© 2014 Grant Cunningham Click to email me!

Friday Surprise: Visualizing math. No, really, it's fun!

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 1.31.35 PM

Math may be one of the most hated subjects in high school. What if there were a way to make it more fun through the magic of animated GIFs?

Friday Surprise: Who doesn't like state-shaped fried food?


I’ll admit that I’ve brought you some odd stuff on the Friday Surprise over the years, but this is way up there in oddity factor!

Friday Surprise: Doom on you.


Ya gotta love Hollywood. They've given us such wonderful villain names: Dr. No, Pussy Galore, Dr. Evil, Auric Goldfinger. But as it turns out, working on the atomic bomb during WWII was a Mr. Doom. No, really.

Friday Surprise: Clark Terry, 1920-2015.

Wikimedia Commons

An influential jazz master has died.

Friday Surprise: "If it ain't a Boeing, I ain't going!"


What airplane is still in front-line operational use 60 years after it first went into service? The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, of course! There's a reason for that, not the least of which is that we have a lot of spare parts...

Friday The 13th Surprise: Most people don't know what algorithms are, let alone what they do.


al·go·rithm \ˈal-gə-ˌri-thəm\ (N) : a set of steps that are followed in order to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process.

Sounds simple, right? You might be surprised what lurks behind that definition.

Friday Surprise: The father of the laser beam shines no more.


Believe it or not, the laser isn’t all that old - in fact, its co-inventor just recently passed away.

Friday Surprise: Recent history is surprisingly hard to find.

Believe it or not, this is what a web search looked like in 1994.

You’d think, in the modern world, that our history is covered from every angle and therefore hard to lose. You might be surprised where you have to look to unearth some of it.

Friday Surprise: People have been using cameras to annoy other people for a very long time.

Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to think that what is has always been, and depending on when you were born that might be true. Luckily there are places you can go to learn it’s not always been this way!

Friday Surprise: What's Wrong with a Wright house?

The most famous American architect had his share of failures. Some of them are still around, like this one in my neighborhood.

Friday Surprise: Ralph Morse, 1917-2014

Photo: LIFE Magazine

One of the premier photojournalists of the 20th century died this week, and I admit to being a little depressed.

Friday Surprise: Eddie Want BIG Boom.

So, what could you do with an atomic bomb of your very own? Back in the '50s, one scientist had a bunch of ideas — and actually got to try some of them out!

Friday Surprise: some people talk about perfection. Others actually achieve it.

In every area of endeavor there are those who stand head and shoulders above even the very best in their field. In the world of watchmaking, that person is Philippe DuFour.

Friday Surprise: History made easy.

A new project at Yale University gives us a different and compelling way to look at images of the past.

Friday Surprise: launch time!

In 1969 NASA aimed a high-speed movie camera at the launch of Apollo 11, and what they got is still astounding.

Friday Surprise: How about some music from Red and Ira?

It's been a while since I talked about jazz, but today I'll share one of my very favorite jazz groups of all time.

Friday Surprise: How much of the past do you remember?

Change is inevitable, and it leaves behind fascinating memories.

Friday Surprise: James Garner may have passed away, but he lives on in my DVD player.

You may have heard the news that James Garner, popular actor, passed away this week. I'll remember him for one particularly amusing role.

Friday Surprise: Rocket attacks kill many. Today's headlines? Not exactly.


The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Friday Surprise: The Soviets had a few tricks up their sleeves, too.

Reader Dave M. sent a link which led to me to a great article from Russia Today about the High Voltage Research Facility, in the little town of Istra west of Moscow.

Friday Surprise: History on the 'net, courtesy of Charles Pathé.

The world's largest collection of historic films is now available, for free, on the 'net. How cool is that?

Friday Surprise: timekeeping with teeth.

We take modern manufacturing for granted, but before the advent of CNC and 3D printing craftspeople did amazing things. To do so, they used amazing tools. Here's the story of one.

Friday Surprise: resurrect a satellite? Why not!

Some people restore old cars for a hobby, but some aim a little higher: they restore satellites!

Friday Surprise: Blast from the past. Literally.

Seems that 60 Minutes went poking around a Minuteman III missile launch complex and discovered something we all thought had become extinct.

Friday Surprise: how would you like your own star?

It seems like forever since I've penned a Friday Surprise, but like the Ghostbusters, I'm back! Today it's with something you might not believe is actually possible.

Friday Surprise: Someday I'm going to write a book that's not about guns or self defense. It'll be about time.

Whether you realize it or not, the precise measurement of time is absolutely vital to maintain the world in which we live — and it's been this way for hundreds of years.

Friday Surprise: A family in need, and a sincere plea from me.

Today I'm doing something different: I'm asking you to dig into your pockets and help out a fellow shooter, trainer, Second Amendment advocate, and genuinely good guy whose family is going through an unimaginably rough time.

My buddy Matt DeVito, his partner Sayra and her two children came home on Wednesday evening to find their house ablaze. They'd just finished moving halfway across the country to get out of the cesspool that their home state was becoming and make a new life in a more wholesome part of the United States, only to have a fire destroy everything they owned in their new hometown.

Matt, Sayra, the kids, and their family pets are all fine, but they now have no place to live and are starting over from scratch. A fund has been opened to help them rebuild, and I'm asking you to pitch in!

Any donation, of any size, will help. If all you can give is $10, that will still help! I know that tax season is a tough time for everyone — it certainly is for my family this year — but as my wife reminded me, our fiscal pain is temporary and our donation is going to help out some really nice people who need it a lot more than we do.

I often talk about gun owners being part of the shooting community, and this is a good chance to show the world what our community is all about. Maybe you know Matt from his famous YouTube videos, from his Instagram postings, from his company Downrange Firearms Training, or maybe you don't know him at all. No matter what your relationship to him, he's one of us and could really use our help.

How can you donate to the family?
Just click here to go to the account for Matt and Sayra, and give what you can. It's fast and easy. They'll appreciate it, and you'll have the satisfaction of helping out one of our own. You'll also have my personal and heartfelt thanks!

-=[ Grant ]=-


Friday Surprise: The Making Of An American Axe.

(Photo courtesy of the Oakland (ME) Area Historical Society)

If you want a quality hand-forged axe today, you're often forced to look to foreign sources where that manufacturing skill is still revered. It wasn't always this way, though.

Friday Surprise: Ever wanted to own your own village? Here’s your chance!

If owning your own hamlet has ever cropped into your mind, opportunity awaits you in sunny Spain. Well, maybe not always sunny — but at these prices, who cares?

Friday Surprise: Rebuilding the first World’s Fair - or, at least, a part of it.


The international exposition, of which the World’s Fair is the most well known example, has often been a showcase of architectural innovation and prowess. Some folks in the UK want to rebuild a particularly well-known structure from what is now regarded as the first “modern” World’s Fair.

Friday Surprise: It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.

One of the things I’ve been told to do to make this blog show up more prominently in search results is to make “SEO friendly” headlines — headlines with lots of keywords and a hook to get people to click. There are seminars, in fact, on how to write headlines that will boost your readership and catapult your blog to the top of Google.


I’ve certainly been writing more descriptive headlines for the normal, day-to-day posts here on the Revolver Liberation Alliance, but I refuse to do so for the Friday Surprise. I want the titles in this category to have a little mystery or whimsy; it would take all the fun out of it, at least for me, if they were engineered to get every last bit of engagement possible.

And so it is with today’s title. What could it be about?

Friday Surprise: Man is a tool-using animal, which also means he’s a tool-buying animal.


I don’t have a problem. I can stop any time I want to. I’ve done it dozens of times.

Friday Surprise: Ansel Adams didn’t always take pictures of mountains.

We usually think of Ansel Adams as the creator of gorgeous coffee table books of natural wonders and beautiful scenes, but like most of his generation he did a lot of commissioned work for people and institutions. Some of that work shows up now and again.


Friday Surprise: I'm a Space Cadet - how about you?


What’s the significance of this patch?


Friday Surprise: Serious nerd alert - talking about supercomputer operating systems!

How do you recover something historical when you lack the means to even tell if you have it?

Friday Surprise: History turns on a rock.

I have a somewhat convoluted tale to tell, so sit back and follow the trail.

Friday Surprise: Metamaterials could alter our perceptions of what’s possible.

One of the big benefits of the internet has been the democratization of knowledge. As little as ten years ago, for instance, it was commonly believed that the bumble bee somehow violated the laws of aerodynamics, and that scientists couldn’t understand how it flew.


Friday Surprise: Welcome to 2014 - film at 11:00!

To the matter at hand: the period around the start of a new year is always one of retrospection: innumerable articles and videos about what happened in the past year (or the last decade, as appropriate.) I don’t really go in for that sort of thing, but someone new to this blog, and my work, may think of me as the nostalgic type anyhow. After all, I’m a champion of the revolver as a defensive tool, and what can be more evocative of past ages then the wheelgun? (I’m sure my pastime of exploring old and abandoned things doesn’t do anything to dispel such notions.)

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Coffee, tea, or — chocolate??


My mother’s side of the family were (still are, actually) porcelain makers in the Old Country. My mother, being proud of her heritage, collects vintage pieces from the family works and has been doing so for decades.

I remember a particular piece that she picked up early on: it looked just like a coffee pot but was smaller. I thought it must be some sort of teapot until my mother explained that it was a chocolate pot. Now as a kid I understood the idea of hot chocolate (one of my favorite beverages, then and now) but I’d never heard of a vessel specifically made for the drink.

My mother explained that Europeans had a long history with drinking chocolate and that it was once the most popular hot beverage in many parts of the region. I don’t think I really believed her (just like when she told me about that whole Tooth Fairy scam), but I couldn’t argue with the object sitting on the shelf.

As it turns out, she was right: hot chocolate does have a wonderful history, and
this article over at The Art Of Manliness does a good job of recapping the history of the wondrous concoction.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel a need to dig out one of the family chocolate pots and put it to good use.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Friday Surprise: The law (and how we apply it) changes over time. Sometimes dramatically.

One of my favorite bloggers, and one to whom I’ve referred many times, is David Friedman. He’s an academic economist and a Professor of Law at Santa Clara University — and, as he proudly notes, “…have never taken a course for credit in either field.”

Friedman’s background is in chemistry and physics (as I recall, his doctorate is in physics), but interests and expertise go far beyond the hard sciences. He’s also interested in libertarianism and market anarchist theory, as well as medieval history, and approaches all of those topics with the same level of commitment and enthusiasm. (It’s actually pretty unusual to find a scientist who is at home, let alone accomplished, in the relatively nebulous and untestable world of philosophy; they usually sort of curl up into a fetal ball and whimper in the corner. Not Friedman!)

One of the reasons I like his blog is because he has the ability to step back from any issue, contentious though it may be, and look at the underlying assumptions of all sides. He’s sometimes so objective, in fact, that it’s difficult to tell what his personal position actually is. I like that because it forces me to think about my own beliefs and assumptions and re-evaluate my positions based on fact and logic. His writings have encouraged me to become more intellectually honest and consistent.

Beyond that, sometimes he just covers really interesting topics! One of the courses that he teaches at SCU is called “Legal Systems Very Different From Our Own.” I’ve read excerpts that he’s posted from the class, and it’s fascinating to see how other cultures have approached conflict resolution and enforced social norms over the centuries.

Since I can’t enroll in law school at SCU I have to settle for the snippets I can find around the ‘net. Today I’m sharing one of them: a video of a lecture on this topic that he recorded at

If this course ever makes it to a MOOC, you can bet I’ll sign up!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Gordon Parks - cool like Steve McQueen, but with more talent.


One of the more intriguing people of the 20th century was Gordon Parks. Born into a poor farm family, attacked and beaten because of the color of his skin, told that trying to achieve anything in life would be a waste of his effort, he nonetheless went on to become an accomplished photographer, writer, poet, composer, and film director - not to mention political activist.

It’s that first career which interests me today, as he became known as a photographer and used the door his fame opened to move into the other areas of his life.

Parks started as a fashion photographer, shooting in a distinct “street” or “reportage” style that was just coming into vogue at the time. He had no training; inspired by the pictures of migrant workers during the Depression, he purchased a second-hand camera at a pawnshop in Seattle. Clerks at the store reportedly told him that he had a talent for photography and was directed to seek a job as a fashion photographer at a department store. He did, and that step launched his remarkable career.

From there he went to work for Roy Stryker in the legendary Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Office of War Information (OWI) documentary projects. After the war he returned to fashion photography as a staffer at Vogue magazine, but ended up moving into pure photojournalism at LIFE magazine. While he covered all kinds of news events and human interest stories, his emphasis became chronicling the civil rights movement and racial segregation — often focusing on the struggles of the average person.

He would go on to even greater fame and success, but it was his photos for which he is most remembered. One of his civil rights projects at LIFE found him covering the daily life of an extended family in the rural South.
You can see the pictures from that essay over at the LENS Blog at the New York Times, and they’re very much worth your time.

Looking at his pictures I’m struck by several conflicting thoughts: first was how tidy everyone was. I have no doubt that being in the presence of a LIFE photographer probably caused no end of “gussying up”, but even so I think people were just a little prouder of their appearance and surroundings back then.

Second, I’m surprised at the nobility of the people with regard to their second class status. I don’t mean in the sense that they’re happy with it or don’t want it to change, but rather how they go about their daily business without allowing their shabby treatment to turn them into the subhumans the whites believed them to be. They show a quiet dignity even when faced with indignity, which I find remarkable; they have hope even while others try to deprive them of it.

Finally, I can scarcely believe that the pictures are from my own country. While they predate my birth by a few years, I have to remind myself that this was still happening in many states while I was growing up. Today I look at photos showing the “Colored Entrance” signs and separate “colored” water fountains and find it difficult to reconcile with the lofty things I was being told in school at the same time.

I’m glad these pictures were made, but perhaps more glad that they were done by Gordon Parks. I’m not sure any other photographer would have been able to produce photographs that would make me think about the subject to the extent that his did.

Parks died in 2006 at the ripe old age of 93, forcing Dos Equis to hire an actor to portray “The Most Interesting Man In The World” instead of using the Real Thing.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A place where things that go BOOM used to be made. Emphasis on "used to".

If you’re new here, you should know about my fascination with abandoned things. As it happens, the more closely related something abandoned is to something else I'm interested in, the more fascinated I become. Today we hit the trifecta: it's abandoned, it has to do with munitions, and it's in my family's ancestral homeland!

The ICI Nobel plant at Ardeer, in the Ayr district of Scotland (home of Clan Cunningham), was established in 1873 to make nitroglycerine. Alfred Nobel himself, the founder of both the explosives concern and the annual prizes which bear his name, personally made the first batch of nitroglycerine at the Ardeer plant. The plant grew steadily in size and made important strides in explosives manufacture during both world wars, expanding into such areas as black powder, detonators, and fuses, but in the late 20th century (after being absorbed into Imperial Chemical Industries) explosives were being phased out. The plant diversified into cellulose derivatives and various types of silicones during the 1970s, but then fell on hard times. The 600-acre site is nearly completely vacant today.

There's a great set of pictures of various parts of the plant on Flickr, and the photographer talks about his trips to the plant at the site. There’s a short history of the Ardeer works here; in 1897 McClure's Magazine published a fascinating account of a tour of the nitroglycerine and associated production facilities, and all seven pages have been reproduced at this link. Finally, the ever-reliable Abandoned Scotland page has some video with commentary.

Sealbh math dhuit!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: When it comes right down to it, everything on the planet is either harvested or mined. Here's a story about the latter.

It's pretty well understood that fortunes (and governments) have risen and fallen on such valuable commodities as oil, gold, and gemstones. What's probably less known is that the same thing has happened with more prosaic things, like salt (yes, salt. Munich, for instance, was largely built on the fortunes of the salt trade, and Liverpool was just a backwater until salt shipments started flowing through her port. Wars were fought over salt, and even involved some siblings - Venice and Genoa went to war because of salt.)

But what you may not know is something you've probably seen on the shelves of your grocery store was the source of both fame and fortune: borax. Yes, the box with the mule team on it; borax is an incredibly valuable mineral beyond its use as a cleaning agent, and the reason anyone ever bothered with Death Valley was because of the large amount of money that could be made extracting borax from that inhospitable place. While some were digging for gold, others were digging for borax and expecting to make just as big a payday.

Desert USA has a great story on the trials and tribulations (not to mention the wealth and ruin) that occurred because of borax. (Oh, they explain the whole mule team thing too!)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: How to make water flow backwards using a video camera.

One of the interesting things about a video camera is the effect its sequential shutter has on moving objects. A video (or a movie) is a collection of still frames played back rapidly enough that your visual system doesn't detect the gaps between the images. Each image is a slice of time, but when those slices don't match the movement of an object you get some interesting effects. (Ever watch a video of a moving car
where the wheels look like they're turning backwards? That's a good example of the phenomenon.

One experimenter took it a step further. He attached a hose to a speaker, which when fed with a continuous tone caused the end of the tube to vibrate. When water flowed through the tube, it was moved back and forth at the same rate as the tube. By varying the frequency (pitch) of the tone being sent through the speakers, he could vary the rate at which the stream of water was deflected.

Here's the cool part: if he matched the frequency (in hertz) to the frame rate of a video camera, he could make the water look like it was hanging in mid-air! Even better, by varying the frequency of the tone even by a single hertz, he could get the water to appear to flow backwards.

Watch and be fascinated.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Star Spangled Banner wasn't always our national anthem. What was?

So, let's say you're starting a new country. There are lots of things you need to do, but once the fighting has stopped and your new nation is established you turn your mind to more important things - you know, things like adopting a Constitution, setting up a court system, figuring out a national currency, paying off your war debts, and so on. Management, it's called.

One of those management tasks on your to-do list might be the adoption of a national anthem. After all, every other country has one; music has always been a good tool to get citizens to rally in support of their new country, to bring people of perhaps disparate opinions together, and to build solidarity.

Surprisingly, our Founding Fathers (and the first Congress and our first President) didn't bother with one. In fact, it wasn't until March 3rd, 1931, that the United States had an official national anthem. It was then that we adopted a poem written by Francis Scott Key, mated to an old tune called "The Anacreontic Song" (no, really), as the national anthem of the United States of America.

Before President Herbert Hoover got into the act, however, we did have an
unofficial national anthem. It was played at state events and gatherings around the country, and the reason it was so popular was because of the stirring lyrics. The song was "Hail, Columbia" by Phillip Phile, who wrote it to be played at the inauguration of President George Washington. Its lyrics, by Joseph Hopkinson, were added in 1798 to remind Americans what freedom was, what it had cost us, and the importance of defending it:

Hail Columbia, happy land!
Hail, ye heroes, heav'n-born band,
Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
And when the storm of war was gone
Enjoy'd the peace your valor won.
Let independence be our boast,
Ever mindful what it cost;
Ever grateful for the prize,
Let its altar reach the skies.

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Immortal patriots, rise once more,
Defend your rights, defend your shore!
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Invade the shrine where sacred lies
Of toil and blood, the well-earned prize,
While off'ring peace, sincere and just,
In Heaven's we place a manly trust,
That truth and justice will prevail,
And every scheme of bondage fail.

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Behold the chief who now commands,
Once more to serve his country stands.
The rock on which the storm will break,
The rock on which the storm will break,
But armed in virtue, firm, and true,
His hopes are fixed on Heav'n and you.
When hope was sinking in dismay,
When glooms obscured Columbia's day,
His steady mind, from changes free,
Resolved on death or liberty.

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Sound, sound the trump of fame,
Let Washington's great name
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Let ev'ry clime to freedom dear,
Listen with a joyful ear,
With equal skill, with God-like pow'r
He governs in the fearful hour
Of horrid war, or guides with ease
The happier time of honest peace.

Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Apparently, however, the citizens of the early 20th century wanted something more martial, something more exciting, and pushed to have the Star Spangled Banner (which had become popular during the previous fifty years or so) adopted officially. Despite Key's lyrics being about the bombardment of Fort McHenry and not the birth of our nation, its repeated references to the stars and stripes appealed to the masses. As a result, the Star Spangled Banner got the President's signature and "Hail, Columbia" was reduced to being the song used to usher in the Vice President - a job famously described by John Nance Garner as "not worth a bucket of warm piss". (Garner should know - he was the 32nd Vice President, under Franklin Roosevelt.) It's a sad fate for such a great song!

What, you may ask, did our first national anthem sound like?
You can listen to "Hail, Columbia", and learn much more about it, over at the American Creation blog.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Riding the rails.

One Wednesday I mentioned that I'd attended the 2013 Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Conference; what I didn't tell you is that I decided on a slightly unconventional (for 2013) mode of transportation to get there: I took a train from my home in Oregon to Bakersfield, CA.

Anyone who knows me knows how I hate to fly. I don't mind airplanes, you understand; in fact, I'm fascinated by them. What I dislike is air travel: airlines, airports, crowds, and all the stuff which goes along with them. As a result my general rule is that if I can get somewhere in less than nine hours of driving, that's exactly what I'll do. In this case the drive time would have been about 12 hours, and while I've done that on many occasions I don't relish the prospect. At that point the irritations of airline travel equal that of driving, and I'd usually opt for the airplane.

This time, however, I decided to go Amtrak. There is a station not too far from where I live, and the destination station was two miles from the hotel in which I was staying. It was the perfect setup, so I went online, booked the necessary tickets, and hopped aboard for my first train trip!

I must say that I enjoyed the trip immensely. I don't want to overly romanticize the train, but I came away with the feeling that it is a more civilized way to travel. You simply walk up to the train, show your ticket to the conductor, and he assigns you a large, comfortable seat with plenty of leg room and the ability to recline sufficiently for a good sleep. While the train is underway you can walk around, enjoy the views from the lounge car, get something to snack on in the Cafe, or have a full meal in the Dining Car.

At night you can recline the seat, pull down the footrests and pull up the leg rests, and have a passable imitation of a reclining lounge chair. I had absolutely no trouble getting a good night's sleep, and when I woke up I simply sauntered into the Dining Car and had breakfast!

How was the food? Quite good, actually. In fact I'd say that the food on the Coast Starlight was better than at least 75% of the restaurants I've patronized in the last six months - and the service was better than all of them. Yes, the meals are a little spendy but not so much that you feel ripped off. I've been in restaurants which charged just as much for lesser meals!

On this trip I ate breakfast twice and dinner once, and everything was quite tasty. (One bit of warning: if you're used to the rather bland food sold in most restaurants these days, know that Amtrak chefs actually season their food. I had a terrific braised turkey shank for dinner and loved the interplay of tastes they'd come up with, but one of the ladies at our table complained that it was "too peppery".)

One of the interesting parts of rail travel is the amount of conversation amongst passengers. On an airliner you'll hear the occasional discussion, but people in general retreat into their own little worlds until landing. On the train, people seem to always be talking. This is probably because a) the trips take much longer, and people need to occupy themselves with something; and b), the cars are quiet when underway as compared to the interior of an airplane, which facilitates those conversations.

This is especially true in the Dining Car, where people are seated four to a table at all times. This means you're always sitting with someone new, and it seems rude to stare at someone across the table without at least acknowledging their presence. As a result, I had some great conversations during my meals. As I said: civilized.

I did learn a few things during this trip:

1) Bring a small fleece blanket; they turn down the heat at night to help people sleep, and it gets a bit chilly. Not cold, mind you, just a bit of a chill. A fleece blanket is more than enough warmth, but unless you're particularly cold blooded you'll need it.

2) Book your tickets online, but be aware that Amtrak's website is horrendously bad. I tried to book a round-trip ticket, but the system routed me in such a way that there was an hour-long bus ride to connect the two trains I needed to take. My cousin, a rail buff, knew that wasn't necessary and told me how to get around it: book one-way tickets from my house to a stop which occurred after the stop where they insisted I get on the bus, and another from there to my destination. That was neither obvious nor easy to do, as Amtrak's shopping cart won't let you put in a bunch of tickets and pay all at once - they force you to check out for each ticket, which meant I had to enter my information four times!

3) I think I mentioned this some time back, but Amtrak inexplicably doesn't go to Las Vegas - except by bus. Seriously bad decision making on their part.

4) Train stations are scary places after the sun goes down. The ratio of the mentally disabled and those with poor personal hygiene jumps at night, and there are always seemingly unsavory characters simply hanging around. Sit near the ticket office and keep your eyes open.

5) Speaking of that, make sure you book your reserved tickets ahead of time. The cars with unreserved seating tend to attract a less pleasant clientele, but if you have a reserved coach class seat you'll generally be spared much contact with them. The reserved seats tend to attract a) retirees and b) "hippy" types, whose political and social positions tend to be polar opposites but are generally always well read and interesting to talk with.

6) You'll run into many Europeans on Amtrak, as they're used to traveling by train in their native lands. It's an opportunity to talk with people you might not usually meet, such as the fellow from Belgium I sat with at breakfast.

7) Except for the largest stations, where the train gets resupplied and the trashcans emptied, stops are very short: most stations along the Starlight route are one- or two-minute stops. Have your tickets ready and be on the platform when the train arrives, or you can easily miss it.

8) When you book online Amtrak emails your tickets in the form of PDF files. Keep them on your phone and you won't have to deal with any paper.

9) All reserved coach seats have two 110-volt outlets. Keeping phones, iPads and laptops charged isn't hard, and even the Lounge Car has plenty of outlets so you can work while you enjoy the scenery.

10) Well, you might be able to work! The Lounge Car can be crowded, noisy, and a bit dirty after a long trip. The tables are often filled with people playing cards and board games, and there are lots of small children. If you're easily distracted you'll probably be more productive (and comfortable) in your coach seat.

Would I travel Amtrak again? Yes, I would. I enjoyed the trip enough that I'd have no hesitation booking another train for an appropriate-length ride. It's not an ideal way to get across the country (unless you have a LOT of time), but for a 900-mile (or so) trip it's both useful and pleasant. Now if they'd just fix their website and go to Las Vegas....

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Want a Van Gogh but can't afford it? This is for you!

3D printing is probably the hottest thing in the tech world right now. It promises to revolutionize small-scale manufacturing, and even though it's still a very young technology it's being testing for everything from prototyping to making rocket engine parts.

Of course being a firearms enthusiast you probably already know about the various guns and gun parts that are being made with 3D printing, but here's an application that's worlds apart from rockets and bullets: 3D printed artwork.

We've had lithographs of paintings for ages, yet they aren't entirely satisfying to view. Part of the beauty of an oil painting is the texturing the artist uses: the canvas itself, the brushstrokes, the layering of paint. That simply can't be reproduced in two dimensions, but 3D printing brings an entirely new perspective to the world of art reproduction.

Fuji (of film, camera and lens making fame) has developed a technique which uses a combination of laser scanning and 3D printing that can copy paintings in three dimensions. The results, apparently, are stunning. Not cheap, at $35k a pop, but stunning - and for far less than the millions that a real artwork might fetch.

Read all about it over at PetaPixel.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: How do you tie your shoes?

Today is the start of Labor Day weekend. Many people take this day off so that they are able to have a four-day holiday break before the kids start back to school next week. (Yes, I understand that the kids in some areas are already at their little desks, but in this part of the country school doesn't start until after Labor Day.)

My point, if I ever had one, is that blog readership for this Friday is always way down, and I suspect it's because everyone has gone camping (or the urban equivalent.) Since that's the case, I'll share something completely trivial with you:
21 Ways To Lace Your Shoes, from a place called (I kid you knot - see what I did there?) "Ian's Shoelace Site".

That's right, a website devoted to shoelaces. He even has an iPhone shoelace app. You can truly find
anything on the internet.


I must say, I had no idea that there was more than one way to lace shoes or to tie shoelaces. I’m going to try one or two because the knot my Dad taught me does have a tendency to be easily untied when snagged by brush, and it doesn’t hold well with stiff laces. Undoing nearly fifty years of habit, however, might not be all that easy!

I'm not sure if I'll post anything on Monday; we'll have to see how motivated I feel on the holiday. In any case, have a good weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Photography of NASA

When the Space Race against the Soviet Union started in 1957 we entered into a period of great technological progress. We discovered things that had never been discovered, designed things that had never been designed, and went were mankind had ever gone before. It was an exciting time to watch what we could do, both as a nation and as a species, when we put our collective mind to a singular task. NASA became the preeminent research and engineering organization on the planet.


When we think of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions we inevitably think of the rockets and space capsules and lunar landers that were the stars of the show. That wasn’t all NASA did, however, and behind the scenes they were building new structures purpose designed to build, test, house, and launch the new wonder machines. When they weren’t pushing the boundaries of space exploration they were working to push our broader understanding of flight into uncharted territory.


As it turns out,
NASA has a Flickr account full of historic images of man, machine, missions and structures that go way beyond shots of astronauts on the moon. It's a great way to waste some time on a starry summer evening!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Is there a bright side to a drone?

Drones are all over the news as of late, and usually not under pleasant circumstances. They're usually thought of in terms of surveillance and destruction, but there is another side to these unmanned aircraft - they can be used to make stunning videos from vantage points most of us will never have.

Take this video, shot in NYC by a privately owned DJI Phantom Quadcopter. Gorgeous footage!

FIRST FLIGHT OF THE PHANTOM from Nicolas Doldinger on Vimeo.

Here's some of the backstory on this surprising (in the sense that the videographer didn't get arrested) video.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Horology - what it sounds like isn't what it is.

You may recall that in my teens I was an apprenticed watch and clockmaker (an odd thing, given the fact that today I refuse to wear a watch! I come by my curmudgeonly ways naturally, though - my father, who worked for the telephone company, hated the idea that anyone in the world could wake him up in the middle of the night just by dialing a few numbers.) Because of my experience, it seems a little odd to me that many people have never seen the inside of a mechanical watch, let alone seen one being worked on or assembled.

Let's remedy that, shall we?

Ming Thein, a terrific commercial photographer and watch nut, has on his site a photo essay of the manufacturing process behind the superb timepieces of Jaeger-LeCoultre. The company is one of the older manufacturers in the industry, predating my own favorite Patek Philippe by a few years and upstart Rolex by the better part of a century. Jaeger-LeCoultre is well known in the business as an innovator, bringing to market some of the most advanced mechanical timepieces ever made; to get inside their factory as Thein did is a remarkable coup.

His photo essay is here. The pictures are simply superb; Thein's reputation for quality images is well deserved and will give you some insight into how a fine mechanical watch is made. Enjoy!

-=[ Grant ]=-


I'm fascinated by a lot of things. This wide, wonderful world is so full of interesting people and places and events and happenings that I find no need to read fiction. In fact, many people are amazed that I don't read any fiction (save for the occasional Poe or Chandler tale, the latter being a guilty pleasure in which I indulge simply because of the colorful dialogue.) I find that real life is ever more interesting than any made-up story, which is probably why I don't go to the movies very often nor watch much television, either.

Case in point: I was referred to a blog called "Fluent In 3 Months", written by a fellow named Benny Lewis. Benny appears to be a kindred spirit of Timothy Ferris, at least in the lifestyle design department. He's lived in 23 different countries, and he recently made a blog post titled "
The 23 strangest habits you’ll pick up after living in 23 different countries".

It's great reading if for no other reason than to remind you that Americans are not, in fact, the center of the universe. People all over the world have different customs and habits, and it's worth your while to learn about some of the little things that make everyone a little different from everyone else.

I think I'm going to start applauding whenever my plane lands.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: This stuff has been around longer than you might believe!

Computer generated graphics are a staple of moviemaking these days. I think it's not unfair to say that the majority of blockbuster movies simply couldn't be made without extensive use of computer imagery. Here's an interesting question: when were computer generated graphics first used in Hollywood?

It goes back before the turn of the century. 1990? Nope. 1980? still too late. 1970? Keep going!

In fact,
the first use of computer graphics was most likely Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "Vertigo" - in 1958!

In the 1950s electronic computers were still in their infancy, and the desktop computer was decades away. There were, however, mechanical computers in wide use. While they aren't what we think of when we say 'computer', they were in fact computers in the technical use of the term: a device that can be programmed to carry out a specific task.

World War II saw the use of a large number of mechanical computers, and one of them was an
electromechanical analog computer known as the Kerrison Predictor (or, in military parlance, the M5 Gun Director.) It took all the variables in hitting an aerial target -- speed, altitude and azimuth, wind speed, the trajectory of the round being used, and even gravity -- and calculated the angle and lead necessary to hit it. The Predictor then drove servo motors on the gun to aim it so that it would hit the target.

In postwar Hollywood, an animator named
John Whitney put a surplus Predictor to use to make the opening spirals for Hitchcock's film. He programmed the Predictor to rotate at a specific speed, then suspended a pendulum over the rotating machine and used the combination to generate the various spirals used.

Whitney would, just a couple of years later, form one of the first (if not THE first) computer graphics firms in the world: Motion Graphics Incorporated. Today he's considered the pioneer in computer animation.

Humble beginnings!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Great Gear + Great Creativity = THIS.

In case you've missed it, a revolution has occurred in cinematography over the last few years. As cameras have gotten smaller, lighter, cheaper, and yet increased in resolution and capabilities, film makers have been pushing the equipment to the limit. Combined with relatively inexpensive editing software and hardware, it enables professional results on an amateur's budget. The result? Superb videos that either couldn't have been made, or would have been cost-prohibitive to attempt, before this all happened.

Here's one of those videos, shot on location in the jungles of south-eastern Mexico. I'd call this both extreme kayaking and extreme videography. Watch and understand.

CASCADA from NRS Films on Vimeo.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Want your own drone? It’s easier than you think.

I'll admit a simultaneous fascination with, and revulsion to, the march of technology. It enables me to do certain things, like sharing neat and important information on this blog, but it also means that others can find nefarious uses for the information on the 'net.

Sometimes the reverse happens. While drone technology presents real threats to our safety and security, the downward slide of technology means that you and I can have our own drones to use as we please. That's because remote control rotorcraft are more affordable and easier to fly than ever, and cameras have gotten both smaller and higher in resolution.

This is a video taken to highlight the abilities of Sony's new Action Cam. An Action Cam was mated to a six-rotor helicopter then flown over Battleship Island, the now-famous Japanese abandoned city. The resulting footage is extremely cool - but the best part is that you can do this yourself! (Well, except perhaps getting access to the island, but I’m sure there are suitable subjects in your neck of the woods.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: What secret does 5 Beekman Street hold?

Folks on the east coast are lucky. There have been enough people in one area long enough that there's a lot of abandoned and forgotten stuff hanging around, just waiting to be discovered. Don't get me wrong, we have abandoned and forgotten stuff out here in the Pacific Northwest, but ours isn't normally as grand, intriguing, or old. Besides, if you've seen the inside of one abandoned mine, you've seen 'em all.


Well, except the one that was filled with water, of course.

Back to 5 Beekman Street, in the heart of Manhattan. Seems that this old building is often called "The Palace of Beekman Street", owing to its castle-like architecture and towers. The building is complete empty, and large parts of it have been sealed off for more than 70 years.

Few people know about its beautiful, stunning secret - but
a location scout in NY who writes a blog called (what else?) "Scouting New York" does. He's (she’s?) got a great writeup on the blog, complete with extensive pictures, about the Palace. You won't believe what's sitting there, empty, while people on the street remain oblivious.

It's slated to be turned into a hotel, and if I ever actually wanted to stay in Manhattan (and could afford it), I'd stay in that building.

Head over to Scouting New York and check it out, along with some of the other finds chronicled therein. Neat stuff.
-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Mighty Saturn V rises from the deep.

It's no secret that I'm enamored with the Saturn V rocket. For my generation (read: old fogies) the Saturn V defined the United States; it was big, bad, and cemented our belief in our technical superiority over the Evil Empire (read: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.) To this day it is the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever to be deployed and holds the record for launching the heaviest payload into space. It's also the most reliable, because in its 13 launches it never lost a crew member or payload.

The Saturn V was the rocket that took us to the moon, and there was nothing like the giant fireball of the Rocketdyne F-1 engines in its first stage to ignite our nationalistic pride on liftoff. Those godless Soviets may have been first, but by golly we were the BEST!

In the 2 minutes and 41 seconds those engines burned they took the Saturn V to an altitude of 42 miles and a speed of over 6,000mph. At that point the first stage was jettisoned and the five Rocketdyne engines would tumble into the sea, to be forgotten by the American people.

All except for Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. Like me, he loves the Saturn V. Unlike me, he has more money than God and can afford to do outlandish things - like putting together a team of ocean explorers to recover some Rocketdynes from the sea floor.
He succeeded, and you can read the story and see some pictures of the recovered engines, at Fast Company. Be sure to watch the incredible slo-mo video they've put up as well - it's a view of a Saturn V liftoff that isn't commonly seen.

For me, though, I never get tired of the film where "USA" travels past the camera on the way out of the launch gantry:

No matter how hard they try, North Korea will never top that!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Quick - how many B-29 bombers still fly?

B-29 In Flight

Several years back I told the story of my Father and his history with the famous B-29 Superfortress bomber. He loved that airplane, and never missed a chance to read or watch anything and anything about Boeing's first modern strategic bomber.

As it happens he and I went aboard the only flyable B-29 in existence, the Commemorative Air Force's 'Fifi', when it visited Oregon many years ago. Of the nearly 4,000 built, only Fifi can still take to the sky. There are 21 others in various museums around the globe, but she's the only one who can still stretch her wings.

If a group of B-29 enthusiasts have their way, however, she won't be alone for long.
'Doc', made in 1945 in Wichita, KS, is back at its birthplace being restored to flying status. Restoration started around 2000, but was suspended in 2007 when Boeing sold off the old plant where the work was being done. When that happened the plane was mothballed and the group which spearheaded the effort went dormant.

Hope is not lost, however, because in February a new non-profit group took ownership of the craft and the restoration has now resumed.

Apparently most of the difficult work has already been done, but that doesn't mean getting the thing into flying condition is going to be cheap or easy! The group is looking for donations and volunteers, and
they have a website where you can do both - or simply learn more about the plane and their dream of flying her once again.

I wonder - will Fifi be jealous?

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: What a woodstove teaches about life.

I've mentioned, I believe, that we heat our house with a woodstove. It's not a decoration or a supplement; we have no other source of heat. It's the woodstove or nothing.

Our woodstove is very efficient, and it's no problem to heat our house to the mid-70s at any time of the year. We've grown very accustomed, in fact, to that temperature range since we moved here some years back. After a while, 70 degrees seems downright cold!

Our previous home was a darling historic house in a charming historic neighborhood, a house which would never get over 73 degrees no matter how much natural gas we pumped through its furnace. It was old and drafty, and though we made upgrades over the years it was never going to be what you'd call energy efficient without a lot of extensive (and expensive) work. As a consequence we kept the thermostat at 68 degrees, because the drain our checking account was far more efficient than the furnace!

In our current house, however, keeping warm is simply a matter of effort: go to the woodshed, split some wood, build a fire. I know that if I'm a little chilled all I need do is put wood in the stove, and in a short amount of time I can make myself anywhere from cozy to sweltering. All at a whim, and all without worrying about the finances of the thing.

Why am I telling you this? Because the woodstove provides a direct link between effort and reward. If I want to be warm, I know how much effort I need to input to be warm. I have a woodshed, and I know how much effort I need to input to get that shed full of firewood. Everything has a direct relationship between what I do and what I get because the relationship is in real time.

This is different than how most people lead their lives (and how I used to lead mine.) We go to work, we toil, and then we go home. The trouble is that we generally have no immediate evidence or product of that work; it will be at least a week, maybe several, before our bank account shows a higher number than it used to. That’s it; we don’t have anything other than a number on a computer screen. As a culture we've divorced effort from reward; we've abstracted work.

The numbers in our accounts aren’t real, in the sense that we can touch them. We know we have bills, some recurring and some incidental, but there's no connection between what we give (spend) and what we get. There isn't really a feeling of control or mastery over our lives when we've abstracted work to that degree. This is why I've said for decades that I'm really not motivated by money. To me it's not real.

All that's needed to dispel those feelings of disconnection and alienation that come from abstraction is to bring effort and reward closer together. The more solid the intellectual and emotional bond between work and product, the greater the sense of accomplishment. It seems simple, but it works - ask anyone who's ever had a good vegetable garden.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, if you sense a lack of control over your life, I heartily suggest that you get a woodstove. Bring back the connection between your work and your reward.

-=[ Grant ]=-


You've no doubt seen a lot of videos where the action has been reversed - run backwards - for effect. What if you made a whole video intended to be viewed backwards, but with actor going backwards
while you were filming?

That's what filmmaker Messe Kopp did, and the results are really cool. Check it out!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: You're gonna need a bigger boat. OK, maybe not.

A few days ago, the Maersk shipping line posted a cool video of the construction of their newest - and largest - ship. This new vessel, dubbed the "Triple E Line", is in fact the largest ship that currently exists: over 1,300 feet long, 193 feet wide, and nearly 240 feet tall. By way of comparison, the Titanic was only 882 feet long!

The video is a 76-second time lapse of some 50,000 photos that were shot over the space of 3 months, and it's impressive to watch. Enjoy!

Building the World's Largest Ship (in 76 seconds) from Maersk Line on Vimeo.

-=[ Grant ]=-


Many of you know my background in watch & clockmaking. People who’ve met me might not think the avocation fits my personality, but in reality it does. As a youngster (heck, even as an oldster) my view of the universe was conceptually very much like that of Aristotle: ordered, unchanging. No, I didn’t believe in crystal spheres, but I did have a rather linear view of things; chaos, in the entropic sense, was something foreign to my existence. Watches and clocks are perfect instruments if you’re into an ordered universe.

It wasn’t until high school, when a physics teacher explained Lorenz Time Transformations, did I start to understand that time was not what I thought it was.

Then came the space-time continuum. Some of the ideas were so conceptually difficult that I think a bunch of my brain cells - the more regimented ones - committed suicide rather than have their view of the universe turned inside-out. I’m not alone, as I’ve discovered; many people have trouble getting their heads wrapped around the topic.

I recently read an article about a “mathemusician” named Vi Hart. She has a unique way of explaining complex topics that’s resulted in a rather rabid YouTube following. If you’re a music or math geek, and particularly if you’re an educator, you should check out her videos.

She recently did a video on the topic of space-time. The theoretical physicists in the audience (don’t laugh, I know of at least one) will point out that what she’s demonstrating isn’t exactly space-time, but she’s got a neat method to get you into the frame of mind where you can start to understand the underlying concept.

Here’s Vi:

(Oh, Stan Kenton recorded a terrific chart by composer Hank Levy titled “Of Space And Time”, from whence this post gets its title. Sadly I couldn’t find a decent rendition of the tune, for free, on the ‘net. You can, however, download it from both Amazon and the iTunes Music Store.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Is it time to revisit the concept of a library?

Fast Company recently published an article about a best-selling author who believes that public libraries have outlived their usefulness. According to him, they waste taxpayer dollars and deprive authors of royalties.

As you might guess, I'm more than a little interested in this discussion due to having books currently in print myself. The article makes a good point: libraries are a drain on public resources and certainly do deprive authors of a certain amount of revenue. The question is whether either of those is sufficient cause to abolish libraries altogether.

My anarcho-libertarian side would certainly like to see publicly funded libraries eliminated and those services moved to the private sector. My tax dollars go to support a system which is all too often used to provide mindless entertainment instead of enlightenment, romance novels instead of astrophysics texts. The libraries in even medium-sized cities are often a dumping ground for people who just want to get out of the rain, rather than expand their minds.

The naive optimist in me, however, hopes that even the most uneducated bumpkin might some day be inspired to pick up a book on art history instead of another DVD of America's Funniest Home Videos. The human race progresses only through accumulated knowledge, and the library has historically been the vessel which holds that knowledge for easy access.

I can walk into the library and see kids engrossed in surfing the net, knowing full well that their parents choose to spend their discretionary funds on beer and cigarettes rather than a cheap computer and an internet connection for their children's development. Were the library to close, where would they be able to access the greatest mechanism yet developed to spread information?

The question is: should we feel obligated to provide those things? If so, how much are we collectively willing to pay in order to provide such opportunity?

The other side of the argument is not so confounding, at least for me. As an author whose books currently reside in library collections I concede that there are a certain number of people who are interested in what I write, but who will choose to read it for free rather than paying. The library certainly makes that easier to do, otherwise they'd need to find a friend from whom they could borrow my books!

At the same time, I know (because I've heard from them) that there are people who discover one of my books in their local library, check it out and like it enough to buy their own copy. How, really, is that different than the same book being leafed through at Barnes & Noble? I don't think it is, and I suspect that the library is at best revenue neutral (my publisher, on the other hand, might feel differently - perhaps I should ask?)

I don't see myself as losing a ton of money due to the library, but then again I'm not a bestselling author who makes his living from writing; perhaps if I were my opinion would change. Then again, I've never felt the need for a large house with a sauna and room for a pony. **

I welcome your discussion in the comments.

-=[ Grant ]=-

** - Bonus points for those who recognize the reference without Googling, Binging or asking Siri.

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A map of the universe? How would you fold it??

Think about this: the galaxy in which our solar system resides is the Milky Way galaxy. In our own galaxy are more than 200 billion (yes, with a 'b') stars, and scientists estimate there are at least that many planets in and amongst those stars. So, let's just round that off to 400 billion.

In our own galaxy. And, as it happens, there are at least 43,000 more galaxies in the universe.

At least, 43,000 that we can see. Who knows how many galaxies exist that we can't see.

In other words, the fact that the Burger King clerk screwed up your drive-through order really doesn't amount to much in the scheme of things. How's that for perspective?

Still, it would be nice to be able to get around the universe if we could ever leave our own galaxy, and to that end scientists have produced
the first 3D map of our universe. (Well, the universe we know about of course.)

Pretty cool, huh? Somewhere out there is the possibility of a planet where they've never heard of "Jersey Shore".

Lucky aliens.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Transitory - and cold - art.

In remembrance of the big snow the northeast had a week or so ago, I thought this was apropos.

We've all made snowmen. Some people get very fancy and make whole families, dress them up and decorate them in ingenious and whimsical ways. That's fun; I can remember as a kid trying to build the biggest snowman we possibly could, limited of course by our ability to maneuver the big spheres which make up any self-respecting snowperson's body.

What if you used the snow to make actual art? It would be art which had a finite life; in Oregon, perhaps a day or two at most. Other places in the world, it might be measured in weeks. Then you've get a fresh canvas (or possibly the need to wait six months for a new canvas) to start over again.

One Simon Beck, who has the fortune to live in the French Alps, got the bug to make snow art some years ago. He's been doing it regularly since, and he makes some of the neatest designs in the snow - huge works, some of them 500 feet in diameter.

Then, presumably, he goes indoors to warm up his feet!
This article from FastCoDesign shows off some of his work.

Next time it snows here, I might try something like it. Of course I'll need to sit by the fire and think about it a while; wouldn't want to rush into anything!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The very short history of the video arcade.

Just the other day I was reflecting on the progress mankind has made in the short space of my life. I can remember vividly when the first VCRs came on the market; I can remember going into an audiophile electronics store and seeing the very first CD player and all of the CDs that were then on the market (perhaps a dozen at most.) On the computing front, I started in 1977 using a central time share computer utilizing a phone line, 110 baud modem and a teletype machine (no video display in those days.)

Back in the 1980s the internet wasn't even a dream yet; what connectivity we had was Fidonet (text only) and Usenet. Only geeks knew how to use that stuff; mainstream acceptance of email was still a couple of decades away. Today my iPhone does more stuff, faster, than the first PC I used. It's also a small fraction of the cost, as long as you ignore the wireless carrier's bills!

What brought all this to mind is
an article I recently read about the rise and fall of the video game arcade. When I was in high school the first console-style video games were released, and shortly thereafter the video game arcade was born. So pervasive did they become, and so quickly, that when a large shopping mall opened in the area in 1981 a central feature was the dark cave of the video arcade. Parents could go shopping while their kids played video games.

(If they'd only stopped to look at the neighborhood, perhaps they wouldn't have been so trusting. Then again, that was the era I was toting a large camera bag, filled with expensive equipment, through the late-night streets of Portland taking pictures. It was a different time.)

The article is very good, giving a solid history of the video game arcade -- a history that started with the evil pinball machine (read the article, you'll understand) -- as well as an analysis of why they disappeared. Read and enjoy this story about an era that lasted just a few years but pushed both technology and society forward. Whether that is good or bad is for you to decide.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A piece of Oregon history.

It was the summer of 1974. Our school district, overcrowded but short on money to build new facilities, had a couple of years earlier come up with an idea to stretch the useful life of our elementary school building: go to a year-round schedule, with students split into four staggered 'tracks' in a 9-week-on, 3-week off pattern.

As a result I spent most of the summer of '74 in a classroom, getting to and from home via the district's buses. Our bus driver was cool, though - he always had on a local radio station, KGW-AM 620 (their bumper sticker: "sixtytwokaygeedoubleyou!") which played the most popular tunes of the day.

It was on that bus I first heard a plaintive folk-rock song from a local group called Blackhawk County. Titled "Oregon (I Can't Go Home)", it was the story of an Oregon girl who had been sentenced to death in a Turkish prison for allegedly smuggling hashish. Oregonians, being pretty liberal even back then, generally felt that whether she was guilty or not was immaterial; death wasn't a commensurate punishment for drug smuggling. Her story was front page across the country, and Blackhawk County wrote a song about her desire to simply go home, back to Oregon.

The song touched a lot of hearts, not because of the story behind it - few people knew who the song was for or why it was written - but because it expressed what all true Oregonians feel about our beautiful state. It became an instant hit in the Pacific Northwest, staying at #1 for over nine weeks and even managing to place #16 on the Billboard charts. Not bad for the first recording from a new band!

It turned out to be the group’s only hit, and soon most people had forgotten about it and gotten on with their lives. The girl for whom the song was written eventually returned to the U.S. in the 1980s, and the tune went into the archives of musical history. It affected many, though, including me; for my entire adult life, whenever I've been out of the state for more than a day or two, the song will run continuously through my mind on the trip home. For me the song was synonymous with the state, synonymous with home. I never had a copy of it; I just remembered it.

Fast forward to the turn of the 21st century, and “Oregon” had become an almost mythical piece. My own memory of it had faded a bit; I remembered the melody, but not all of the lyrics. I couldn’t buy it anywhere, because the master tapes were lost shortly after it was recorded. The only copies left were those albums and singles that had been pressed and sold during the time it was a staple of the airwaves.

Luckily, a few years back one of the composers - Bill Coleman - found an unplayed copy of the album in his grandmother's house and transferred it to MP3. Then he did something only an Oregonian would do:
he put it up on his website, free for anyone to download. I did, and for some time now it's been in my iTunes rotation.

A YouTube user named George Washington downloaded it too and shot some video of a river in Oregon's Coast Range to go with the song. Here it is for a new generation of Oregonians (and those not fortunate enough to live here) to appreciate!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A fast portrait under less-than-ideal conditions.

As I mentioned recently, I attended SHOT Show 2013 in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. The Thursday of the Show was spent shooting pictures for a new book by Gila Hayes, all about concealed carry for women. It's going to be published by Gun Digest Books this summer, and if it's even half as good as her last book (
Personal Defense For Women) it'll be terrific. Gila really knows her subject and is incredibly thorough; it will no doubt immediately go on my "highly recommended" defensive book list!

This post, however, is about the photography for the book. Shooting at a trade show is difficult at best, made so by a combination of spotty illumination, mixed lighting types, and crowds of people. The Sands Convention Center has always been one of the worst venues for photography; on the main floor the lighting is very high and insufficient, requiring each booth to supply its own illumination, while on the lower level the lighting is brighter but an ugly combination of sodium vapor point sources and commercial fluorescents.

Normally I'd simply bring my light with me in the form of portable flashes (speedlights.) That was an issue in this case, however, because they require infrastructure: since there were no convenient walls or low ceilings to use as reflective sources, I would have needed to bring along light modifiers (softboxes or octaboxes) which require stands for support. That's a lot of gear to be toting around all day, but the biggest issue was the disruption the equipment would have made in the booths we were visiting. We needed to get in, get our shots, and get out with the least amount of interference to the exhibitors and attendees as possible. We’d be doing this dozens of times over the course of the day, making for a whole lot of setup and tear-down!

Had we been shooting in just a couple of locations I'd have brought the lighting anyhow, but that wasn't the case: we would be traversing the entirety of both floors in what would become a very long day. Moving all that gear (not to mention spare batteries for everything) just wasn't an exciting option without Sherpas, and Vegas is noticeably light on Sherpas. The bottom line was that everything would, by necessity, be shot in available light. The light was all overhead and very ugly, so to get usable pictures a little ingenuity would be in order.

The first issue was that of camera support. I’d determined that a tripod would not be suitable for use in the booths, for the same reasons light stands wouldn't. I ended up shooting everything with a full-frame Sony a850 on an old Gitzo monopod and Leitz ballhead. (How old? The monopod is probably 20 years old, and the ballhead is prewar. Yes, that would be World War II. Both still work fine and look great even with a modern digital camera attached to them!) Thankfully Sony has image stabilization built into their bodies, which means it works with any lens that you can fit on the camera. That came in handy over the course of the day.

This shot of Lisa Looper, the inventor of the FlashBang bra holster, is a good example of what we were up against:

DSC09494 (1)

There is a sodium vapor light fixture on the ceiling above her and slightly to camera right; there's another well behind her and ever so slightly to camera left. There were a couple of dimmer fluorescents behind the camera.

Normally those point light sources would cast ugly shadows under the eyes and chin. If I'd had flash gear that wouldn't be a problem, but I didn't - so I used the next best thing: a reflector. In years past I carried around a white vinyl roll-up shade to use as a reflector, and I've also been known to use silver-colored automobile window shields. In recent years, however, I've become a fan of the circular collapsible reflector/diffuser combinations. Unfolded they're about 30" in diameter, and collapse down to about 12" in diameter - small enough to stuff in the back pocket of my camera bag.

In Lisa's case I set the reflector at about torso level, angled toward her face and just out of camera view at the left. This bounced quite a bit of light back into her face to act as a fill for what would have been some nasty shadows. Careful positioning allowed the main light to make a nice key on her hair and shoulder. The other ceiling light to the rear was carefully framed to act as a hair light to give some separation to the top-right side of her head. (It also produced just a bit of flare, which reduced the contrast of the image a tad. That wasn't intentional, but it worked out.)

I had her hold the belt to reflect the light from the fluorescents behind me; that, coupled with the fill from the reflector, made very nice highlights on the pewter buckle.

The mix of light sources meant some color issues. The predominant color was the yellow/green sodium vapor, which I corrected for in Aperture. (I shoot everything raw so that color balance is easily dealt with in the computer.) Her light beige top shows color casts far more than pure white would, making color correction a delicate operation. There's still some slight color mismatch where the different lights hit, and the discontinuous sources mean a truncated color palette even with perfect white balance, but overall it's acceptable given the conditions under which it was made.

Of course I could always go into PhotoShop and correct those portions of the image that are slightly off, but since this will probably be reproduced in black-and-white I’m not going to bother. The best way to approach a shot like this is to use flashes gelled to the color of the predominant light source, expose for the desired background detail and adjust the flash intensity to bring the subject to the desired density. Once that's done it's an easy task to apply one white balance correction to the whole thing to make it all match. Too bad I couldn't do that!

Elapsed time for this setup, testing and the half-dozen frames we shot was about three minutes. (We did some other setups with her as well, including a couple of sequences of her drawing from a bra holster, so we were at her booth for 15 or 20 minutes and a total of 73 frames.) Of course during that time people were moving in and out of her booth, and several shots were ruined by people sticking their noses into the frame!

Lisa, however, was completely unfazed by the commotion. She’s got a great personality and is incredibly easy to photograph, which is really what makes this picture work!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Remnants of DC. No, not that one.

The early days of electrical service in the United States were a race for acceptance between two separate systems: Direct Current (DC) was the province of Thomas Edison, while Alternating Current (AC) was pushed by his rival, George Westinghouse. Since Edison was the first to install complete electrical distribution systems (from generator to outlet) in New York in 1882, DC got a big headstart in the market. Many buildings installed DC-powered elevators and ventilation systems to take advantage of this new technology.

The problem with early DC power distribution were the transmission losses. DC power had to be sent to the customer at the voltage they’d actually be using, which is relatively low (Edison feared using high voltages in homes.) Low DC voltage loses a lot of power in heating up the wire in which it travels, limiting the distance that it could span. Users had to be very close to the generating station (or vice-versa), a distance measured in city blocks.

The Westinghouse AC system, in contrast, allowed long distance transmission of electrical power with minimal losses because AC voltage could be easily, cheaply, and efficiently stepped up for transmission and then stepped down where it entered the building. Higher voltages result in far less transmission losses, which in turn allow for much larger and more efficient plants located some distance from the end users.

The first commercial AC system, designed by Westinghouse, William Stanley, and Oliver Shallenberger, was installed in Buffalo, NY in 1886. Its adoption, however, was limited by a major problem: there were no efficient AC motors available to power ventilation and elevator systems. As a result, DC continued to make inroads in NYC and certain other cities in the east.

It wasn't until Nikolai Tesla, whose own AC system failed against the Westinghouse empire, turned his energies to inventing a practical AC motor that progress was made. (While Gallileo Ferraris probably beat him to the polyphase motor - and Shallenberger was working on one as well - it would be Tesla who got the credit.) The polyphase AC motor was efficient and relatively cheap to install, and would be the final nail in the coffin of the inefficient DC distribution system. By 1928 even Edison's own company would switch to supplying AC to its customers.

Except, as it happened, in a small section of Manhattan. Consolidated Edison had started their AC conversion in 1928 but some buildings refused to change over. Why should they? Their DC motors worked just fine, and replacing them would be very expensive; in some cases, entire elevator systems would need to be scrapped. ConEd took the long view and made the conversions as they could, when older buildings were remodeled or torn down to make way for newer, all-AC buildings. It would take a while.

The result of that long process was that, as late as 2007, ConEd was still supplying DC current to a small handful of buildings near the Mid-Manhattan Library. In that year they finally stopped the flow of DC current those few customers still used.

That didn't mean that all of the DC systems were gone, however.
A story about the changeover in the November 14, 2007 edition of the New York Times tells us that the few remaining buildings still using the old systems installed AC-to-DC converters of their own to power their equipment when ConEd finally cut them off - 79 years after telling them they needed to switch.

-=[ Grant ]=-


It's easy to forget that World War II didn't really touch America all that much. I'm not talking about the lost lives of our troops nor of the privation at home, but rather about physical damage. Other than Pearl Harbor and the people killed by a
Japanese balloon bomb right here in Oregon, the U.S. was spared the horrors of war because we weren't being regularly attacked or invaded.

The rest of the world wasn't so lucky. We bombed Germany night and day, and it took destruction on a horrific scale to convince the Japanese government to surrender; the Russians got their cities pounded almost to rubble before they were able to turn the situation around and start massacring the Germans who had invaded their homeland. We experienced none of this, and as a result today we have no tangible reminders other than Office of War Information pictures that we'd gone through the largest conflict known to man.

Thus it slips our mind that our major ally, Great Britain, was bombed by the Luftwaffe over a period of months in an operation called “The Blitz.” Over 50,000 bombs fell on London during that time, and today
you can view an interactive map of every one of those bomb strikes. Modern technology brings home the message that the horror of war can strike anywhere, even Jolly Old England.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Up, up and away!

By now you probably realize I'm a sucker for cool technology, and one of the things I like are the new generation of multipurpose mountable cameras like the GoPro video cams. It's amazing what can be done with this gear!

The myriad of mounting options plus the superb image quality means that we're commonly seeing images of things that twenty years ago we wouldn't have. That's not to say it couldn't have been done, only that it was both more difficult, a whole lot more expensive, and not nearly as flexible.

But let's go further back. I'm thinking a bit over a century ago - how would you have gotten cool aerial photos without things like radio remotes and ultra small imaging sensors? (Did I mention that airplanes were not yet in common use?)

If you're Dr. Julius Neubronner, you make yourself a special camera and a special mounting system. Then you get yourself some pigeons (the feathered kind, not the easily taken rube kind.)

Yes, I said pigeons. Besides his work in pharmaceuticals, Neubronner was known for his pigeon photos. In your face, GoPro!

DIY Photography has an interesting article on the making of the images, complete with pictures of the pigeons carrying their cameras and some of the pictures they returned.

As I always say: everyone needs a hobby!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Talk shows where people really talked.

There was a time, believe it or not, when one could actually become educated by watching television. There were great plays, shows that deeply explored various musical styles (hosted by real musicians, composers and conductors), documentaries about art and architecture, and programs which discussed the issues and topics of the day.

In the latter category sat Dick Cavett. Cavett's show was renowned for being intelligent and probing. His guests included actors, scientists, artists, writers and political figures. His was the only show where you could watch Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer argue about their relative contributions to the intellectual fabric of society, as opposed to trailer trash unwed mothers fighting over a shared loser of a boyfriend. Cavett was witty, informed, and a consummate interviewer.

It is that skill which
he recently discussed in an interview on In it he goes into detail about how he prepares to interview someone, how he deals with difficult subjects, and how to keep a conversation going.

Well worth reading, if for no other reason than to develop an understanding of the difficulty of the job. Just because he makes it look easy doesn't mean it is!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Everyone talks about the weather….

…but this time, maybe there is something we can do about it.

Where I live the weather is a constant issue. Since we do so much outside, and we depend on the weather for crops (especially fruit), getting an accurate bead on tomorrow's weather is imperative. Since the rural area in which I live has its own little micro climate and no forecaster from the big cities bothers with those of us in the sticks, I've been forced into learning more about weather. I’ll admit that it is a fascinating, and at times frustrating, field of study.

I’ve learned one thing very well: predicting the weather is incredibly difficult, especially in our region, and running the models to make predictions taxes even a powerful computer.

It's that last fact which is the basis for today's story: I had no idea that the National Weather Service wasn't the best in the world. Seems they don't have enough computer power to make really good models, and they slip further behind each year. No wonder they're usually the least accurate forecast in the Pacific Northwest!

I found
an interesting weather blog which has a great article on the subject. It's not often I find myself on the "spend more money!" side of things, but I'd be willing to take some of the funds we use to support hostile regimes around the globe to pay for the much-need upgrades to the NWS. That would be a very good investment for our country.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Carlo's masterpiece.

It's been five years since I brought you
the story of the famed Moto Guzzi 500cc V8 race bike - the audacious otto cylindri. The motorcycle it was intended to replace - but never did due to Guzzi's withdrawal from racing in 1959 - was my favorite Moto Guzzi of all time, the bicilindrica.

bicilindrica was a 500cc v-twin designed by Carlo Guzzi himself in 1933. It would go on to be one of their longest-lived and most successful racers before being officially shelved in the early 1950s, though privateers would continue to run them for a few more years.

bicilindrica had an inline v-twin engine with the cylinders splayed 120 degrees apart, the front one laying parallel to the ground. (Ducati would later copy Guzzi’s layout, but their cylinder angle would be only 90 degrees.) It was light, fast, maneuverable and reliable, exactly what was needed to win races.

Over the years the frame would change dramatically, from solid to a sprung frame in 1935 to a fairly modern arrangement in the postwar period. The engine would be tinkered with during its production run, with varying valve, carburetor and cam configurations, but in most other respects it was still the same successful design.

The 500cc class, called 'Senior', was that era's Superbike and attracted the best and most famous riders. Moto Guzzi was the winningest Grand Prix motorcycle company in the world at that time, and they got their pick of the crop: riders like the infamously outrageous Omobono Tenni and the more sedate but still formidable Stanley Woods, among others, rode for Guzzi. It would be Woods, in fact, who would ride the
bicilindrica to a stunning win in the 1935 Isle Of Man TT - the first non-British bike to ever win the race. (He also took the Lightweight 250cc class on the Island that season - a double Guzzi win.)

bicilindrica is now a rare beast, and if there are any in this country I've not heard of them. There are very few still running around Europe, and Moto Guzzi has at least two of them (plus some incomplete spares, I'm told.) Until I ran into this video on YouTube I'd never seen one actually running. This is a late model - note the postwar leading-link forks and the aerodynamic hammered fuel tank - but still runs like a top. Oh, the sound! If I were made of money I'd own one. Alas I'm not, and must console myself with this video. Enjoy!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: It's raining in Oregon. Surprise, surprise.

Here in the great state of Oregon we're known for our rain. Despite the fact that more than half of the state is desert, everyone thinks of Oregon as a wet place.

West of the Cascade Mountains, where the vast majority of the population lives, that's certainly true. I don't think there's anyplace on the west side of the mountains that gets less than 34 inches of rain a year, and most places get noticeably more. At my house we'll pass 80 inches this year; we got a solid foot of rain in three days just last week. Just a few miles away there's a spot that gets nearly ten feet of the wet stuff every year. Ten. Feet.

In Oregon we know rain. Well, some of us do anyhow, and in an area where rain is almost a constant I'm surprised no one came up with this: art that is visible only when it rains. Artist Adam Niklewicz made the installation in Hartford, CT, a town which certainly gets its share of rain - even if they don't measure up to Oregon standards.

Check it out.

-=[ Grant ]=-

P.S.: Despite our damp climate, Oregonians - the real ones, not transplants - generally eschew umbrellas. The running joke with members of SNOB (Society of Native Oregon Born) is that you can tell the California emigres by the umbrellas they feel necessary to wield in even the slightest mist.

FRIDAY SURPRISE: I’m feeling abandoned again.

It occurs to me that I haven't done a recent post about one of my favorite topics: abandoned places. For those just tuning in, I love to explore places that are no longer in use; places that have been left to rot away for whatever reason. Old houses, mine shafts, factories, military installations, railroad trestles - you name it, I like wandering around in them.

Sadly there aren't many of those kinds of places in my geographical area. I salve my disappointment by looking at other people's pictures of their wanderings, and today I'm
linking to the work of Amy Heiden, courtesy of Fstoppers. The bowling alley is my favorite.

Check 'em out, but
be sure to visit her website - she’s got a lot more where those came from!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: An old code is a good code.

When I was in grade school, before the internet and the Kindle, there was the Scholastic Book Club. A couple of times a year the SBC would roll into the library, where students could peruse the offerings and order their choice of books. The orders would be delivered to the school a few weeks later.

One such fifth-grade order found me in possession of a book on codes and ciphers. This was fascinating to me, especially the part on code breaking. Finally a practical use for all that math I'd been studying! With that book I taught myself to break the most common historical codes, and even at one point challenged my classmates to produce a code that I couldn't crack. The efforts were almost comical - simple substitution ciphers, mostly - but every so often they'd throw me a curve. I managed to break every one, however.

Cryptography has remained an interest ever since. Though I haven't tried to invent - or crack - a code since I was a kid, I still follow stories of code breaking with keen attention. If they're combined with historical lore, so much the better!

It should not come as a surprise, then, that I found this WIRED Magazine article so intriguing: a
250-year-old code from a secret society. It's as if that Scholastic Book on codes and ciphers morphed with another childhood reading favorite, the Mad Scientist's Club, and time-traveled to the screen of my iMac. I couldn't NOT read it!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The last days of an adventure.

There was a time when Cape Canaveral (Cape Kennedy, for those who grew up in the late '60s) was the center of national and international attention. That's where all of our manned space launches happened: the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects, as well as the Space Shuttle missions. It drew throngs of tourists and resulted in a long-lived boom in the region. It was a place where real magic happened.

With the close of the Shuttle era, however, the infrastructure of Cape Canaveral is being idled. The thousands of technicians, engineers and scientists who worked there have dwindled, and along with them the tourists. The Cape is slowly turning into a ghost town, complete with empty attractions and shuttered businesses. The structures on launch pad LC-39B at the Kennedy Space Center were demolished in 2011, while the fate of sister pad LC-39A is uncertain.

Photographer David Ryle has spent some time there chronicling the decline of what has been called "Space Coast".
A selection of his pictures are up at Fast Company, and are worth a look if you - like me - were ever fascinated by the idea of human beings being rocketed into space.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Cool for the sake of cool.

This video was done as something of an experiment by the developers of a Quartz Composer plug-in to showcase what their patch can do. It simulates the effects of a rolling shutter (sometimes called "slit-scan") but with far more control.

As the developers say: "The idea is very simple: the first line of the video is realtime, the second line is late of 1/60s, the third is late of 2/60s, etc. It's like a very long rolling shutter."

This sort of thing has certainly been done before, but this software brings a professional level of quality down to the consumer level. It’s amazing what someone with an HD camera (which are getting downright cheap), a little software, and some creativity can now do. Very cool!

timeRemapExportHD from Adrien M / Claire B on Vimeo.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Which, as it happens, isn’t all that much of a surprise.

As I'm sitting here looking over the list of Friday Surprise topics I've collected, none of them seem "right" for this week. This week has been dominated - fairly or unfairly - by the destruction wrought on the eastern seaboard.

News reports are full of stories about long gas lines, fights over food, people dumpster diving just to get sustenance, union thugs turning away non-union utility crews, and much more ugliness. The most astonishing thing, though, is the number of reporters and anchors who proclaim on camera their shock that "things are getting worse, not better."

No kidding.

To those of us who study this kind of thing (I actually pursued an emergency management degree a few years back simply because this stuff interests me) this comes as no surprise. The initial damage to a complex system like a metropolis invariably cascades and the result is a level of damage that might not have been predictable at the outset. Fukushima should come immediately to mind.

The trouble is that this stuff may not be completely predictable, but it's not a surprise either. A local weather blog (this is Oregon, remember) noted the unprecedented potential of the east coast storm many days before it hit land. People knew this was coming and it still caught them off guard.

Luckily this disaster has ignited an interest in 'prepping', which is a good thing!

But the country is still not out of the woods. Not only is a new storm now threatening the east coast, there is a very real risk of massive riots breaking out in that region in wake of next week's elections. Think about it: you have millions of people already pushed toward their breaking point, large gangs of organized looters reportedly descending on darkened neighborhoods all over the hard-hit areas, no gas, no food, no heat or water, and a very large entitlement mentality amongst all the players. It’s only going to get worse this weekend as a stricken New York City, under the control of people who don’t have to live in the dark or dumpster dive for their food, diverts precious recovery assets to putting on a gigantic marathon.

It's a powder keg, and when you throw in the results of a very contentious presidential race the possibilities are downright frightening.

We could see riots that make the 1992 Los Angeles event look like a birthday party. Given the disaffection I've seen all over this country, it's not a stretch to believe that they could spread across the nation. It's not predictable, but if it happens it should not come as a surprise.

As I told someone yesterday, next week will be very interesting - in the (purported) Chinese sense of the word. Don't let yourself be caught off guard.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The future of education?

When you think about it, the art of education hasn't changed much over the centuries. Sure, there have been advances in what is being taught, and in the technologies used to facilitate that teaching, but in general the process itself hasn't seen much advancement over the generations.

While one could argue that the authority-based methods used today are necessary to maintain some known level of consistency and quality, another could argue that it's not actually happening; it's possible to go into virtually any institution and find someone teaching something that is either demonstrably wrong or severely skewed because of a radical personal viewpoint.

Might there be another way?

Fast Company published an article about a new project that's aimed at bringing post-secondary education into the twenty-first century and simultaneously making it available to everyone. Called P2PU, it's an online collaborative university. It's a radical way of delivering education, and while it's still very much experimental (and unaccredited) it's definitely intriguing.

Will it work in the long run? I don't know, but it's exciting to contemplate the possibilities.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Parks and recreation.

Of all the great photographers to come out of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) project, none was as enigmatic as Gordon Parks. Parks (born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks; and you think your name is long) got his start as a young piano player in a brothel, and would go on to work as a composer, writer, musician, and film director. It was his work as a photographer, however, that would establish and cement his creative reputation.

Legend has it that he got his first camera in a pawn shop. When the film was developed, the clerks supposedly told him he had talent and should seek work as a photographer. Whether that story is true or not, Parks did have a tremendous eye. His photos, even those of gritty subjects such as the gangs of Harlem, have a style that can only be described as 'tasteful'. He handles his subjects with a deftness and, yes, class that shows through. Rich or poor, famous or infamous, his subjects are treated the same way: as human beings. Even his landscapes and cityscapes are presented with a respectful air.

Next to Parks, the excellent work of Ernst Haas seems to be clumsily reaching for meaning and approval. It's not that Haas was bad - quite the opposite - but rather that Park was just that good. He occupies a rare niche in image making.

Unfortunately he has not been as well recognized as he should be. For too long he's been pegged as simply an "African American" photographer, a label which I think is unfair to both him and his work. He was a photographer, period, and it's about time that he got recognized for being among the very best that has ever been.

That time may finally have come. This fall a
five-volume retrospective of his work is being published, a collection that I believe will finally bring him recognition outside of the insular world of photography. The New York Times LENS Blog has a selection of some of those photographs, and they're well worth viewing.

Gordon Parks would have been 100 years old next month, but his images are timeless. Have a look and see if they don't strike you as the work of someone with grace and style.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Here today, gone tomorrow.

Collectors have a word for things that were never meant to survive: ephemera. Stuff like advertisements and cocktail napkins and business cards were expected to be used for a short time, then discarded or destroyed. Unlike a toaster or a car or a camera, they were never intended to be saved for posterity. Yet they are, because they survived.

Now we find ourselves in the digital age, preoccupied with technology and all of the neat things it can do. We can make photographs and videos more easily (and more cheaply) than has ever been possible, but they're rarely put into an actual tangible form; they're stored as digital information, sometimes not even in our possession. What happens when the works get screwed up?

This neat little video - all of two minutes and forty-eight seconds - explores this question. It's beautifully done and quite thought provoking, and somewhat ironic in that you’re viewing it as a stream from some web server someplace.


LOST MEMORIES (French, English Subtitles) from Francois Ferracci on Vimeo.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Socket to me, baby!

I suppose you have to be of a certain age to understand the humor in today's title. Still, that's what today's Surprise is about - sockets. As in sockets that go onto socket wrenches.

Most men have a collection of sockets; I certainly do, as it seems I'm always working on something around our place: cars, trucks, tractors, lawn mowers, you name it. The primary tool for all of them is the socket set. I use mine constantly, but have never given a thought to how the things are made.

Thanks to the miracle of television, I've found out. The show "How It's Made" visited the Snap-On tool factory and filmed the production of sockets. I wish they'd have done some slo-mo on the broaching machine, but at least it shows how the process works.

(Since we’re on the subject, I’m going to put in a plug for my favorite all-American maker of sockets and ratchets,
Wright Tools, and my favorite place to buy them - Harry Epstein, Inc.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Pioneering color.

Early color photography was focused (if you'll pardon the pun) on using what is known today as "additive" color: that any color can be produced by combining specific amounts of red, green, and blue light. The idea was that you could expose three pieces of film or glass plates through red, green and blue filters. Once processed, they could then be viewed simultaneously through their respective filters and the results would (in theory) produce realistic color.

This was difficult enough with a still image, but imagine trying to make it work while the films are moving through a projector! The earliest successful color motion pictures, known as Kinemacolor, exploited a trait of human vision called "persistence". Persistence simply means that once an image is viewed, it takes a little bit of time before it disappears completely in the viewer's mind.

Persistence is why motion pictures of any sort work: each still frame is projected for a fraction of a second, and while your visual system is clearing itself the next image, ever so slightly different than the first, is projected. Your mind doesn't see the extremely small time gap between the two, and the result is what looks like continuous movement.

Kinemacolor used persistence in a novel way: the individual frames would be exposed through a rotating filter that was synchronized with the shutter. The camera exposed the first frame through a red filter, then the next through a green filter, the next red, the next green, and so on. It also ran the film through the camera at double the rate of a normal black-and-white film so that each frame pair would take the same time to pass as a single frame of black-and-white.

When the film was projected, the reverse happened: the synchronized filters projected the first (red) frame through the red filter with which it was exposed, the second frame through the green filter, and each successive frame pairs were done the same way. Persistence and the high frame rate combined to fool the mind into seeing a single color image.

Kinemacolor wasn't perfect, however. Aside from registration problems which led to color fringing, it also didn't reproduce all colors very well because of the missing blue spectrum. Still, it was successful enough that quite a number of very early British films were made in the process.

As it happens, Kinemacolor wasn't even all that revolutionary. Turns out that it was a simplified version of a
system worked out by London photographer Edward Turner. His system, conceived in 1899, used all three additive colors to produce very lifelike images. In 1901 and 1902 he made some test films using his process, but he died suddenly in 1903. A fellow by the name of Charles Urban acquired his work and used it to “invent” the much simpler (and cheaper) Kinemacolor process. In 1937, Urban donated a large archive of his work, including the Turner films, to the London Science Museum.

The Turner films weren't recognized for what they were until just a few years ago, when the Museum decided to unlock the secrets of the odd looking movies. Those test films were never seen by the general public, but just a few weeks ago the Museum’s hard work paid off: you can now - 110 years after they were shot - view them as Turner intended.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A guitar is not an axe.

Only an axe is an axe, and here is a cool video of the making of one - by hand, the old fashioned way.

Yeah, I want one too.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A running mystery.

As a Sheriff's Detective once told me, it's the idiots in this world who assure his continued employment - the really smart criminals are rarely captured. Luckily, there aren't a lot of them around.

Though not usually rising to the level of criminal, there are a lot of smart people who manipulate systems and institutions for personal gain. Not monetary gain, mind you, but for psychological or emotional gain. Take, for instance, the number of people who craft an identity based around meritorious military service. Why go to all that trouble just to massage an ego?

At The New Yorker this week is the story of a marathon runner who, apparently, has been faking his impressive finishes - to the point of inventing a non-existent marathon in which he was the first place finisher! When cornered by a reporter, his “explanations” sound an awful lot like Joliet Jake's attempt to keep from getting shot by his ex-wife:

It's a pretty interesting article that's got me wondering: just HOW is he doing it?

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Jazzed for the weekend.

It's Labor Day Weekend, and the unofficial end of summer. Many of you will be having picnics, perhaps some of you taking a short trip, and what better way to start a holiday weekend than listening to some music?

A few weeks back I linked to a rare video of a performance from the Wolf Trap Dizzy Gillespie tribute, and today I have another from that event. This one is a performance of "Fiesta Mojo", and features an....eclectic group of musicians.

Standouts include Arnie Lawrence, one of the most underrated and sophisticated saxophonists in jazz; Sam Rivers, the pioneering free jazz improviser who gives a suitably restrained (for him) solo here; David Amram, the multi-instrumentalist who surprises everyone with a dual pennywhistle solo; and at 7:50 is Candido, who brings the house down with a conga solo that serves as a master class on how drums can be both percussive and musical at the same time. Immediately after him is a drummer whose name was immortalized in the film "Blazing Saddles", and I'll leave it to you to figure out how. (For some, this may be the first time the joke has ever made sense!)

With that, here's Dizzy and Fiesta Mojo. Have a great weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A four-wheeled namesake.

Many years ago I visited the now-defunct Harrah's automobile museum - the real, original one, not the neutered National Automobile Museum that currently bears the "Harrah Collection" monicker. It was amazing; I saw
cars from companies that I didn't even know existed. One of the more interesting activities was having my picture taken with the two cars that bore my names: A Grant and a Cunningham. I had no idea those cars existed until I was standing next to them.

Grant company sold what were apparently unremarkable vehicles, and was in business for a scant nine years. Cunningham, on the other hand, was a storied firm with an impressive pedigree.

James Cunningham, Son & Company of Rochester, NY was founded in 1862 as a
carriage manufacturer. In fact, they became one of the largest such firms in the country. They were known for quality above all else, and were usually among the most expensive coaches available. They made the switch to automobile production in 1908, making both gasoline and electric models. They maintained their well-received focus on quality, and their first models sold for a whopping $3,500!

By 1916 they'd developed a 442 cubic inch V-8 engine which would become their trademark. By 1921, their town car model was selling for $8,100 - when a Ford Model T Runabout could be had for $370 and their four door sedan for only $725!

Around 1928 Cunningham's interests changed to aviation, and they dropped auto production entirely in 1931. In 1938 the company was reorganized to build electrical switching apparatus, which they did until the mid-1960s. The
aircraft division, a joint venture between Cunningham and a fellow named Robert Hall, continued in business as an aircraft component maker until being closed in 1948.

Today all Cunningham cars are exceedingly rare and do not come up for sale very often. I've not seen another outside of the Harrah museum. In their heyday, though, driving a Cunningham - whether horse or mechanically powered - was the mark of sophistication and style (and a not-insignificant income!)

Here are a couple of videos of Cunningham autos; this first I included just because I like the word “Phaeton”!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: My hometown, 1936.

I've written before of the depression-era Farm Security Administration (FSA) and their photographic propaganda campaign, of whose results I'm a big fan even if I decry the manipulative intent behind them. Their photographers roamed the country and produced phenomenal documentation of both urban and rural areas that would not exist were it not for their efforts.

A couple of them made it here to Oregon, and I've seen some of the photos they made. However, I was completely unaware that on July 4, 1936, the great Arthur Rothstein had been in my little hometown: Molalla, Oregon, population (at that time) about 700. Then, as now, the big event in town was the annual rodeo - the Molalla Buckeroo - and Rothstein was in attendance.

He made this picture of what he identified as a Warm Springs Indian at the old Buckeroo Grounds, which was near the middle of town. (The grounds were demolished and new ones built outside of town when I was a teenager, hence the "old" designation.)

The fence behind the gentleman ran the circumference of the grounds and was regularly maintained right up until the demolition. It’s entirely possible that at least a few of those boards survived to the early 70s, when I helped paint them in preparation for the annual festivities. (They sure seemed like they had been there over four decades, but then anyone over 18 seemed ancient to my young eyes.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

P.S.: Please, no partisan comments on how great FDR was or how his programs allegedly saved the country. This time, I'll be deleting them.


Warning: I'm probably going to piss a lot of people off. If your identity is firmly rooted in what you do for a living and you’re convinced of your position in society, stop reading now!

The most important job in the world, as far as I'm concerned, is that of the farmer. They feed us and to a large extent clothe us, and without them we'd be hungry and cold. Every other job in this country pales in comparison, including my own. I'm able to peddle my wares only because of a lot of people get up early every day to plow, milk, feed, and harvest the food that powers me and my clients.

No matter how important you think you are, you're not as important as the men and women who labor to feed you. Without them, you'd simply cease to function - and it's pretty hard to climb the ladder of corporate success while comatose. While you're striving to become Vice President of Northern New Jersey Sales, there are a whole lot of people out there who are working their butts off so that you can have that impressive power breakfast with the Senior VP who holds the keys to your advancement. Think about that as you butter your English Muffin tomorrow.

Why am I so adamant about this? Because I don't believe that we give our farmers and ranchers enough recognition. Perhaps, having grown up on a farm, I have a different perspective than some; the derision which I sometimes see heaped on the "redneck" farmers and ranchers is enough to make my blood boil, and I think it's about time we started thanking them instead of insulting them. What better way to do so than to recognize those who have been farming the longest?

Here in Oregon we have an award given to farms that have been operating, in the same family hands, for more than a hundred years. The award is called Century Farm, and if you drive our backroads you'll occasionally come across a modest black-and-white sign designating an honoree. It's not an award that is easy to get, or to keep, but carries with it a certain distinction that the fashionable denizens of our cities will never understand.

Some local farmers achieved that status this year, out of only 16 statewide. I'd like to take a moment to recognize them for their achievement, and to thank them for growing the delicious food which sits in our refrigerators.

Excuse me while I eat my breakfast, knowing full well where it came from.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A quick musical interlude.

Back in 1988 there was a special Wolf Trap concert held in Dizzy Gillespie's honor. Broadcast on PBS, it featured a veritable "who's who" of the jazz world at that time. I videotaped the broadcast, but over the years that tape has become unplayable. Too bad, as it contained some truly wonderful performances.

A small subset of the musicians invited would gather together in a group and perform a song or two from Dizzy's repertoire, then the next group would do the same, and so on - for nearly three hours of broadcast, if memory serves!

One such group consisted of Flora Purim, Freddie Hubbard, Airto Moreiro, Nicky Morero, Eddie Gomez, Kei Akagi, Michael Shapiro, and Dave Valentin playing an exciting arrangement of Dizzy's famous "Tanga".

Their video was up on YouTube a couple of years ago, but was pulled because the PBS station which recorded it objected to copyright infringement (as if they were making huge sums of money selling DVDs that
no one knew existed if not for the YouTube file!) Someone recently put it back up, and I encourage you to catch this great performance before it once again gets removed by short-sighted bureaucrats.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Going for the Gold. Or not.

I haven't done anything on abandoned structures lately, but when today's subject popped up...well, it's perfect.

Have you ever wondered what happens to the grounds of large events, like a World's Fair -- or, say, the Olympics? Sometimes, like Lake Placid, they continue to be useful. In other cases, like the site of the 2004 Games in Athens, they simply stand as a monument to wasted resources.

In eight short years, the site of the 2004 Olympic Games has gone from showplace to eyesore. The Greeks spent tons of money to build a very impressive venue, and today it stands empty -- a tribute to the human desire to outdo our neighbors.

How many other Olympic sites around the world have suffered the same fate? I don't know, but I have a hunch that Athens isn’t alone.

Head on over to the NYTimes Lens Blog, where
they've showcased the Athens pictures of Jamie McGregor Smith. Smith has a reputation for photographing abandonment on a large scale, and his pictures of the Greek mistake are superb. The Blog has links to his website, where you can view his other projects -- including some great pictures of our own gigantic and growing abandonment, Detroit.

Excellent images!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Red flags. And blue ones, too.

For some reason, I recently found myself looking at a picture of our state flag (for those who don't know, that would be Oregon.) I've seen this flag my entire life, and today it dawned on me: our flag is ugly.

Ugly and boring.

Our flag is also the only one in these 50 states whose reverse side is different than the obverse side - and the back is even uglier and more boring than the front. As if that were even possible.

I know that not all state flags are so ugly and boring, so I went to Wikipedia to find out if we are saddled with the most ugly and boring flag in this Republic.

You know what? If we don't have the ugliest and most boring flag, all we have to do is turn it over - then we do. Yeah for us!

Our neighbor to the north, Washington, can't be accused of having a particularly interesting entry, but it's still more interesting than ours (and at least it's unique in having a green field.) Alaska's is simple - simpler than ours by far - but at least makes one think about the heavens. Nevada's isn't particularly inspiring, but at least it's the same on both sides. I'm not sure why, but I expected a better effort from Vermont - and they still outdo us. Texas is surprisingly lame for a state with such a large personality, but not as lame as Oregon's.

Some state flags are really cool. Maryland gets my vote for the neatest state flag, and Arizona's isn't far behind. I love New Mexico's minimalist design, while Rhode Island's appropriately small entry is bright and nautical. Ohio gets huge style points for being the only burgee (swallowtail pennant) format, a refreshing break from the quadrangles used by every other state. Florida's makes a bold statement with their red "X" and state seal, while Alabama uses just the "X" - they don't need no stinkin' seal on their flag.

Have a look at the Wikipedia entry, and ask yourself: is my state's flag as ugly and boring as Oregon's?

I doubt it.

-=[ Grant ]=-

P.S.: You can also get the stories behind each state’s flag at

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Lights out in Mayberry.

One of my favorite television programs has always been "The Andy Griffith Show". Not just because of Andy himself, mind you, but for the bucolic world he created and the phenomenal cast which he assembled to help him bring a piece of Americana to the airwaves.

Andy had an eye for talent and brought some phenomenal musicians and character actors to his show. Of course there was Don Knotts, but don't forget the immensely talented people like Howard McNear, Hal Smith and Howard Morris who made Mayberry come alive. Being a musician himself, Andy hired singers and other musicians and often featured music as part of his storylines. The Dillards, for example, played the Darling Boys in the show, and one of the very few on-camera performances of the great Jack Prince was aired on the Andy Griffith Show.

Andy got his start as a stand-up comic, and his schtick was telling somewhat modernized (if not perfectly accurate) tales of history and literature. His version of Romeo and Juliet is a classic, but the one I like most is his story about the American Revolution - and how he uses it to get the Mayberry boys excited about studying history. You know, with all them guns and muskets and stuff!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Not so far out. And not so real.

Last week's Surprise was about space, so I thought "why not keep the theme going?"

The Space Shuttle, as you probably heard, has been grounded forever. In total, we built six of them: The Enterprise, which was used for atmospheric tests only and never made it to space; the Columbia, which broke up on re-entry in 2003; the Challenger, which blew up shortly after lift-off in 1986; and Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor, which were all retired and are even now in the process of being moved to museums.

There was one Shuttle, however, which preceded even Enterprise. It's been sitting, nearly forgotten, in an unlighted warehouse in Downey, CA since 1972. There's now a movement underway to restore it and put it on display.

So, why doesn't anyone remember it? After all, it was the model - literally - for all that would follow. If you can think of a word that rhymes with "follow", and put it together with the other clues I’ve worked into this post, you’ll get the rest of the story. Alternatively, you could take the easy way out and just
click on this link and read about it at the Los Angeles Times.

It’s more interesting, at any rate!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Far out. For real.

In the fall of 1977 I was starting my junior year in high school (we had actual high schools back then; no junior high nonsense, and we didn't refer to ourselves as being in the "eleventh grade".) I was something of a math and science geek, and along with that came an abiding interest in space travel. NASA was like Mecca.

For anyone who followed the goings-on at Cape Canaveral, it was an exciting time. The launch of the
Voyager space probes - Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 - was imminent. They were destined to do exploration of Saturn and Jupiter and hopefully give us new information about those planets, information which we couldn't get from telescopes on earth.

The launch went perfectly and the Voyagers did their jobs at both planets. We learned many new things from their close fly-bys, but the machines were still operating.
NASA extended both missions, with Voyager 2 being sent to Uranus and Neptune and Voyager 1 being sent on a mission to explore the outer limits of the sun's influence. Voyager 2, if it were to be operating after the passes over Uranus and Neptune, would join that mission.

Today Voyager 1 is the furthest man-made object from earth: 1.8x10^10 kilometers, or 120 astronomical units, or roughly 11,154,696,873 miles. It is now in a part of space that we've never explored, a region known as the heliosheath. This is the narrow area between our solar system (heliosphere) and interstellar space, where solar winds slow and cosmic rays start to penetrate. This was an unimaginable achievement when the Voyagers were launched, and unless Voyager 1 collides with something it is
expected to reach the heliopause - the very boundary between the solar system and open space. When? We don't know, because we don't know how thick the heliosheath is. That's something else the Voyager missions will be able to tell us!

Voyager 1 is expected to continue to function until about 2020, at which point it will be 43 years old and its systems will finally run out of power, many years past its original design life. We may not have been able to make very good automobiles back then, but we sure knew how to make spacecraft!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Something for the younger crowd.

My wife and I were having dinner with another couple recently, and I made a casual joke about "chocolate cake for breakfast." My wife got the reference, but the others - somewhat younger than us - just stared. "Bill Cosby?" I said; they just shook their heads.

So, for those folks in the audience who are of an age where they don't recognize the significance of chocolate cake for breakfast, I give you this video from the days when Bill Cosby was actually funny.

Now, if you’re old enough to get chocolate cake for breakfast but don’t understand the significance of “who is this - really?”, I give you one of the classic comedy routines of all time:

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Found treasure.

I've written previously about my general fascination with the photography of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and its successor in documentary imagery, the Office of War Information (OWI.) The FSA was really nothing more than a propaganda machine for the Roosevelt administration, and the head of the FSA - Roy Stryker - was diligent in his job. He hired good photographers and artists, gave them cameras and film, and sent them all over the USA to get the shots necessary to help the President sell his various make-work, wealth redistribution, and nanny state schemes.

The plan worked, and the photos they made were carefully archived in Washington. Apparently, though, Stryker was not all that trusting of his employer. He sent a second archive of 41,000 images to the New York Public Library for safekeeping, where they sat until 2005 - when someone decided to actually catalog them.

Now this story wouldn't be at all interesting without a twist. After all, the entire FSA catalog is in the Library of Congress (LOC) and available online. Who cares about the duplicates sitting in the Big Apple? As it happens, they weren't all dupes; there were about a thousand images in the New York collection that weren't in the LOC. They're now seeing the light of day once again.

New York Times Lens Blog has a slideshow of 19 of those missing images, along with the rest of the story.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Color as the means to an end.

The photography of Ernst Haas has always been enigmatic to me. Unlike the work of many other photographers, his images don't draw me in; I don’t feel a desire to look at them.

A Joel Meyerowitz image, for instance, almost begs me to stop and take it in. A Haas image, in contrast, seems aloof and uninviting - yet at the same time oddly compelling. I don't want to look at his work, but something tells me to do so anyway. It attracts me on an intellectual level, rather than an emotional one.

Haas is known for his pioneering work in color photography (though he did publish a book of black-and-white images made early in his career.) He uses color as a primary element in his compositions, but not like others do; in the Haas world, color exists as an element unto itself. It can be argued that Pete Turner does the same thing, but his photos use color to redefine objects; Haas doesn't care what the object is, because it's the existence of the color itself which is important to him.

FStoppers has an interesting display of his work, centering on New York in the 1960s. Enjoy your holiday weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Does Mammoth Falls ring any bells?

When I was just a young lad one of my favorite books was
"The Mad Scientists' Club." It was the collected stories of a group of kids in the fictional town of Mammoth Falls (out near Strawberry Lake) who were, as the title suggests, very much "into" science and technology as a hobby. The characters were inspiring to me, as I too was a techno-geek. (I had a chemistry lab perched in the rafters of our farm's shop, and my bedroom was full of electronic bits and pieces that I'd repurposed into a hi-fi system.)

These were kids to which I could relate, which was encouraging - because almost no one in the logging/farming town in which I grew up was anything like me. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing for rest of the citizenry - who knows what destruction a small tribe of Grant clones could have wrought?

I checked that book out of the school's library so often that my name was the only one on the checkout card. (We didn't have library cards in school - we signed our name to a checkout card which sat in a small envelope attached to the inside back cover. When the card filled up, a blank one was stapled to it for more capacity. I think there were three stapled cards in this book, with my name filling two of them.)

It's been a long time since I thought about that book, but
Alibris - the source for used and out of print books of all descriptions - has many copies. Turns out the book was reprinted a few years back, though I suspect that most of the buyers were of my generation, attempting to recapture some of their mis-spent youth.

I think I'll do the same thing.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Technology ain't what it used to be.

One of my little obsessions is simplistic technology. This usually means older technology, that which is less complicated and (ironically) many times better for us and our environment.

It was with tremendous joy, then, that I stumbled upon a great website devoted to Luddites like me:
Low Tech Magazine. There you'll find articles on simple technology, obsolete technology, and even technology myths. It will probably vie for a large portion of my recreational time; well, when I get any it certainly will.

(Yes, I realize the contradictions inherent in extolling the virtues of old technology on a computer network. I consider such juxtapositions an art form.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Country pride.

My morning routine is pretty consistent; I get up between 5:30 and 5:45, start a fire in the woodstove, grab a cup of tea, and sit down with Tyler The Overindulged Rabbit to watch a program on PBS called "America's Heartland", which comes on at 6:am.

The show celebrates the people in this country who do the hard work to provide us with food, clothes, lumber and all manner of other products. A simple fact of life on earth is that everything we have, everything you see around you, was either grown or mined. This show celebrates the growers (and sometimes the miners - they had a segment on salt mining not too long ago.)

I'm proud of having grown up with loggers, farmers and ranchers, and it's time they got some good press. America's Heartland exists to do just that, and you don't need to tune into PBS to watch it -
their website has every one of their episodes, spanning seven years, streamed. You can even search for segments that were filmed in any particular state.

After today's segment on peach growers I'm a little hungry. Thanks to the farmers, I'm going to have breakfast!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: And we thought we were SO hot back then.

It's fun to go back in time and revisit our earlier lives. I can remember leisure suits (though thankfully I was only a teenager when they were popular), when gas prices hit $1 for the first time ("a dollar for a gallon of gas? What's this world coming to?"), the first "brick" cel phones (only the truly important, really rich, or incredibly vain carried them), and looking at computer magazines drooling over 5mb hard disk drives. ("Five megabytes, all in one place!? What a wondrous time to be alive!")

I remember when the first PCs came out with a hard drive as a very expensive option. The Shugart ST-506 drive was 5mb capacity and cost something like $1500; it was soon replaced by the ST-412 10mb drive which was considerably less expensive and thus far more popular.

When MS-DOS v3.0 came out it supported a FAT16 file system architecture, which allowed drive sizes up to 32mb. There was a sudden jump to the larger capacity, and there were several 30mb or 32mb drives to choose from.

Up to then drives for microcomputers were all of the 5.25" size. When 3.5" disks debuted we thought that it was a miracle of miniaturization! Little did we suspect that things would get much smaller and of much higher capacity very quickly. What a wondrous time to be alive!

That was nothing, though. For some time I had a DEC PDP-11/70 in my garage, complete with a
DEC RM02 Hard Disk Unit. That hard drive was the size of a dishwasher, weighed over 400lbs, used a removable five-platter disk pack measuring 14" in diameter, and held - get ready for it - a grand total of 67mb of data!

Today I have a couple of 1tb drives in a RAID the size of a box of graham crackers. What a wondrous time to be alive!

Ten years from now I'll probably be laughing at that statement.

This was all brought to mind by a
neat article on the downsizing of computer storage at the Colganology blog. (For those of you who aren't familiar with Colganology, it's...different.) Lots of great pictures, too, though I notice he doesn't have any of the RM02....pity.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A very important...ooooo, shiny!

I’m easily distracted. For instance, I was going to write about something else for today’s post, but in the process of doing the necessary research I saw a sidebar on some website that mentioned something about a television show doing “a modern re-creation” of the chase scene from the movie

My slightly-post-baby-boom hackles were instantly raised; I mean, how can you re-create a Steve McQueen film without Steve McQueen? Or at least a Mustang Fastback? The nerve of those whippersnappers!

Of course that sent me straight to YouTube to find video of the REAL Bullitt chase scene. Ahh, I feel better now!

Called by many one of the greatest car chases in the history of cinema, for me it's notable for one thing - or the LACK of one thing: a sound track. In virtually every car chase you'll see today there's a pulse-pounding sound track to convince the viewer that what they're watching is somehow exciting, as if they couldn't decide that for themselves.

(It's a little like the insipid heavy metal music you'll find on many shooting videos, about which I've commented before. Many times.)

Bullitt didn't need a soundtrack, because it had V8 engines. Big ones. And good camera placement. That TV show? They’ll probably do their scene with a Prius. A chase scene in a hybrid is just wrong, so they’ll need to distract the viewers. Soundtrack time!

Even if they don’t use a collective-middle-class-guilt car, they’ll still need to do something to hide the fact that today’s automobiles are oh-so-politely-quiet. Soundtrack!

Now I can't remember what I was originally going to write. Damn you, internets!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Death of a legend.

I received news last weekend that one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century had died. I'm willing to bet that you don't know who it was.

Don't feel bad, because unless you were a devotee of classical music - and particularly music of the baroque era - you would have no reason to know.

Confused? That should clear up momentarily.

I'm speaking of the great trumpeter Maurice Andre. Andre was born in 1933 in a French commune northwest of Marseilles. He showed early musical talent and was sent to the conservatory, but his career there was not terribly impressive - he was thrown out for a certain lack of dedication to his studies. He roared back just a few weeks later and gave an amazing performance of Arban etudes (some of which I've played, and they ain't easy!) He went on to win the Geneva music competition, and from there his fame grew quickly.

Although a virtuoso on all trumpets Andre became an early proponent of the piccolo trumpet, an instrument pitched an octave higher than a standard trumpet. They were originally designed to make playing the tough parts in certain Bach and Handel pieces a little easier, but outside of those specific pieces were not in wide use. Andre realized the potential of the piccolo trumpet in the broader field of Baroque music, and became known for playing it in his performances. He also commissioned transcriptions of flute and oboe pieces for play on the piccolo trumpet.

His career spanned a little more than fifty years, during which time he made a very large number of recordings. His tone, the bell-like clarity of his playing, and his technical facility astounded audiences the world over. It's fair to say that by the 1970s he was the most important trumpet player in classical music, with the possible exception of Timofei Dokishizer in the Soviet Union. He was the trumpet equivalent of Luciano Pavarotti - only with far greater consensus on his talent. (Yes, that was a dig at Pavarotti.)

I was privileged to attend one of Maurice Andre’s concerts in the early '80s, when he appeared with the Oregon Symphony in Portland. It was a highlight of my musical life and one which I remember to this day. His playing was always joyful; he was at his best in baroque music, which most closely matched his natural style.

Here he is playing the first movement of Haydn's "Trumpet Concerto in E-Flat". This showcases the wonderful tone and phrasing that made his playing instantly recognizable:

After all the talk about piccolo trumpets, I have to leave you with this - Maurice Andre playing the finale of George Philipp Telemann's "Sonata em Ré M para Trompete." This is superb piccolo technique; most players produce a thin, reedy tone on the instrument. Andre’s tone is full and solid, yet he still manages to play in the light, airy style that brings the piece to life. That was Maurice Andre in a nutshell. Enjoy!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Glow in the dark.

National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig has been traveling to Chernobyl since 1993, chronicling the site and the people's efforts to rebuild. has published some of his photos, and has a great interview with him - including the explanations behind some of the pictures.

Great stuff.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Neither snow nor rain...

The United States Postal Service has been in the news lately as they struggle to find a place - and make a profit - in the digital age. (
I've already told them how they could turn that situation around, but it's worth noting that they haven't listened to me. Yet.)

How fortuitous, then, that The New York Times Lens Blog should unveil a great little collection of
pictures from small-town post offices by photographer Kristoffer Tripplaar. They’re not what you might think - have a look!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

Yesterday marked the birthday of a talent that died far too young. Once called, by one of America's greatest producers, "the best actor, I believe, to be discovered in years", this African-American performer delighted millions and recorded an incredibly well-known song before an untimely death.

No, I'm not talking about the drug-abusing, self-destructive Whitney Houston. I'm talking about
James Baskett, one of the pioneer performers in film history.

The name may not be familiar to you, but his most famous role certainly is: he played Uncle Remus, as well as providing the voice of Brer Fox, in Disney's "
Song Of The South". Baskett made famous the song Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, a tune so familiar that it's become almost a symbol of Disney itself. (Oh, the quote about him being the best actor? From none other than Walt Disney - a man who knew talent when he saw it.)

Baskett started out to become a pharmacist, but the financial needs of college led him to the stage. He started in Chicago but his career soon took him to California and famous roles in radio before he tried out at Walt Disney Studios. When Disney saw his audition (which, ironically, was for a voice - not a live character) he was hired on the spot. He was Disney's first live actor.

It was his role in Song Of The South that cemented his place in American cinematic history. His performance, created from sketchy scripts and with very little direction, was so good that he became the first black actor to be awarded an Oscar. The resulting film was a tour de force for both Disney and Baskett.

Ironically, one of the most important actors in film history couldn't attend the opening day of what would be his major work. The film was premiered in racially segregated Atlanta, where he would not have been allowed to participate in any of the activities. Baskett died of a heart condition just two years after the film was released.

Sadly his film is not available in the United States, as it is today deemed as racist. The flap? That Baskett's character is happy - he doesn't sufficiently portray the horror of slavery in the south (despite the fact that the film is clearly set in the post-Civil War period.) The NAACP made the original racism charge, and even though today they have no official position on it the film continues to be restricted by Disney.

I find that about as logical as censoring films that portray any women in the days before suffrage as being happy.

The Disney organization professes to be considerate of people's feelings about racism, which is their reason for not selling copies of the film. Apparently their altruism stops at our borders, as it is widely available, from Disney, in the rest of the world. Thanks to the internet, today you can easily buy a DVD of this important work.

Is the film racist? I don’t see it, but then again I’m not a person who actively thinks about anyone’s race. I enjoy Baskett’s role in Song Of The South simply because he was incredibly good at what he did, and watching it gives me the pleasure that he obviously wanted it to. I’ll leave the arguments about intent and subtext to those who are wound a little tighter than I am and just appreciate the film for what it is.

I find it sad that one of America's great actors, a true pioneer in film, is unable to be seen in his most important role in his own country. I hope that someday that changes, but until it does here is the incomparable James Baskett, singing what would become his (and Disney's) signature song. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baskett!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The story behind an iconic photograph.

Dorothea Lange made what is perhaps her most famous image, "Migrant Mother", in 1936 while working for the Resettlement Administration. What is often overlooked is her interaction with her subjects, particularly Lange's reported use of a variant of the phrase "I'm from the government, I'm here to help."

Here's a great story and video from the Library of Congress on Lange and the making of that famous photo.

-=[ Grant ]=-


Though I'm an admitted fan of jazz and certain eras of what is colloquially called "classical" music (I’m especially fond of Baroque and much of what is labeled "20th Century" music), I also like to listen to marching bands (good ones - a rare commodity), bluegrass, Scottish pipers, and lots more (you can keep the hip hop/rap stuff to yourself, however.)

I'm also a fan of unknown local music, as that is where one finds new artists and musical styles, new interpretations and compositions regardless of where that “local” happens to be. One of the Oregon bands I've listened to for a while, mainly because I like their sound, is called simply
Amelia. Have a listen, and check out more of their songs on their YouTube channel.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Jack Delano returned. And stayed.

Jack Delano produced some of the better-known photographs at the Farm Security Administration, and during that time he visited Puerto Rico and fell in love with the land and its people.

After WWI he and his wife moved to the island, and Jack continued to make pictures of his new home. The Lens Blog at the New York Times has a
nice selection of photos from his Puerto Rico work. No overt political or propaganda messages here, just a nice pictorial made from the heart.

Enjoy, and have a good Christmas holiday!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: To me, he'll always be Mayor Perkins.

A couple of days ago I heard the sad news that veteran actor Harry Morgan had died. Most people remember him as Colonel Potter from "M*A*S*H", or possibly as Joe Friday's partner from "Dragnet". When I think of Harry Morgan, though, I think of my absolute favorite movie of all time:
"Support Your Local Sheriff!"

It was a late-60s western spoof starring James Garner, Morgan, Bruce Dern, and Joan Hackett. Surrounding them was a panoply of character actors including stalwarts Jack Elam, Walter Brennan, Henry Jones, Walter Burke, and Kathleen Freeman.

Morgan plays Ollie Perkins, the slightly goofy mayor of Calendar - a gold rush town where his daughter (Hackett) is the largest mine owner (and, according to her, "THE richest" girl in the entire state.) In rides Jason McCullough (Garner), who takes the job as the town's Sheriff, and spends the rest of the movie dealing with a gang of outlaws and the odd residents of the town he’s protecting.

Morgan gets the majority of the great one-liners in the movie, and he delivers them with aplomb. Take the scene where he's trying to get his tomboy daughter married off to the new Sheriff:

Ollie: "She's a rich little ol' gal in her own right, Sheriff - sole owner of the Millard Fryemore Memorial Mining Company."
Jason: "Meaning...whoever marries her gets the mine?"
Ollie: "Shaft and all!"

One of my favorite scenes is when Jason has just taken the job of Sheriff and asks the Mayor if there is a badge that goes with it. Perkins hands him the badge, apologizing that it's all bent up:

Jason (fingering the dent in the badge): "It must've saved the life of whoever was wearing it!"
Ollie" "Well, it sure would've - if it hadn't been for all them other bullets flyin' in from everywhere!"

Another gem comes when the Mayor is showing Jason around their new jail:

Jason: “Well, everything seems to be in order.”
Ollie: "Our last Sheriff was a good organizer. Yellow clear through, but a good organizer!"

I've made no secret of the fact that I've worn out multiple VHS copies of this movie over the years and am now testing the lifespan of a DVD. I've seen it hundreds of times and have the dialogue memorized, which my wife can exasperatingly confirm.

Even after all those viewings I never fail to start laughing at the opening scene. The dialogue is crisp and witty, with nothing extraneous, and delivered by pros. Morgan's performance is one of the reasons it's so memorable, and the reason I will always think of him in this role.

If you've never seen it, sit back and enjoy.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A short history of Unix, and a caution for the future.

A couple of months ago I brought you the news of the sad
death of Dennis Ritchie, the co-developer of the Unix operating system. As it happens, his death occurred just before the 'official' anniversary of the birth of Unix - the publishing of the first Unix manual in November of 1971.

Spectrum, one of the publications of IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), has a
great article of the birth and impact of Unix. It's a must-read for anyone interested in computers or the history of technology.

One thing in the article struck me: that an original copy of Unix did not exist until it was recreated (and only then after great effort) by some software engineers. It's interesting to think that a vital part of technological history was essentially lost, and might have remained that way had someone not cared about it.

Electronic creations are fleeting; they're jettisoned wholesale when new and better creations are introduced, and nowhere is that more true than with software. We upgrade our software and throw out the old versions; the media deteriorates or the ability to read it is lost. It's hard, for instance, to find an actual copy of any early software for any computer, let alone the more obscure stuff. Software is planned obsolescence in its highest form, and one where the old literally disappears permanently at a keystroke to make room for the new.

The topic of preserving our technological heritage is one I think about frequently. There are many early and important computers which no longer exist; in a few rare instances, like the first version of Unix, enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to build replicas. The Colossus project in England is a perfect example, without which we would have no record of the pioneering machine or the people who built it.

There is only one SAGE - the largest computer ever built - left in existence, and it is non-functional. These and many more achievements, and the people who made them, are fading into obscurity.

This is of particular interest to me as an author. My work here on this blog (and the rest of my site) exists only as ones and zeroes on a computer somewhere. At some future point all of what I've done will simply disappear; electronic copies of my book can disappear too, no longer left to future discovery on the dusty shelves of some thrift store.

Nooks, Kindles and iPads may in fact be the future of reading, but I'd still like to see paper books available if for no other reason than to serve as a marker to future generations: we were here, this is what we did, and you don't need to restore some ancient device (if it's even possible) just to read them.

'Ephemera' is the term used to describe things that weren't meant to last, things that were never expected to leave an imprint on the world. If we're not careful, everything we do - and our very existence - will end up in that category.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Another blow to film.

Many years ago I was sitting in a small room at the Eastman Kodak Marketing Education Center near Rochester, New York. In that room were a number of movers and shakers in the photographic industry, talking with some Kodak VPs about the state and future of the business.

At one point they asked us what we felt was the biggest threat to photography. When my turn came, I told them that in ten years photography would cease to exist, to be replaced by what we then called electronic cameras. My belief was based on the fact that video cameras had, in less than five years, destroyed the home and serious amateur movie business. I reasoned that the same would happen to film photography, and for the same reasons.

The Kodak folks were nothing if not self assured, and they told me I was dead wrong in both my analysis and predictions: "people will always want to hold their memories in their hands", said one executive, and another chimed in that "real movies will always be made on film."

I was wrong about the timeline - it took twice as long for digital photography to take hold as I had thought, and the last bastion of silver halide on acetate as a common imaging medium has in fact been the movies. But that, too, has changed. Another era is ending before our eyes.

That’s because the major makers of movie cameras - Arriflex, Panavision, and Aaton - are now focusing exclusively on digital, and are no longer making film cameras. These companies have discontinued the production of all film cameras simply because no one buys them anymore. The rise of HD video, and their immediacy coupled with lower production costs, is making video the dominant form of movie production today.

There is certainly a place for film, and film production itself has not completely disappeared, but the used market is glutted with 16mm, 35mm, and even 70mm cameras - enough so that the makers of these things,
according to an article in at, have decided that there is no longer any need for new examples to be produced.

It's fun to be vindicated, at least occasionally.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: That first step is a doozy.

I've never been interested in skydiving. My personal excuse is that one would have to be nuts to step out of a perfectly good airplane with nothing but a knapsack on one's back.

Note the term "perfectly good airplane". If you've got an aircraft which retires itself while in flight you don't really have much of a choice: you bail out or die.

Those were the choices
William Rankin faced in 1959, and the results of his decision make for Damn Interesting reading.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Another notable passing.

This week I got the sad news that
Pete Rugolo has died. Rugolo was a composer, arranger and bandleader, and an influential figure in modern jazz.

Rugolo is probably best known for his iconic work with Stan Kenton. Rugolo's tenure marked the band's transition from playing simple dance music to being one of the most progressive big bands in the history of jazz. Rugolo wasn't alone; Bill Holman and Bill Russo were also actively writing for Kenton in those years, but it was Rugolo who became perhaps most closely associated with the "Kenton sound" of that era. He combined elements of jazz and 20th century symphonic music to produce works that were quite sophisticated and complex.

June Christy left the Kenton organization to pursue a solo career she called on Rugolo to do the arrangements and lead the band for her first album, “Something Cool”. Rugolo's distinctive style was as important to her sound as it was to Kenton’s, and they recorded a number of albums that together define her best work.

He also worked with Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Mel Torme, and many other notable performers during his long career.

Rugolo did a stint in Hollywood doing film scores and television themes. One of his most well known arrangements was a jazzy reinterpretation of the "Leave it to Beaver" theme song, used for that show's final season. His Hollywood work was not as inventive as what he did for the great jazz bands and singers, but they still stand out amongst the tepid work normally associated with that town.

One of my favorite Rugolo arrangements for Stan Kenton was "Love For Sale." He did the original arrangement in the 1950s, and Kenton would perform it regularly over the years. Here is Kenton's 1977 version of Rugolo's work:

In this arrangement of "Lazy Afternoon" for June Christy you can clearly hear the influence of modern classical music on Rugolo's work:

Here's a sample of some of his Hollywood work, "Who's Sam" from the television show "Richard Diamond":

Here's Rugolo's modernistic interpretation of Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun", performed by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra:

Finally, one of Rugolo's most well known compositions for Stan Kenton, "Artistry In Percussion":

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Bell tolls for one of its own.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about one of our country's greatest research facilities, Bell Labs. Yesterday came the sad news that one of the Lab's shining lights has died.

Dennis Ritchie started working for Bell Labs in 1967 after graduating from Harvard with degrees in both physics and applied mathematics. This wasn't a tremendous surprise: his father Alistair was a scientist at Bell Labs and a seminal figure in switching circuit theory. The family business, and all that.

Dennis migrated to the relatively new field of computer science, where he made a name for himself by creating the 'C' programming language, co-authoring the definitive book on 'C', and - most dear to my heart - co-developing the UNIX operating system.

That dry list of accomplishments may not mean much to you, but a large part of what your computer does has roots in Ritchie's work. If you have a Macintosh computer, an iPhone or iPad, you owe him a special nod of appreciation: UNIX is the underpinning of the OS X operating system, which (in one form or another) is what runs all of those devices.

The development of modern software and the existence of the web as we know it wouldn't have happened the way they did without his work.

Thank you, Dennis.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Great Communicator.

President Reagan was given that nickname during his tenure in office, but all Presidents before and after have needed to stay in touch with the world around them. Lots of stuff to deal with when you're the CEO of a superpower, and being able to reach out and talk with anyone and everyone is pretty high on the priority list.

Seems simple in the days of cel phones, but it's not. The President needs fault-tolerant communications that work even where he can't get any bars on his iPhone, which is why he’s usually accompanied by a communications team. Back in the 1960s, that team - and their huge amount of radio gear - took up an entire rail car. And then some.

These pictures, from the JFK library and hosted at, are of the Presidential train communications car shortly after President Kennedy's inauguration. The White House Army Signal Agency, which in 1962 was eliminated and its functions transferred to the Defense Communications Agency, was responsible for the operation and upkeep of the assets.

Known as the General Albert J. Myer Car in honor of the
first commander of the Army Signal Corps, it contained all of the radio and telephone equipment needed by the President and his staff while on the train. When stopped at a station the car’s switchboard was hooked into the local telephone exchange. While underway, all communications were handled via high frequency (HF) radio. It even had a separate (locked, of course) cryptography room!

Presidential train travel had effectively ended during the Eisenhower administration, and I was unable to find out of the equipment was ever actually used by Kennedy's staff. The Myer car was still being held in a ready state in Harrisburg, PA as late as 1970, but its fate beyond that point is uncertain.

It was reported to be awaiting restoration at the Gold Coast rail museum in Florida when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, and later was rumored to have been transferred to the custody of the National Park Service's Steamtown historic site. Today no one seems to know where it is or even if it still exists.

(To correct a piece of misinformation: the train itself was NOT called the Ferdinand Magellan. That was the name of the President's private Pullman car, which was sold to the Gold Coast museum in 1959.)

It is a fascinating glimpse into state-of-the-art communications in the early '60s.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Bell tolls.

When I was growing up, one of the foremost research labs in the country (and the world) was
Bell Labs in New Jersey. They had all the cool toys to play with, and a large amount of both pure science and technological research was being done there. The Bell Laboratories logo was a familiar one to science geeks like me.

When the Bell System was broken up by the government in 1984, Bell Laboratories became AT&T Bell Laboratories. That didn't have any effect on the quantity (or quality) of work coming out of the Labs, and even the mid-90s spinoff of the Labs into Lucent Technologies - with AT&T retaining some of the best staff for themselves - didn't stop their progress.

A complete list of all of the innovations that came from the Labs would fill a book, but just the stuff most of us know is impressive: the C programming language, cel phones, UNIX, modern solar cells, radio astronomy, wireless LANs, and more came from the fertile minds at the Labs.

Sadly, an eighty-three year legacy of top flight research ended in 2008 when the new owners - the French communications conglomerate Alcatel - decided that things like basic science and material physics were not remunerative enough and dismantled most of what remained of Bell's history. Today what's left focuses only on things that can be commercially exploited in a rapid manner. What was once a shining example of American leadership in the hard sciences was reduced to a 'profit center' of an offshore corporation.

It was a phenomenal run though. Luckily the AT&T archives contain a number of videos that the Labs produced over the years to help educate the next crop of American scientists and engineers. I remember seeing some of these when I was in school, and they always fascinated me.

You can peruse them yourself, but I'll start with one of my favorites: "A Sense of Hearing", which begins with a ultra-cool demonstration in what was once the world's quietest room - using a revolver, of course!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: You could always count on Hank. Not easily, though.

The latter part of September marks the birth - and the death - of an immensely influential, if not terribly recognized, musician:
Hank Levy.

Hank started out as a baritone sax player but made his mark as a composer/arranger for Stan Kenton, Don Ellis, and Sal Salvador. His specialty was 'odd' time signatures that often changed during the song, making for very complex compositions. It was his association with the extremely forward-thinking Ellis that perhaps most influenced his love of unusual times, where Ellis was a true pioneer.

Ellis' compositions tended to be raw, obviously difficult yet still exciting, still 'swinging'. Levy took that same energy but put it into compositions that were a bit more subtle. I remember reading a comment that Levy was the 'commercialized' version of Ellis, a criticism I think unfair particularly given the number of his charts that Ellis recorded. Take 'Chain Reaction', from Ellis' 'Connection' album:

Levy wrote quite a number of songs and the last few Kenton albums were heavily populated by them.
I featured a live Kenton version of 'Chiapas' in this blog some time back, but that was far from his only contribution to the Kenton legacy. One of his more sedate compositions for the Kenton orchestra, in the unusual-for-Levy-becuase-it's-not-unusual 4/4 time signature, transforms from a plaintive ballad to an absolute burner: 'A Smith Named Greg', from the superb 'Kenton '76' album.

Some of his compositions are rare; I'm still looking for a copy of his only work with Bill Watrous, titled "Bread and Watrous". Luckily, though, the bulk of his work with Ellis and Kenton is generally available. I'll leave you with my favorite Levy tune and one of my all-time favorite Kenton recordings, 'Time For A Change' - which (if memory serves from personally playing it back in '79) was actually notated as 6+3. Enjoy!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: I don't often like singers, but there are exceptions.

The reaction to last week's Surprise was, well, a little surprising. I had no idea there were so many June Christy fans out there, and not all of them old geezers like yours truly. (Can someone of barely 50 years legitimately call himself a geezer?) I'm really quite happy about that, as it shows that perhaps the unadorned human voice may yet win out over AutoTune!

In reality there aren't many singers I like listening to, making her one of a very select few. I should clarify: there aren't many
jazz singers I like listening to, because jazz to me is about the music, not the lyrics. It therefore takes a very special vocalist to capture my attention and make me focus on the voice rather than the instruments. June Christy did that.

Another who can do that, and more consistently even than Miss Christy, is Stacey Kent. Stacey is an American who lives (with her musician husband) in Europe. She ended up there not because she intended to become a singer, but because she had just graduated with a degree in comparative literature and decided that England would be a nice vacation.

While there she started singing informally and, buoyed by the reception, enrolled in London's famous Guildhall School of Music. There she met tenor saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, whom she would later marry, and started singing with him. Her unusual voice and phrasing quickly garnered a devoted fan base and won over critics. She's been recording and performing non-stop ever since.

Stacey's style is unique and instantly recognizable. I can't recall ever hearing anyone quite like her, and I think she’s one of the best things to happen to jazz in a long time.

Her first albums were mostly of standards that were simply done incredibly well, making even an old Cole Porter tune like "It's Too Darn Hot" sound fresh and interesting:

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the movie "State Fair"; one of the best tunes to come from it is also one of my all-time favorites: "It Might As Well Be Spring". I wrote an arrangement of it in college, but my version was utterly forgettable; hers isn't. It's set with a bit of a lilting bossa nova beat that is incredibly effective (and something I wasn't creative enough to think of):

Kent doesn't just do the familiar; here she is singing "The Ice Hotel", an original collaboration between husband Tomlinson and novelist Kazuro Ishiguro. It's fast becoming one of my most-listened tracks:

Very few singers can take on the signature tune of another artist and make it their own. Stacey does just that on a song nearly synonymous with Louis Armstrong, who first recorded it in 1968. Fans of the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam" will instantly recognize "What A Wonderful World", but you've never heard it quite like this:

Kinda makes you forget ol' Satchmo completely, doesn't it?

There's lots more of her work on YouTube, and of course iTunes has her albums. Give her a listen, and I think you'll become a fan like me.

Have a great weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Misty Miss Christy.

In 1945 Stan Kenton's capricious vocalist, Anita O'Day, quit to rejoin Gene Krupa's band. Stan needed a singer, and out of the auditions he held one stood out: a girl name Shirley Luster. He hired her and after a name change to the more stage friendly June Christy, she would become the singer perhaps best associated with the avant-garde Kenton orchestra.

In the beginning the young Christy looked and sounded a lot like her predecessor, but without the drug problems and erratic behavior issues that plagued O’Day. Her resemblance (and reliability) may have had a lot to do with her being hired, but she soon found her own unique voice and became a favorite of both the band and the fans. Though she stopped touring with the band in 1953, she would sing with Kenton off and on until the mid-60s.

After her retirement in 1965 she recorded only a single album, a hard-to-find work that was released in 1977. She died in 1990, at the relatively young age of 65.

I've read interviews with her in which she downplayed both her abilities and her importance to the jazz world. She simply didn't believe that her work, both with Kenton and solo, was of great musical value and that attitude no doubt had a lot to do with her decision to quit singing. The ironic thing is that she was not only the singer perhaps most associated with Kenton, but her solo debut album "Something Cool" is today regarded as one of the seminal vocal albums of the cool jazz movement that swept across the country in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Not bad for someone who insisted she wasn’t a jazz singer!

This 1963 recording of "Fly Me To The Moon" showcases her unique style most effectively (despite the bad audio quality of the YouTube upload):

Gone but hardly forgotten, her most recent gig was on the show 'Family Guy', where her recording of the song "Give Me The Simple Life" was presented to a new generation:

Haver a great (and safe) holiday weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: It's the best one in our state.

I've never made any secret of the fact that, basically, I'm a country hick. Of course that doesn't mean I haven't been citified just a little! For instance, I can't stand country music (authentic cowboy songs are another matter, though - they have no connection to the dreck which flows from Nashville.) I don't own a pair of cowboy boots as they're useless things unless one is riding (which I don't), and I don't wear one of those silly pre-deformed hats that are all the rage amongst the urban cowboy crowd (instead I wear a Stetson Open Road.)

Despite having my rough edges worn a bit smooth I still revel in the things that typify rural life. I've written before of my love of the old-fashioned county fair (something I look forward to with great anticipation each year.)

The way things used to work was that winners of the various contests at the county level would go to the state fair, where everyone would gather to enjoy a good time before heading back to their own county to resume working. Where do you think the sports term “farm system” came from?

County fairs near major population centers have long since abandoned their agricultural heritage, and because of the inter-tied nature of the system state fairs have changed complexion as well. Our Oregon State Fair has lost a huge amount of its rural focus, and today brings in acts more suited for Cirque De Soleil than Anytown, USA.

Still I can't help but feel a twinge of excitement on opening day - which, for us, happens to be today.

In celebration of state fairs everywhere, here is video about Iowa’s state fair and its relationship to the great 1933 film “State Fair”. (That movie would come back in 1945 as a musical, which was bad enough, but was remade again in 1962 to an even worse musical. The music was great, but the acting and modified story lines weren’t.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Free radicals.

When you were growing up did you have a classmate who was, well, uptight? You know the type: boring, unimaginative, establishment, voted "most likely to become an accountant"? I sure did.

He was me.

I spent the first half (actually, more like the first two-thirds) of my life making
Alex P. Keaton look like an anarchist. Hippies? Hated 'em. I liked symmetry (LOVED symmetry), predictability; I couldn't stand the new, the non-conforming, the different. (My fourth grade teacher could tell you stories...)

Somewhere along the line I snapped and tilted a little toward the wild side. While I'm still anal retentive about many things, I've learned to embrace my adventurous tendencies. I'll always love opera, but I also like to listen to
The Fratellis. These days I'm a little less enthused with staid decoration and architecture and more interested in the crazy and creative ways some people find to enrich their personal environments.

That's why I found a recent entry on the
Salvaged Grace blog most interesting. It profiled a fellow named Jesse Hartman and his site Shift Build:Industrial Reclamation. Jesse's passion is making interesting things out of non-interesting things. He's very creative, something I try to be but rarely manage to achieve. At least, not at his level!

Check out his
reclaimed oak wall - then click on the '11' in the timeline to see its secret. Cool! I've GOT to do something like that, but I haven't figured out just where.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a junk pile to explore.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: I'm such a ham.

I have a geeky confession: my name is Grant, and I'm an amateur radio operator. (Yes, I do have a grid dip oscillator --
and I'm not afraid to use it!)

I mention this because this week I experienced one of the more interesting phenomenon of radio propagation:
tropospheric ducting. This happens when a VHF or UHF signal, which is normally limited to line-of-site communication, is bent by a temperature inversion in the troposphere and is able to travel much greater distances than usual. In this particular case, it was nearly 300 miles from my house up to the other fellow's location in northern Washington.

'Tropo', as it's known amongst hams, isn't all that rare but it is a lot of fun. It usually happens in the summertime, especially near the coast where I am. Normally when conditions are favorable I can't find anyone who is also on frequency, and it was simple chance that I happened to be listening to the radio this last week when I heard the other party calling for a contact. When I got a chance to check the current
Hepburn tropo forecast map for that day, sure enough conditions were favorable between our two locations.

Ducting isn’t limited to the ham radio bands.
Television and radio broadcasts, in fact any wireless transmission in the 50 mhz and up range, can potentially be affected by tropo.

One of the fun parts of ham radio is learning about, and exploiting, atmospheric conditions. It's a little like sailing, I think, where you learn to use the air to take you places. In this case, I use the air to put me in contact with people I don't know but who share my fascination with radio waves.

Now, where did I put that 440mhz Yagi...

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Yeah, it's uncomfortable. That's not an excuse.

This week marked the 10th anniversary of my father's death. That's not tragic; what's tragic is that he didn't need to die.

You see, my Dad had colon cancer. By the time his symptoms appeared it had metastasized and was essentially untreatable, and it didn't take long before he was buried - along with tens of thousands of other victims that year. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in this country, and your chances of developing colon cancer are about 1 in 20. That's the bad news.

The good news is that colon cancer is incredibly slow to develop, and because of that it is the most treatable form of cancer. Caught early, the survival rate is better than 90%; caught in the pre-cancerous stage, it's damn near 100%. Because there are virtually no symptoms until it's too late, finding it early is the key to eradication. As my doctor says, it's the only cancer where the diagnostic tool is usually the cure.

That tool is the colonoscopy. A flexible tube containing a camera and a small scissors-like device is inserted into the colon; if any pre-cancerous polyps are found the scissors cuts them off and that's it! Having a colonoscopy every 10 years (twice as frequently if you have a family history or a propensity to develop polyps) is all it takes to keep you cancer free.

It's not a pleasant procedure, I'll give you that, but it's not painful nor terribly time consuming. It's uncomfortable, perhaps a little undignified, but it is the very best way to eliminate even the possibility of development.

If you're over 50, you should be getting regular colonoscopies. If you're under 50 but have a family history of colon cancer, you should get one too. It's quick, it's easy, and it can save your life.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Another musician I admire - Kei Akagi.

Kei Akagi, keyboardist extraordinaire, is a sadly under appreciated talent in the jazz world. He's not known as a leader (the Kei Akagi Trio being the exception, and a none-too-exciting one at that) but as a sideman for better-known acts. He played for many years with Miles Davis (where his talent was hidden behind Mile's banal compositions and overly amplified speakers) and Al DiMeola (who never excited me, but some people inexplicably love him. Then again, there are people out there who love Carrot Top.)

It's sad, because Akagi's improvisational talents are tremendous. Complex, insightful, and always interesting are his trademarks. I've found that he's at his best in small groups with lesser-known leaders, where he gets more solo time and a chance to really stretch his chops. This recording with Polish saxophonist Piotr Baron is a perfect showcase of his style and technique. Sadly, Baron is the weak link in this group - drummer Mark Ferber, who I remember from his time with Lee Konitz, is terrific, while bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz, formerly with Art Farmer and Toshiko Akioshi, sadly gets cut off as the video ends just as he starts his solo. Had the videographer heard of a new thing called "editing", he could have cut the minute-long silence before they started playing and gotten more in!

Enjoy the tune, and be sure to check in on Monday -- I'll have my take on the Chiappa Arms RFID dust-up, and I think you'll find it interesting.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Another musician I admire.

I haven't talked much about music lately, despite it being an important part of life -- not just mine, but everyone's. It's because of the importance of music to our social and intellectual development that I despair for the musical literacy of our country; American Idol has conditioned the population to consume the musical equivalent of fast food, substituting quantity and glitz for quality and interpretative insight. (It’s sad when a vocalist vying for national attention can’t sing in tune, a basic requirement that seems to elude virtually all of their contestants. Hey, but they look good on camera!)

While most apparent in the pop music genre, this lessening of audience discernment occurs in the classical and jazz worlds as well (though to a lesser extent.) There are musicians and singers who become sensations despite not being at the top of their game, and others whose prodigious talent goes unfathomably ignored.

An example of the latter is jazz trumpeter Claudio Roditi. Originally from Brazil, he moved to the U.S. in the '70s and has been hard at work ever since. Virtually unknown to the casual jazz listener but held in high regard by other musicians, he continually surprises with the complexity of his improvisation. While some players can concoct equally sophisticated solos, Roditi does it musically; in other words, his playing is still listenable, still "swings", while having great depth and displaying superb technique.

Still he remains a somewhat obscure. This might be because his subtle style gets lost when relegated to mere background music. To appreciate what he's doing one must actively listen (which is, in my never to be humble opinion, the case with all good music.)

Here for your active listening pleasure is Claudio Roditi at his best: "Gemini Man", from a great 2007 live session with pianist Helio Alves, bassist Leonardo Cioglia, and drummer Duduka da Fonseca. Happy weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-


Today is a proud day for our family: my cousin, Col. Julie Bentz, is being promoted to Brigadier General of the Army in a ceremony at the White House this afternoon!

Though she's achieved the highest rank, she's not the only family member to serve as an officer in our armed forces. Her brother, a West Point grad who also made Colonel, retired from duty just a few years ago; their father, who is unfortunately no longer with us, was a commissioned Army officer though it was not his career; our cousin Tim retired from the U.S. Navy back in the '90s after an eventful Cold War career (read
Blind Man's Bluff. Wink-wink.) My father was a Sergeant in the Army Air Forces, and I have several uncles who served as well.

It probably shouldn’t surprise you, then, that our family supports the men and women who wear our country's uniform -- whether it be Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard. Even when we disagree with their Commander-in-Chief, which we seem to do quite a lot these days.

I only wish I could get away to attend the ceremony (invitations with the White House logo at the top are pretty cool and hard to resist.) Congratulations, Julie!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Out to launch.

Today marks the final scheduled launch of our Space Shuttle. While one can argue about the merits of the program, it was a great example of what our country could do if we simply decided to do it. Back in '79 I could not have conceived that space launches would be so common that people would scarcely pay attention to them, yet that's exactly what happened.

As it turned out most of the Shuttle's jobs could be just as easily (and usually less expensively) be done using expendable rockets. Still, despite my avowed position as a critic of government involvement in most areas of life I'm glad that my tax dollars went to fund the Shuttle.

Sometimes, folks, you've got to do something outlandish just to prove you're alive. NASA has given us a collective way to be outlandish, the national equivalent of your local municipality's fireworks display.

Here is a great retrospective of the Shuttle program, via the LA Times. No matter how much a fan of space you may be I suspect you'll find many pictures that you've not seen before.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The rocket's red glare, and lots of it.

Down in Florida's Everglades, well hidden from casual view, is the remnant of an idea: to build solid fuel rocket motors for the Apollo space missions.

In 1963 the decision between solid or liquid fueled boosters for what would be the Saturn V rocket had not yet been made, and there was stiff competition between supporters of the two ideas. General Tire Company, which had a subsidiary named Aerojet General, was solidly (pardon the pun) on the side of solid fuel.

They put their money where their mouths were, investing millions to build a rocket assembly and test facility in what was the middle of nowhere. They built facilities to make the fuel and assemble the rockets, a 150-foot-deep silo to test fire the motors, and even a canal to transport the finished rockets through their swampy surroundings to the Atlantic ocean.

The Aerojet-Dade facility, as it was known, built and tested only three motors -- but they were the largest and most powerful solid fuel rocket motors ever made. Liquid fuel was eventually chosen for the Saturn V, and in 1969 the facility was abandoned. Aerojet walked away, leaving everything behind -- including the third rocket still sitting in the test silo!

Someplace Else has a great recap of the whole Aerojet story, including some pictures of the last rocket in the silo. Florida's Forgotten History has a wonderful gallery of recent pictures of the abandoned plant, including the silo. has some more technical information and pictures, including one of Test #2 -- at night! (Think of the Independence Day celebration you could have with that thing!)

I'll leave you with this brief video documentary, shot by
Coffee and Celluloid Productions. Have a good Fourth!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Space Miami - Aerojet-Dade Rocket Site Documentary from Coffee and Celluloid on Vimeo.


FRIDAY SURPRISE: The power of the atom.

Here are some rarely seen images made in Hiroshima shortly after the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. The pictures were originally classified, but went missing some four decades ago and were presumed lost. The story is that they finally turned up in a suitcase in a pile of trash, at which time the International Center of Photography was able to acquire them for display.

Surreal stuff.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Get off my lawn or I’ll Photoshop you off!

Back in the 1980s digital imaging was still a laboratory experiment. Pictures were made on film, and if you wanted to do anything to the image after it was recorded you had to master (or know someone who had mastered) such arcane things as register masking, transparency stripping, and optical printing.

Toward the end of the decade very powerful (and expensive) graphics workstations came available that were able to manipulate digitized images. Note 'digitized', not 'digital'; the pictures were still made on film, and the negatives or transparencies were digitized on a drum scanner to be read by a computer.

The big boys on the block were Scitex, an Israeli company that made a name for themselves in the emerging field of digital pre-press equipment. Their digital imaging workstation was combined with a Hell drum scanner and a film recorder to provide a way to retouch and alter photographs. The negative or transparency would be scanned, manipulated by the computer, then sent to the film recorder -- which made a new negative or transparency which was processed and printed conventionally. The results were almost comically primitive by today's standards, but back then it was a viable alternative to having a very expensive stripped dye transfer made.

Scitex wasn't the only player in the market, but they were the best known. Eastman Kodak, in yet another of their half-hearted attempts to break into digital imaging, introduced their 'Premier' digital editing system in 1990. Like the Scitex it combined a workstation, Hell scanner, and film recorder. I never used a Scitex, but I did get some experience on the only Premier system installed in Oregon. At the time it was magical, but today we can do all of the things the Scitex and Premier systems did on an iPad -- only faster and easier!

Just a couple years later the Premier system I used was scrapped, already a victim of the emerging PC and Mac digital image applications. Cost was a factor in their failure; I seem to recall that the installation I used was well north of $200,000. About that time Scitex gave up dedicated workstations and develop a more cost-efficient system based around a Mac II microcomputer and Sharp scanner. That didn't last long, either; it was quickly surpassed by the emerging (and now ubiquitous) Photoshop.

Here's a great video from 1988 showing the then-amazing things a Scitex could do.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: How to make an extreme sports video that doesn't suck.

I've mentioned before my annoyance with shooting videos that are accompanied by crappy heavy metal music. Apparently, simplistically repetitive bass lines played at ear-splitting volume keeps those with short attention spans from realizing they’re watching vapid footage. (Not that I'm thinking of anyone in particular...*cough*patrickflanigan*cough*)

It's not just shooting vids, though -- take a look at any random 'extreme' sport video and you'll probably hear the same thing. Skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, it’s the same tired formula: often good video ruined by sophomoric music. I usually switch the sound off, which seems somehow counter to the producer's intent. Their loss.

Imagine my surprise when I got turned onto a biking video featuring not some synthesized garage band rock licks but original acoustic music -- written and played by a local group, no less!

The video in question is of
Scottish rider Danny MacAskill, and features some of the most amazing bike riding I think I've seen. Here in the valley we have the nationally acclaimed Black Rock mountain biking area, so we have lots of really talented riders around, but MacAskill's street trials work is just in a different league entirely. He is scarcely believable.

The music is supplied by
Loch Lomond, a Portland-based group that plays "raw symphonic chamber pop". Trust me, that doesn't begin to describe their unique sound! They were a perfect fit for the images of the Scottish towns and countryside in which MacAskill does his magic.

Watch the video, enjoy the music. Gee, what a concept!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Root beer revisited.

It struck me last night that I'd not talked about root beer in a while, a sad state of affairs that must be remedied.

You may recall my telling you that my wonderful sister-in-law provided me with a couple week's worth of previously un-sampled brews last February. I binged for two weeks -- one bottle every evening -- but since that time I've gone back to one bottle a week, enjoyed with my wife while watching British comedies on PBS. That's all my primal/paleo diet will allow me to have!

Prior to her gift my all-time favorite root beer was Sparky's from California. The treasure trove of brews provided pushed it down to third place, but that's hardly anything to be ashamed of: it's a close race and all of my top picks are terrific.

My rankings have changed a bit since that last update. At this point I believe my favorite has become Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer. The name is perhaps a bit misleading as there is only the faintest hint of molasses taste, but the color definitely shows the ingredient. It is the darkest root beer I've seen; even the head, which is coarser but more fragrant than other brews, shows the dark blackish-brown color of the molasses.

The interesting thing is that Old Rhode Island wasn't my favorite in any one area: it's got good flavor, but from a purely objective standpoint Eli's is better. The head is good, but not the most impressive; the nose is pleasant, but there are others that are just as nice; the carbonation is darn near perfect, but so are others. In the competitive taste testing it came in a respectable tie for fourth place, but after drinking it a while it's popped up to the top of my favorites list.

It's the combination of things that makes it so pleasant, a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It's just a very pleasant root beer to drink. Everything comes together perfectly to make a great root beer experience. It’s a good illustration of why I consider the question “what’s the best...” to be inane when applied to just about anything. “What’s your favorite and why” is far more useful and appropriate.

Since I only get one root beer every seven days, I want it to be something to look forward to. Olde Rhode Island is one I definitely do.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A re-purposeful life.

I've never made any secret of the fact that I'm basically just a dumb ol' country boy. Being from a farming and ranching family (with a smattering of logging thrown in for good measure) I look at the world a little differently than people who don't share that background. Certain things that the city folk do just amuse me to no end.

One of those things is the current 'green' movement. Particularly here in Oregon, this is a Big Thing; folks flaunting their green credentials and one-upping each other over their sustainable lifestyles. Trouble is, they can't see the forest for the trees.

Take, for example, an article I saw recently about how to remodel one's kitchen. Emphasis was placed on such things as making sure the cabinets were made of sustainably grown bamboo and picking appliances based on the energy used in their manufacture. Sounds great, except the article completely ignored the very greenest solution of all: not remodeling the kitchen in the first place!

Simply continuing to use those things which have already been made is far more green, far more sustainable, than gutting the place and starting over -- no matter how much one frets over the carbon footprint of the floorcovering. Replacing perfectly serviceable (though no longer fashionable) items with new items that must be manufactured from scratch isn't ecologically sound, but don't tell that to the people who desperately want a guilt-free way to keep up with the Joneses.

If one wants to truly live sustainably, one does what us poor country folk have been doing for ages: make do with what you have. Part of that is finding new uses for old items that might otherwise be cast aside, and here's where I must admit a certain lack of ability. I'm just not all that creative; I don't look at things and see new ways in which they might be used.

Luckily there are creative people in this world from whom I can steal ideas. One of my favorite sites for repurposing ideas is called
Poetic Home; the author is more into the yuppie-chic aspect than the hardcore saving-money-while-not-contributing-to-the-landfills bit, but I'm cool with that because the ideas are pretty good.

A redneck like me reading an urban design blog -- what's this world coming to??

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Maybe there is something at work today.

Not being triskaidekaphobic, I normally don't pay much attention to Fridays that happen to fall on the thirteenth of the month. This particular Friday, however, is a little different: it was Friday, May 13th in 1988 that the jazz world lost one of its more talented members in a very odd manner.

Chet Baker was a trumpet player of uncommon talent. His phrasing, often chided as being 'feminine', stood in stark contrast to the edgier playing of many of his contemporaries. His solos were deceptively simple to the uninitiated, but showed a sophistication that is intriguing even today. Miles Davis got all the attention, but it was Chet Baker who was more interesting to listen to.

Chet also sang, and in later years tended to do that more than play his horn. His singing was what attracted the crowds, but wasn't nearly as inspiring as what he could do with his horn.

He struggled with heroin addiction for most of his adult life, which drained him physically and landed him in jail on numerous occasions. He managed to get himself thrown out of a couple of countries, and at one point was reported to have lived on the street. Like Charlie Parker, he was known for pawning his horns to buy the drugs he craved. Despite all that, he managed several comebacks -- the most notable being in the late 1970s.

He fell to his death on this day in 1988 from a second-story hotel room in Amsterdam. The death was apparently accidental, and it was determined that he was high on both heroin and cocaine at the time.

Here are two clips -- one early, one late -- showing Chet at his best. Happy Friday the Thirteenth!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Clothes don't make the man. Neither does the wallet.

Back in the late '70s and early '80s I was working in a camera store while waiting my chance to make it big as a commercial photographer (which, in turn, was my backup plan if I didn’t make it as a trumpet player. Good thing I had that major in accounting to fall back on! Ironically, I ended up doing none of those things. Life is like that sometimes.)

But I digress. The employees in the camera store would regularly hang their own work on the walls, giving a chance to showcase their talent while establishing a baseline of credibility with the customers.

One of the most common misconceptions was that our photos were good only because of the 'fancy cameras' we possessed. Despite the availability of photography classes (many of which I taught), people would routinely choose to spend gobs of money on expensive gear instead of a mere pittance on developing their skills with what they already had.

Often such people would wander back after a few months and complain that, despite spending all of their savings on the latest and greatest gear, they still couldn't get good pictures. "Why won't a good camera take better pictures?" Sometimes we could get through to them, most times not. The American belief in equipment over ability was, and still is, pervasive.

There are still folks today who do what my colleagues and I did: attempt to educate rather than encourage consumption. Over at Fstoppers, they've posted
a video about the making of some great photos using a camera many people have with them all the time: a cameraphone, in this case an iPhone 4. Watch it and see what they do with just a couple of reflectors and a cute girl.

(Think those reflectors fit the definition of ‘fancy gear’? You don't need a commercially produced item - a sheet of white foamboard, spray glue, gold foil from the craft store, and some aluminum foil from your kitchen will make a very serviceable two-sided substitute for a total investment of under $10. You can also use one of those reflective car heatshields, which come with silver on one side and gold on the other.)

The funny thing is that back in the '80s we did the same thing with a Kodak Disc camera. It wasn't about the gear then, and things haven't changed at all. Regardless of the topic at hand, opening a wallet is unlikely to make a person any better at anything -- unless the credit card is paying for an educational activity to help develop a skill.

Invest in yourself first. Always.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Mussolini had nothing on these guys.

How would you fill the blank in this sentence: "Accurate as a _____________ watch" ? If you're like most people, the word would be Swiss. To most people Swiss watches are the epitome of timekeeping, and have been since, well, forever.

But that's not entirely true. Today, perhaps, but for nearly a century the country that produced the most accurate portable timekeepers was the United States, and we have the locomotive to thank for it.

Back in the days of steam, in any given locale there would be but one set of track to carry all rail traffic. The rail line that went through town and country would carry freight in both directions, with the direction of travel being determined by schedule. There were no electric signals or radio in those days, so the only way to avoid a crash was to know who was supposed to be using a stretch of track at any given time. Thus, the rigid scheduling.

As tracks got more crowded with more trains, these schedules became tighter and tighter -- down to merely minutes in a lot of cases. The crews of the trains had to know where they were in relation to the schedule, because if they were off by a couple of minutes instead of clear track they'd run headlong into another train.

By the mid-1800s Increasing traffic meant ever tighter schedules, and with little room for error accidents increased. A head-on crash was very costly for the railroads, because not only did it destroy rolling stock and highly trained crews, it could close a valuable line for days or even weeks. Some method to increase safety had to be found.

The railroads figured out that what they needed was a better way to maintain schedules, and the only way they could do that was to give their crews better ways of keeping time. With watches being accurate to perhaps a couple of minutes per day, even a few days of accumulated error could result in death and destruction. The key, they decided, was to get better watches and make sure that they were always of a set accuracy.

The railroads generally agreed in principle, and though there were some differences early on between rival timekeeping administrators eventually everyone came around to pretty much the same standard. Thus the "railroad standard" was born.

The technical challenge was staggering. The goal was to get a watch into service that would maintain accuracy of 30 seconds per week. The best watches available at the time would generally do perhaps +/- 30 seconds per day; there weren't a lot of precision clocks that achieve the goal, let alone a portable timekeeper. American watch companies took up the challenge.

The first railroad approved watches were production models that were 'tweaked' by timekeeping companies that had sprung up to service this new requirement. Men like Webb Ball and B.W. Raymond opened firms that would manage the timekeeping for a railroad - a sort of 19th century outsourcing. They'd buy movements from various watch companies, do some work to make them more accurate and install approved dials, and then sell them to the crews who needed them. Over time the factories started producing their own railroad grade watches which met the stringent standards out of the box.

To put this into perspective, what the railroad demanded and got were watches that kept better time than some observatory clocks, were portable, could endure temperature extremes, would keep their accuracy no matter how they were carried in a pocket, and -- here's the real kicker -- were affordable enough that the working man could afford them. These were not issued, they were simply required. If you were an engineer, brakeman or conductor you were to furnish your own watch, and it had to meet 'standard'.

American watch companies were able to mass produce a product that just a few years earlier was literally a laboratory tool. There was no precedent, but they did it anyway.

That would be enough of a feat, but these watches had to be continually certified and checked by approved watchmakers. With railroads traveling all over the country that meant that this service had to be widely available, fast (a railroad man couldn't be without his watch), and (again) affordable. Watchmakers all over the country scrambled to become 'railroad approved' so that they could handle this regular and guaranteed business. (Not every watchmaker was, and it was a point of pride to those who had made the cut.)

In the space of a few years accidents had been dramatically reduced as a result of this massive system of technology and service. American pocket watches literally set the standard for portable timekeeping worldwide; though there were a few Swiss pocket watches which passed the exacting American requirements in the mid-1950s, most wouldn't. They simply weren't good enough. (Canadian railroad standards were slightly less stringent, and so Swiss pocket watches were able to make inroads into that market a bit earlier.)

Even though the Swiss were able to make a handful pocket watches which were approved for service, their vaunted wristwatches weren't able to meet standards. It wasn't until 1962, with the introduction of the Bulova Accutron, that a wristwatch was approved for railroad use.

It's really a remarkable story, even today. The railroads established unheard-of standards, spurred the development of the technology to meet those standards, and enabled the infrastructure to support and maintain compliance with those standards. It was a phenomenal technical achievement that today is barely a footnote in history.

The entire American watchmaking industry collapsed in the 1960s, and today essentially no longer exists. For that brief period of time, however, it was the best on earth.

Some background for the terminally curious:

Just what is a railroad watch? by Kent Singer
Making a railroad watch, circa 1920 by Edward Hahn.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Happy birthday, Giuseppe!

Today is the birthday of Giuseppe Torelli. The 353rd birthday, to be precise.

Torelli was an Italian composer who was a key figure in the development of the concerto form as we know it today, and particularly so with regard to the
solo concerto -- where a single instrument is accompanied by an orchestra.

Up until the mid-17th century the concertino form was the norm, wherein a small group of solo instruments was accompanied by the orchestra. The solo concerto, which today is the dominant form, put a single performer into the spotlight. It was the new thing in Baroque music, and Torelli was one of the leaders in that movement.

Torelli authored a large number of major works, over a hundred of which are fairly well known, and was the most prolific Baroque composer of trumpet works (which is why he's a hero to me!) I've never been to the basilica of San Petronio to look at his archives, but I understand it contains many works which are no longer activel published.

Here's a great video of a performance of one of his best-known works, the
Concerto in D Major for Trumpet and Orchestra. This is a performance recorded at the 15th century church of Chiesa del Carmine in Cagliari, Italy. The soloist is Giorgio Baggiani, one of the (oddly) few well-known Italian trumpet soloists. It's refreshing to hear his interpretation of this sometimes overdone piece. Note his rotary-valve trumpet, an instrument not commonly seen in this country:

Finally, a much rarer piece: the Sinfonia for 4 Trumpets, Strings, and Continuo. Torelli composed this just around 1702, and it went unpublished until after his death in 1709. He wrote it specifically for the basilica of San Petronio, and that is where this recording was made.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetops.

I'm entering my second childhood, though the fact that I haven't grown up yet makes it hard to differentiate it from my first.

I mention this because our property has a surplus of trees - and I've been itching to build a tree fort, or treehouse as some call them. I had one when I was a kid (I’m speaking strictly in chronological terms), and it was a marvelous abode suspended above the creek on our farm. Now that I think about it, that was prime real estate!

As an adult (again, in age only), my desire to once again enjoy sitting in the treetops was always stymied by lack of suitable timber in the suburbs where I lived.

What's odd is that when we moved back to the country I didn't immediately put up a tree fort. I should have; things like a roof on the house and proper septic system seemed to edge it out of its proper priority. Now that I have a little time between projects, I think about how I'd build mine.

Of course I need inspiration, and I discovered that there is a Flickr pool called
"Treehouses of the World"! Excuse me, but I need to go back to, uh, work. Yeah, that's the ticket!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: France in spring.

Joel Meyerowitz ranks as one of my all-time favorite photographers. He jumped into the spotlight with the 1979 publication of his groundbreaking book "Cape Light" and has been going strong ever since.

At the time that book came out I was shooting mostly B&W. As I'm now known as "the revolver guy", back then people knew me as "the black-and-white guy'. I tried to embrace color as a means to interpret a scene, but couldn't get past the concept that it was merely a recording tool. For me, B&W was the expressive side of photography; color was what you took boring vacation pictures with.

I’d been exposed to the work of acknowledged masters of color such as Gordon Parks and Ernst Haas, but neither really said much to me. Meyerowitz's work, on the other hand, resonated deeply. It changed the way I looked at color, even though my work and his look nothing alike. His work had feeling, capturing how his scenes felt rather than merely appeared.

Now, at 73 years of age, Meyerowitz has embarked on a new project. He's gotten a commission for yet another book, this time on Provence. He's spent a lot of time in Tuscany (and did at least one book there), but apparently this is his first time seriously photographing the French countryside. It will no doubt be a great set of images.

He and his wife Maggie are
blogging about the project. Their blog is only a couple of weeks old, but I'm already hooked on charting their progress. Naturally it's liberally illustrated, and it will be interesting to see what makes it into the book.

That is, if he can just stay away from the hot water tap. (You'll have to read the blog to find out...)

-=[ Grant ]=-


I read recently that a minority of the grand kitchens that are a staple of suburban houses are actually used to cook. By 'cook', I mean making food from scratch, as opposed to heating up pizzas or 'making' cookies from frozen pre-made dough. Given the pressures of careers and overburdened elective activity schedules, people don't take the time to cook let alone learn how to.

When I grew up that wasn't the case. Way back when (exactly how far back I'm not saying, in order to protect the innocent) schools had classes where students could learn to cook. Yeah, most of them were girls, but in the ‘70s you could find guys taking those classes too. Even if they didn’t avail themselves of those courses, most kids had moms at home who could teach them the finer points of preparing for human kind’s most basic need: to eat.

As it happens one of the girls I knew in high school had learned to cook, and she was very good at it. She got married and had children, which further necessitated the need to cook. Seems those offspring-things like to eat; who knew?

Unlike most, however, she wasn't content with a small collection of favorite and endlessly recycled recipes. She was always trying something new, always expanding her repertoire. Her recipe file became less like a cute box and more like a four-drawer lateral filing cabinet. And that was in 1995. I shudder to think what it's like now, but if you'll recall the final warehouse scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" I think you'll get where I’m going with this.

Thanks to the magic of the interwebs she's now sharing some of her bounty with everyone.
In The Kitchen With Mummsie is her new recipe blog, and though only a couple months old she's off to a roaring start. Her recipes have always been delicious; take her version of roasted chicken, for instance. It’s quickly become one of my favorites (though my wife substitutes raw honey for the sugar; I hope she’s not offended!)

I just wish our paleo/primal diet allowed us to indulge in her
Overnight Banana-Walnut French Toast. Oh, the agony!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Brian Lanker, 1947-2011.

Brian Lanker, Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer, died last week at only 63 years of age. He lived here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, in the college town of Eugene.

Brian started out at the Topeka Capital-Journal, where in 1973 he shot a surprisingly controversial essay on childbirth. At that time there were almost no published pictures of a child actually being born, which might seem odd today. This was 1973, however, when a father's presence in the actual delivery room was still a rare occurrence. It was a time when mothers went in by themselves, and a nurse or doctor would walk into the waiting room to announce "Mr. Smith, you're the father of a beautiful little girl!"

That essay - featuring the woman who would end up becoming Brian's wife - netted him a Pulitzer Prize and catapulted him into the 'big leagues.'

After earning his Pulitzer Brian was hired at the Eugene Register-Guard as their Director of Graphics. His tenure changed the face of photojournalism across the country, affecting the ways in which much larger newspapers approached the use of visual information. What your paper looks like today can be traced directly back to the work that Lanker did in what many would think to be a ‘backwater’ of journalistic ability. He also mentored younger photographers, and there are a number of good photojournalists working today who got their start in his department.

Of course his tenure at the paper didn't stop his photography. He continued to do assignments for magazines, corporate advertising, and along the way published several books of his work. Brian was versatile enough to jump from shooting the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (two years in a row) to doing “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America” with equally superb results. Very few photojournalists have that kind of ability (though they all think they do!), but Lanker did. He did it all, and did it well.

You can read more about his incredible legacy at the
New York Times Lens Blog (which includes a great retrospective of his work), an interesting personal viewpoint from his lawyer published in the Eugene Register-Guard, and see a small sampling of his work at his own website,

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Stuff happens. Don't let it happen to you.

I've been a little peeved this week at the news outlets. While the Middle East is destabilizing and governments here at home experience financial and leadership deficits, the main story for many 'journalists' has been of the most shallow nature: the mental and emotional short-circuiting of a two-bit Hollywood denizen whose initials are 'C.S.'


In light of the incredible earthquake in Japan last night, the distraction that the Friday Surprise exists to provide seems a tad shallow as well. Today, I'd like to instead remind everyone that it's not always all about the gun.

Sometimes, it's about the first aid kit.

Sometimes, it's about the shortwave radio.

Sometimes, it's about the camp stove.

Sometimes, it's about the water purifier.

Sometimes, it's about the emergency generator.

Sometimes, it's about the stored food.

Sometimes, it's about the solar battery charger.

I know that your neighbors laugh at these things; heck, there are probably more than a few readers of this blog who laugh at such things. To those people I simply ask: if that happened here, would you still be laughing?

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: All steamed up.

On more than one occasion here at the Revolver LIberation Alliance I've griped that all of the 'cool stuff' seemed to exist back east. ("Back east", for a child of the west such as myself, might mean anything from ‘east of the Mississippi River’ to ‘all lands to the right of the Rocky Mountains’. Take your pick.)

I've lamented about the old subway tunnels we don't have, to the gigantic industrial machines that are absent from our part of the world. It turns out, though, that there is a very cool place darned near in my backyard: the last operational vintage steam powered sawmill in the United States lies right here in my own Willamette Valley!

Hull-Oaks Sawmill was built in 1938, a time in which steam was still a most viable way to power any large machinery. The main steam engine which powers the gigantic bandsaw blade, is an Ames Iron Works twin cylinder that was built in 1906. It's still running strong, and according to the mill's owner suffers fewer breakdowns than any other piece of equipment in the mill. So famous is this particular engine amongst steam aficionados that there are companies selling
working models and kits.

There is a
great story about the mill at Lots of pictures! There are even multiple videos on Youtube of the mill in action - like the one below. Yes, I'm planning to visit the mill as soon as the weather warms up!

-=[ Grant ]=-


FRIDAY SURPRISE: Hiding her light under a basket.

A couple of years ago one of those self-storage concerns in Chicago auctioned off the contents of one of their units. This is not an uncommon occurrence throughout the country; when a storage unit's rent goes unpaid, the storage company opens the unit and auctions off whatever they find. (I went to one such auction, and when the unit was opened it was discovered that the renter had disassembled an entire automatic car wash and stuffed it into the space!)

In this particular case the unit had been rented by one Vivian Maier, who - as it turned out - had died in April of 2009. Ms. Maier had no heirs, no one who apparently knew of this rental, and so her belongings went to the highest bidders.

As it turned out Ms. Maier was something of a photography buff. In this unit were hundreds of thousands of negatives and slides, and hundreds of rolls of exposed but undeveloped film. Several people bought several lots of this stuff, and there the story might have ended were it not for the fact that Ms. Maier was, by all appearances, a talented photographer - a
very talented photographer.

The bulk of her collection ended up in the hands of two different gentlemen: John Maloof, described as an "eBay entrepreneur and real estate agent", and Jeff Goldstein, who apparently has a background in art galleries and shows. Maloof and Goldstein have become crusaders of sorts for their desire to expose Vivian Maier's talent to the world.

NY TImes LENS Blog has a pretty good article about the discovery, along with some of her images, while Maloof's Vivian Maier Blog and Goldstein's Vivian Maier Prints site show some more of her work, along with their takes on her life and legacy. Artsy has a special Vivian Maier page with all kinds of information.

And what work it is! Her photos are very compelling and show a photographer who is in full control of her craft. Technically and artistically, her work is as good - better, in many ways - as photographers who have made much bigger names for themselves. Her pictures are worth examining closely, because they really are a find.

There is, however, one nagging question in the back of my mind: was she for real? There's something I can't quite put my finger on, something that leaves me with doubts about the poignant picture that has emerged of Maier - unmarried, no children of her own, living out her life as a nanny while maintaining a secret identity as an ace street photographer. The thing that comes to my mind as I look through her photos is that they’re
too good.

It’s not just the images. Her whole story just seems too good to be true, so like a movie plot that it could almost be a very slick viral marketing campaign for an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster. That she looks a lot like actress
Nancy Kulp, best known for her portrayal of Miss Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies, only intensifies the doubt.

Goldstein and Maloof, of course, insist that everything is on the up-and-up, but it's worth noting that they both stand to profit from their ownership of her work. I'm not saying that's their motivation (at least, not their sole motivation), but the possibility must be considered.

In the meantime, there are the photographs: undeniably good, wonderful to peruse. Whether Vivian Maier took them or not, they're still terrific. Go and have a look.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

One of my favorite places to buy quality tools is the
Harry Epstein company. They've been in business at the same location in Missouri for over 80 years, and though I've never been there (in fact, I've never been to Missouri) I enjoy shopping through their retro-themed website.

This isn't their first foray into mailorder, however. Back in the days before the internet, when Al Gore was still getting his privileged education at a private boy's school in D.C., Epstein's had a catalog from which one could order all manner of things: baseballs, wrenches, hatchets, rifle scopes, cleaning supplies, and all the other stuff a well-stocked homestead might need.

They recently scanned their 1965 catalog and
put it up for viewing. (If you prefer, you can download a .pdf copy.) If you remember the 1960s, sit back and reminisce. If you were born after that time, read it with the understanding that the federal minimum wage that year was a whopping $1.25, making the surplus Enfield on the back cover worth very close to two full days of labor.

So much for reminiscing!

-=[ Grant ]=-


My buddy Hunter Dan sent this to me - a video about the phenomenon of 'frazil ice' in Yosemite National Park. This is so cool (pardon the pun.) Yet another thing to add to my list of places to go and things to see. Have a good weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: What matters to you?

David Friedman is one of my favorite bloggers. His posts, though few in number, are always thought provoking. (Just what you'd expect from "an academic economist who teaches at a law school and has never taken a course for credit in either field.")

This is a few months old, but it's worth reading. He wonders if, in the coming years, we will see the rise of yet another division in society: the real and the virtual. Which matters most?

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The remains of the day.

Last week I linked to an article about an eery graveyard behind a sanitarium, and fellow gunsmith Todd Koonce wrote to remind me of the Library of Dust here in Oregon. It’s something we all know about, but sadly tend to ignore.

The Oregon State Hospital, the current 'PC' name for what was once the Oregon Asylum For The Insane, once boasted a cemetery of their own where unclaimed patient remains were buried. Around 1913 the hospital, occupying property close to downtown Salem, decided that they needed the real estate being taken up by those graves. They had the bodies exhumed, cremated, and stored in copper urns bearing a distinct resemblance to paint cans.

These urns were put on shelves in the hospital's basement, added to over the years, but largely forgotten until the mid-1970s. That's when public outcry resulted in the urns being properly buried in a special crypt on hospital grounds. This is Oregon, though, where it's tough to find a dry basement; water infiltrated the crypt, destroying hundreds of paper labels and corroding many of the cans. The patient's remains - some 5,000 of them - were exhumed again, and the corroded and sometimes dented copper cylinders were put back on shelves in a small room in the hospital.

BoxVox has a great story and many of the best pictures of these morbidly fascinating objects.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: "What's a bathing suit?"

We learned this week of the death of actress Anne Francis; a little more than a month ago Leslie Nielsen passed away. What did the two have in common? Why, the great 1956 science fiction flick "Forbidden Planet", of course!

Forbidden Planet is one of my favorite films. As a kid I liked the adorable Anne Francis, the special effects (remember that this was made more than fifty years ago, but still holds up pretty well), and Robbie The Robot (I had a battery powered Robbie toy when I was growing up; too bad I destroyed the thing during adolescence.) As an adult I appreciate the story line and philosophical questions the film raises (and, well, Anne Francis. Some things never change.)

If you've never seen this classic film, here's the trailer to give you a taste. Have a great weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: This is end, my only friend, the end.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll remember that I've been following the demise of Kodachrome film with some interest. In June of '09 came the news that Kodak had stopped producing the stuff, and in August we learned that the last roll produced by Kodak had been processed at the sole remaining Kodachrome processor. We also learned that they would be closing that service at the end of the year.

Yesterday, December 30th 2010, the last roll of Kodachrome was processed and the machines were turned off for good. The complex chemicals necessary to take a roll of Kodachrome from exposed film to vibrant transparency are no longer made, and it's not possible to do the process in one's basement. Kodachrome is dead.

Non-photographers, or those who have come up solely in the digital age, may not understand the wistfulness of this subject. That's partly because Kodachrome's attributes can't yet be duplicated in digital. My 24mp SLR can beat the resolution, but it can't match the color depth, unique tonal rendition, or the enlargability of the image (a transparency gets grainy as it's enlarged, while a digital image loses resolution.) Many people have tried to duplicate the Kodachrome look in Photoshop, but no one has succeeded. Someday maybe, but for now that look is gone.

Lest you think I'm pining for the old days, think again. I never shot a lot of Kodachrome, because it didn't match the way that I saw my subjects. I was always looking for subtle tonal transitions, accurate color reproduction, and wide luminance ranges - all the things that Kodachrome couldn't deliver. (Digital has trouble doing so too, but that’s another topic entirely.) That doesn't mean I didn't shoot the occasional roll (or ten or twenty) when I wanted that look, but it wasn't often I did.

What bothers me about the death of Kodachrome isn't how it looked, but its accessibility over time. One can go to the Library of Congress and peer at many Kodachrome transparencies made nearly seventy years ago, and they're as vibrant today as they were then:

Digital images, being composed of ones and zeros, won't degrade over time, but the media on which they're stored will. More importantly, our ability to read that media may deteriorate faster than anything.
Computerworld ran this great 2009 story of the difficulty of reading lunar images stored on tape a scant 40 years ago. What happens in the latter part of our century, when the hard drives and DVDs that are common today can't be read - because the technology has changed?

With a Kodachrome, all you have to do is look at it. That's what makes it special, and why its disappearance - as well as that of all the other analog imaging media - is so concerning to future history.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A great musician transcends boundaries.

Back in the '60s and '70s Maurice Andre was the preeminent trumpet player in the classical world. Those of us who seriously studied the trumpet held him in the highest regard for his light, airy tone and great technique, not to mention his promotion of the piccolo trumpet as a serious solo instrument. I had many of his records (yes, records - remember those?) and even attended his only Portland appearance. It was everything I'd expected from The Master.

When I got into college I gravitated to the record section of the library. There I was able to find obscure recordings that were unavailable from the record stores, even the massively stocked Tower Records. (Ahh, the good old days!) One of the records I found was an odd-sized LP from the Soviet Union featuring a trumpet player I'd never heard of.

Just to set the scene: this was 1979, and the Cold War was still raging despite overtures like '
Detente'. 'Glasnost' was still years away, and everything coming from the Evil Empire was viewed with a nationalistic revulsion.

(I can remember attending the 1974 World’s Fair and going through the Soviet Pavilion. Dad was curious to see it - no doubt influenced by the incredibly lovely young ladies that comprised their tour staff - but Mom wasn't as eager. There seemed to be more people outside the pavilion shooting pictures than at any other venue, and it wouldn't surprise me to find a shot of my family in some CIA file! That was the suspicion with which anything from the USSR was held.)

The recording I found was of the first chair trumpet in the Bolshoi Orchestra. His name was
Timofey Dokshizer, and despite the incredibly poor recording technology (seriously - didn't the Russkies have electricity in their studios?) it was clear that this was a musician of stupendous talent.

After the USSR broke up more of his recordings made their way into this country, and we could finally get a good feeling for what Dokshizer could do. He started making more international appearances, though I'm not aware of any in the U.S., as well as better recordings. Though he never achieved the star status of Andre, he was held in the
highest regard by those of us who knew the instrument.

Dokshizer was particularly known for championing the work of modern Russian composers. Beyond arranging solo parts for trumpet, he also commissioned many original works. One of his signature pieces was an arrangement of the haunting Concerto for Coloratura Soprano & Orchestra op.82 by
Reinhold Glière:

The comparison between Andre and Dokshizer couldn't be more stark: Andre always played his solos in a manner that left him still a part of the orchestra; Dokshizer played as a standout, proud of the trumpet's ability to rise above the rest of the instruments. Andre was subtle; Dokshizer was powerful. Andre's interpretations were prototypically French; Dokshizer bared his Russian soul.

Listening to Andre makes me happy; Dokshizer is the only trumpeter whose playing can bring me to tears.

Timofey Dokshizer was born during this week in 1921 and died in 2005. He left behind a fraction of the recordings made by Andre, and finding them is complicated by variants in the spelling of his name: you'll see Timofey and Timofei, as well as Dokshitzer, Dokshizer, and Dokshutzer. It's worth the trouble to find his works, as very few trumpeters are capable of his kind of musicianship.

I'll leave you with a live recording made during a Japanese concert tour. Enjoy!

-=[ Grant ]=-


Twenty years ago this week a major figure in American culture died. So important was he to the musical history of this country, and of the American people, that I think it worth a moment to reflect on the work of
Aaron Copland.

Whether you know it or not, you've heard Copland's music - from the opening ceremonies of political conventions to commercials for food products. Even if you've missed his actual works, you've probably heard his legacy through his many students, from Michael Tilson Thomas to Elmer Bernstein. Copland, it seems, is everywhere, even in death.

Why? Because Copland was at the forefront of a sea-change in serious music. Until Copland (and a few of his contemporaries) came along the symphony was a European property. We certainly had American orchestras and American composers of symphonic works, but their music sounded like that of their European peers. The symphony at that point was an elitist musical form, set on a pedestal and seemingly the province of only the cream of society.

Watch the full episode. See more Keeping Score.

These young lions approached the symphony form (and, by extension, all symphonic works) with a distinctly populist point of view. Together they’d forge what would become known as the "American sound" and bring music back to the people to whom it really belonged.

While a number of composers like Virgil Thomson were part of this movement, it would be Copland who would become most closely associated with it. His compositions were the most true to how America saw itself, because Copland’s style wasn't just about the American sound - it was about capturing the American

Copland's compositions are marked by an almost minimalist use of notes, in stark contrast to the comparatively florid works of his European contemporaries. He uses only enough instrumentation to convey the essence of the message, yet this sparseness is often incredibly powerful. His music is open, warm, and speaks to the large spaces and towering achievements that marked the United States of the 20th century.

His western ballets -
Billy the Kid and Rodeo - evoke the vastness and ruggedness of the American west in a way little else did. How was a kid from Brooklyn able to write music that so perfectly captured the spirit of the West? Copland once said something to the effect that it was because every American boy simply knew what the West was like, and he composed to match that collective consciousness.

(Rodeo's lasting legacy is probably due to a particularly rowdy clip used as background music in the "Beef - it's what's for dinner" commercials. You know the music, and even if you've never heard the full piece you picture cattle and the West when you hear it. That's why it was chosen for the commercials, and I doubt there's another piece of music that evokes such strong images.)

From his
Symphony No. 3 to Appalachian Spring to Lincoln Portrait to Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland's works are simple but never simplistic, stirring but not maudlin, patriotic but not nationalistic. I defy anyone to listen to any of his music and not feel the essence of this great country. Even if you're not be a fan of serious music, you'll find something in his work to stir your soul.

That's what music is all about.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: "...nothing can stop the Army Air Corps!"

That line may not be familiar to you, but if you replace "Army Air Corps" with "U.S. Air Force" and start with "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder..." you'll probably recognize the tune.

Yes, the Air Force Song was
originally written not for the Air Force but for the Army Air Corps, as what would become the fifth armed service was then called. (FIfth? Yes - or have you forgotten the men and women of the United States Coast Guard?)

I was reminded of this when reader Art Kramer passed along the link to
his website with reminisces of the 344th Bomb Group during World War II. It’s filled with great pictures and short but moving stories about his time in the service of his country. The site is well worth your time to visit.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: I need your help. No, seriously.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a little...anal-retentive about things. Like clothing, for instance.

I have my preferences about what I wear, and when I find something I like I buy several year's worth in various complementary colors. This way I don't have to worry about looking for something else I like (and spending money on stuff I don't like) for quite a long period.

For example, in this blog’s early days
I mentioned that I really liked the Riggs Ranger pants. I bought many pairs, in three colors, and wear them to this day. Other than a suit, I have no other pants - these suit me just fine, thank you!

I wish I could say the same for shirts, and this is where I need your help. For a while now I've been wearing Cabela's Sarengeti Safari shirts, and I'm not at all happy with them. I'm looking for a replacement, but haven’t found anything yet. You’d think this would be easy, but it’s not turning out that way!

The problem is that I have several requirements, all of which must be met for me to buy: the shirt
must have square-cut tails, two pockets with button closures, and be made of a medium to heavy weight cotton. Any other features are negotiable, but these are written in stone.

I want square tails because during the summer months I roll up the sleeves, unbutton the front, and untuck the shirt to wear over a short-sleeved Henley. The problem? I believe that contoured tails are meant to be placed inside of one’s pants. Wearing them outside seems somehow uncivilized!

I need the two pockets, because my iPhone goes in one and my ever-present notepad and pencil go in the other - and I need them to have button flaps so that neither falls out when I bend over. Why buttons? Because I cannot abide Velcro ("may it rot in hell") on pocket flaps! I might settle for a snap, but buttons are where it's at for me.

Finally I want it to be cotton of a heavy weight, for wear resistance, concealment properties during that untucked period, and overall comfort in a wide range of environmental conditions.

The winning shirt will be available in solid earth tones - tans, browns, greens - and preferably available online.

I've been looking, and I've found several products which meet two of my three requirements - but all three in one so far eludes me. The hardest part seems to be the square tails! I'm hoping that someone out there will have seen something suitable. If so, let me know.

Thanks for your help!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The President gets all the perks.

This week marked the 235th birthday of the United States Marine Corps! They've been around a long time, and by now we're all familiar with the rank and file as well as the various special units - RECON, Scout/snipers, FAST, MEU, SOC, and I'm sure I've forgotten a few.

One you may not know about, however, is assigned to the President of The United States. The members of this unit, constantly selected from the very best candidates from around the country, serve as a constant reminder of the dedication to excellence for which the Marine Corps stands. No, I'm not talking about the guards or pilots of the President's helicopter, or any of his security staff in or out of the White House.

The unit I'm referring to, one which you've no doubt been exposed to but have never really noticed, this elite group of seasoned professionals, is the official
United States Marine Band.

Now every Marine base has a brass band, but only one represents the Corps as a whole. Often referred to as "The President's Own", the United States Marine Band is America's oldest continuously active professional musical organization, having been formed by an act of Congress in 1798.

If you've never heard the United States Marine Band, you should. It defines excellence for the genre. I find it distressing to listen to even the best brass bands; there is always a certain percentage of players who are slightly out of tune or slightly off beat, and though most people would never notice these things bug me to no end!

The United States Marine Band, in contrast, is perfect. Every time. On pitch, on time - would you expect any less from a Marine? (Do you know how hard it is to play a
piccolo in tune? The Marines can do it.) They're a joy to listen to, and I envy the President for getting to see them live on a regular basis.

Getting into the United States Marine Band is not an easy task. I've seen their audition requirements, and there are some symphony orchestra tryouts which aren't as thorough. This really shouldn't be surprising - the Corps has always been tough on recruits, and they don't let down their standards for any of their jobs. They also field chamber ensembles and a chamber orchestra of the same high caliber.

Yes, they do play their share of marches, but that’s not their only forte. Listen to some of the mp3
recorded performances on their website. (I can’t resist pointing you to this rendition of the Marine Corps Hymn. You can even get ringtones!)

The United States Marine Band does a limited tour, every year traveling in a different part of the country. (They're sadly not scheduled for an appearance on the West Coast until 2014. Drat!) Tickets are usually hard to get, and they're often hosted as a fundraiser for a worthy cause. The typically reasonable admission is always a bargain for the quality of performance you'll experience.

Check their schedule, and if you get a chance to hear them live do so.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A fountain of information.

It has become something of a trend amongst the latest hipsters to declare an interest in the fountain pen. It might be said that I find this whole business a tad amusing, not because I think the fountain pen to be out of date but because my interest in them often goes back further than some of these newcomers have even been alive.
(Get off my lawn!) Wait long enough, and everything comes back into fashion.

I received my first fountain pen as a high school graduation gift in the late 1970s. It was a Cross Century and came in a set with a matching ballpoint and a pencil. What happened to the latter two pieces is a mystery, but I still have that fountain pen. In fact, I'm looking at it as I type this. I've added more to my collection as time has progressed, but I still have that one.

Over the years I'll admit to not being completely faithful to the fountain pen, but in the last few years I've gone back to it as my primary writing instrument. My handwriting these days is all in printed letters (I long ago forgot how to write in longhand), and I don't do as much of it, but I still scribble notes and fill notebooks with bits of information, ideas, the occasional drawing, and sometimes a shopping list. I have perhaps four pens that I use regularly, and several more in storage that I ink up and use only occasionally.

Why a fountain pen? For me, it's the fact that they require no hand pressure. The nib of the pen simply rests on the paper, and no additional force is needed to get ink to flow. As I near the half-century mark I find that the joints of my fingers are not standing up to the kind of abuse they used to, and anything which reduces the wear and tear on them is most appreciated!

There is another aspect to the fountain pen, though I fear putting too much emphasis on it lest I be labeled as a closeted environmentalist hippy. (
Tam and her eco-friendly bicycle currently have that schtick sewn up like a hemp shirt, and heaven forfend I should intrude!) The fact is, however, that disposable writing instruments are wasteful. A quality fountain pen is a lifetime purchase that needs only a supply of ink to keep working. Nothing ends up in the landfill or gets thrown away (except the ink bottle, which is usually glass and easily recycled.)

Of course, for a gadget freak like me the fountain pen provides limitless opportunities to indulge! There are perhaps a hundred (maybe more) fountain pen manufacturers around the world still making pens, with price points from a buck (I'm not kidding) to several thousand dollars. You can find nibs (the part that touches the paper) in sizes ranging from extra fine to broad; no matter how or what you like to write you can find a line width to suit. There is also a large quantity of vintage pens available should one prefer the ultimate in recycling with a retro flair.

Ink makers? There are probably fifty brands of ink that come in a literal rainbow of colors. I'll bet you never knew that black ink isn't just black, did you? Yes, black ink comes in shades. There must be a couple hundred different blue inks, more blue-black inks than you could probably ever use, forests full of various greens and browns, and reds that range from blood to fire - and everything in between. If you want the perfect ink to match your personality or mood, you can find it for your fountain pen.

There is, truly, something for everyone in the fountain pen world.

I'll leave you with some pen snapshots I did a few years ago. The first is a couple from the German maker Rotring (probably my favorite pens), the second is of a Duke (one of the better Chinese pen makers), and the last is a no-name pen that my wife likes (yes, she’s into them as well. Makes gift giving around our house easy!)

-=[ Grant ]=-



Todd Koonce is a very talented young gunsmith here in the Willamette Valley. His talent goes further than building great guns, however - he recently starred in a short film that has won an award!

Final Notice is a short film by Alex Castro starring Todd Koonce. It's the story of a utility worker (Koonce) who's fired for peeping in the windows of the houses he services. Earlier this week Todd told me that it won the "Best Emerging Artist" award at the Salem (OR) NW Film Festival.

Good job, Todd and Alex!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Ghost of the future.

One of my favorite PBS shows was "
Connections", the ten-part series from British science writer/historian James Burke. In it, Burke looked at the often surprising interrelationships of disparate discoveries and inventions that invariably culminated in something no one involved in the process could have imagined. From those connections (get it?) we see that even small changes in the past would have made huge impacts in the present. It's a concrete, approachable explanation of the butterfly effect.

What brought this to mind was last week's
surprisingly frank admission by John Sculley, the long-reviled ex-CEO of Apple Inc., that his tenure there was a "mistake." (As an aside, I gained new respect for Sculley for being able to judge himself so clearly.) While I agree with that assessment with regard to Apple, when I look further at the series of connections that occurred because of his position it's clear that something very good came of it.

You see, had Sculley not taken that job at Apple there would be no
World Wide Web. Certainly not as we know it today.

Follow me: when Sculley took over at Apple, he and
Steve Jobs clashed. A power struggle ensued which resulted in Jobs being forced out of the company he founded (and in which he held a majority of the stock.) Jobs spent the summer of 1985 contemplating his situation, and before the year was out had formed a new computer company: NeXT, Inc. NeXT's goal was to produce a very powerful personal computer that could be used in education and research, to simulate things like recombinant DNA laboratories.

Jobs put together a team of talented engineers who designed the hardware and software which would become the
NeXT Cube. The operating system, called NeXTStep, would combine parts of BSD Unix and the Mach kernel to produce a multitasking, object oriented operating system. While it never achieved the market success that they had envisioned (for a host of reasons, not the least of which was a retaliatory lawsuit from Apple-led Sculley) it did make significant inroads in research labs around the world.

It was in one of those labs, at
CERN in Switzerland/France, that a 35-year-old British physicist named Tim Berners-Lee came up with an idea: take the relatively new concept of hypertext and expand it beyond the single computer (or node of computers) to which it was then limited. His idea was to use the Unix Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) to allow computers across the internet to access each other's hyperlinks. That sounds dry to us today, but it was a breakthrough.

Hyperlinks and TCP are the basis on which the World Wide Web operates; without that combination, you wouldn't be able to click on the links in this article and go to other sites for more information - or even navigate Without them, the web as we know it simply wouldn't exist. No Revolver LIberation Alliance, no online shopping, and no porn sites. (Ya gotta take the bad with the good.)

The computer that inpsired Lee, and on which he did his development work? The NeXT, running the NeXTStep OS. WIthout NeXT's heavily object-oriented development environment, Lee wouldn't have been able to design the ubiquitous "www". Would someone have eventually come up with the idea? Maybe, maybe not. Even if they had, though, it wouldn't have proceeded on the same path that it did. The web, if it even existed, would be a profoundly different thing than it is today. That's the nature of interrelationships: change one, and every other one changes. Some may not happen at all.

Whether Sculley knows it or not, the (unintentional) consequences of his actions in 1985 led to you being able to read about his self-assessment on your computer screen today. Ironic, isn't it?

-=[ Grant ]=-

Friday Surprise: Why didn't I find this earlier?

When I talked about tools a couple of weeks ago, a regular reader emailed and said that his father had owned a service station in the 1960s too. He asked what brand, and I told him Texaco. He then forwarded a link to this shot of an abandoned Texaco station somewhere in North Dakota.

The picture is hosted at a
site called, and that link encouraged me to spend the next hour looking at the historic photos that are Shorpy's raison d'être. Shorpy is sort of a cross between a photo album and a blog, and with thousands of photos in their archive I’m going to need a lot more spare time! All pics have a small preview like this one, and clicking on any of them brings up a high-res version. Neat!

Very cool site that has become one of the few on my "daily read" bookmark.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A letter to the U.S. Postal Service.

Dear USPS:

I'm writing this open letter because I know you don’t read those that I send to you. How do I know this? I tried that already and nothing's changed.

Listen, I know you guys and gals are hurtin’-fer-certain these days, what with this newfangled email and all. The news tells me that your revenue is down, and because the unions won't let you do any commonsense cost-cutting your profit margins are getting squeezed.

I feel for you.

Well, I certainly
would feel for you if I had any confidence that the people in charge had an inkling of what to do to turn your mess around. They've given little indication so far that they do, but I'm going to help you out. I like the Postal Service, I really do, even if I do think the title “Letter Carrier” is less noble than the “Mailman” I grew up with.

Because we have such a longstanding relationship, I’m going to give you two simple, low cost (one of them is no cost) methods that will add dollars to your bottom line. Not enough to save you from your skyrocketing pension costs, but every little bit helps - right?

Here goes:

1) Follow federal law with regard to shipping firearms. As it stands, federal law allows any private citizen to ship a handgun across state lines, as long as the recipient holds an FFL (Federal Firearms License.) The USPS, however, has this strange idea that BOTH parties need to have an FFL, precluding the private citizen from sending his or her package (much more profitable than those letters you're fixated on) through your service. As it stands, Federal Express and UPS get that lovely business, and it's a shame because they charge three to four times what you do. With savings like that, people would be crazy not to use you!

All it would take to steal that business from them is a simple rewrite of your regulations to parallel federal law. That's it. It wouldn't even cost you any money, because you're already paying for those pencil-pushers to sit around in their offices. Might as well get them to do something useful for a change!

2) Your website sucks. I don't mean the design necessarily (though it does need some help in the usability and clarity departments), but its functionality. If I want to ship a package, it should be easy to do through Trust me on this: it's not.

First, you allow only specific browsers to work because you've used proprietary code that only they recognize. Hello, this is the twenty-first century! "This site optimized for Internet Explorer" is as passe as Motorola brick phones, no matter how cool you think Gordon Gecko is. Standards compliance is where its at these days.

The second problem is that printing a mailing label with postage requires the browser to download a little applet, which then requires a third-party program - namely Adobe Acrobat - to run the thing and print the label. Why? I have no clue, but it's what we call a kludge, and it's incredibly sloppy. FedEx doesn't mess around with nonsense like that to do the very same task, and neither does UPS. If your people aren't smart enough to figure out how to print from within the browser like those companies already do, fire them and hire someone who actually graduated from high school. (Oh, yeah, that pesky union thing makes it difficult to fire the deadwood. Sucks to be you.)

Why should you care? Listen, I use a Macintosh. Despite the fact that the Mac OS handles .pdf files internally, without the need for ANY third-party separate utility, your stupid website forces me to download Acrobat. The problem with that is that Acrobat is a buggy resource hog that tries to rewrite my system's preferences so that ALL .pdf files trigger Acrobat to start up. It's annoying, it's a security risk, it's not at all needed or welcome, and more than a few Mac users simply refuse to submit to such foolishness.

You're probably still asking why you should care. Well, Mac owners are now upwards of 15% of installed computers in this country, and the percentage online is a higher. Marketing study after marketing study shows that Mac owners are better educated, make more money, and utilize online services more than users of other systems. Like it or not (and Michael Dell most assuredly does not), those are the facts.

So, tell me how a business plan that involves pissing away the most affluent part of your market, those most likely to use your services, is a good idea? It's not, and it's yet another reason your volume is dropping. Redesign your site, make it standards compliant, get rid of the proprietary browser code and that Acrobat nonsense, and you’ll probably find people using it more. (I assume that’s why you have the site in the first place, amiright?)

Hey, if you like the way things are going, ignore everything I just said. Otherwise, start acting like the independent corporation you keep claiming to be and put your customers first. You can win against the other guys, but you have to bring your "A" game. Right now you’re not.

Two simple things, with my compliments.


-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Wright stuff.

Whenever I buy a durable good, I make some hard decisions about what and where I buy. I start, as I've often mentioned, with quality; I buy not necessarily the most expensive, but not the cheapest either. I'm looking for value, that ill-defined but instantly recognizable point at which price and quality are optimized.

Of course there are other variables to consider. I'm growing more aware, with every passing day, of the social impact in the ways which I spend my money. No, I'm not talking about being a "green consumer" or other trendy tripe, but rather acknowledging that where my money ends up is important. The simple fact is that not all spending is equal in terms of economic or social value.

Assuming that I can get the level of quality that I seek, I prefer to buy American products wherever possible. Not just assembled here, but from American materials by companies whose home base is the United States. Perhaps even more importantly, I prefer to spend my money with the smallest possible company that can meet my quality, value, and origin expectations. That's not always possible, of course, but I'd rather have my money going to a privately held, family business than a faceless multinational corporation.

Why? Because I believe that such companies make better long-term decisions regarding their products and customers. I've witnessed, time and time again, the quality of a product decline precipitously (usually from being 'offshored') because a huge corporation is focused on quarterly profits and not on pleasing its customers. The social impact of lost jobs is an enormous problem, not to mention the decline in the real wealth that principally comes from making things.

Craftsman tools are a good example. Once the benchmark for decent U.S. made tools at an affordable price, in recent years Sears has cheapened the brand by importing more and more of their products from Asia. I've been in Sears stores where it was actually difficult to find an American tool, yet prices have not reflected the lower cost of the imported items.

Which, finally, brings me to the topic for today: I need some new tools. Not want, not desire, but actually need.

My general tool sets are a mish-mash of various manufacturers, conditions and levels of quality. I'm missing some pieces, and others I need but have just never bothered to pick up. I'm tired of wrenches that don't fit well and poorly made sockets that round nuts off instead of taking them off. It is an area of my life that is in stark contrast to what I insist on for my business, and it's time that changed. This summer I decided to finally use some of my savings to replace much of my crappy tool collection with quality examples, tools that I can use for decades to come. As I've said before, if I have to spend money I want to do it one time only.

Needless to say, I'm not spending any of that money at Sears.

I researched tool companies based on the principles I've outlined above. Quality first, American made wherever the quality is acceptable, and from a company who understands that their business comes from satisfied customers. As it happened, only one company met all of my criteria.

Wright Tools.

Wright has been in business in Barberton, Ohio
since 1927. It is still owned and operated by the Wright family, and they're proud of the products they produce in America, from American steel. No other tool company can make that claim, and their pride shows in the quality of their tools; they are simply superb.

Once I'd decided that this company truly deserved my business, I had to find a place to buy Wright wrenches and sockets and all the other stuff I need. I ran into a little problem: there isn't a stocking Wright dealer anywhere near me!

It was then that I found an online hardware company in Kansas City called
Harry J. Epstein Co. Like Wright they're a family owned business, and also like Wright they pride themselves on the quality of their product. For a retailer, that product is the service they deliver, and Epstein definitely delivers.

They have a neat retro-look website that clearly identifies the country of origin of all their products. (Love their animated/illustrated shopping cart!) The site has a very good selection of products that they keep in stock, but where they shine is how they handle special orders.

Most mailorder companies don't do special orders, and in fact it's hard to find a local retailer these days who will. Epstein's is the exception, and having used their service I can tell you that no one, and I mean do mean no one, gives the level of personalized service that they do. This is rare in today's world and should be celebrated!

Between Wright's products and Epstein's service my toolbox is slowly getting the makeover it sorely needs. For someone who doesn't like spending money, I'm a pretty happy camper.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Friday Surprise: Rooting around.

It occurs to me that I've yet to write about one of my favorite things: root beer. I don't drink much of it anymore, as I dislike what it does to teeth and waistlines, but on occasion I'll treat myself to a single bottle.

By now you should know that I'm a little on the anal retentive side about everything, more so with things I'm passionate about. Root beer is one of those things.

My all-time favorite root beer is
Sparky's. Brewed by a tiny company in California (one of the very few good things to come from our neighbors to the south), it's only sporadically available in these parts. It's worth seeking out because of the intense root beer flavor, perfect level of carbonation, and hints of mint in the aftertaste that covers up the normal sugar taste decay.

Because it's rarely available to me, I have to console my tastebuds with an excellent local brew,
Crater Lake Root Beer. It is reminiscent of Sparky's, but not nearly as intense. It could stand a little more carbonation, but it's a very good root beer.

I could go on forever, but luckily there are other people who share my affliction and have done the work for me. My favorite root beer review site, authored my someone whose tastes run almost parallel to my own, is
Anthony's Root Beer Barrel. Many people have done similar things, but my general rule is that a root beer reviewer who can't tell a corn-syrup-flavored drink from one made with cane sugar probably has no actual operational taste buds. I avoid them.

Hmmm....I just realized that I haven't had a root beer in a couple of months. Now I'm thirsty!

-=[ Grant ]=-


During World War II, my Dad was a flight engineer/2nd co-pilot on a B-29. He'd flown B-17s and B-24s, but loved the B-29 - and why not? It was a technological marvel, full of almost magical gadgets, and my Dad was - to the day he died - a serious gadget freak. There was more than enough interesting technology on a SuperFortress to keep a hyperactive 19-year-old mesmerized for his entire tour of duty.

Dad never stopped talking about Boeing's best, and in the mid-'90s the
Commemorative Air Force (then referred to by the more whimsical "Confederate Air Force") brought their crown jewel to a local airport: Fifi, the only flying B-29 in existence.

My father heard about it, and called me with uncommon enthusiasm to tell me the news. Of course I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see one, so I took Dad to the airport. They were giving tours of Fifi, and we joined the small crowd for a chance the crawl through the old bomber.

We were all crammed into the cockpit while the pilot was explaining the layout. Dad sat down at the engineer's station, his old post, and while the pilot/tour guide droned on Dad sort of looked around, shrugged his shoulders and started flipping switches. "One. Two. Three - that's the wrong kind of switch, it's a replacement. Four - they moved Five - there it is - Five."

By this time the pilot had stopped, his eyes got really wide, and he said "what are you doing?" Dad looked at him and said "prepping for flight, sir. Six. Seven." The pilot got a big grin on his face and he and Dad shook hands and exchanged the appropriate pleasantries. The pilot hadn't even been born when the B29s were decommissioned, so it was a treat for him to run across someone who remembered flying one. I was impressed that even after all those years, Dad remembered his job to the letter.

(He also made me crawl through the crew tunnel that goes over the bomb bays, just to get a feel of what it was like. He said "now imagine it in the dark, with a sadistic pilot rocking the plane just to make your life miserable.")

What brings this up? I stumbled across the news that Fifi recently got four new engines:

Last month she took to the air again, her first flight since 2006:

Happy landings, Fifi!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: One more time.

Since this is a holiday weekend, the customary end of summer, I thought a little more music was in order. Why not celebrate with another Stan Kenton piece?

This one, recorded in 1977, features my favorite incarnation of the Kenton group - with a number of local (to me) connections.

Lead trombonist Dick Shearer, as I mentioned last time, retired to my hometown - where I'd gone to high school with the brother of Kenton's baritone sax player, Alan Yankee. Stan's drummer, Gary Hobbs, also settled in Oregon. The trombone soloist on this piece, Jeff Uusitalo, eventually made his home just across the river in the Vancouver (Washington) area - where the sax soloist, Terry Layne, grew up and went to high school.

Small world. But, as
Steven Wright reminds us, “I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.”

Have a good weekend, and don’t be surprised if I take Monday off!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Colored by a point of view.

In 1935, a fellow by the name of
Roy Stryker went to work for the federal government. Specifically, he took over the job of managing the Historical Section of Roosevelt's Resettlement Administration. Almost immediately the organization morphed into the Farm Security Administration, and his section became the Information Division.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Stryker's job was propaganda - to give the Administration what they needed to justify spending money that they didn't have. To further this aim, he came up with an idea: he'd send out a bunch of photographers to make pictures that would both tug at America’s heartstrings and provide support for Roosevelt's policies. He gathered a bunch of talented people from varied backgrounds - writers, painters, and budding photographers - and sent them over the country to make pictures.

While we can certainly debate the means of the program, the ends were spectacular. Stryker's team shot over 164,000 pictures, producing hundreds of iconic images and launching the careers of many talented photographers. So good was the group that they would later be transferred to the Office of War Information to document the country’s entry into World War II, though their tenure would last only a year.

Of those hundreds of thousands of images they shot, only 644 were in color. Color film was quite expensive, even for the government's pockets, but more importantly couldn't be reproduced in the newspapers of the day. Its use was therefore quite limited, and the photos somewhat rare.

Here are 70 of those 644, including some from a couple of my favorite FSA photographers: Jack Delano and Alfred Palmer.

(What happened to Stryker? In 1943 he went to work for Standard Oil, who foresaw the need to polish their own public image. Several of the FSA photographers, now unemployed after the OWI cut them loose, went to work to make Standard look good. They succeeded, and the Standard Oil photographs of that period still stand as supreme examples of industrial photography. It’s too bad that Stryker died in 1975 - I’m sure BP could use his services right about now.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: It's fair to say.

I grew up a small-town farm kid, the son of parents who themselves had grown up on farms, and the major thrill of my summer vacation was always fair season.

Our county fair would come first, followed by the "big one" - the Oregon State Fair. (All the counties were pretty much the same, except
Harney County. Their fair inexplicably occurred after the state fair. Always has, as far back as I can remember, and they're awfully proud of that.)

The county fair was a place where citizens could gather, interact, watch the local talent perform, and show off their produce and handiwork. It combined socialization and competition, along with some entertainment, and was a vital component of farm and ranch life in the 19th and well into the 20th century.

People from all corners of the county would bring their livestock, produce, and the things they made to display and compare to the same from others. Those items found superior would win their owners/creators a ribbon and a year's worth of bragging rights, while those that didn’t make the grade would cause a stern resolve to win next year. It was always friendly competition, but there was definitely an undercurrent of antagonism when it came time to judge the pies and preserves!

What I remember most from my childhood were the tractor displays. The various agricultural equipment dealers would bring a large selection of the newest tractors and implements, while the local farmers would bring in their oldest equipment for a taste of the "good ol' days." For me, if there aren't tractors it just ain't a fair.

Today county fairs have become caricatures of their former selves, many looking like a cross between Cirque de Soleil and a college dorm beer bust. Our modern State Fair? Well, the less said about that the better; the last time I went it was nearly unrecognizable, and I haven’t been back.

The rural county fairs, thankfully, have managed to hold on to their noble ancestry better than those closer to the metropolitan areas. In the outlying fairgrounds you can still get a taste of what a county fair should be.

I plan to do just that this weekend. While folks in the cities mock the "rednecks" of this country, I'll be celebrating the worth and dignity of those who produce the food that fills bigoted stomachs.

Another of life’s little ironies.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Leopolds have left the building.

Last year we learned that
the last roll of Kodachrome film had been produced at Eastman Kodak. This month, the Wichita Eagle informs us that final roll has been processed.

The roll was shot by photojournalist Steve McCurry, and the images on it range from New York to India to Parsons, Kansas - where the last Kodachrome processing line is located. It, too, will be going the way of the dinosaur this December, when the equipment will be shut down for good.

Bonus points: can you decipher the meaning of my title? Extra bonus points if you can do so without a search engine; super extra bonus points if you can tell me how 'Rhapsody in Blue' is related to Kodachrome.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: "Your hand is staining my window."

Very busy this week, and I had a couple of articles I wanted to write but just didn't have the time. So today I'm just going to link to a site featuring images of abandoned hospitals and asylums across the country.

Creepy stuff.

(Bonus points for the person who can identify the quote in the title line without Googling it.)

-=[ Grant ]=-


My Father was a child of the Great Depression, as well as being a farm boy. He learned early on how to make a penny squeak, which unfortunately meant that he was always looking for the cheapest way to do anything. This trait was passed down to me, but I've learned something: there is a big difference between being frugal and being cheap. Frugality means looking for the best value, not the lowest price.

Buying cheap tools, for instance, is actually the antithesis of being frugal. If it's something that will be used frequently, the lack of quality that almost always accompanies a small price tag is reflected in durability. A cheap tool will be replaced more often, and will also frequently produce poorer results with more frustration.

Spending some money up front to buy a good tool is almost always repaid in faster, easier, better work. It also costs less in the long run, as you don't have to replace it on a regular basis.

It took me a long time to acknowledge this reality of the universe, and though sometimes I veer from this truth I do my best to return. I also preach it to my wife, whose parents were also products of the Depression with the same habits as my Father.

Yes, there is a point to this story!

My wife was complaining about her garden hoe recently (we have a large garden and she makes extensive use of things like hoes.) It wouldn't hold an edge, and was starting to crack where it was spot-welded to the pathetically undersized neck that went into the handle. She needed a new one, and on a visit to the local home improvement store she did some shopping.

Most of the garden tools were made in China and were no better than the one she'd already tried. She looked at some made in USA examples from a well-known brand, but they weren't of significantly higher quality - certainly not enough to make up for their higher price. Maybe the local hardware store would have something better?

Nope. If anything, they were worse (if made in China tools could get worse!)

When we got home I did a little poking around, and found
a company in Missouri called Rogue Hoe. They make a HUGE variety of hoes, all crafted from discarded disc blades. Discs are made of top quality tempered steel, and Rogue cuts them into the proper shapes, solidly attaches them to quality handles, then sharpens them to a knife-like edge. My wife was very excited about their product range, and ordered a few to try out.

Rogue hoes are in a different league than those we saw in the stores. They're built hell-for-stout, with blades that are three times the thickness of your average hardware store variety. The designs are obviously the work of people who actually use these things on a daily basis, because they function well. They come super sharp and stand up to abrasive and rocky soils like nothing we've ever used.

These are tools for hard work, not ornaments to hang in a shed and admire.

Amazingly, the prices aren't much more than the lesser "made in USA" stuff we found in the store. They ship promptly, and I doubt there's a hoe you can't find in their vast selection.

My wife is already planning her hoe purchases for next year!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: I want, I want, I want!

I mentioned that last weekend I was on the range for a defensive rifle class. The range is not too far from a small airport, and it's common to see all kinds of interesting aircraft fly overhead.

The students were preparing to shoot another drill when an
autogyro passed overhead. I had to stop and watch it disappear behind the hills, because as a kid I was entranced by this movie:

Ever since then I've wanted an autogyro. It's not practical, but neither are 1911 pistols (that one's for you, Tommy.) I'm not sure what attracts me to the little machines, other than they're cheaper than a real aircraft and a lot more maneuverable than your average ultralight.

I also know that it wouldn't make me as debonaire as James Bond, but I could use all the help I can get!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Admit it - you've wondered about this too.

In 1791, the French Assembly decided that the purpose of capital punishment was to end a miscreant's life, not to cause him unbearable pain. A committee was formed for the purpose of devising a pain-free method of execution that was suitable for both upper and lower class undesirables. How egalitarian of them!

One of the committee members was a Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. While he was opposed to the death penalty, he believed that making it more humane would lead to its abolition. (The logic behind this escapes me, but apparently doctors often have this failing: one Dr. Richard J. Gatling, inventor of the gun that bears his name, believed that the creation of a terrible weapon would inspire people to no longer entertain the idea of war. Didn't work for him, either.)

The French committee eventually came up with a beheading machine, and because of the good doctor's promotion of the new "humane" method his name was associated forever with the contraption.

But just how humane is the guillotine?
This article at Damn Interesting raises all kinds of questions about just what happens at the instant one's head is separated from its support mechanisms. Personally, I hope to never find out!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The lady in the lake.

Ronald Reagan was halfway through his first term as President when I took my first trip east of the Rockies. It was also my first trip via airliner, and though I'd flown quite a bit in small aircraft the view from 30,000+ feet was new to me. I was heading to Rochester, NY. Traveling from Portland to Rochester on Delta Airlines entailed a stop in Detroit, which also meant a trip over Lake Michigan.

If you've followed the story so far you'll deduce that I'd never seen any of the Great Lakes. Oh, I knew all about them; I'd studied geography in school. I knew that they were actually inland seas, that they had their own weather, that they were the largest group of freshwater bodies on earth. What I didn't know, or more correctly didn't fathom, was just how big they were.

As the plane crossed Lake Michigan I was struck by the fact that all I could see was water. I finally grasped the reality of the Great Lakes, and the stories I'd read about shipwrecks and lost souls suddenly became understandable. In that vast expanse of water, some of it nearly a thousand feet thick, it would be very easy to lose a vessel in one of the lake's infamous storms.

In 1898, that's what happened to the steamship L.R. Doty. She was carrying a load of corn destined for Ontario when a powerful storm armed with thirty-foot waves sent her to the lake floor. The 320 feet of cold, salt-free water that sat on top of her preserved her remains in almost perfect condition.

Those remains were just recently found, 112 years after her final trip.
Great story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; be sure to check out the photo gallery of the wreck.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Is it possible to stamp out philately?

When I was a kid my older sister, through the act of renting an apartment, made the acquaintance of a nice elderly couple. Mr. and Mrs. D had no children of their own and quickly adopted my sister (and the rest of our family) as surrogate offspring. They were what was known as "old money", but were devoid of pretension despite their wealth. It was always a treat to drive into the city to visit them.

Mr. D was an avid stamp collector. I'd never even known a stamp collector, and Mr. D was quite persuasive in his belief that it was the perfect hobby for a young boy. He gave me a number of books about stamp collecting, several large stamp catalogues, a couple of albums and a smattering of stamps to get me started.

I dutifully pasted my stamps into their albums, and for a short while made an effort to search through the letters in our attic for hidden gems. Adolescence eventually put an end to my collecting activities, though I must confess a certain lack of interest in the whole affair to begin with.

Perhaps if I'd found
really interesting stamps like these I wouldn't have given the hobby up!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A tangled web we weave.

Listening to Steve Denney talk about this blog (commentary at the beginning of the
ProArms interview) reminded me that the Friday Surprise! has become somewhat less surprising of late. These off-topic epistles have started to be a bit predictable, and I feel the need to bring something new to the table.

Steve, this is for you!

On many of my bags and packs I have zipper pulls that I've made from paracord - that strong, cheap material often referred to by the name '550 cord'. I've got several favorite patterns, but
the square weave is a staple. It's easy to do, and once you have it mastered you can make variations with different colors, or even a spiral version that finishes with a rounder cross section.

These can also be used as lanyards for small flashlights, pocket knives and other such objects. I won't use the cliche "limited only by your imagination" (darn, I just did!), but that's literally true. Go find some paracord and have fun!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A Poor SUBstitute for the real thing.

When I was a kid I dreamed of converting the fuel oil tank in our garage into a submarine. It was a 350 gallon flattened oval tank, no doubt familiar to millions of baby boomers whose furnaces ran on liquid fossil fuels, and I just waited for the day that I could get my hands on it.

I had big plans for my submarine: first I'd explore the depths of the pond on our 'back forty', then I'd take it down to the river and search the bottom for...I'm not sure what, but I just knew I'd find something. Little things like how I'd get air to breathe or how I'd see where I was going were mere trivialities. (After all, didn't
Seaview have windows? I'd have them too!)

Naturally nothing ever came of my plans, but that didn't stop me from being fascinated with small submarines. The Japanese mini-subs of World War II were particularly interesting, and I read everything I could about them. It was known that five had attacked Pearl Harbor, but only four had ever been recovered. The fate of the fifth remained a mystery.

Perhaps not any more.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The day the internet died.

Yesterday was a monumental day in the history of the 'net: Duke University, the birthplace of Usenet,
shut down its Usenet server some thirty years after it first came to life.

Citing diminishing use and rising costs as the reason for the shutdown, this comes as sad news for those of us who cut their teeth on newsgroups. While there are other servers still hosting Usenet traffic, the closure of the Duke server is a sign that the end is near.

I spent far too much free time on Usenet in the '80s and '90s. Before the World Wide Web, Usenet was THE source of information and interaction on the 'net. If you know what DoD stands for, you spent a lot of time on; if you know who the KoTL is, you spent
too much time there!

There are people I "met" on Usenet with whom I still correspond. I first encountered Ed Harris, whose name should not be unknown to readers of this blog, on rec.guns. That was more years ago than either of us care to recount, and despite never having been face-to-face we've exchanged ideas, shared projects and even collaborated a bit on a training manual for emergency communications. There are others whose names would mean nothing to you, but mean a great deal to me.

With so many ISPs dropping Usenet access, people for whom the WWW is the whole 'net don't see the loss. For those of us who remember FidoNet gateways and
bang paths it's like losing an old friend.

Virtually, of course.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: I'd like a Meatball Marinara please. Oh, wait...

...wrong subway!

I found this some time ago, and thought it was an intriguing site in the growing "abandoned things" genre. It's not just about subways, either - photographer Shawn Dufour has lots of cool sites pictured: factories, hospitals, even a railroad yard.

Have a look at

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Water in the New World.

I found this on Digg a few days ago, and thought it was intriguing. There is much about the Mayan civilization's technology that we still don't know, and this is opens up another set of questions.

Makes the dream of time travel all the more tantalizing.

Maya plumbing, first pressurized water feature found.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A shell of former glory.

I usually eat my breakfast in front of the computer. I check my personal email, look in at Twitter and Facebook, read George Ure's blog, look at all the blog feeds to which I subscribe, and maybe even check what's for sale on Craigslist.

One of the Facebook updates this morning was from
Rob Pincus, who is heading for Rochester (NY). That brought back memories, as in my former life I traveled to Rochester on an occasional basis, one time staying for the better part of two weeks. Astute readers will deduce that these trips had something to do with the Eastman Kodak Company (EKC, as it was known - Kodak was extremely fond of acronyms and abbreviations), and that deduction would be correct.

In the early- to mid-Eighties, which is when I visited, Kodak owned most of Rochester - and what they didn't, Xerox did. Kodak's facilities were huge even by Detroit standards, all based on sales of film and associated equipment and supplies. As digital photography eroded film's dominance, Kodak (which had been willfully dismissive of the digital threat throughout the period under discussion) saw their business decline precipitously.

Barely into the new century, Kodak was closing buildings at a rapid pace. They demolished a few, auctioned off some others, and sold what they felt they didn't need but which would still generate cash. One of the latter was a complex known as the Marketing Education Center, or - in EKC-speak - MEC.

MEC is where they held seminars, training sessions, and business meetings. Every time I went to Kodak, MEC is where I ended up. It was a gorgeous campus, looking more like a community college than a corporate office.

MEC sat next to the Genesee River, and featured a dining hall with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the river and a placid meadow. The view from the tiered seating was so perfectly New England, regardless of the season, that visitors joked the windows were actually Duratrans - Kodak's trade name for large, backlit transparencies. The food was't bad, either!

This little trip down memory lane got me to wondering: whatever happened to MEC? As it turns out, pretty much nothing. Kodak cleared out and sold it for about $3.5 million to an investment concern in 2004, and it appears to be sitting vacant today.
The campus, with 120 acres and four buildings, is currently for sale at an asking price of only $9.9 million.

(In researching this, I came across the blog of a Rochester ex-pat whose family worked for EKC.
She chronicles the decline of George Eastman's once-great empire.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

P.S.: Speaking of one point Kodak decided to do some corporate reshuffling, and the technicians who serviced their large photofinishing and photocopying equipment were inexplicably transferred to the control of the newly renamed Consumer Equipment Service. At roughly the same time, those technicians were given the title of “Field Engineers.” The in-joke was that since they were now FEs, working for CES, that their corporate acronym was to be FECES. Upper management was not at all amused.

FRIDAY SURPRISE: It certainly was.

I woke up this morning, completely sure in my mind that it was Thursday. As everyone else knows, it's actually Friday, which means I owe you a blog post, late though it may be.

TIME recently ran
this great slideshow of old computer hardware, photographed in a way you might not expect. Very nice work, and some detail of a rapidly disappearing past. Enjoy, and happy Friday!

-=[ Grant ]=-


Well, not quite, but
a single malt being billed as the "world's oldest whisky" is now for sale.

A full bottle of Mortlach 70-year-old Scotch will set you back more than ten grand, if you can find one; there are only 54 full-size (700ml) and 162 small size (200ml) bottles from the single cask avilable. That's for the entire world, mind you.

(Unlike wine, Scotch whisky doesn't continue to age once it's been bottled. There are older bottles of various brands offered from time to time, but this is currently the oldest vintage available.)

Mortlach is a distillery in the Speyside region of Scotland, home to a huge number of other distillers. Glenfiddich, a more recognized label, is a close neighbor. Most of Mortlach's production goes to blenders, who combine their single malt with others to make blended Scotch whisky. Very little Mortlach gets into the market as a single malt, making this a particularly unique occurrence.

Many people automatically assume that the older the Scotch, the "better" it is. This is not always the case. As whisky ages in oak barrels, it takes on the taste of the wood - and whatever was in the cask before. Most whisky is aged in used wine barrels, as the winemaking process tends to season or "mellow" the wood. This makes it preferable for the long whisky sleep, as it reduces the bitter tannins that will inevitably seep into the malt.

If you have a relatively mild whisky to start - such as those from the lowlands of Scotland - the barrels tend to impart a huge amount of that wood taste relative to the taste of the whisky itself. Such vintages taste more like the barrel than they do the whisky!

This is particularly true if the barrels once held a more flavorful wine, like sherry or port. When a whisky is exposed to an extended stay in such a barrel, it comes out tasting (in my opinion) more like candy than whisky. Such malts are quite popular in the marketplace, as they tend to mask the whisky taste for less experienced Scotch drinkers.

On the other hand, a very powerful whisky such as those from the island of Islay will usually benefit from an extended stay in the barrel. The same amount of time which might overpower the taste of a milder Scotch helps to mellow the stronger varieties. An 8-year-old lowland may be perfect for drinking, but an 8-year-old Bowmore is enough to remove nose hair! By the 16th year, that same whisky will have mellowed to the point that it's merely very strong, not disabling.

That's why I can't get too excited about tasting a Mortlach that's spent the better part of the last century in an oak cask. It's a somewhat bland whisky to start, and I can just imagine how much wood taste has infused itself into the liquid. Now, if there were a 70-year-old Lagavulin,
that would be interesting!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Space - the final frontier. But only if you market it.

While you may not be familiar with her work, Megan Prelinger has been busy chronicling America’s space initiatives, focusing on how they were sold to the public. She’s put together a great book: "
Another Science Fiction,” which is largely a collection of advertisements for space contractors during the Cold War.

SImultaneously recruiting employees while dangling the lure of space exploration to the masses, these ads ran in such magazines as LIFE and National Geographic. I remember many of them, but Prelinger's book is the first to collect them and show how vital they were in shaping a new vision of space.

this must-read interview at WIRED, Prelinger talks about the impact of space advertising, what could have been bigger than Apollo, and how countercultural utopias figured into the space race. Fascinating.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: My dog has fleas.

Sadly, my dog's fleas aren't terribly talented, unlike the fleas chronicled in Dark Roasted Blend's
entry on Victorian flea circuses.

That, however, isn't the end of the story. In the aforementioned article I learned of a blog devoted to flea circus research.
No, I'm not kidding.

There are some really odd blogs out there. As I always say, though, “everyone needs a hobby!”

-=[ Grant ]=-

P.S.: It just occurred to me that there may be even odder blogs floating around the intertubes. Post your strangest blog finds in the comments. (No extremely profane sites or
anything dealing with sexual fetishes. We want to see odd, not disgusting.)

FRIDAY SURPRISE: When in Rome...

My fascination with old and abandoned things often leads to dreams of great discoveries. Though I've been to a few abandoned places - all of which are pretty well known, at least locally - I'm handicapped by geography. Here in rural Oregon, there just aren't many such places.

There weren't enough people here to have produced a large urban/industrial base a century ago, our technological history doesn't go back much more than 175 years in any case, and we've never exactly been a hotbed of military activity. Thus my dreams of being the first (or, at least, one of the very few) to visit such a site remain elusive.

Other people are more fortunate. A British film crew just last year found the remains of the Aqua Traiana headwaters, the beginnings of a lost aqueduct that once supplied Rome with fresh water. It's beautiful and amazingly well preserved, and all lying below a pig pasture near the village of Manziana, just northwest of Rome.

What gets me is that they found it - in the best Indiana Jones style -
by discovering a hidden door in an abandoned church.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Motor City throws a rod.

The decline of Detroit fascinates me.

For many years I've wandered the Northwest visiting ghost towns and abandoned settlements, and always in the back of my mind are the unanswered questions: why did people leave? What was is like to live in a dying town? When did people finally figure out that their town was destined for the dust bin of history? Did it happen suddenly, or was it a slow, agonizing extinction?

These questions come to the forefront as I watch the continuing downfall of one of America's proudest cities.

I'm not saying that Detroit is going to disappear like, oh, Bourne (Oregon) did. It might, it might not. But it's clear that the city's contraction leaves much doubt about its future, and the glorious past of the former powerhouse remains to confront and confound the present residents.

There are lots of great galleries of decaying Detroit around the 'net (I"ve linked to one or two of them), and
Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have produced some of the best.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Good Morning, Dave.

Once upon a time, two geeks met in college. They had some neat ideas about the world of computers, and were anxious to put their ideas into production. They started a little company.

Shortly after they incorporated, they introduced a new computer - one that was more accessible, more flexible, and under the control of a single person. They didn't make many of them, and very few exist today, but with it they changed the face of computing forever.

No, I'm not talking about Jobs & Wozniak. I'm thinking of Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, and the company they founded -
Digital Equipment Corporation. DEC, as it would come to be known, introduced what was really the earliest commercial incarnation of the personal computer: the PDP-1.

The PDP-1 certainly didn't look like what we've come to expect of the PC. Nevertheless, it started the downsizing of computing power, and introduced a concept critical to the modern PC: user interaction, as opposed to batch data processing. This shift was the necessary step to creating true personal computers, and DEC got there first.

Interactivity opened up huge new vistas for the computer. The PDP-1 has the distinction of initiating things we now take for granted: text editing, music programs, and even computer gaming. (The very first computer video game, 'Spacewar!', was written for the PDP-1. Yes, you have DEC to thank for your Wii.)

DEC only made 50 PDP-1 machines, of which only 3 are known to have survived. All of them are currently in the collection of the
Computer History Museum. One is fully operational, and is demonstrated twice a month by running that historic computer game. They've got a terrific website that details the history and restoration of the PDP-1.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: I'll take "Stupid things I've done" for $100, Alex.

Back in the early '80s, I lead small groups of advanced amateur photographers around the Portland, Oregon metro area at night. The goal was to teach them the fundamentals of available-light photography in an environment that was simultaneously familiar, yet unexplored. We'd gather at about 10:pm at a local Denny's, then head out for a few hours of shooting, usually getting home about 3:am.

Let me paint you a picture: say, 5 people. Camera bags stuffed with multiple thousands of dollars (in Reagan-era money) of easily pawned high-end camera equipment. Major urban center. At night. Sparse police presence. Before cel phones. Before SureFire flashlights. Even before our concealed handgun law.

Now I know what you're thinking, and in retrospect I agree with you. But it seemed like a great idea at the time!

The exact itinerary varied a bit, but a typical evening might find us wandering around the downtown core area, through alleys, construction sites, industrial areas, and perhaps even along the east side of the Willamette River. (Today area residents know it as the "EastBank Esplanade": a tribute to a ditzy mayor who was convinced the way to help "poor homeless people" was to build a boulevard for over-indulged yuppies to ride their bicycles between latte stops. Back then, though, it was just a rough industrial riverbank where bums set up camp once the longshoremen had gone home to dinner.)

These events were very popular - we always filled our limit of attendees - because they were, after all, the only way to get shots like this:

While some of the participants used fine-grained films, tripods and long exposures (giving me a chance to share with them the mysteries of reciprocity failure), others handheld their shots using fast films (often pushed in development) and fast lenses. Both approaches had their uses and limitations, and the facilitator (that would be me) had to be well versed in all of it - while simultaneously maintaining some sense of aesthetics. I'll gladly claim the former, and from the shot above you can judge if I have any business talking about the latter.

Today I wouldn't attempt such craziness without an armored personnel carrier and close air support, if at all. Back then, though, it was just us, our "steal me" bags, and lots of film. And the bums.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Witch is Back.

Back in '51, the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Oxfordshire welcomed a new member to their staff: a computer. Today we don't even bat an eyelid when a new PC shows up in the office, but back then computers were a Big Deal. (After all, how many new staff members get their own office - the largest one in the building?)

The Harwell Computer, later to be known as "WITCH" (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell), now occupies a unique position in computing history. It holds the distinction of being the world's oldest surviving computer with electronically-stored data and programs. All the original parts are present and it is capable, in theory, of being operated.

Though it hasn't been switched on for over 35 years, it is now
being restored to operational status at the Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. They expect the restoration to be completed next summer, at which point the WITCH will be able to claim another title: oldest operational computer, beating out the Ferranti Pegasus whipper-snapper at London's Science Museum.

-=[ Grant ]=-


Yes, I know I didn't have a Surprise for you yesterday. I'd intended to present instead the latest installment of the Self Defense Thoughts, but fell asleep.

I write most of my blog articles in the evening, then finish them up and post them at breakfast. On Thursday evening I fell asleep, and Friday I had to get up very early (and miss my breakfast!) so that I could be somewhere first thing in the morning. The blog got ignored in the rush that ensued.

The latest installment of the series follows. Enjoy!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: High water mark.

In 1874, The Netherlands had been only a few years divorced from Belgium. They had a small, weak army, no real allies, and not a lot of money. They did, however, worry about invasion from German, and so decided to fortify Amsterdam.

Remember the "not a lot of money" thing? Their poverty lead them to observe that concrete was expensive, but water was cheap. Their logical conclusion was to build a wall of water to keep invading armies out. They'd do this by purposely flooding the farmland around their own city. Seriously. They thought it was a great idea.

Of course, during World War II the
Stelling van Amsterdam (Defence Line of Amsterdam) was obsoleted very quickly by mechanized armies and air power. All that's left now are a few national monuments and some parks.

Take a gander at well organized
Defense Line of Amsterdam website.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Book 'em, Danno.

Just because something's old, doesn't mean that it isn't useful. That's the apparent philosophy behind one of my favorite places to spend money: Lindsay's Technical Books.

Lindsay's primary business is reprinting out of print and public domain books on a wide range of technical topics. If you want to learn how to run a lathe, construct things out of sheet metal, do chemistry experiments, build a radio, embalm a body, repair a locomotive, make paint, or just about anything else from the last century, Lindsay probably has a book on the subject. That book, most likely, will only be available from them.

Some of the titles are obscure while some are better known, and occasionally you'll find one that was once considered the standard in its field. One of these is the classic "How To Run A Lathe", by the South Bend lathe company. Many older machinists started their careers with that book, and Lindsay's is the place to buy a fresh copy.

(When I was barely a teenager and apprenticing as a watch & clockmaker, one of my primary references was a book called "The Watchmaker's Lathe" by Ward Goodrich. At the time it was widely available, but went out of print a number of years back. Lindsay acquired it, and now reprints that classic title. It's a bit disconcerting to see a book from my personal past being sold by a purveyor of "antique" information!)

A small selection of their books are current, commercially available titles, while others are specialized works that would have no other sales venue were it not for Lindsay's odd clientele.

Of course they have a website (, but don't expect much. First, only a small fraction of their titles are on their site - you need to request a printed catalog to see what's available. Even then, you won't receive a comprehensive catalog, but after a few quarterly issues you'll have a pretty good idea of what they've got.

You can order online, but it's in the form of a secure email: you type in the catalog number and part of the title - no point & click or shopping cart at Lindsay's!

They're not convenient, can be downright cantankerous (spend some time rummaging through the site for a taste of their collective personality), but they're always fun and educational. When the latest Lindsay's catalog comes in the mail, I've been known to drop everything just to browse their latest offerings. If you have even a passing interest in technology gone by, I guarantee you'll find a way to spend money with them, too.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: It's all geek to me.

One might think that this era in history is the most well documented that has ever existed. Why, we have photography and sound recording and movies (and their digital equivalents.) Everything, it seems, has been saved for posterity. How much better preserved we are than our forebears!

Yep, you'd think so. And you'd be dead wrong.

There are huge gaps in our archival record, and oddly enough they have to do with the very things that should be most easily chronicled: our technology. Obsolete technology is disappearing, and with it a vital understanding of what we as a species have accomplished in this world. Decorative arts seem to be deemed worthy of perpetuation, no matter their relative importance, while everything else is consigned to the scrap heap.

Take just the computer - there are surprisingly few organizations who have made an effort to preserve this recent technology. With programmable computers being no more than about 60 years old, we should have a very good record of all that has passed in their development. We don't. Old computers are rare, and the earliest (physically largest) machines are virtually all gone. Of those first pioneers we have nothing but a few bad photos and the occasional fragmentary drawing.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other gaps in our historical records through which technologies, people, organizations, and companies have fallen. There are a few places attempting to preserve bits and pieces of our technological past, and one of them is the
Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications and Computation (SMECC).

SMECC maintains a fascinating site that gives a good feeling for the breadth of their collections. Particularly valuable are the first-person chronicles of the people who actually made the things in the museum's collection.

A warning: their site is perhaps the worst example of Microsoft FrontPage design. It's not nice to look at, not well laid out, and you'll have to poke around to find the gems. It feels like a throwback to the early '90s internet, which I suppose one could argue is appropriate for a museum. (With all that, it's still better than the average MySpace page.)

Any self-respecting geek could easily spend days there. Whether you're into computers, radios, or microscopes, SMECC has something for you.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: All Jazzed Up, Part Deux.

If you ever get to attend a major shooting match, one thing that will impress you is how accessible the top competitors are. If you want to meet Rob Leatham or Jerry Miculek, no problem - they're usually happy to shake hands and talk.

The same is true for the top jazz musicians. Jazz is a personal music, and because of the smaller fan base getting to meet even the biggest names is relatively easy. Imagine being able to walk up to a well-known pop or rock artist and being able to do that. Unless you're a buxom groupie with a purse full of cocaine, their security staff isn't likely to let you get within a country mile of the star! Jazz musicians aren't like that, and I've had the experiences to prove it.

My interest in jazz matured in high school, which is also where my first brush with fame occurred. I went to school with the brother of Alan Yankee, who at the time was a saxophonist in the
Stan Kenton Orchestra. Kenton was my idol, then and now, and meeting Alan was a highlight of my young musical life. Little did I know that it was only the beginning.

When I was attending college in Portland (Oregon) in the early '80s, there were a bunch of jazz clubs in the city. Portland was known as a jazz town, and major players would often make a stop on their way between San Francisco and Seattle. We had not one but two jazz radio stations (one commercial and one funded by a local college), as well as an internationally regarded jazz festival. Life was good for a jazz musician and lover of the genre.

By the turn of the century, the Festival had been reduced to a weekend in one of the city parks, one of the radio stations was gone and the other played more blues than jazz, and virtually all of the jazz clubs were no more. I was lucky enough to meet quite a few notable jazz musicians before jazz disappeared from Portland.

Freddy Hubbard played a single set at one of the local clubs, to a packed house. Despite the cramped surroundings, he made sure that he got around and shook people's hands before jetting off to who-knows-where.

One of the high schools managed to snag the great
Clark Terry for a benefit concert. The school was in a bad part of town, and the concert was not well promoted. Still, I was surprised at the sparse crowd. For a city with a jazz reputation, it was embarrassing. That didn't stop Clark from putting on a great show, and I told him as much when we met afterwards. "I"ve played bigger crowds, but that's not important - I'm just happy that people appreciate my music." Clark is known as a consummate gentleman, and his reputation is well deserved.

One summer a local college held a small jazz festival, and the headliners were guitarists
Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel. During a break between acts, I went to use the facilities. Standing at the next urinal was Herb himself, and we started talking. I normally wouldn't remember a conversation from almost 30 years ago, but the surreal setting burned this one into my mind: gardening. After finishing our respective business, we went outside and sat at a bench, still talking gardening. Nice guy, that Herb. (For those who think the sun rises and sets on rock guitarists like Van Halen, check out the link - Herb is the gray-haired gentleman. Perhaps you'll learn something.)

Woody Herman Big Band, one of the most popular in the history of jazz, made a surprise visit to Portland one year. I don't remember the details, but for some reason they unexpectedly found themselves in town. Somehow they managed to find a venue at one of the colleges, which had an open auditorium that day. Word went out on the jazz radio stations that tickets were available for that evening - dirt cheap, with all proceeds going to some charity. The place was jammed, and the band was in top form. Later I got to thank Woody for the unexpected treat, and expressed my appreciation to number of the band members as well. One of them was Frank Tiberi, who would later take over the organization after Woody's death.

Pete and Conte Candoli appeared in Portland one year, and of course I saw their show. At the time the Candolis were at the top of their game; it was virtually impossible to find a big band that hadn't had one (or both) in their trumpet section at one time or another. I got to meet Conte, but Pete disappeared somewhere after their set was over. The next day The Oregonian newspaper had a review of the show. The writer, who apparently knew nothing of jazz, lamented that when they soloed together they often hit "clashing notes." I wrote a letter to the editor that said something along the lines of "yeah, that happens with simultaneous improvisation, you moron!" They didn't publish it, which wasn't a surprise.

I remember taking my buddy and roommate, Ed, to see a then-unknown
Diane Schuur. Between sets I introduced myself and told her Ed was dying to meet her. She giggled and I motioned Ed over; he was quite taken with her. That was understandable, as she was a terrific singer and a wonderful person. I hope she hasn't changed in the intervening 25-odd years ; she certainly still sings well.

Of course, there has to be the exception that proves the rule, and in jazz that was
Maynard Ferguson. I found him to be the single rudest person I'd ever met in music. That attitude had rubbed off on some of his band members, as the rest of his trumpet section was as obnoxious as he was. (His sax players, who apparently didn't get as much attention, were nicer. I almost felt sorry for them.) I originally chalked the snub up to his having a bad day, but have heard from many people since who tell me that it was SOP with him.

If memory serves it was the second Mount Hood Festival Of Jazz that featured an appearance by a young and highly touted
Wynton Marsalis. I ended up (unintentionally) running into him around the venue, and though he was polite enough, I frankly didn't find much in his music to be impressed with. I haven't heard anything from him since which changes that impression. My contrarian opinion hasn't seemed to hurt his record sales, though, and I hope he doesn't hold it against me!

My favorite trumpet player is the late, great
Red Rodney. In the early '80s he had a quintet with the phenomenal Ira Sullivan, a group which to this day gets my vote as the most overlooked in jazz. They showed up in Portland once, and my buddy Bob and I were there front row, center. Between sets Red ambled over and introduced himself, and asked if I was a trumpet player. Confused, I asked him how he knew; he said that I was the only one in the audience who "got" what he was playing. I never did quite understand what he meant, but he sat down at our table to chat and eat his dinner. It remains my favorite jazz experience, and on that note I'll leave you with this video of Red at his best.

-=[ Grant ]=-


Heard of the
Large Hadron Collider? It's the world's largest particle accelerator, located on the French/Swiss border. A particle accelerator, colloquially termed an 'atom smasher', is a device that uses electric fields to propel electrically-charged particles to high speeds. By colliding particles together - sort of a subatomic head-on crash - we can do all kinds of things. A low-energy accelerator forms the viewable image on a cathode-ray tube (CRT), medium-sized units are used to create isotopes for medical research, and the biggest, highest energy installations help scientists learn about the fundamental structure of the universe.

Long before the LHA was even conceived, the United States boasted the largest particle accelerator:
the Bevatron at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. Built in the early 1950s, it had a nearly 50-year career before it was finally deemed too expensive to maintain. Mothballed in 1993, the decision was recently made to dismantle the gigantic machine to make room for new research facilities on the crowded campus.

Wired has a great article, with many pictures, on the continuing demolition.

-=[ Grant ]=-


We learned this week that
Kodak finally pulled the plug on what was their signature film, Kodachrome. Photographers will fondly recall the fine grain, superb resolution, and vibrant color of Kodak's iconic product, while everyone else will remember Paul Simon's hit song by the same name:

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, Oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don't take my Kodachrome away

Kodachrome wasn't the first time the company had influenced musical history, however. It's true that Kodachrome was invented by a couple of
amateur chemists who were also professional musicians, but the influence I'm thinking of goes far deeper.

As it happens George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, was an aspiring flutist and music fanatic. His love of making and listening to music led him to found the
Eastman School of Music, cementing his place in American music history.

Now you're probably thinking "Eastman School of Music? Never heard of it!" Most people, when asked to name a prestigious music school, immediately think "Juilliard." While Juilliard is a fine school and better known to the general public, those with a deep knowledge of musical education will often quietly refer you to Eastman. Since 1921, Eastman graduates have enjoyed a solid reputation for being "musician's musicians", which persists to this day - it is often ranked as the top music school in the country in major media surveys.

George Eastman was a remarkable individual who also gave major grants to engineering and technical schools such as MIT, and involved himself in a range of social and business innovations. It could be argued, though, that giving the world both Kodachrome and Frederick Fennell would have been enough for any one person.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Cassini, but not Oleg.

In 1997, NASA launched the Cassini spacecraft to study the planet Saturn. It finally reached the ringed planet in 2004, and started sending back some positively amazing images. The craft continues to work perfectly, and as a result the mission has been extended to 2010.

See more of these incredible pictures.

A quick synopsis of the craft and mission.

The Official Cassini website.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Down periscope, comrade.

In January 1940, the
Soviet Union was at war with Finland. Just a few months earlier, the Soviets had signed a non-agression pact with the German government, which besides promising to be Best Friends Forever, divided up the countries of Eastern Europe between the two powers. The two chums lost no time in invading and carving up Poland, and that success prompted Uncle Joe Stalin to go for the first country on his own shopping list: Finland.

While his generals mapped out invasion plans, Finland was issued a set of demands to adjust their borders and "lease" part of their territory to Moscow. They refused, and in late November of 1939 the Soviets attacked.

Though eventually negotiating a truce, Finland managed to inflict severe casualties on the Red forces. Nikita Khrushchev would later state that his country had lost a million soldiers, while the Finnish casualties amounted to 26,662.

Forty-six of that million were killed when their submarine, dubbed S-2, was sunk in the waters between Sweden and Finland on that cold January day.

The actual location of the wreck, and the precise cause of the sinking, remained a mystery until just a few months ago. After a decade of searching, a team of Swedish and Finnish divers located the S-2 and found out just what had happened.

Short CNN article on the find.

Absolutely terrific pictures at

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Color me amazed.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Office of War Information (OWI) shot tens of thousands of photographs. The vast majority - and the images we most associate with their work - were in black and white:

However, there were a number of assignments which were shot in color. That number was far smaller, likely because of budget constraints, but produced some stunning images:

This article from Photo District News shows some of the portraiture from the collection. You can view the whole collection at the Library of Congress site for FSA/OWI color images. (If you click on the Subject Index, you can browse by categories.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Gone fission.

Way back in the mid-70s I was a geeky high school student whose career dreams were split between playing trumpet in the Stan Kenton band, or designing optical systems for spy satellites. Kenton died in 1979, which quashed my first ambition, and a dismal showing in differential calculus (don't ask) convinced me that engineering wasn't my forte, either.

(What happened between then and now is a long story...)

Anyhow, back to high school. Our science teacher was an ex-JPL scientist who'd taken early retirement and ended up in our small Oregon town. This was a major score for a backward mountain community, and he was a wealth of information. I took every advanced physics and chemistry course our little school offered.

One day, he presented to the class what was then a very recent scientific find: the existence of a natural nuclear fission reactor. That's right, a nuclear reactor where atoms were split without human design or interference, and long before humans walked the earth. At the time, despite learning all the details, I found it hard to believe that such a thing had happened. I understood that it was theoretically possible, but it seemed fantastic that just the right physical conditions necessary to sustain natural fission had occurred anywhere.

But they had - more than once - in the tiny nation of Gabon in west Africa.
Here's a great story about the reactors were discovered (warning: science content)

Here's a Wikipedia synopsis of what happened.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Up, up and away!

I've previously mentioned my appreciation for the work that NASA has done over it's 50-year history. NASA grew up right along with me - or me with it - and NASA was always doing the exciting stuff boys of that era were smitten by: Astronauts. Fast planes. Rockets. The Moon.

(It wasn't just spectacle, though; NASA was the catalyst for technological progress that continues to be felt today. A surprising number of the things we now take for granted can be traced directly back to some NASA project.)

We learned about the exploits of the engineers, technicians and astronauts through NASA-supplied pictures in the magazines of the day. My early interest in science was kindled by those pictures, and some of them I still remember.

NASA documented everything, but not all of their photos were of general interest. A large percentage of their images were never seen by the general public because the media was understandably reluctant to publish anything of interest only to nerds. Through the magic of the internet, however, we now have ready access to some of those great pictures.

The agency has launched a
new site just for NASA images. You can search or browse and download your selected pictures, drawings, and illustrations - some of them of quite high resolution. You'll find lots of astronomical images, of course, but you'll find all kinds of other things too.

Two of my favorites from the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, taking the first men to the moon:

Saturn V rocket FTW!

If you're a science buff like me, you can spend large amounts of time on their site. I recommend that you not try this a) at work, or b) when your significant other expects you to be paying attention to him/her/the kids/household chores/your dinner guests. You have been warned!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: "Ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!"

Portland, Oregon has for years had one of the highest numbers of movie theater seats per capita. Oregonians, it would appear, can't get enough of the silver screen. (Save for this Oregonian, who sees one theater movie every five years or so whether he needs to or not.)

It seems to have always been this way. Portland had a large number of neighborhood movie theaters up through the '60s, and many of those buildings are still standing. The theaters were converted to other uses, and some of them actually retained some of their former features. Finding and exploring those old locations is a hobby for some, an obsession for others.

Back in the early '80s, when I was doing some moonlighting as a commercial photographer, I was retained by an older gentleman to photograph the abandoned Egyptian Theater in northeast Portland. The theater, originally built as a vaudeville venue, had been converted to the newfangled "moving pitchers" in the early '30s. It operated until 1962, when it was closed and used as overflow warehousing space for the chemical company which had purchased the location.

The gentleman who hired me was a serious movie buff, and was writing a book on old Oregon theaters. He wanted me to shoot pictures of the interior of the Egyptian. (I got the job because i was the only photographer he found who could light an entire large interior without benefit of electrical outlets or a generator. The power in the building had been shut off for years, the wiring having been declared a fire hazard. I'll leave you to guess how I pulled it off.)

Once in the building we found many of the seats still in place; the entire balcony was intact, as were the Egyptian-motif decorations and appointments throughout. There were torn ticket stubs littering the floor and even remnants of coming attraction posters in the lobby.

When theater closed, the awning (shown in this 1933 photo) was removed, and the front of the building simply covered with a false wall. The ticket booth and original doors were still there!

It was a surreal experience, as if the building was simply waiting for the janitors to arrive to clean up for that evening's business.

The building was torn down in 1989; sadly, the book never materialized. I had a good time, though.

What brought this to mind was
this article at WebUrbanist about abandoned movie theaters across the U.S. (Somewhere in storage I have my shots of the Egyptian, but exactly where is a mystery. Until I can find them, you'll have to make do with WebUrbanist's article!)

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Rodents aren't just for felines any more

If you're under 40, the name
Douglas Engelbart probably means nothing to you. It should, though, because a huge amount of the machine on which you're reading this sprang from his fertile mind.

Engelbart (yet another product of Oregon, having been born in Portland) worked at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) before the dawn of the personal computer revolution. Many of the things we now use without a second thought were developed by him, or made possible by his work: bitmapped screens, the graphical user interface (GUI), hypertext, and networking. The very birth of the internet occurred when his lab at SRI and it's counterpart at UCLA networked their computers to become the first two nodes of

His greatest moment would have to be his "
Mother of All Demos" in 1968. In that presentation, he introduced to a stunned world the early working implementations of video conferencing, teleconferencing, interactive text, email and the aforementioned hypertext. It is, perhaps, the single most important event in the history of modern computing.

One of his inventions revealed for the first time at the Demo was a new invention: the computer mouse. It would take over a decade before his now-common pointing device finally reached the market (attached to the ill-fated Xerox 8010 Star Information System), and several years after that before it came to the notice of the general public (as an integral part of the original Macintosh.)

(John C. Dvorak, computer pundit, wrote in 1984 of the new Mac and Engelbart's invention : "The Macintosh uses an experimental pointing device called a 'mouse'. There is no evidence that people want to use these things." Dvorak is not known for his prescience, which surprisingly fails to deter his continued employment.)

YouTube has the entire Demo available.

-=[ Grant ]=-


Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently turned 50. What's DARPA, you ask? Well, it is the agency that invented the network upon which you are reading this missive.

DARPA was founded to do fundamental, high-risk research into science and technology that could be used for military purposes. Today that sounds ominous and vaguely sinister, but in the 1950s it was exciting and patriotic.

One of their projects was called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), intended as a way for DARPA staffers and researchers to disseminate information and share computing resources. It introduced email, file transfers, and even voice protocols into common use, all made possible through the magic of packet switching - another DARPA innovation. This groundbreaking computer network would, with their guidance, evolve into what we now call the internet.

(Funny, isn't it - the internet upon which you can read anti-military and anti-American rants until your eyes launch themselves from their sockets is the product of an American military project. Euro-weenies will no doubt point out that the World Wide Web was the invention of an Englishman working at a Swiss lab, but his contribution - important as it is - was simply a way of easing access to information on the already vast internet. His work would not even have been necessary had it not been for DARPA.)

The computer network wasn't DARPA's only development, of course - the magnificent Saturn V rocket and the computer mouse both came from the think tanks at the agency. How's that for a wide ranging legacy?

Happy Birthday, DARPA - keep up the good work!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: To boldly go...

When I was a wee lad, America was at the forefront of space exploration. By the time I was old enough to know what was going on, we'd recovered from the shock of the Soviets beating us into space, and had responded in a big way with Gemini and Apollo programs.

In those days, our grade school classes would literally come to a halt as we gathered around a television set to watch a liftoff or a splashdown. The mighty Saturn V rockets - spewing a fireball that remains unequalled for sheer excitement - would take our astronauts into space for yet another thrilling mission. Landing men on the moon was our crowning achievement, watched by just about everyone in the country.

Space flights were national events on a scale that I haven't seen since - and probably never will again. The SuperBowl and American Idol Finals may draw larger audiences, but in terms of captivating our collective conscious, of instilling pride in our country and what we were capable of doing, they will ever equal the NASA of the mid 20th century.

NASA has put together a little retrospective of their first 50 years, using photos that have rarely been seen publicly. If you are a child of the '50s or '60s, this will bring back stirring memories of what we briefly referred to as Cape Kennedy.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Russians Aren't Coming! The Russians Aren't Coming!

Well, definitely not in these!

Owing to my unnatural fascination with old and abandoned things, I find the concept of an aircraft boneyard to be absolutely irresistible. The most famous of them is no doubt the
Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center outside of Tucson, but there are others.

The Russians
have such things, too, and they can be a fascinating glimpse into the "other side" of the Cold War.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Do you know Nessmuk?

You know, I had a pretty darned good childhood. I grew up on a small farm, outside a small town (I remember when the town passed the 1500 resident milestone) that was nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Range.

After chores were finished and if there were no other pressing jobs to be done (like hauling hay), I got to do what I wanted. I could go down to our pond and fish, or take off with my friends Dan and/or Tom for an overnight camping trip - all with very little administrative (parental) hand-wringing. Even a two-day trip up the river and into the woods wasn't out of the question, though such an outing did prompt some worrying from my mother.

Not a bad way to grow up!

Living as I do in suburbia, I long for the time when we would run into the forest with little more than a small tent, a blanket, a sheath knife, maybe a couple cans of baked beans, and a fishing pole. (If we planned our trip into a particular area that we knew contained several small caves, we didn't even bother with the tent.) Woodcraft, such as shelter building and fire making, was an expected part of any well-balanced upbringing. I miss those days.

I have found a way to keep the hunger for simpler times at bay: I curl up with Nessmuk.

What is a Nessmuk? Properly, the question is phrased "Who is Nessmuk?"

Nessmuk was in normal existence one George Washington Sears. Sears was a slight, asthmatic individual who was born in 1821 in Massachusetts, and spent much of his life - at least, that portion when he wasn't working just to finance his next adventure - in a canoe or on a boat or in the woods.

He was able to combine his love of the outdoors and his considerable talent as a writer by having narratives of his adventures published in
Forest and Stream magazine.

He wrote two books,
Woodcraft and Camping, which are still in print - combined into one volume titled Woodcraft and Camping (no surprise there, right?!?) It is still available to this day, which must be some sort of record in the publishing business. (Another book, called Adirondack Letters, is a compilation of his articles in Forest and Stream.)

Woodcraft and Camping is not a thick book, nor is it solely a "how to" manual. It is the collected wisdom and insights of a man who lived just to be able to commune with nature. Nessmuk wrote in a beautiful, lyrical style that makes the reader salivate with the desire to get out into the wilderness.

At only $6.95, I believe it to be one of the greatest bargains - as well as one of the "must haves" - in outdoor literature. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys living in and exploring the wilderness, or even just dreaming about it!

Woodcraft and Camping at
A short biography of George Washington Sears
The Adirondack Letters online edition (free!)
Wikipedia entry on Nessmuk

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: "What the hell were you thinking??"

That was my dear, departed father's question whenever I was found to have done something that wasn't all that bright. Of course, any self-respecting 10-year-old knows how to answer: look at the ground, shuffle your feet, and say (sotto voce) "I dunno."

Unfortunately, once you become of age and start asking yourself the same question that tried-and-true answer know longer works. As luck would have it, sometimes it takes a while before you ask. Sometimes, it takes years. The great part about this delay is that it allows you to once again say "I dunno!"

This is a story about just such an event.

Here in Oregon we're blessed with some phenomenal scenery. From our gorgeous Pacific Coastline to the high desert east of the Cascades (a treasure unto themselves), there is something here for every taste. One of the most visited natural wonders is Multnomah Falls, located just a short 45-minute drive from downtown Portland.

The spectacular waterfall - the second-highest year-round fall in North America - is fed by a spring way up on Larch Mountain. In fact, it's not the only falls served by that spring: there are several other (much smaller, of course) falls that the water travels over before reaching the "big one."

(From the U.S. Forest Service website.)

Multnomah Falls is 620 feet high - a straight drop of 542 feet, then a bit of a pool, then another drop of a mere 69 feet. A footbridge spans the small canyon over the top of the smaller section, and leads to a trail which snakes its way up the side of the mountain to a viewpoint at the top. There, safely contained behind fences and guardrails, one can look over the incredibly scenic Columbia River Gorge.

However, back in 1982 there were no such amenities at the top - just a small sign that warned visitors (those hardy enough to make the steep climb) to stay on the trail. That didn't stop my buddy Ed and me from doing something stupid, however!

A quick digression: Ed and I were aspiring photographers who spent our days selling Nikons and other assorted high end gear to people who also aspired to be photographers. Most of them, however, would never put themselves on the line for "that shot"; we, on the other hand, continually stick our various body parts in harm's way just to get pictures that no one else would dare.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we found ourselves in the middle of that cold little river at the edge of Multnomah Falls!

I decided that I wanted a different shot of the falls - one that no one else would take. So we lugged our 35 pounds of gear (per person, you understand) up the trail and sloshed out into the water.

I walked to the edge of the falls, where I found a couple of rocks between which I could wedge my Pentax KX-Motor camera on its Bogen Monopod and shoot at a low enough shutter speed to capture the movement of the water. I framed the scene to show the water going over the edge on its way to the bottom (542 feet below my, umm, feet) as well as a glimpse of the river and gorge, and made 3 exposures.

Once I developed the film, into my archives the negatives went - to be resurrected here for the first time in a quarter century:

Looking at this shot today sends chills down my spine. It was foolhardy in the extreme; I was literally leaning out over the edge of the falls to take the picture, knee-deep in cold water, just a slip away from certain death. I was either invincible or ignorant - I'll leave it to you to determine which.

It shouldn't surprise you to learn that this wasn't the first - nor was it the last - stupid thing we did in the name of photographic immortality. My wife, one would think, would be used to this sort of thing - yet when I told her the story (several years later), she asked "what the hell were you thinking?!?" Need I tell you my answer?

-=[ Grant ]=-