Loud + Rhythmic = good enough for babies!

I can play the banjo, some. Playing the banjo “some” is like playing the bagpipes a little: you need a wide-open space and patient, forgiving neigbhors if you’re gonna practice, since a banjo does not emit quiet noises. And it’s spectacularly unforgiving of mistakes, that is, if you care about mistakes. Part of the freewheeling attitude that the banjo is meant to inculcate, I think, is an open-minded attitude towards near misses, in life and on the fretboard.

In high school, when I showed some interest, banjo-playing uncles had bought me a starter banjo and showed me the rudiments of Appalachian clawhammer. At college in Indiana, I found a woman who had grown up that chiming, rhythmic folk style. She gave me lessons (for free — teaching clawhammer is like passing on a dying language) I learned to say “app-a-LATCH-an”, and made some progress, learning to hammer out “Old Joe Clark” and “Shady Grove” and even some Irish reels that would tie my right hand up in knots. Once I played “Cripple Creek” through for them at high volume, my uncles chipped in and bought me a venerable banjo, an honorable instrument made for clawhammer (it has no resonator, the back-plate that turns a banjo into a lethal weapon; that kind of banjo is for three-finger picking.)

The banjo is a Star, about a hundred years old, and made before the advent of geared pegs, so tuning it is a black art requiring a firm, deft hand, and the open-minded attitude mentioned above. It’s been living under various beds of mine for about ten years, and has been a source of guilt. Various banjo-playing luminaries in my life have gruffly asked me if I’m keeping my hand in, and I’ve had to reluctantly admit that I havent’ been doing my part to carry the torch. When does it ever seem like a good time to haul the hundred-year-old banjo out from under your bed, spend an hours straning over the pegs, all to spend five minutes making an unholy clatter and yowling at the top of your lungs: “Bile them cabbage down, boys, bile them cabbage down! Turn them hoecakes round, boys, bile them cabbage down!”?

I’ll tell you when that seems like a good time: when you’ve got a one-year old baby, that’s when. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to about being a dad is the magical time when all self-consciousness about loud, imprecise singing evaporates. Lo and behold, that shining time has arrived, and Lydia thinks that the banjo is a Pretty Damn Good Instrument.

So the basement has disgorged all the various folk-song books, chord charts, mostly-working capos, and other odds and sods that I’ve collected from the Baldwin side of my family. I’m trying to cram all the words to “Clementine” into my memory (“Herring boxes \Were her soxxes?” That’s not right.) and enjoying a blessed vacation from self-consciousness about all the whanging wrong notes I’m playing.

Though I think I will pick up a digital tuner; I’m not able to make my embrace of the freewheeling banjo ethos extend that far.

Here’s a brief movie of LBY bouncing along to Cripple Creek (at least, until she sees something more interesting in the case.)

Loud + Rhythmic = good enough for babies!

Something Awful’s Fashion SWAT

This is an easy genre to do, but a hard one to do well: making fun of men’s fashions of the past. Something Awful just raised the bar with this installment of “Fashion SWAT”:

Zack: “Women will attend to yachting duties, men will gather at the ship’s fore section for a 9 minute smiling break.” Where do you think they’re sailing today?

Dr. Thorpe: The Isle of Plaid.

Zack: I think they’re headed for the Isle of Plaid.

Dr. Thorpe: Clearly we can’t use that joke, because it’s too easy.

Zack: Obviously, so where do you really think they are sailing today?

Dr. Thorpe: Well, I actually really think they’re sailing to the Isle of Plaid, honestly. I mean, there’s no getting around that one.

Go read this right now.

Also in the same vein: James Lileks’ review of fashion house Dorcus (no, really.) And my own stab at writing about men’s fashion

Something Awful’s Fashion SWAT

“Welcome back from the field! Now where’s my turkey pot pie?”

“Suppose one of you has a servant who is plowing or looking after the sheep. When he comes in from the field, do you tell him to hurry along and eat his meal? Of course not! Instead, you say to him, ‘Get my supper ready, then put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may have your meal.’ The servant does not deserve thanks for obeying orders, does he? It is the same with you; when you have done all you have been told to do, say, ‘We are ordinary servants; we have only done our duty.'”
   –Luke 17:7-10

Coming across these verses in sunday-school bible study*, I thought that Jesus was being a bit of a prick. Some of that, I guess, is because we have a different perspective on what constitutes “hard work” these days. If I asked someone to please put a cover sheet on their TPS reports, and they put a cover sheet on their TPS report, would I thank them?

Damn right I would, come to think of it! Well, maybe Jesus was just a jerk more of a stern middle-manager than I am. Anyhow, where I was going with this was that I used to get told all the time “Oh, John, you’re going to make such a wonderful father!” every time I’d astonish a kid by magically pushing a salt shaker through a table*** or perform the Whirling Dervish of Doom with a five-year-old, which always elicits hysterical laughter and sometimes puking.

So I was pretty confident that I’d be a good father, only to discover that all the things that I was getting praised for have NOTHING WHATEVER TO DO WITH BEING A GOOD PARENT. I was a pretty good Dangerous Uncle, or whatever (look! he shoots fireballs from his hands using flash paper! He knows which part of town sells fake ID!) and I’m right up there in the top tier of summer camp counselors, if I do say so myself, but it turns out that fatherhood is almost exactly unlike being a Dangerous Uncle.

For one thing, all the glory you get for entertaining a group of five-year-olds for a couple of hours is nothing. NOTHING, even when compared to taking care of one happy baby for fourteen hours straight. The most I’ve ever done is eleven hours straight, and I was just about crying with nervousness and general strung-out-i-tude by the end of it. Why, I can’t say exactly, but there’s something about just being the One In Charge with nobody to talk to that depletes a small but vital part of the brain. And, with a baby, that part of the brain rarely gets recharged. Then there’s the whole lack-of-sleep thing. Plus, most of the work is not glamorous. Planning what to eat for the next five days does not elicit storms of giggles; doing laundry consistently earns no brownie points; washing the sink for the eighteenth time in three days is not something that you get complimented on.

So, I’m only about the trillionth parent to come to learn what parenthood is really all about. I do believe that I am a good father, even though so far I have not had occasion to emit even one fireball. I am humbled, however, by the amount of work that Kate does — she’s home twelve hours a day to my four — and how the mental burden of being a mother seems to be like the mental burden of high-altitude climbing. None of what you’re doing would be particularly onerous by itself, but when you’re doing it for the thousandth time on sixty percent of your mental capacity, each washing of the sink becomes a difficult act of grace.

So: to my parents, who worked really hard to feed me healthy food: thank you. And to my wife and co-parent, who does the lion’s share of the baby work: thank you. And to my baby: hang on, let me just wash the sheep smell off my hands and get my apron on, here.

* Until I was six, my parents were parapsychological investigators, then the whole group became pentecostal christians, plus I went to Quaker school (theologically, modern Quakers are like Unitarians, but with older buildings and fewer purple healing crystals.) So my religious background is eclectic. I was an evangelical christian through high school, and even got some summer jobs in college flying around the country doing Christian stuff and some preaching. Then I went to seminary to get my head straight, and decided I was an atheist, though the “a” word has connotations of humorless, professorial types who carry string cheese snacks around in sandwich baggies**.

** Of course, the “c” word has connotations of humorless, pale minivan-drivers who tuck in their t-shirts and put passive-aggressive stickers on their bumpers, so what are you going to do? Become a gnostic and have fun at late-night velvet-robe drinking parties, I suppose.

*** You put a paper napkin over it, then move the napkin off the edge of the table so the salt shaker falls into your lap, leaving the shape of the shaker in the napkin. Then you smash the napkin flat, yelling “Banzai!” or “Elvis!” or whatever. This trick has not come in useful ONCE so far, and I’m sure that it will only be a source of horrible embarrasment to Lydia later in life.

“Welcome back from the field! Now where’s my turkey pot pie?”

The shoe-leather markup

A couple of years ago, in a burst of enthusiasm for Geocaching, I stopped at an Army-Navy store on 30th street and asked if they carried ammo cans. The guy behind the counter, a tall West African guy, nodded sagely, then ran out the front door. Five minutes later, as I was just about to leave, he came back panting with two ammo cans and quoted me a price that was just about five bucks more than the going rate. I knew that some standard garment-district sleight-of-hand was going on, but it was a bird in the hand.

I’m not sure that it should even be called “sleight of hand”, anyhow: I wanted ammo cans, he got some ammo cans, we negotiated a price. It’s just not the way you normally do business in the States.

Today, I stopped by the same store on the way to the train to get a couple more cans (I want to make a waterproof housing for the hidden FM transmitters that will broadcast upcoming guerilla drive-in showings, as well for the projector’s transmitter), and saw the same guy sitting behind the desk. “Got any ammo cans?”

He shook his head apathetically. “Nooo. Go to Sixth Avenue, between thirty, thirty-first.”

So that answers two questions: where the first set of marked-up ammo cans came from (I had envisioned a basement cache), and how far he had run the first time (about a mile, round-trip.) No wonder he was tired!

The shoe-leather markup

Guerilla Drive-In Update: No @#$@# Disney films outdoors!

I’m now the proud owner of a gently-used Eiki 16MM film projector, which I intend to use to actually have some Guerilla Drive-In showings this spring and summer. I’ve gotten inspired again after looking at the images thrown by 16MM projectors, and how incredibly cool and summer-y they are. I plan on cobbling together a low-power FM transmitter to connect to the projector’s audio-out jacks, then seeing if I can get enough power to drive the projector from a portable generator. If so, then we’re in business!

I’ve also been learning about the world of non-theatrical motion picture distribution, which is… complicated. there are two major distributors, each of which seem to have exclusive rights to particular studios. The rules are copious and exacting, the fees are stiff, and the whole thing generally seems to be a big pain in the ass. (For one thing, you have to figure out what customer stream you fit in: “scholastic”, “hospital”, “motorcoach”, “correctional/prison”, “other”. That’s some distinguished company.

No wonder my buddy Wes Modes in Santa Cruz shows digital movies on an LCD projector, and doesn’t even mention rights in his Do-it-yourself page. But I want to be 110% legit and above-board, even though that means — get this — NO DISNEY MOVIES. Apparently, no Disney movies can be shown outdoors, for reasons known only to them. Okay, so I can’t show “The Incredibles”, no problem. But that also means I can’t show “Herbie: The Love Bug”, either. F#$@ing mouse.

Anyhow, I found out the deal for getting a 16MM print from Lois at Swank, who is very helpful and returns dumb email questions in, like, ninety seconds (the industry seems to be a funny mix of totally unwired and really wired — maybe it’s all the college activities groups.) Here’s the deal:

  • The movie has a “catalog price”, which is about the same as an iPod Shuffle, or up to an iPod Mini for a first-run movie.
  • UPS shipping is about thirty bucks on top of that.
  • That price includes a license so you can charge admission. You can collect up to double the catalog price and keep it all. Once you make more than double the catalog price, you must give fifty percent of the proceeds to the studio.

On the whole, that seems pretty fair, if expensive. Also, the movie comes in four or five reels, which gives the opportunity for intermissions. Also, 16MM has a square aspect ratio, unlike the letterboxed “anamorphic” wide format of 35mm films. Which means you’re looking at the “cropped for TV” version, unless you can get something in 16MM “scope” format, which has been squoze down, and you re-inflate back to widescreen using an anamorphic lens which you purchase on eBay for sacks of rubies.

Phew! If you’ve read this far, you now know as much about showing 16mm films outdoors as I do. I’ve been making plans with Swank to rent Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and show it to friends and neigbors in West Chester as a test of the projector and the FM transmitter. If that works out, I’m gonna start planning films in earnest, with reference to the 2005 phases of the moon. Smokey and the Bandit is a sure thing, as is Red Dawn. The Bad News Bears go to Japan is out, as it’s a Disney film. F#$@ing mouse.

Film suggestions are welcome! Next, I’ve got to make some progress on getting a sidecar to carry the projector and the generator, and the film cans. And the popcorn maker.

Guerilla Drive-In Update: No @#$@# Disney films outdoors!

The center CAN hold, and WILL, damn it!

I managed to blow my blog away last week, in the process of trying to get a big-chair development environment set up:

Eclipse connects to a Subversion repository on the central server, checks out files to a local Apache 2 wwwroot, where PHP talks to a local MySQL database. When dev work is complete, the files are checked back in to the central repository.

An ANT build task checks out the Subversion HEAD revision to an Apache 2 wwwroot, where PHP talks to the MySQL database.

Theoretically, I should be able to fire up eclipse, make changes and immediately browse the changes using my local WAMP (Windows-Apache-MySQL-PHP) environment. Then I should be able to commit my changes, trigger the ANT build task, and see the changes immediately reflected in the production LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP) environment. Automated deployment is cool, no doubt about it; you can view source on this test page and see Ant’s build timestamp in the comment at the bottom of the page. At least, that’s how it should work in theory.

In theory, theory is the same as practice, but not in practice. PHP and MySQL have both made small-watershed changes, and I forgot that I had newer versions running on my central server that on my local machine, with the result that PHP’s db-abstraction utility PEAR worked just fine on the production site, but not locally. When I changed the access method, it worked fine locally, but not on production. #@#$@!! So I chose a version of PHP and MySQL to standardize on, blew away my local install of MySQL, blew away my central install of MySQL, and…

Oh, crap. That database held my blog. And no, I don’t back up to tape. And yes, I did conscientously go in and scrub everything out of /var/lib/mysql. I left no stone standing upon any other stone. I razed the buildings and salted the earth.

All was not lost, fortunately — I only migrated from Blogger about two months ago, so I just re-exported all 475 posts from there and slurped them back into MovableType (though I did lose comments in the process.) Then I re-created my six posts since then by copying the HTML out of the static pages that still existed. But there’s a hell of a lot to be said for having someone else maintain your important stuff.

And nightly backups.

The center CAN hold, and WILL, damn it!