The site was definitely manned, though; I spotted a HMMWV and two white vans parked near the transmitter building.

ROTHR-7

I noticed some extra towers that didn’t seem to be part of the array, and wondered about them. It turns out that they’re “sounders.”

In order to use an over the horizon radar to locate something, you’ve got to know one important bit of data. HOW HIGH is the ionospheric layer that your pulses are bouncing off of? That changes on an hourly basis, so there has to be a way to keep track of the height so that the range calculations will be correct. So there are two “sounders.” The vertical sounder (supported by those tilted tower sections in the background) sends waves straight up, and analyzes them to determine how high the layer is that reflected them. The backscatter sounder (supported by the two 60-meter towers in the foreground) sends a wide beam over the radar’s entire coverage area, and analyzes the backscatter to determine the quality of the ionospheric reflections overall.

The vertical sounder threw me at first look, because it appeared something had fallen down.

 

ROTHR-10Here’s a closer look at the transmitter building. As you can see, it’s a run-of-the-mill aluminum and steel building, although the presence of the backup generator, the heavy-duty air handler and air conditioning systems, and the hefty incoming power transformer indicate that there’s something inside that draws a lot of power and makes a lot of heat. You can see some of the RF transmission lines running on elevated posts near ground level. You also get a much better idea of the complexity of this nest of wires and insulators from this shot. At the far left edge of the picture, you see something that’s still a mystery to me. (How dare the Navy not put every technical detail of their super-secret radar on the Internet?)

ROTHR-9There are ten of these, all situated behind a chain-link fence at the back of the low-band array. Ten seems like a very strange number — each array has 16 sections, so I would have expected either eight or sixteen of these units. Are they some sort of antenna phasing devices? I cannot begin to hazard a guess, because I’ve never seen anything shaped quite like that before. The silver, reflective part looks almost like air conditioning ductwork!

You can also conclusively see in this photograph that the towers are grounded — they have non-tapered bases, and there are no base insulators to be seen. They are apparently bolted to their concrete piers.

ROTHR-5Here’s another view, from a viewpoint farther east. Here you see the high band array, from an angle that better shows the way it’s constructed. As you can see, there’s a lot of antenna wire here. At the right edge of the picture, you’re seeing the first six low poles of the low-band array, with the 60-meter towers just out of frame.

This site is on the shore of a river, and ground conductivity must be excellent. The towers are arrayed along a line from west to east, with the antennas facing due south. From west to east are the high-band array, the low-band array, and the sounders. The river is so close by, one wonders if the site ever floods and how that’s handled.

ROTHR-8

Here’s a wide look at the low-band array. The field in front of these antennas is very wide and very flat. Birds seem to love the area.

The space in front of the antennas would need to be flat to avoid interfering with the signals, but I also saw signs that the entire field may have buried beneath it a copper ground screen. Perhaps this is somehow important to the antenna’s radiation pattern.

All in all this was a fascinating site, and I’m glad I took the time to come see it. Of course, like most such visits, this one raised questions as well as providing some nice photographs. What ARE those weird units?

ROTHR-13

After nearly an hour of snapping pictures and pondering, I noticed a man in a nondescript car stop, write down my car’s license plate number, then drive away. I took that as my cue, and like these lovely birds, I decided it was time to fly home. I got to the house plenty late and mighty tired, but I think it was worth it.

Shortlink

Lawrence Baker, Part 2

Remember Lawrence Baker? Back in March of 2012, I had never heard of the fellow, but he put himself solidly on my radar by threatening my life and livelihood through a comment on my employer’s blog.

He had finally quieted down after last year’s craziness, but he’s apparently back, even though I’ve taken no action in months. He’s sent an e-mail to my employer, accusing me of slander. Let’s look at it! (The names of my employer and most other players have been redacted to protect the innocent.)

Office Manager and Owners of [EMPLOYER]:

I am writing to you about a very ugly subject—slander.

My name is Lawrence Baker and I am the inventor of “Low Pressure Turbine Dynamics” and the models of that concept are the “Baker Wind Turbines”. My concept and models are all about science and the advancement in wind energy technology.

One of my models has been accepted, on its’ own merit and in spite of the slander, by a prestigious science laboratory for empirical testing.

I am a skilled craftsman and work on my models in my shop and have no interest in, or time to, post rebuttal blogs to the slander attacks. I do however; respond with comments on my youtube videos.

One of the slanders is your Scott Johnson who is a bigger fool than the original fool slanders and has joined with them in their attack on me. I suppose I am old fashioned, but what kind of fool accepts a mans’ apology than makes an enemy out of him by joining in on the slander against him on the losing team? What kind of fool thinks that he can get away with slander without repercussions? That brings us around to [redacted] and my advice to you is that you had better get control of your fool or he is going to involve [EMPLOYER] in a fight that does not concern them—any more than it concerns fool Scott Johnson.

It is to hot to work in my shop so now I am setting in front of my computer and taking care of the low class fools. It’s easy; I do not have make a poster of the fool pig Scott Johnson with a caption below it “This [EMPLOYER] fool thinks that Penguins should wear pants in the zoo because they are indecent” Ha. Ha. And post his fat ugliness all over the net.

It was through Scott Johnson that I learned of anonymous [redacted] identity and his ownership of defunct us-vawt which lead to partner [PERSON] at [COMPANY] and partner [YET ANOTHER PERSON] at windgen.org. What is it about geek fools that they think that they can get away with a slander attack against someone else? It must be the new generation of losers to inherit the USA.

Dishonest fools are easy to expose and windgen.org honest members are taking action against the partnership and are declining to sell [COMPANY]’s junk garden ornaments as wind turbines at windgen.org – taking down their closed discussion threads and changing the discussion rules where members can’t attack non members and their threads are for members only and not spread all over the web.

Windgen.org sponsored slander is coming down, us-vawt is exposed and defunct and that leaves only Scott Johnson and his slander.

Yesterday I posted a comment on one of my video sites that are linked to us-vawt and windgen.org and I first mentioned Scott Johnson as an employee of [EMPLOYER]. Do you want to fight? You probably do not want a fight any more than I do. I am just defending myself, but by the same token, I am kicking ass.

Here is a copy of my post:

Google “Baker Wind Turbine” and you will see slander threads and blogs from no model [PERSON] defunct us-vawt, [PERSON] windgen.org and Scott Johnson a fool geek employee of [EMPLOYER]. I have enduring science models; they have nothing more then un-enduring low-life slander.

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Arthur Schopenhauer.

Like I said, I am old fashioned with honor, I can only presume [EMPLOYER] is as well. You may all be as low class as Scott Johnson, your actions and time will tell. Please get control of your fool employee and tell him to take his shit down before he embroils [EMPLOYER] in this scandal.

Well, at least there are no death threats this time. So far.

Shortlink

Who’s That Voice 2.0: The Global Edition [CANCELLED]

UPDATE 2 August 2013: Due to lack of interest, I’ve cancelled this. Sorry.

We’re going to have a little fun. A few years ago, in a previous blog, I asked a group of British friends from the SimonG Blogring to record themselves reading a paragraph I provided. Those voice files were given to me without identification, and it was my mission to match the voices to the people. My performance was far short of spectacular, but it was terrific fun for me, and apparently for those who participated, too.

Recently, two of my friends, whose professional mercenary aliases are Omally and Mort, approached me about possibly repeating the exercise with a twist. Instead of just UK voices, we’d include everyone. Then we would post it as a quiz so that everyone could enter their guesses and join in the fun.

It’s taken me a while to find the time to figure out the particulars, but while I’ve got the blog and the ability to do it, I’d like to proceed!

Want in on the fun? Here’s what to do.

First, make a recording of yourself reading the following paragraph. I think that this time, we’ll use the first paragraph of “The Red Badge of Courage,” by Stephen Crane, an American war novel first published in 1895.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.

Just read the paragraph in your normal speaking voice. Please don’t use any affectations or ersatz accents other than your normal vocal inflections — don’t read it as Kermit the Frog or a Dalek or a minion unless you are one in real life. Please just be yourself.

You can send me the recording in any form at all, but a simple 128Kbps MP3 file will be just fine. Do try to use the best recording equipment and environment you can easily access. The microphones in many laptops are up to the task, as are the mics in some webcams. Some smartphones will allow audio recording, too. Get help from a technically adept friend if this seems intimidating. It’ll be fun, and I promise no one will laugh at you — if they do, I’ll ban them with extreme prejudice. :)

Name your recording with your first and last name (i.e. scott_johnson.mp3 or john_doe.aiff), and e-mail it to [address removed] Then leave a comment here letting me know your name, city (and county if in the UK), and country, and that you’ve sent me an audio file.

When we put up the quiz, the questions will look something like this:

Who’s that voice?

[PLAY AUDIO]

Is it:

  1. Scott Johnson, New Bern, NC, USA
  2. Neil Stevens, Tadley, UK
  3. David Windsor, New Haw, UK
  4. Ed Lang, Troy, VA, USA

I don’t get to play this time, because I’ll know all the answers … but I will throw my voice into the mix for you to guess at!

Please help me publicize this. Pass it around among your friends and contacts. Let’s make a real game of it!

Shortlink

Exotic Birds Dunn Right!

I found myself with a Saturday that was completely unspoken for this past weekend, and Raymond expressed a strong desire to get out of the house for a while. We decided to go on a photo safari and set about looking for interesting subject matter.

Allison, browsing the web, emcountered a web site that looked interesting. Duffie’s Exotic Bird Ranch in Dunn, NC was just a couple of hours away and purported to have a large collection of birds. Being bird people, how could we not check it out? Off we went, westward into the setting sun.

We arrived at about 5:00 PM and, following the GPS, found ourselves in a rural, apparently residential driveway. We were met by owner Bo McLamb, a pleasant older gentleman with a firm handshake and a ready smile. We were given a brief orientation, after which we were free to explore.

I’ve been to a lot of bird exhibits, and if I’m to be perfectly honest, most of them make me sick. I see birds that are malnourished and in poor health, I see birds kept in conditions I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and I see outright abuse. I say that only so that you will know that as I walked among the birds at Duffie’s, I saw none of this, and the smile never left my face. Not only has Mr. McLamb collected an impressive menagerie of unusual and interesting birds, but every one of them is in fine feather and excellent health. While some of the birds, such as the parrots and cockatoos, are confined to enclosures, they’re HUGE enclosures, big enough to fly around in, connected to fully enclosed shelter and well protected from predators. The birds all have ample, flowing water and plenty of food available.

It’s nesting season for ducks, geese, and swans, and we passed many nests being tended by nervous parents who would have really preferred that we just go away, and we did, eventually. It took nearly two hours to walk the full extent of the property, and I came away with some great photos and a lot of respect for a fellow bird lover. (Photos to follow in a day or two.)

If you find yourself in the area and you’re at all interested in birds, stop in, say hello, and take the inexpensive walking tour ($5, a real bargain). Say hello to Mr. McLamb, a fellow with a big heart who has created something really special.

Shortlink

A Fresh Start

I hate digging up new WordPress templates, but I thought a slight change in the look of the blog was in order, because I’m changing some other things, too.

You’ll find some content gone. In some cases it’s gone because I never should have written it. In other cases, it’s gone because it’s depressing. In any case, it’s gone and won’t be coming back, so that’s behind us.

I’ve also gone through some of the old content that was unfinished. I had a number of blog entries sitting around that I’d started some time ago, and never got around to finishing. I finished a couple of those and they’re posted below. I put a bit of work into a few more that are still unfinished; you’ll probably see them soon. A couple of those articles are going to be very difficult for me to post — one of them makes a revelation that I have held onto for many years, and which will probably not make people like me very much, but it’s time to stop holding it in.

Sorry for the downtime. All this work needed to be done and I’ve had precious little time to sit down and do it. You’ll see more here in the future, if I can manage to discipline myself to write regularly.

Shortlink

Feathered Kids

[I started writing this article over two years ago. I’ve finally taken the time to go back and clean it up, removing some content that didn’t make sense anymore and adding a bit of new information. If you notice it doesn’t hang together perfectly, that’s why. –Scott]

I am probably never going to have genetic offspring. I’m not bitter about that because it’s no one’s fault but my own. I married too young, and that marriage failed. Then, after 10 years of running scared, I married again, this time to someone for whom marital fidelity meant not getting caught, and wasted 10 years rationalizing before pulling the ejection handle a second time.  I’m too old for fatherhood now. It’s something I no longer allow to bother me. The mental gymnastics that have allowed me to accept it without feeling blue are complex, but they work and I’m fine.  I am married now to someone I respect, and instead of children, I have birds.

My life’s been filled with the happy sounds of birds lately, and the sounds often annoy my sensitive ears. I let it upset me sometimes, but I really should not, because I have known the silence of their absence. At those times when I become morose, I remind myself of how lucky and blessed I really am.  My lovely and wonderful wife, Allison, has (to my great surprise and utter enchantment) completely accepted and even come to share my love of birds. When we first met, the only bird in my life was a cockatiel named Big Bird, who had belonged to my mother before her passing. I had never cared for a cockatiel before and probably would not have adopted one on my own, but my mother loved this bird and asked me before her death to make sure that her feathered child was well cared for.

I have always loved parrots and birds in general, and I have learned a great deal about taking care of them.  From the late 1990s, there were three birds in my life.  I lost two of them in close succession in late 2005. Phoenix, my very first parrot and the most talkative nanday conure I have ever known, passed away quite suddenly on the morning of October 12, an event that left me completely inconsolable. Only a few months later, a heartless judge awarded custody of my beloved blue and gold macaw, Sammy, to my ex-wife as part of the divorce settlement, and I have no idea what became of him.

2006 left me with only Big Bird, and with the changes in my living situation, I soon found that she and I were a large enough family unit for the time being. When I elected to move in with Allison, one of my first and biggest concerns was whether or not Big Bird would be accepted. I remember arriving with her little cage and finding a cozy place waiting for her, with a nice, warm bird blanket to cover her cage at night and a sign that said, “WELCOME BIG BIRD,” and I remember shedding tears of relief and joy.

Allison and her son Ray took to Big Bird immediately, and she to them. Ray and Big Bird would talk as he worked and played at his computer. Allison bought her treats and laughed at the way she would mimic laughter and short phrases. Big Bird was part of the family and very much loved, and I have the comfort of knowing that her days with us were happy and stress-free.

One night, Ray noticed that Big Bird seemed just a little off. She wasn’t climbing around much, but she didn’t seem terribly sick and she seemed to be eating and drinking. I worried, but there was little chance of finding an emergency vet who would see a cockatiel at midnight, so we covered her cage warmly and planned to get her to the vet’s office first thing the next morning.

I couldn’t sleep. I was up every hour or two checking on her, and there was little change. I finally fell asleep for a few hours just before dawn, and when I checked on her, she was lifeless.

Allison’s parents have a house on a lake in a mountain community nearby. Allison’s father understands as few do the way I feel about animals, because he feels great affection for the animals in his life, too. He graciously offered me a resting place for Big Bird, and there she lies today, still much loved and never to be forgotten. I have discovered myriad reasons to admire and respect Allison’s father; this is but one of them.

My life has been much more complete and has had far more purpose and meaning since I met Allison, but I must admit that Big Bird’s passing left a bird-shaped emptiness in me that nothing else could seem to fill. I missed the sounds, I think, but mostly I just missed Big Bird and the odd sort of passive, avian companionship she gave me. Allison seemed to know this. One Sunday, she suggested going to a bird fair that was being held at the Farmer’s Market, and we drove down. We didn’t really go with the intention of getting a bird, but the thought probably was not far from either of our minds.

As we arrived, just inside the door, we came across a breeder who had two freshly-weaned, hand-fed green-cheeked conures. (Pyrrhura molinae) Allison asked if we could see them, and we could immediately tell that these were very well socialized birds who had been brought up unusually well. The one I ended up handling was very sweet, soaking up affection and cuddling like a teddy bear, and in the end I think she sort of chose us. Allison and I had a brief discussion and both knew the bird was coming home with us.

Some hours later, a little green bird named Kelly was happily nibbling away at some healthy bird food and enjoying her spacious new cage. I was both excited and a little intimidated by the fact that she was only eight or nine weeks old, and that her socialization and training were entirely up to us. She learned to play “peek-a-bird,” hiding behind her cage cover and popping her head out suddenly. Though we’d named her Kelly, all of us had trouble remembering to call her anything other than “Baby Bird,” and those turned out to be her first words.

We needn’t have worried; Baby Bird has grown up to be a lively, talkative bird with a very strong, captivating personality.  She loves company and talks to us constantly, learning new words almost daily.

We became regulars at the quarterly bird shows in Forest Park, mainly because that was the best place to find really good prices on the specially formulated foods that parrot-like birds need.  While shopping one weekend, we passed the table of a breeder displaying a big, red female eclectus parrot (Eclectus roratus roratus).  The bird was in a cage far too small for it, but she seemed to be dealing well with the situation.  She even said a few faint words to us as we peeked in on her.  When we asked the breeder about her, we were told a surprising story.

“That bird is mean and will bite anyone who comes near her,” we were told.  She’d been raised from a hatchling and kept in the home at first, but eventually other birds and other priorities had relegated her to life in a barn.   The cage she was in was filthy, and her severe malnutrition was evidenced by the bowl full of seeds in her cage and the appallingly orange color of the root of her beak.  When we asked to see her, the breeder reached into the cage with a towel and pinned her to the wall until she submitted out of sheer terror, a stressful event I only just managed to witness without physical intervention of my own.

Allison and I, after visiting with the bird for a few minutes, stepped outside to talk.  I know what I’m about when it comes to handling parrots, and the few minutes of interaction with this bird had told me that the breeder had no idea how wrong he was.  This was not a mean, aggressive bird.  This was a bird who had been fed crap, abused, and neglected until she was half-insane with stress.  I could not stand to see a bird treated that way, and Allison soon revealed that she felt the same way.  Neither of us was comfortable not doing something, and the only thing we could imagine doing was taking her home and making her well. We hadn’t come looking for a bird, but we concluded that we did have room for one, and that this bird needed us.  We decided to give her a home.

It was now time for Allison to do her thing.  Allison knows how to bargain with people, and when she goes after something, she generally gets it.  She quickly and expertly reached a deal with the breeder that made sense to all of us.  To him it was a minor loss, and to us it was the cost of a rescue.  In any event, Jojo came home with us.

At first, she lived up to the reputation her breeder had given her.  My first few attempts to take her out of the carrier cage were met with rather fierce aggression.  An eclectus has a sizeable beak with the power of a pair of Vise-Grip™ pliers, and she made hamburger of my right hand in short order.  Slow progress was made and trust was built, and within a couple of hours, Jojo took her first cautious step onto my hand.  The joy of knowing that my instincts were right, that this was not a mean and aggressive bird, was overpowering.

Jojo quickly became a part of the family, even though she’s most assuredly the oddball of the bunch.  She still reacts with nervous aggression when handled or approached by women.  Her favorite call is the raucous “caw” of a crow, obviously learned during her life in the barn.   She eats a healthy diet now, but still won’t take food offered by hand.  Her beak is now a deep, healthy black all over, and she’s in a nice, big cage with room to spare.

Mila, our big blue and gold macaw (Ara ararauna), entered our lives when we decided to visit a parrot rescue organization located in middle Georgia. They were having an open house, and we were looking forward to seeing what a well-run rescue organization looked like.

We’re still waiting. I won’t name the place or its proprietors, but it was a horrific place. At the time, I think I likened it to Auschwitz for birds, and I apologize if the Holocaust reference offends; this is the image it conjured up. Dozens, hundreds of birds were crowded into haphazardly constructed aviaries and cages. Many looked ill or seemed to have mental issues. Piles of abandoned cages and junk lined the property. It was upsetting and heart-wrenching to see, and neither of us could manage to look on this horror for very long. As we were about to leave, we noticed a blue and gold macaw who had apparently just arrived. We thought he looked happy and healthy and bright-eyed, and we both knew he wouldn’t be that way very long once he was out in that prison yard.

After some interaction, both we and the shelter owner agreed that the bird, named “Miles,” seemed to welcome our attention. We adopted him on the spot. Miles spent his first couple of nights in a somewhat cramped cage while we made necessary arrangements for a larger one, but he took it in stride and was quickly feeling right at home once he was in roomier quarters. A visit to the avian vet was in order, and a clean bill of health was given to … what’s this? … our female macaw? Oh dear. Seeking a name that wouldn’t be too confusing, we quickly replaced “Miles” with “Mila.” She still calls herself “Miles” now and then, and we smile and say her proper name.

Radar, a Nanday conure (Nandayus nenday), adopted me at a bird show in Norcross, Georgia. Allison and I were admiring a whole clutch of very young Nandays, not even really old enough to fly. One of them kept fluttering to me, though, every time I stepped close enough to the cage. We were doing photographs at that show, so over the course of those two days, I came back a few times, and each time I stepped anywhere near the Nanday cage, that same Nanday would fly a foot or two to grab onto my shirt. It was heartwarming, and despite the irrationality of it, I could not help feeling that the spirit of Phoenix, who had also been a Nanday, was reaching out to me. Allison talked about adopting him even before I did. He was named Radar after Radar O’Reilly, a character on M*A*S*H who almost always wears an army jeep cap. (Nandays have a solid black head that looks a lot like a stocking cap.)

Two Timneh African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus timneh) live with us. They belong to Allison’s daughter, Chelsea, whose living situation currently won’t accommodate them. Their names, Phantom and Christine, reflect both Chelsea’s love of The Phantom of the Opera and (in Phantom’s case) their scarred appearance when we rescued them. A naive person who thought they might breed put them in the same cage, not giving them much attention. Christine had plucked Phantom completely bald, and Christine wasn’t in much better condition for the retaliation she endured. We separated them, gave them the right food, lots of attention, and more space, and they are both presently thriving. Phantom’s feather follicles were sufficiently damaged that some may never recover, but he’s grown most of his feathers back and he’s happy and comfortable. They’re a hoot to have around, especially since Chelsea has taught Christine to make a really loud farting sound whenever her beak is pulled.

The seventh and latest member of our flock is Boo-Boo, a severe macaw. Boo-Boo was purchased by a man for his children, and his children didn’t like him. (This happens often — people have no idea that an animal is NOT a gift, and that parrots have long lifespans, and that parrots require a lot of attention. That’s why there are so many rescue birds.)

Not only did the children not like Boo-Boo, but they taunted him, and he went a little crazy. He babbles (“whatever, bird, whatever,” probably imitating the kids), he overpreens, he only grudgingly accepts grooming, and he screams. Our initial hope was to rescue him and immediately find him a good home with someone who could care for him properly, but his current problems make him a very poor candidate for re-homing. Allison’s son Raymond has sort of stepped in and is working with him every day, and his behavior is improving, but he’s got a long way to go. I’m pretty good with birds, but at times even I am at a loss as to how to make progress with him. If it were easy anyone could do it, I guess.

So I imagine it must be with parenting.

Shortlink

Four Tips for Sounding Like Crap

In the world of live sound reinforcement, it seems that a multitude of small bands, worship teams, and musical groups are forever striving for that coveted, “crappy” sound that’s become the norm today. As a service to these striving masses, I offer this guide.  If you follow my advice, particularly with respect to dealing with audio professionals, we’ll have you sounding like crap in no time.

1. Eschew microphone technique.

It may sound like a simple, obvious move, but one of the easiest ways to increase the crappiness of your sound is to give up all pretense of microphone technique.  Vocalists should hold their microphones at waist level, preferably pointed anywhere other than at their mouths. This will ensure that the tortured soul at the mixing console will be able to hear nothing from your microphone until the gain approaches the threshold of feedback, resulting in a joyously crappy howl that will set your audience or congregation’s teeth on edge. For extra credit, during times when you’re not singing, point the microphone directly at the nearest monitor speaker.

2. Go without a sound check.

Sound checks are the enemies of crappiness. During a sound check, your engineer will have an opportunity to see what’s about to happen, destroying the element of surprise when the backing vocalist standing in the back starts his solo. Sound checks also allow equalization and levels to be set, which will greatly detract from the crappiness of the performance. A sound check is also an opportunity for things like loose connections and bad cables, which are key to a lousy sound, to be found and corrected.

3. Twiddle your instrument volume constantly.

Sure, you’ve spent years perfecting your technique of playing really, really softly during sound checks (see above), then cranking it up to 11 during the actual performance. This is a splendid way to blow your engineer’s carefully set level out of the water, and perhaps overload the console input as well. Signals that are clipped to squarewave really capture the audience’s attention, but this falls short of the mark when it comes to true crappiness. To truly excel in this field, it’s necessary to constantly fiddle with the volume of your instrument. Turn it up until it distorts! Wait until the engineer adjusts as best he can, then turn it down to a whisper. Wait until you hear the telltale hiss that indicates he’s maxed out the channel trim trying to hear you, then repeat until either the speakers blow or the engineer takes up binge drinking.

4. Obsess over monitor mixes.

True rock gods know that the audience (if any) is a mere detail; they’re along for the ride. What’s really important is that every monitor mix on the stage be absolutely, high-fidelity, straight-up perfect. Especially yours. You and all of the other musicians must insist at all times that your instrument, and only your instrument, be the loudest thing on stage. Monitors must be set to ear-splitting volume, because if this isn’t done, there is a small but definitely nonzero chance that your audience might hear some of the sound coming from the house speakers. You can also help ensure that monitor mixes are never stable, balanced, or correct by practicing step 3 above. The more you twiddle your volume, the more the engineer will have to twiddle the monitor levels, until eventually he either throws up his hands or flips out and fells you with a deftly swung mic stand.

Follow these simple tips, and I can promise you that at your next gig, people will run from the house screaming, unprepared to handle the majestic crappiness of your sound. As Walt Disney used to say, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Shortlink

Payola

I’ve been giving a lot of thought over the past few days to the nature of the music industry. Most of that thought has probably been provoked by the show I’m working on; I’m mixing sound for a local civic theatre production of the musical, “Dreamgirls.” It’s about three girls trying hard to make it in the music world, and along the way it shows us the ugly side of an industry, a side no one sees.

When I took my first full-time radio job back in 1982, I had to sign a document drawn up by my employer, swearing that I would accept no remuneration, no compensation, no gifts and no money from any outside entity to either play or not play any particular record. Every station did this, and every station still does. It’s because of a practice that rocked the radio world starting in the 1930s: payola.

In the idealist’s view, radio in the early half of the twentieth century was pretty simple. Disc Jockeys, the pilots of the airwaves, played the music they liked and thought would be popular; if a record did well, record sales would go up, and the artist would get paid.

The reality was (and is) not quite so rosy. Record companies, having a vested interest in making their artists popular, would make friends with the country’s top disc jockeys. “Make friends,” of course, is a euphemism for showering them with money, gifts, and other inducements. All you needed to get a record played was money, and lots of it. Once the DJ’s became puppets of the record companies, exposure was a simple matter of greasing the right palm.

Starting in the 1960s, the government noticed that some of the inducements given to disc jockeys were beginning to involve drugs. That woke someone up, and as payola was investigated, it was discovered that it went further than anyone had imagined. Big names like Alan Freed, Tom Clay, and Dick Clark were all involved in payola scandals that either cost them their jobs or greatly impacted their popularity and credibility. The crackdown intensified.

Of course, even as payola became less of a standard practice, the success of records still hinged on money, as it does today. Record companies found a way around the law. Independent record promoters were retained by the record companies to carry their message (and their money) to the radio stations. Since the record companies weren’t paying the stations directly, they could insulate themselves from any claim of payola — if a question arose, the promoter would simply take the fall, but it seldom happened. It was less than ten years ago when an FCC investigation determined (and codified) that even this did, in fact, represent payola. Several record companies as well as a few large broadcasting corporations paid hefty settlements while admitting nothing, just to make the bad publicity go away.

So, we might quite reasonably conclude that this is the way the music industry has always operated. The popular artists are the ones who have record companies pouring money into their recording sessions, their tours, their publicity, and their distribution. The struggling artists are the ones who have either small labels or no label at all backing them, and therefore have little money. It’s not about talent. It’s not about artistry. It’s about money.

We could put a federal agent in every record promoter’s office, and have another one guarding the desk and phone of every program director, music director, and radio station owner in the country, and it would still be the same. Getting a record out there, giving it exposure, getting it airplay — all these things cost money. Putting the artist’s face on billboards, posters, and magazine covers costs money, too. People can’t like a record they never hear. Hit records cost money long before they make money, payola or no.

So here’s my question. Why is payola illegal?

Seriously, I know that sounds crazy, but it sounds like we’ve taken the entire basis of mainstream hit music, like it or not, and made it illegal, forcing everyone to do tap dances around complicated regulations in order to do exactly what they were going to do all along. Whether a record company is throwing a few million dollars to jocks or programmers to get a record played, or throwing a few million dollars into a flight of TV ads for that same record, the result is really the same. People who like the music will go buy the record. People who are impressionable and don’t really know what to like will allow either the ad or the DJ to tell them that this is what they should like, and they’ll go buy it. People who don’t like that style of music won’t be influenced by either method.

Either way, money = popularity. We allow candidates for public office to spend as much money as they want (with certain restrictions) on their political campaigns. I can’t quote actual statistics, but I’d be willing to bet that the guy who spends the most money has the best chance of getting elected, provided he doesn’t go on a red-faced screaming rant, claim she can see Russia from her house, or engineer a burglary. Just as in a political campaign, a record’s popularity and success depends entirely on the amount of exposure it gets — in other words, upon how many people hear its message.

In Dreamgirls, speaking of trying to kill a competitor’s record to make his a success, the character Curtis Taylor, Jr., says, “If I can buy a hit, I can buy a flop.” Funding positive campaigns is legal. Funding a negative campaign is legal. Only in the music industry do we pretend that these things are more evil and make them crimes.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish, more than you can imagine, that the success of a record was solely a function of its quality. I wish that the really talented artists, the singer-songwriters, the wonderfully gifted people who are now trapped in the doldrums of the industry, toiling away on small indie labels and dreaming of mainstream fame could achieve it merely by being just that good. New technologies like Internet radio and podcasts have given us new, very accessible distribution channels, but by the same token, they’ve widened the playing field to such an extent that any individual player is all but invisible … and we’re back to needing promotion.

I’m not advocating that we drop all the payola laws. I’m just wondering if it’s not time to re-think what we consider a crime, in light of how hypocritical these laws have become.

Shortlink

Renthead

People who know me in any way other than casual acquaintance are probably well aware that my favorite musical is RENT, but to call it my favorite musical is to shortchange its importance to me. I know how this sounds, but RENT changed my life. When I first saw it in 1996, in a tiny theatre off-Broadway in New York, it shook me to my very core.

RENT is easy to love but hard to describe. Jonathan Larson, who wrote the words and music, was advised to draft a one-sentence description of the show to help him focus, and he found that to be an incredibly difficult task. He settled on this one: “RENT is about a community celebrating life, in the face of death and AIDS, at the turn of the century.”

Larson died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm the night before the show was to open off-Broadway. He never saw his show performed before a paying audience, and his passing gave the cast and crew a powerful emotional commission. Some say that RENT’s success was born of tragedy. Larson’s passing certainly formed part of my connection to the show when I learned that he had Marfan Syndrome — my own father died from the same condition, far too young, a decade and a half earlier.

Shortly before he died, Larson wrote:

“In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and [we] should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life at the end of the millennium.”

I’ve lived a comparatively sheltered life. I have never been addicted to drugs or alcohol. I have always had a roof over my head, sufficient food to eat, and the means to secure an education and a job in my chosen field. I have never been persecuted for my sexual orientation. I’m not sick and I’m not dying. I have had my share of failed relationships but I have a wife who loves me. I have friends. I’m richly blessed, I think, and in a way, that’s a handicap.

I was brought up as a Christian by a family that was, by today’s standards, unforgivably narrow-minded. I was taught that you worshipped a certain way or you went to hell. I was taught that homosexuality was a choice and a sin, that addiction and alcoholism were things that happened to people we prayed for but never wanted to know. Homeless people were bums, victims of their own laziness. I didn’t know any better. As I grew older and built a life for myself, I began to realize how wrong-headed this way of thinking was, and what followed was a crisis of faith, of morality, and of my entire world view that lasted a decade or more. It was an ugly, bitter struggle which ended when I saw RENT.

I walked into that theatre a confused, ignorant, misguided man programmed with certain reactions. When I saw a gay cross-dresser dancing across the stage, I knew I was supposed to feel uncomfortable, but I found myself smiling and laughing. When Angel and Collins kissed, I knew I should experience revulsion, but it didn’t come; instead, I felt joy. Each of the musical numbers in the show held something I could identify with, something I could gain insight from, something that broke down a wall or opened a window. This show held more reality in its pages and staves than anything I’d ever known. I sat, tears streaming down my face, as I saw the characters face conflict, face disease, face persecution, face death … and celebrate life. That night, I sat in my hotel room, sleepless, replaying in my head what I’d heard and seen, and feeling the pathways of my mind realigning. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.

A year or so later I found myself working in a series of situations that required travel; a great deal of that travel took me to New York to do work at network television facilities, recording studios, and radio stations. Each time I found myself in the city, I managed to see RENT, which was now a Broadway hit. I developed a deep and abiding love for the show and its characters. Sometimes, when work allowed, I’d enter the lottery and try for a seat in the first two rows. Other times I’d get tickets through Ticketmaster, or take what I could get from the TKTS kiosk when funds were tight. If I could convince someone to go with me, I brought them along, because it was rewarding to me to share the experience. Almost every time, I noticed something I’d previously missed: a line, a gesture, or something in the background.

The show underwent a gradual metamorphosis as cast members, musicians, and crew came and went, but the message and its impact on me were always the same. I came to identify strongly with the character Mark, who absorbs himself in his work, isolating himself from life’s joy as well as life’s pain. I also never failed to shed tears when Gordon, a supporting character I also see a lot of myself in, delivered his gripping line about intellect and reason versus hope and affirmation.

Fast-forward to August, 2012. I have now seen RENT performed 26 times. One of those was the original off-Broadway NYTW production. Twenty were on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre, and five were touring shows. I have DVD copies of the final 2008 Broadway performance, which I love, and of the Chris Columbus film, of which I am not very fond despite its authentic cast. I have become what many people call a “RENThead,” and I wear that label with great pride, even though it’s often used pejoratively.

One of my co-workers was in my office one day and noticed the mounted, original RENT poster that hangs on my wall. He casually remarked that he was going to be playing guitar in a local production. I nearly fell out of my chair! I knew the show must have already been in rehearsals for months, but I quickly sent an e-mail to the theatre group anyway, asking if I could help in any way and hoping not to sound too desperate. Fortunately, they found a place for me.

How naive was I to think that RENT would change my life only once.

The last couple of weeks have been a series of welcome challenges. I shot and edited headshots for all 19 principal and ensemble cast members, which were needed for display in the theatre lobby. I also shot over 500 frames during various rehearsals, and picked the best 70 or so as production stills. Best of all, the director asked that I shoot and edit two pieces of film that appear in the finale of the show — Mark’s film!

Along the way, I have met some wholly remarkable people. I will be honest about my initial expectations: I thought I’d have to bite my tongue and endure a lot of compromises in this local production of my beloved musical. Instead, I find myself marveling at the fact that these local actors really understand their roles. They own the characters they play; they portray them faithfully even as each brings a bit of himself or herself to the performance. To me, someone who is really, really picky about RENT, this cast is perfect, and I feel extremely lucky to be working with such talented people. The crew are also very dedicated, professional, and committed. I am honored to have made such a beautiful group of souls my newest friends.

Despite my late arrival and my obsessive RENThead nature, everyone on the cast and crew has welcomed me, and for the first time in my life, I have the feeling of being part of a RENT family. Sometimes, when I’m working hard, I am too focused to notice just how special that is. But when I have time to sit and reflect, I am almost overwhelmed. The two shows I’ve just seen have been more powerfully emotional to me than the first 26 were, because I’m inside them, playing a small part in making the magic happen. I know that the next three will be just as amazing.

This past weekend, I saw RENT performed to a sold-out house both nights — something I hoped for but could never have expected. In a small town situated squarely in the Bible belt, acceptance triumphed over prudishness. I’m proud of New Bern! While many small towns actually cancel performances because of outraged audiences, our town is actually adding a fifth performance to the schedule!

I’m looking forward to this weekend’s three shows, but perhaps more than the actual performances, I will treasure the experience that got us here. Like that first performance in 1996, this journey will leave me not quite the same as I was before. The memories will be a part of me for the rest of my life.

At the end of a show, there’s a lot going on. The audience wants to meet and greet the cast, equipment needs to be put to bed, and people are running in every direction. There’s not a lot of time to express the feelings that RENT always brings out. I’m sure on closing night, emotions will be running at an all-time high, so let me say this now. To my new friends, the cast and company of RENT, congratulations, and thank you. You have performed RENT beautifully, with integrity and style, and you have made a RENThead’s dream come true. I am in awe of every one of you.

Shortlink

Music and Cars

I was listening to music in my car on the way to work this morning, and realized that of all the things that are important to me about having a car, having a decent sound system ranks pretty high on the list. Even though my drive to work every morning is quite short, it means a lot to me to be able to fill that time with music I want to hear.

Time I spend in the car is the only time out of the entire day that I can listen to whatever I want. I have no constraints other than time. I need not worry about disturbing anyone else while I’m in my own little isolation chamber. I don’t have to choose music based on what others might want to hear. I don’t have to listen to an entire song if I don’t want to; I can jump freely between artists, genres, and styles at will as my own whim dictates.

Just as people are often judged by the cars they drive, have you ever noticed that people are often judged by the music they listen to? When I was in high school, the music you liked was your entrée into entire social cliques; the cool kids listened to one group of artists, while listening to other styles might brand you a ‘nerd’ or simply uncool and socially unclean. I was a choir member! Can you imagine the sort of ostracism that came from enjoying the sort of music, both sacred and secular, that choirs sang? Of course, I didn’t care much. Most of my interests (audio, photography, electronics, computers) placed me decisively in nerd territory, and there I stayed for my entire high school career. Some people understood, some jeered, and I remained myself.

Today, I still listen to a lot of music that most people would find odd. As an audio and recording engineer, my career has brought me into close contact with a wide variety of musical styles, most of which I have embraced and come to appreciate. Still, my tastes gravitate strongly toward a style that is ever-increasingly unacceptable among most of the people who surround me. I am not ashamed of the music I like. Let me say that again; I am NOT ashamed of the music I like, but I still avoid listening to it in the presence of others because more likely than not, they’ll be offended or put off by it. It’s not always cool.

To illustrate this, I’ve just pulled out my iPhone and hit “shuffle” on the iPod app. I’m going to list the first five songs that come up, completely at random, and tell you why they’re there.

1. Terry Jacks – Seasons in the Sun. I have loved this song since it came out in the 1970s, while I was still in elementary school. At least one of my middle school choirs sang it, since it was so popular. Later, I came to appreciate the very cool guitar tone in the intro.

2. Eddy Grant – Electric Avenue. I probably wouldn’t catch much flak for this one. It’s got an infectious rhythm, and the synthesizer bits are tasty, too.

3. Dan Fogelberg – Part of the Plan. This song, like most of Fogelberg’s repertoire, has great lyrics and a powerful melody. I like acoustic guitars and I like interesting chord progressions; this song has plenty of both.

4. Billy Joel – Leningrad. I’m not the biggest Billy Joel fan, but I like many of his songs. This one’s got a story that grabbed me from the beginning, even though the music and the medody are pretty predictable. The general theme, the assertion that we’re all human, all on the same side regardless of political boundaries, resonates strongly with me.

5. Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone Again, Naturally. Okay, it’s depressing — suicidal, even! I can’t get away from the cleverness of the lyrics, though, or the understated beauty of the arrangement. It also expresses a lot of truths. “It seems to me that there are more hearts broken in the world that can’t be mended, left unattended. What do we do? What do we do?”

It is perhaps fortunate that one artist that’s well represented in my music library did not pop up, but I’ll not spare myself that embarrassment either. I like Barry Manilow’s music, particularly the earlier songs. I hate “I Write The Songs,” and I tire of the Manilow Formula (Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, MODULATION, Chorus) but his songs were always finely orchestrated and beautifully recorded (by engineer Mike DeLugg, who is now the audio engineer for the David Letterman show). I heard an unreleased, alternate mix of “Weekend in New England” this morning that was sent to me by a mastering engineer. That’s the sort of music I’d listen to furtively, at low volume, with earbuds if there were people around, but this morning I turned up the volume and let the soundfield surround me. Every instrument had its place, spatially, spectrally, and musically, and my ears rejoiced. It may sound arrogant when I say it, but I believe that only a mixer can truly appreciate a great mix in all its nuances and details, and I got a real charge out of this one.

I wish that music were not a status symbol. I wish that people could open their minds and ears and realize that all music has something to say to us, if we’ll only listen.

I once had a painful conversation with a good friend who is many years my senior. It was his opinion that absolutely none of the popular music made from the 1970s onward was any damned good at all — that it had no musical value, no artistry, no beauty. I tried giving a few examples and arguing my side, but was politely told that it was no use — that we were, as he put it, “miles apart on this.”

I hope I never get to that point. Granted, there’s some truly awful music being made today. Now that anyone with two thousand dollars to throw around can have a pretty serious recording setup, the bar has been lowered considerably. Music is still being made, though, and much of it has something to say, even to a geezer like me. I dislike “rap” in general, but I can recognize the incredible talent that a good freestyler must have. I don’t care for the twangier, lowbrow side of country music, but excellent musicianship and understandable lyrics do argue strongly in favor of it as an art. Play something for me from any genre, any style, and any artist and I will probably find something in it that I can appreciate or even develop a taste for.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream. Mine is that someday, I’ll be able to put my iPod on shuffle and plug it into a set of speakers, right out in front of God and everybody, and not have anyone give me sidelong glances because Kenny Rogers’ “You Decorated My Life” or John Gorka’s “Flying Red Horse” is in there.

Until then, my car is my concert hall, my sanctuary, my stereo on wheels, and my secret place.

Shortlink

Lawrence Baker

I was plugging along at work yesterday, minding my own business, when suddenly my e-mail alert sounded. Someone had posted a comment to my employer’s blog, which I manage, and it had been flagged for moderation. I needed to log in and either approve or delete it.

The comment was on a blog story where my writer interviewed me about my history in networked digital audio. The story was accompanied by my picture. The comment read:

Author : Lawrence Baker (IP: 184.12.165.113,
              184-12-165-113.dr02.kgmn.az.frontiernet.net)
E-mail : windcatch@gmail.com
URL    :
Whois  : http://whois.arin.net/rest/ip/184.12.165.113
Comment:
Now that I know where you get your bread and butter, 
you fat son of a bitch, I’m coming after you shit bag! 
You will never be able to hide from me and I am going 
to break you if it takes the rest of my life!
Windgen.org -HuH- You convoluted geek creep!

 

At first, I didn’t really pay much attention to this, but reading it a second and third time, it started to become disturbing. He knows I’m fat, he knows I’m a geek; what else does he know? I decided it was time for some research.

First, I did the polite thing. I replied to his comment.

Mr. Baker,

Thanks very much for your comment, quoted below. I will 
be forwarding it, along with any other information I can 
gather, to your ISP (Frontier) and to the FBI. Have a 
great day.

     Scott Johnson

 

Lawrence Baker

Next, I decided that it was time for some research. I had never heard of Lawrence Baker until this comment arrived, so I started with the Gmail address he’d given. I found it everywhere. He’s posted a long-winded, rambling diatribe about some wind turbine he’s invented (the Baker WInd Turbine) to every wind and alternative energy forum he could find, attaching that e-mail address in the open. That’s not smart on any of several levels.

Some of his online profiles carry a picture. As posted, it’s completely unrecognizable, backlit, with the face hidden in shadows. That didn’t seem fair to me, so I ran it through photoshop and modified the contrast curve. Hello, Mr. Baker — bet you didn’t know all that detail was there!

He mentioned windgen.org, and at first I thought that was his web site, but visiting the forums there, I was surprised to see that he’s only a member, and that he’s been banned for going on insulting, inflammatory rants there.

Finally, doing some searches for his name AND mine turned up a clue. Some other fellow named Scott Johnson has apparently been following Baker around on the forums, and posting that Baker’s turbine is nothing but a scam. Ignoring for a moment that my namesake probably has a point, it seems likely that Mr. Baker, being the type to shoot first and ask questions later, has probably come to the ludicrous conclusion that I’m the one attacking his invention.

Mr. Baker is also widely known on a host of edgy political web sites, and expresses some truly eye-catching opinions there, too, in addition to further showcasing his bad temper and windy tendencies.

Regardless of the value of his invention or the truth of his claims, it became entirely clear to me that Lawrence Baker is a wack job of the first order, and that made his threat at least minimally credible. With that in mind, I visited the FBI / IC3 web site and filed an official report. I also sent e-mails to the security and abuse departments at Frontiernet, the ISP used to post the threat as evidenced by the logged IP address.

I also sent e-mails to several of the people he’s gotten into altercations with on the various forums, looking for additional information, and I’ve informed the administrators of two key forums what this fellow is up to.

I’ve sent e-mails to several Scott Johnsons in the hope of locating the one who is the true object of his hatred; perhaps that Scott can shed some light on why Mr. Baker is “coming after me.”

Mr. Baker, by all accounts, makes his home in the city of El Granada, California, even though the IP address indicates a Kingman, Arizona locale. I imagine he was using a proxy. However, the man was crazy enough to leave his actual phone number on several forum posts: 650-218-9434. That number does resolve to El Granada and areas nearby. He also has a business name, “Baker Wind Turbine Engines,” although a quick search for business licenses in the area produced no hits.

This whole thing spooked me a bit yesterday, but today that uneasiness has turned to anger. I can’t believe that this loser would threaten me, not even knowing who I am beyond a name that dozens if not hundreds of people share! He has cost me time and energy, and that makes me angriest of all.

I’ve heard nothing more from our friend in the last 24 hours, but in my spare time, I’m still researching. Stand by. :)

UPDATE: 4/2/12, 7:03 AM

I received an e-mail over the weekend from Lawrence Baker. While it still fails to recognize the gravity of his actions, his e-mail does represent a genuine apology and expresses remorse for having made this mistake. I’m willing to accept that, and I consider this matter closed. This blog entry, however, will stay where it is.

This was a mistake, to be sure, but it did happen. It seems very likely to me that such threats may again be directed at people who speak out against Mr. Baker’s invention or discredit his work. In fact, the “real” Scott Johnson, wherever and whoever he may be, should probably be checking his six on a regular basis. Should he stumble upon this, I think it’s important that he know the backstory.

UPDATE: 6/6/12, 7:03 AM

Mr. Baker is apparently up to his old tricks and is threatening other people. There was, until recently, a discussion thread on the windgen.org Vertical Axis Wind Turbine forum at http://www.vawts.net/, where there were warnings about his activities. One forum post even linked to this blog, which I thought was a good idea. However, it seems that Mr. Baker’s gotten to the windgen.org people, too. The entire thread recently disappeared quietly without notice. While I can’t for the life of me understand why they would choose to shield and protect the same lunatic they recently banned, I can see no other reason why they’d eliminate potentially important warnings. This warning will remain, at least.

UPDATE: 7/18/13

This guy just doesn’t give up. After being warned to communicate with me no further, and advised that his best defense was to stay off my radar permanently, he’s on another rant. This time, apparently afraid to contact me directly, he’s contacting other people, and telling them to pass along his threats (the last of which says he’ll “fillet me out.”)  I guess you just can’t fix stupidity.

UPDATE: 8/1/13

And now he’s trying to get at me through my employer. The saga continues here.

Shortlink

Miscellaneous Thoughts

It’s a strange world. Thanks to a blogger or two, the name “Santorum” has now become a neologism, tied to a disgusting definition that turned this writer’s nearly unturnable stomach. Such mud-slinging (ugh) is to be expected among the politically zealous, but they’ve really whipped themselves into a froth (UGH!) over this one.

Meanwhile, a name much more deserving of a nasty meaning, “Schettino,” is being allowed to quietly slip over the rail and escape in a lifeboat into the ocean of obscurity. How can this be? It even sounds more disgusting than “santorum,” which to my ear simply sounds like a long-term care hospital. “Hey! Move that pile of schettino so I can mop the floor!” That seems much more credible and fitting to me.

From brown, we move to green. In a completely unintentional way, I have joined the “green” movement.

My beloved 2002 Mercury Grand Marquis, which I’ve had since 2005, finally became a bigger maintenance headache than I could bear in mid-February. It had developed engine problems no less than four times in the last six months, each time necessitating costly repairs which did not permanently solve the problem. I needed reliable transportation.

Months ago, when the car first fell ill, Allison and I had discussed what I might want to get to replace it, and I was sure I wanted another Grand Marquis. I had come to love the spacious interior, the comfortable ride, and the big V-8 engine. I wasn’t as fond of its 18-20 mile per gallon fuel appetite, nor did I smile each time I shelled out $70 to fill its fuel tank, but I’d resigned myself to dealing with these issues. My commute is only 9 miles each way.

I’d mentioned to Allison that the only other car that really interested me was the Prius. I’d driven rented Prii many times on business trips, and found them attractive, roomy, and altogether fascinating. I even drove one from Riverside to San Francisco and back once, on a business errand. Both the fuel economy and the comfort of the relatively small car on such a long trip astounded me. There’s also no denying the geek credibility afforded by such a technologically advanced vehicle.

We went out last Saturday looking for another Grand Marquis, intending to check the used car departments at the local dealerships first. At one Chrysler dealer, Allison hopped out to talk to a salesman and quickly learned that there were no Grand Marquis available, and happened to ask if they’d seen any used Prii. By chance, there was a 2008 on the lot, and they offered to show it to us. I couldn’t refuse.

Photo by Allison Johnson

Those of you who know me know that I’m very susceptible to high-tech charms. The moment I sat down in this particular Prius for a test drive, I was in love. Unlike the rented ones I’d driven before, this one was loaded. It had every available option except the Sirius/XM radio (to which I no longer subscribe anyway) and the leather seats (which I abhor). It was apparently in perfect condition. Before the test drive was over, my mind was made up.

Allison worked her magic on the salespeople, getting us a fair price and decent financing. With Allison, people quickly learn that all things are possible. We drove the Prius home and cleaned out my sad, sick old Grand Marquis. Then I took my old friend for one last drive, dropping it off at the dealership with Allison following along in the Prius.

It’s been a major adjustment. I still miss my land yacht, which someone once dubbed the “stereo on wheels.” My utter fascination with the Prius has helped; it is the most high-tech vehicle I’ve ever driven that doesn’t have wings or a rotor. I’ve studied online web sites (one of the best is the forum at http://priuschat.com) and learned the quirks of my particular model. (It’s a 2008 Generation II Touring Prius with Package 5.) I’ve also learned the driving techniques which result in the best fuel economy from the Prius, which are counterintuitive but simple. My average fuel economy so far is about 48 miles per gallon. As nice as it is to be “green,” I’m even more happy about the “green” I’m not spending at the gas stations.

From green we logically proceed to red, which is the color of my anger at the moment. I can’t write about the reason for my anger; that’s a mistake I won’t repeat. However, I will say that it involves my wife and her career and the morally bankrupt, santorum-smeared sack of schettino that is her supervisor. And with that, we’ve come full-circle.