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 ]=-
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 Porcfest.
If this course ever makes it to a MOOC, you can bet I’ll sign up!
-=[ Grant ]=-
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 ]=-
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 28dayslater.co.uk 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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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!
Here's some of the backstory on this surprising (in the sense that the videographer didn't get arrested) video.
-=[ Grant ]=-
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'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 ]=-
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.
The 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.
The 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.)
The 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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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. Astronautix.com 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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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, brianlanker.com.
-=[ Grant ]=-
I have the world's coolest sister-in-law. A couple of weeks back she gave me the perfect gift: 13 bottles of rare (in Oregon) root beers, brews that I'd never tasted before. For the last 13 evenings I've savored a randomly selected bottle, carefully comparing them to my benchmark favorite suds, the hard-to-get Sparky's Root Beer.
What happened? Well, Sparky's - as wonderful as it is, and as much as I like it - has become my third favorite. I feel like such a tramp.
The top spot in my root beer favorites list is now held by Jackson Hole Soda Company's 'Buckin' Root Beer'. It has a very intense pure root beer flavor, a very traditional taste. It's one of the few root beers in this batch that had a strong nose; creamy and rich. When the bottle was gone I found myself wondering how hard it would be to hijack a semi truck and head to Wyoming. It takes a special root beer to make me contemplate sitting in a Peterbilt for 20 hours straight!
Number two on my list is Capt'n Eli's Root Beer. Personally, I've not encountered many products from the state of Maine, and if you'd told me a few weeks back that they knew how to make good root beer I'd have laughed in your face. That was then, this is now. Capt'n Eli's, like Buckin', is a traditional root beer with strong sassafras and vanilla flavors, but without the wintergreen hints that give Buckin' (and Sparky's) that little extra 'something'. The aftertaste of Capt'n Eli's is what sets it apart: five minutes after the last sip my mouth still tasted like root beer. Hmmm...I wonder how long it takes a semi to drive to Maine from Oregon?
Sparky's sits in a comfortably secure third spot, with its unique wintergreen and vanilla overtones giving it a slightly different take on the traditional root beer. Its only major failing is a rather weak carbonation, which makes the taste just a little flat compared to the others.
Fourth place brought a couple of newcomer that tied with an old favorite. Dad's Old Fashioned Root Beer is an old recipe, and it's still unique because of the cinnamon and spice notes in the normal root flavor. (Caveat: the stuff in the cans doesn’t taste the same as what comes in the old-fashioned bottles. Different recipe, perhaps?) Kutztown Birch Beer tied with Dad's because of it's earthy, fruity quality. Birch beers are a close cousin of root beer, and Kutztown is the best of the breed I've yet tasted.
The other tie was Olde Rhode Island Molasses Root Beer. It has a very slight hint of the molasses in its name, and the color and the head are incredible. Very sweet brew with slight anise and citrus tones, this is the only root beer on my short list that can be said to have 'bite', thanks to a very slight citric acid tang. Of the beers I’ve tasted, this is one of the most memorable.
Yes, I'm serious about my root beer!
-=[ Grant ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
The M-1965 Field Jacket, to be precise. Or, if you prefer, the ever-so-GI nomenclature of "Coat, Cold Weather, Field."
I'm not a general fan of, or expert on, military stuff. There are people who are, and more power to 'em, but I'm only interested in the gear to the extent that it benefits me. The M-1965, fondly called the "M65", benefits me greatly!
The M65 was the standard issue coat for the United States military from 1965 until 2009. It was the result of several redesigns to the original M-1943 field jacket that served our troops in WWII. The M-1943 got a makeover in 1950 and again in 1951, but in 1965 it attained the form we know and love today.
The M65 has four large pockets, all of which close with heavy-duty snaps. The cuffs close with Velcro tabs, which are my only complaint about the jacket. (You may recall me saying that I hate Velcro!) That's easily remedied by the installation of a couple of brass snaps, a modification to the original that I highly recommend. Other than the Velcro, the rest of the coat is pretty much bombproof.
I don't know how well it served our troops, but I can tell you that it makes the perfect knock-around farm coat. It's incredibly durable, wind resistant, and with the optional button-in quilted liner is very warm. The only real downside is that they're not terribly water resistant. The cotton in the fabric blend absorbs a lot of water, but a can of silicone waterproofing spray significantly improves the situation. This is especially important in the rainy climate of western Oregon!
One of the best things about the M65 is the freedom of movement it affords the wearer. I'm a short guy whose shoulders are broader than average for short guys, and I have trouble with arm movement on many coats. Extending my arms forward usually tightens the material on the upper back, while the sleeves slide up the forearms and the cuffs bind enough to severely limit the reach. This combination results in extremely uncomfortable movement, but the M65 is cut in such a way as to allow for that kind of athletic activity. If you have to actually do things outdoors, as opposed to standing around and looking pretty, the M65 is what you need.
The coat was originally made in olive drab, later in woodland camo, and finally in desert camo and the new digital (ACU) patterns. My favorite is the old OD color with the heavy brass zippers, though I have a couple of early woodland examples as well. I wear them for any dirty or rough outdoor activity, from building structures to cutting trees, and I have yet to wear one out.
The quilted liners, being of light and fluffy nylon construction, don't usually fare as well. That's not a problem, because liners are readily available on the surplus market and are cheap; I bought a very large box full a few years ago when my local surplus store had them for a buck apiece!
M65s are commonly available at your local surplus store and are still made and sold new on the civilian market by government contractor Alpha Industries.
-=[ 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.
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 attitude.
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 ]=-
Two people I know have started new blogs in the last week or so, and I believe they're both worth your time to check out.
Fellow instructor Omari Broussard and I met at the Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Development course I recently mentioned. Omari's done a lot of training in armed and unarmed combatives, and he's kept a logbook (multiple logbooks, actually) of all the courses he's attended. His blog is called, appropriately enough, the Training Log Blog.
Keeping a training log is an idea endorsed by a wide range of instructors. Doing so gives you a legal record, a way of reminding yourself of lessons learned, a chronology of your development as a student, a chronicle of your evolution in thought, or perhaps just an opportunity to reminisce about good times and good people. A training log is all of these things, and more. So important is this process that Rob Pincus wrote the Training Log Book to make it easier to keep up with the task.
In my case I've been remiss about doing this. Despite my slightly OCD nature I've just not been as disciplined about this as I should be. Omari, however, has kept detailed logs over the past several years, and his blog is all about sharing those many entries with you. Expect to learn what's important to him, what he's changed his mind about, and how he's grown through what he's learned. Omari's blog stands a good chance of becoming the must-read blog for those who are serious about their training and personal growth. He's off to a great start.
Speaking of Rob Pincus (what a segue!), you're probably familiar with him from his articles in SWAT Magazine - or perhaps his television appearances, his DVD instructional series, or maybe even his books (the aforementioned Training Log Book, and his essential Combat Focus Shooting: Evolution 2010.) Rob's always in the public eye, but there's something you don't know about him.
He's homeless. By choice. He decided that would be a good name for a blog, and so it was born.
The Homeless By Choice blog details Rob's life without a permanent residence. Rob travels more than three hundred days a year, and a while back he decided that it was silly to maintain a home base that he never saw. He put all his stuff in storage and resolved to live on the road as a preferred condition.
I know that doesn't sound so unusual, as many people live full time in motorhomes and have no fixed residence, but Rob doesn't have an RV - he lives in hotels with what he can carry on his back! The HBC blog covers his life on the road: where he goes, what he does, where he stays, the people he meets and the things he sees.
If you ever wanted to read a blog where you could actually live vicariously through someone else, HBC is definitely it!
-=[ Grant ]=-
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 ]=-
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 shorpy.com, 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 ]=-
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 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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
When I was in high school my dream was to play trumpet in the Stan Kenton band. Kenton's organization was for years the most progressive, innovative big band in all of jazz. Their sound was decidedly different than any other big band, and that alone attracted fans (of which I was one) and detractors (of which there were many.)
Narrow-minded jazz listeners complained that Kenton didn't "swing", that you couldn't dance to his music. Musicians, though, understood what he was doing and were the backbone of his fan base.
Kenton made it a point to seek out the most progressive composers and the most difficult music with which to demonstrate the sheer power of his orchestra. Over the course of nearly four decades, no matter what the prevailing jazz style was Kenton would turn it on its ear and make it sound fresh.
As a result of his uncompromising attitude toward the advancement of America's indigenous music, Kenton attracted the best and brightest musicians. A list of his personnel over the years reads like a who's who of jazz, and I hoped that I could someday make the grade.
Then, thirty-one years ago this week, Stan died - and with him, the legendary band that he led. My own dreams suddenly vanished. (Not that I would have made it; frankly, in retrospect I wasn't nearly good enough. Youthful enthusiasm served to mask that reality until well into adulthood.)
To give you a taste of what Kenton's band could do, here's a video from 1972 featuring a Hank Levy composition titled "Chiapas." The musically inclined will notice the tune was written in 5/4; odd time signatures were something of a Levy trademark. (The trombone soloist is Dick Shearer, who ironically would retire to the small town where I had grown up listening to recordings of him with Kenton. He spent the last years of his life within sight of my childhood home.)
-=[ Grant ]=-
In the Friday Surprise for the 6th, there were two bonus questions. A couple of people came close, but didn't get all the details. The Leopolds referred to in the title were Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, friends who happened to be professional musicians and amateur photo chemists. Their work in color film led directly to the invention of Kodachrome. The connection with Rhapsody in Blue? The song's composer, George Gershwin, had a sister named Frances - who was married to Godowsky.
It seems odd to me, but I get lots of inquiries about where to buy targets. My favorite source is Law Enforcement Targets, which carries a huge line of paper and cardboard products. For defensive and "tactical" training, their stuff is the best. My other source, which carries more traditional targets (NRA, IPSC, and IDPA) is Alco Target Company. I've done business with both for years, and have never had a reason to complain.
I've mentioned this before, but do check out the forums over at the Personal Defense Network. There are some great discussions there, and the only thing missing is YOU!
-=[ Grant ]=-
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 ]=-
That doesn’t mean that we like it, however!
A recent email from a reader asked about protecting guns from rust in long-term storage. There are many approaches to the problem, most of them involving some type of coating or oil.
I prefer wrapping the piece in a Volatile Corrosion Inhibitor (VCI) paper. VCI paper is coated with chemicals that vaporize to provide a protection layer against moisture and rust. Properly used in a sealed container (like a Zip-Loc bag), it can provide years of complete protection.
You can get it in sheets from Brownell's.
-=[ 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 ]=-
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 ]=-
I'm fickle, in that my favorite things change frequently depending on what's in my hands at the moment. "This my favorite! No, THAT'S my favorite! Wait - that one is REALLY my favorite!" Fountain pens, .22 rifles, hats, revolvers (of course), and cameras.
Especially cameras. It's hard to pick just one.
What I do know is that I've shot more frames through one model than any other, by a wide margin: the Pentax KX. I'm not talking about the modern digital incarnation, but the original, all metal, mechanical, manually operated film camera. It was, to my mind, one of the best products ever to come from Asahi Optical and one of the best 35mm SLRs that I ever used.
Images courtesy of Turbof (http://adsl-065-013-121-247.sip.pfn.bellsouth.net/camera_collector/pentax/k/k.html)
The KX is one of those machines that turned out to be a lot more than the manufacturer probably intended. Introduced in the mid-70s, during a time when many other legendary cameras were being manufactured, the KX proved to be a worthy "semi professional" camera of great durability and superb image quality. It was competitive with and contemporary to the Canon FTb, the Nikon Nikkormats, and the upper portion of the Minolta SR-T series.
The KX was a medium sized camera, and its features were common for the day: depth-of-field preview, mirror lock-up, 1/1000 second shutter, aperture display in viewfinder. What set it apart were a couple of things that its competitors didn't have: shutter speeds displayed in the viewfinder and a new, sensitive but linear silicon blue meter cell.
The only camera that really compared to the KX was the Nikon FM, introduced at the end of the KX model run. It was as if Nikon had taken direct aim at the KX, for their new model had features to rival the Pentax veteran (except, surprisingly, the mirror lockup.) The only advantage the new Nikon had was the MD-11 (later MD-12) motor drive. Even with that they were behind the curve, as Pentax had made a special edition of the KX that took a drive as well: the rare KX-Motor body.
Images courtesy of Turbof (http://adsl-065-013-121-247.sip.pfn.bellsouth.net/camera_collector/pentax/k/k.html)
The KX-Motor was exactly like the plain versions, with the addition of the mechanics and circuitry necessary to run a slightly modified version of the attachable motor from the Spotmatic MD model dubbed the Motordrive II. There was no external indication, other than the baseplate, which indicated that this was a special-order-only camera. Since the entire KX model line was only made for three years, that makes KX-Motor one of the rarer Pentax products.
I owned a number of KX cameras, and was fortunate to count two KX-Motor bodies among them. At the time I knew they were uncommon but only now realize how rare they actually were!
KX bodies came in both chrome and black finishes. The black bodies were enamel over brass, which was the common construction method of the time. I once stripped the worn enamel off the brass pieces of one of the bodies, polished them until they were mirror bright, then applied clear lacquer to keep tarnish away. The result was stunning and I became known as "the guy with the gold camera." I later sold that body to a friend to fund my move to Olympus OM equipment...a story unto itself.
In use the KX proved to be a true photographer's tool. Controls fell perfectly to hand, everything worked smoothly, and the silicon blue meter was accurate down to ridiculously low light levels. Of course the quality of Pentax lenses was never in doubt, and the images produced by the combination of body and optics were always superb.
None of that would mean much if the camera didn't hold up. I admit to being rough on gear, to the point that the guy who repaired my cameras regaled his customers with stories about damage sustained by my cameras in various mishaps. Twenty years later he’s probably still telling them!
The KX was incredibly rugged even in my hands, and it's one of the very few cameras that I was never able to break to the point that it wouldn't function. I've broken many others, but despite the heavy use to which I put them never had a KX fail. (Wish I could say the same for Pentax's "pro" camera, the LX.)
KX bodies accompanied me on both personal and professional assignments, from standing in the middle of rivers to crawling around the dirty confines of a foundary and everything in between. I knew that I could always rely on them to bring back the images I needed. They weren't the flashiest or most impressive bodies (save for my special gold model), but they always delivered top notch pictures.
-=[ Grant ]=-
Though I’ve made reference to each of these in the past, it’s about time I actually plugged some of the people & organizations that have value to those interested in defense of themselves or their loved ones.
The U.S. Concealed Carry Association's purpose is to educate responsible armed citizens. Members have access to their full website, online forums and one of the best "gun" magazines published today. If I were forced to recommend a single resource for the person who carries a gun for self defense, it would be the USCCA. (Disclaimer: I do write an occasional article for their magazine. Since it's only available with membership, you can't read them if you're not a member!)
The Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network started a couple of years ago as a sort of "union" for gun owners. I've heard of many a self defense shooting in which the defendant was facing huge legal issues, and often wondered how they were going to get through the legal process and put their life back together. You've probably seen such cases in the online forums, accompanied by requests to donate to some legal defense fund. The ACLDN serves to pool member's strength to protect one another when one of them comes under scrutiny of the legal system. It's a unique organization, providing a unique service worthy of your consideration.
The Personal Defense Network aims to be the premier source of self-defense videos and articles on the 'net. Less than a year old, PDN is growing rapidly and already has a lot of great content available. The forums are dedicated to self defense issues, keeping the clutter to a minimum. (Disclaimer: I also write articles for PDN.)
The ProArms Podcast continues to have some of the very best in-depth interviews with people in the shooting world, usually focusing on self defense and training issues. If you missed their recent interview with Chicago cop Bob Stasch, a veteran of 14 gunfights, go listen. Now. It may be one of the best they’ve done.
It seems that every time I turn around I’m recommending Kathy Jackson’s website The Cornered Cat. It deals exclusively with women, guns and self defense, and is the very best resource on the ‘net for women who have chosen to arm themselves. I’m not exaggerating when I say “the very best” - there is no other site I’ve seen which even comes close to Kathy’s creation. If you know a woman who is interested in self defense or in firearms in general, but is a bit apprehensive and doesn’t know where to go to find other women with the same interests and concerns, send her to Kathy.
Finally, my interest in shooting and self defense has allowed me to meet some of the best (and most interesting) people. One of them is trainer Robb Hamic, who writes an interesting blog dealing with a wide range of self defense issues. In a recent post he had this gem, one I think that everyone with an interest in self-defense should take to heart:
“I walk around with a smile and I try to be happy but if someone crosses my path that wants to do me, my family or a person that I choose to protect harm; I will do whatever is necessary to keep us safe, based on my perception of danger. Up to and including taking another person(s) life. If it is the only option, I will exchange my life for my wife or children’s life. If I have to fight, I will use every once of aggression, decisiveness and intelligence in my body to overwhelm my attacker(s). ”
-=[ Grant ]=-
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 ]=-
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 ]=-
At one time I was a devoted fan of Leica rangefinder cameras. I owned many of them over the years, culminating with a beat-up example of the much maligned M5 (2-lug) model. Like many photographers I held a special place in my heart for the legendary Leica M3, though mine was the less desirable (and thus cheaper) double-stroke version. One could say that I was something of a Leica snob, and that wasn't too far from the truth.
This makes my favorite rangefinder seem somewhat odd, because it wasn't a Leica.
At one point I picked up a Kodak Retina IIIS rangefinder for next to nothing, largely because I thought it would be a nice decoration on my bookshelf. Along with it came a 50mm f2.8 Schneider Xenar, a superb 35mm f2.8 Schneider Curtagon, and a 135mm Schneider Tele-Xenar. The camera and lenses were in near-mint condition, having been traded in on a more modern 35mm SLR with zoom lens.
The Retina series of cameras were made in Germany by the Kodak-owned Nagel Camerawerk. Most of them were small folding cameras, but the IIIS was unique: it was a solid body rangefinder with interchangeable lenses. It was a large, heavy camera compared to the Leicas (or the rest of the Retina series), but it boasted a large, bright viewfinder with automatically changing framelines and parallax correction!
Courtesy of the superb Retina IIIS article at www.cameraquest.com/ret3s.htm
The viewfinder was terrific, but the really great thing from my perspective was the shutter. The IIIS had a between-the-lens leaf shutter sourced from Compur, which meant that it could flash synch at all shutter speeds. More importantly it meant that the shutter was quiet. Very, very quiet. Next to the IIIS, a Leica M3 sounded like a bomb going off. Those who know the Leica cameras and their reputation for stealth might be amazed, but it was true; even the photographer often couldn't hear or feel the Retina shutter fire.
This made it ideal for surreptitious shooting, but especially for such things as concerts and plays. While the lenses weren't terribly fast, thus limiting their indoor capabilities, it was possible to make very good available-light shots with the camera. I did so on many occasions.
I also loved the depth-of-field indicators. They were two red pointers on either side of the focus point mark, and as the aperture was changed they moved in or out (in sync, one moving left and one moving right) to indicate the zone of acceptable sharpness. This was similar to the way the lenses on the Hasselblad cameras worked, and to this day I miss that unambiguous display.
Over time I grew away from the rangefinder in general, finding the newer compact SLRs to easily take their place. Except for the noise, of course. Today I'd love to have a good digital rangefinder camera, but the only one currently being made is the insanely priced Leica M9. (A solid contender, the Epson RD-1, was recently discontinued and the prices have skyrocketed well past "reasonable." There are some others that boast add-on digital viewfinders, but they stink. The viewfinders, I mean!)
-=[ Grant ]=-
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 abandonedsubwaytunnels.com
-=[ Grant ]=-
On Monday I mentioned that my bore cleaner of choice is Ed's Red, the popular homebrew formula. I've used it for many years, and have been satisfied with its performance over a wide range of firearms.
If you don't regularly read the comments section, you may have missed a note from Ed himself. He's always coming up with something that's new to me, and this time he revealed that Brownell's carries Ed's Red in convenient bottles, all mixed up and ready to use!
I had no idea, but that's not the end of the story. Turns out that a portion of the sales of Ed's Red goes to support the Junior's programs of the Virginia Shooting Sports Association. That's reason enough to buy Ed's Red over any competing product. Well, that, and the fact that Ed's Red works!
If you're a Brownell's customer, put a bottle of Ed's Red on your next order. If you're not a Brownell's customer, you should be!
-=[ Grant ]=-
The XE-7 is one of the cameras I've admired from afar, but never actually owned. This wasn't because of any lack of the camera itself, or of the superb Minolta lenses, but simply because it had been discontinued several years before I got involved in photography. The XE-7's successors weren't nearly as interesting, and their lack of a reliable "pro" camera throughout their history meant that there was no upgrade path. That left the XE-7 sitting on its own little photographic island.
But what an island it was!
Photo courtesy of Stan C. Reade Photo, http://www.stancreade.com
The XE-7 was rumored to have been developed "in conjunction" with E. Leitz, the makers of the famous Leica line of cameras. I'm not sure that was the case, as a tear-down reveals significant similarities to the XK model, introduced in 1972, and both preceded the rebranded Leica R3 version by several years. That assertion does, however, give one a good feel for just how well the XE-7 was built.
The shutter, sourced from Copal, was quiet and accurate. Film advance was as smooth as anything ever made in the 35mm field. Metering was predictable and accurate (as long as the aperture follower, which coupled the meter to the lens, stayed clean - a common weakness of all Minolta MC/MD mount cameras.) The camera was just a joy to use, and those times I took to the field with borrowed XE-7s were magical. The camera was responsive and easy to adapt to; the images were clean, clear, and had wonderful contrast.
Part of the stellar performance was, of course, due to the Minolta Rokkor lenses. Minolta produced some of the very best optics to ever come out of Japan; to this day, knowledgeable photographers wax poetic about the color rendition of their designs. (They were good enough that Leica bought several Minolta lenses, with no change other than mounts, to round out the lens line for their SLR cameras.)
The camera proved to be fairly rugged, the aperture follower issue notwithstanding. One of my colleagues had a pair of them that he used extensively while working as a photojournalist, and they looked like they'd been through a war zone. They still worked perfectly despite the abuse.
Sadly, the XE-7 was discontinued in 1977 to make way for the more modern XD series of cameras. While the XDs were certainly smooth, nicely functioning machines, they weren't the photographer's tool that the XE-7 was. It was because of the lackluster XD that I generally ignored Minolta, despite their uncompromising optics.
-=[ Grant ]=-
P.S.: Regarding Minolta "pro" cameras - yes, I know all about the XK and the XK Motor. I also know, far too well, how unreliable those cameras were in actual use. The XK Motor, in particular, was perhaps the least reliable "pro" camera I've ever seen, with many examples making multiple trips to Minolta for repeated repairs. I liked the XK, and to this day feel the XK Motor to be one of the nicest-handling large SLRs ever made, but they just didn't have what it took in the durability department. More's the pity.
I just returned from a visit to Virginia Beach, where I attended the Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Development (CFSID) course. I've been searching my brain for a one-word description of what the class is like, and this is the only thing that even comes close:
We spent 4 days and just shy of 60 hours learning the ins and outs of Combat Focus Shooting so that we could accurately and efficiently communicate the program to students. We spent the first of those day on the range...no, that's not quite right; for any other course it would have been the first day, but for us it was roughly half of the first day, as the entire session ran well past 9pm. The rest of the week was spent not on becoming better shooters, but learning to be better teachers.
We studied a little of everything: anatomy, physiology, neurophysiology, psychology, philosophy, and more. By the end of the fourth day, which is when testing was done, my brain was fried. I don't even remember the final written test, but I do remember nearly passing out somewhere on page three (serious blood sugar drop, complete with tremors and sweating.)
Apparently I finished it. At least, I think I did!
This isn't like most other instructor courses. Most of the time, an instructor certificate is a matter of showing up, shooting well, and having your check clear. CFSID is different; Rob Pincus is committed to producing good teachers, not just good demonstrators. That showed in the caliber (pardon the pun) of the people who were there, as I'd be confident in recommending any one of them as a competent and knowledgeable instructor.
There's a reason that, historically, less than 50% of Combat Focus Shooting instructor candidates pass the course. It's that tough, and takes a phenomenal amount of mental discipline just to make it through.
As it happens, my return trip routed me through Chicago, where I spent nearly three hours waiting for my next flight. Turns out that Tam was in Chicago at the same time. Wish I'd known, I'd have loved to finally meet her.
We also got to study some (unintentional) modern art, courtesy of an ancient video projector that refused to hold a sync signal with Rob's new MacBook:
Yes, that's Rob Pincus getting all Warhol on his students.
I don't usually plug local businesses, but this one deserves it.
The day before I left, I discovered that my old camera had died. It powered up, but none of the controls worked. (It will still take pictures, but the exposure control is fried and the autofocus appears to be only sporadically active.) We had planned to upgrade our camera later this year, but this forced our hand: we needed it now.
I spent that day not packing, but running all over Western Oregon to find the camera I'd decided on. I finally found the body, but the lens I wanted wasn't in stock anywhere. I decided to pick up a used optic as stopgap measure, while I waited (and recovered financially) for the one I really wanted. Trouble is that none of the camera stores I called carried much (or any) used equipment. About that time I remembered seeing a yellow pages ad for a little one-hour photo place located in a small town fairly close to us. I had it in my mind that the ad said something about used cameras, and since phone calls are free I dialed their number. A pleasant young lady answered the phone and said that yes, they had used gear and that they had several suitable lenses for me.
What I found when I walked into Focal Point Photography blew me away. This is a tiny shop, located in a small farming community in a rural area, and it is filled with photo gear. From Speed Graphics to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, these folks have a little of everything. Piles of used gear (literally), a surprising selection of lighting equipment new and old, even darkroom stuff, all stuffed (literally) into a two-story building in little ol' Dallas, Oregon. It was like going back in time, to what camera stores used to be before the age of big-box homogenization. I don't know if they do mailorder, but they're so accommodating I suspect they would. If you're looking for just about anything photographic, particularly if it's out of production and now hard to find, give them a call: (503) 623-6300.
I have no affiliation other than as a satisfied, if somewhat amazed, customer.
Now, I'm back to catching up on your emails!
-=[ Grant ]=-
It comes as no surprise to long-time readers that I'm a fan of the 6.5mm rifle caliber. Though I've only owned a single such rifle - a 6.5-284 screamer - the ballistic advantages of this particular diameter intrigue me to no end. It seems to be a "sweet spot" in rifle calibers, where drag coefficients and sectional densities combine to make extremely efficient cartridges. Their stability in flight, ability to resist wind, and deep penetration are the stuff of legend.
I've wanted a 6.5 Swedish Mauser for the longest time, but I wouldn't turn my nose up at the modern short-action version, the .260 Remington. I'd love to have a Mannlicher in 6.5x54 (with the full stock for which Mannlicher is most famous, of course) but have never been able to justify the high tariff. If I see a rifle, nearly any rifle, in 6.5mm I usually salivate! (Well, perhaps not for a Carcano. It's not the cartridge I mind, it's the rifle in which it is usually encountered. Mr. Whelen would not have found it at all interesting.)
Given this fascination, it should not be a shock to learn that I relish the idea of a 6.5mm cartridge chambered in an AR-15. I actually considered buying a 6.5 Grendel upper not too long ago, but held back because of the high cost. The Grendel is a proprietary cartridge, for which barrel, rifle, and ammunition makers must pay a royalty to the owner: Alexander Arms.
I'm all for free enterprise, but that particular enterprise is far from free. The royalties necessary to use the Grendel cartridge have kept prices much higher than, say, the unrestricted 6.8SPC round. I wondered why someone didn't simply clone the Grendel cartridge and give it a different name.
Someone finally did. As The Firearm Blog reports, Les Baer has cloned the Grendel cartridge and has released it as the .264 LBC-AR. (Who came up with that mouthful?) It is a functional equivalent of the 6.5 Grendel, and I hope it catches on. If it does, my AR may finally reach the 6.5mm nirvana I've long sought.
-=[ 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 ]=-
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 ]=-
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 (www.lindsaybks.com), 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 ]=-
So, where was this picture taken?
Italy? Scotland? Switzerland, perhaps?
Nope. This is the Middle East. Yes, it is! It's the beautiful country of Lebanon.
Hard to believe? What's hard to believe is that people go to Dubai instead of Baalbeck!
I have good friends who are from Lebanon; from them I've learned a great deal about the country, the people, and the history. Lebanon is truly the jewel of the Middle East, with a beautiful coastline, verdant valleys, and ski resorts. (Yes. Skiing. In the Middle East. With real snow on real mountains, unlike the artificial stuff that attracts crowds in Dubai.)
Why, you may ask, is Lebanon known for war and strife instead of scenery and recreation? The answer would take pages upon pages of explanation; let's just say that when a healthy national pride is replaced with violent sectarianism you get hell instead of paradise. The Lebanon of the late 20th century (and, it appears, the 21st as well) was closer to the former than the latter, which tends to explain why the mention of the country brings to mind bombed-out Beirut instead of the gorgeous Bekaa Valley.
Rather than dwell on the negative, run over to Dark Roasted Blend and marvel at the pictures.
-=[ Grant ]=-
There are guns that we want - perhaps even "need" - but don't happen to have. This is not about those.
This is about the gun which consumes large amounts of our subconscious thought, in the way that the opposite sex did in high school. Though we desire others, one remains a constant; a gun that, it seems, we've always wanted and always will. Perhaps one day our dream is fulfilled, perhaps not - but it never goes away.
Admit it: you have one. We all have one.
Me? It might surprise you to know that mine is not a revolver. Don't get me wrong - there are a number of wheelguns I want but don't yet possess, the specifics changing a bit over time. My dream gun, though, has remained unchanged for many years now. That is the way of dreams.
My dream gun is a Mannlicher stocked bolt action carbine in 6.5x55 Swedish. Why? Romance, plain and simple. (That's the great part about dreams - they don't have to make any sense.)
Since I was a kid I've seen pictures of the lone hunter standing on a ridge, peering through binoculars at some unseen quarry, with "my" rifle perched on his knee. A graceful yet purposeful gun, lithe of line, whose mere presence brings gentility to the wilderness. (I told you it was romantic!)
Open up a hunting book from the '50s or '60s, and you'll probably see that picture. I have, more times than I can count. That's the reason I want one.
Of course I can recite all the technical justifications for owning my dream. I rationalize that it would make the perfect hunting rifle (which it would); the 6.5 Swede round is well suited for the game we have in North America, and it's one of my very favorite target cartridges to boot. The light weight and short barrel would make it wonderful to carry and even better to swing on target; it would be the perfect tool for "snap shooting" and tramping through our dense coastal rainforest. Yadda yadda yadda.
But, at the end of the day, it's all about peering off into the game-filled distance with the Dream perched ever-so-photogenically on MY knee.
-=[ Grant ]=-
Someone emailed and asked me to detail my reloading die setups. With pleasure!
For handgun rounds, my setup for .38 Special is typical (and, not surprisingly, my most-used.) The sizing die is a Lee carbide, which I've had for decades. I would prefer an RCBS die in this spot, primarily for the better decapping pin system and easier handling of it's knurled body, but the Lee is perfectly serviceable (and I'm too cheap to spring for the new die.) For certain other calibers I have RCBS or DIllon carbide dies, and as I mentioned last time I find them all acceptable - but my favorite remains RCBS.
The next station on the press carries a Lyman "M" expander die. The Hornady powder measure, like other progressive press measures, has an integral case expander, but I still prefer to expand using the Lyman die. It expands in a unique manner that reduces lead shaving and promotes straighter bullet seating, and it works as advertised. (I do reload a number of calibers for which I don't have "M" dies; for those I rely on the expander in the powder measure, which works perfectly well - the "M" die is just in a class by itself.)
The bullet seating die for all calibers is the Hornady with the sliding bullet alignment collar. It is, hands down, the best seating die I've used. That sliding collar definitely helps bullet alignment, especially if the bullet tips a bit on the way up into the die. The bullet seating depth is precisely adjustable via a convenient knurled knob, and they have a micrometer seating adjustment available as an accessory. Absolutely "best in class" in terms of features.
I never crimp in the seating die. I know, most people do, but I've found that crimping separately results in significantly better ammunition. In .38, I use the superb Redding crimp die. This die is unique, in that it applies a slight taper crimp first, then a roll crimp. It produces the best .38 ammo I've ever made, and would not be without it for any cartridge where I want to squeeze out that last little bit of accuracy.
For all other pistol calibers, I use the Lee Factory Crimp Die. It is different than any other crimp die: it has a carbide sizing ring that sizes all the way to the base of the case, which is difficult to do in the initial size/decap process. Then it applies a taper or roll crimp (depending on the cartridge.) The neat part about the crimp stage is that it is adjustable via a knurled knob, making it a cinch to get exactly the right amount of crimp. The combination of to-the-base resizing and perfect crimping make the FCD (as it's known in reloading circles) great for all calibers, but an absolute must for rounds going into autoloading pistols. If you're having trouble getting your reloads to feed, the FCD will solve the problem. (If you're using a Dillon sizing die, which doesn't size are far down the case as others, the FCD is especially useful.)
For rifle rounds I've taken then same mix-and-match approach. (For those who don't reload bottleneck rifle cases, there are two approaches to resizing: full-length and neck only. Cases going into autoloading or lever-action repeating rifles must be full-length sized for proper feeding. For a bolt-action or single-shot rifle, you can get away with just resizing the neck of the case itself. This results in much improved brass life and simplified reloading, as lubrication isn't needed.)
As mentioned last time, my preferred sizing dies are Redding and RCBS, for a combination of finish, smoothness, and decapping pin arrangement. In full length dies I've decided to limit my choices to RCBS and Redding, mainly because I haven't been all that happy with Lee's internal finish. If neck sizing only, Lee's Collet Dies are actually quite nice - I've had pretty good luck with them, though I still prefer Redding or RCBS because of Lee's decapping pin design.
When I'm reloading for rifles, I use the same technique that I do for pistol rounds: I don't seat and crimp in the same operation, as most rifle reloaders do. As I mentioned before, I've found that seating and crimping separately results in better quality ammunition, with more consistent seating depth and crimp tension.
Again, the seating die of choice is Hornady - their alignment collar is just as important for rifles as for handguns, and works just as well. I adjust the die body so that the crimping ring never touches the mouth of the case, thereby using just the seating function. I buy a separate seating die to do the crimping, and simply remove or adjust the seating stem so that it never touches the bullet. I've found - again - the RCBS and Redding seating dies are the best in terms of crimp quality. They don't shave brass from (or deform) the case lips when they're adding a heavy crimp, which both Hornady and Lee seating dies do. (This isn't important for a single-shot rifle, but for a tube-fed lever action it sure is!)
Sharp-eyed readers will note that I mentioned Lyman only once. This is because I have very little experience with their products other than the "M" die. Their external finish seems to be a notch below RCBS and a couple below Redding, though as mentioned I am impressed with the performance of the "M" die. Readers with more extensive Lyman experience are encouraged to comment on their other offerings.
As you can see, there is no one maker of dies that has everything I want; I'm forced to pick and choose the best for my needs and desires. It's taken me a long time (and no small amount of money) to get to this point, but I'm quite happy with the results!
-=[ Grant ]=-
From the comments and emails I've been getting, there is a resurgence of interest in reloading. At the price of factory ammunition, I can see why!
I'd like to touch on some things that Jerry brought up in Monday's comments. Yes, I have rather extensive experience with Lee, Dillon, and Hornady progressives. Frankly, each will produce identical ammunition; properly set up, there is no qualitative difference between the cartridges that come off any of those brands. If someone is having problems with the quality of their ammo, switching press brands is quite unlikely to help!
The primary difference among press makers comes in the ease of operation and long-term durability. In my experience, Lee presses require a somewhat higher level of mechanical aptitude to run (and keep running.) They also have a higher percentage of wear-related parts replacement, though to be fair every press has certain pieces that need replacement at regular intervals. It's just that Lee's tend to be more integral to the operation, and have slightly shorter life spans.
Again, a Lee will produce fine ammo - you'll just have to "fiddle" a little more to get it to do so. (Jerry, don't lose hope - bottleneck pistol cartridges like the .357 SIG are notoriously difficult to reload, no matter what press you use!)
Jerry also asked about dies. In carbide pistol dies, I like RCBS, Lee, and Dillon, in roughly that order. Lyman and Redding carbide pistol dies are fine, in a single stage press. The problem with them is that their carbide sizing rings have a very small chamfer at the edge of entry. When operating a progressive press the larger, rounded chamfer of RCBS, Lee, and Dillon dies results in much smoother case entry into the die.
This does have a downside - the larger the edge radius, the further up from the cartridge base the case is sized. That means that the bottom of the case doesn't get sized as much, which can cause feeding problems in autoloading pistols. Dillons are by far the most radiused, which is why I place them at the last of my "preferred" list. Lee and RCBS, in my opinion, have a much more "balanced" approach between feeding and sizing. (The Dillon dies, however, have the very best decapping pin arrangement and Lee the worst. I guess you just can't have your cake and eat it too!)
The only pistol dies I don't like are Hornady's. Their TiN coating, while hard enough for the task, isn't as polished as the carbide rings the others use. Their dies require more pressure on the press handle, and are noticeably less smooth. In fact, the only die I've ever had that scratched cases - gouged them, actually - was a .38/.357 Hornady TiN sizing die. (Hornady's bullet seating die, in contrast, is the very best I've used. This goes to show that no one - and I mean no one - does everything right!)
In rifle dies, all seem to produce accurately sized cases. However, there is a big difference in the internal finish. Redding dies, not surprisingly, are the best - very smooth, very consistent, very nicely made. The RCBS dies are good as well, but some of the Lee dies I've tried have been a little rougher than I would like. I haven't had a scratched case with a Lee die, but handle effort seems higher than the others. They certainly work well enough that I don't feel a burning need to replace those that I have, but when I buy new dies I'll stick with Redding and RCBS.
One of the nice things about RCBS rifle dies is their decapping pin arrangement. Hornady makes a carbide sizing button to replace the stock steel button on the RCBS decapping rod, which makes internal neck lube unnecessary.
(Why not just use Hornady rifle dies? Their decapping pin arrangement stinks. The only brand better than RCBS in that regard is Redding - who make their own carbide buttons. See why my rifle die preferences are RCBS and Redding?)
-=[ Grant ]=-
I recently received an email wherein the author took me to task for recommending the Hornady Lock-N-Load AP as the tool for the 'serious' reloader. His claim was that 'serious' reloaders always use Dillon, and nothing but.
Sorry to have to disagree.
My definition of 'serious' is the ballistic experimenter, not the appliance operator. Someone who reloads for a number of both pistol and rifle calibers and does a lot of load experimentation (different bullets, powders, cases, and primers) is, in my mind, far more 'serious' than the person who simply constructs a single caliber/bullet/powder charge. Yes, I'll grant you that it's arbitrary, but it is (after all) my prerogative to do so!
For the person who fits my definition of serious, the Hornady press remains the progressive tool to beat. (Of course such a person also needs at least one single stage press, preferably a Hornady that takes the same LnL die holders.)
Allow me to illustrate. I've become (belatedly, perhaps) a fan of the .30 WCF cartridge, also know as the "thirty-thirty." (My odyssey from high-speed, pointy-bullet cartridges to the pudgy .30-30 is a story in itself. I promise to recount it sometime soon.) Aside from developing the "perfect" 170 grain hunting load, I've also been working up a very light load.
This project is to give me a 100-yard load to use against animals intent on raiding our henhouse (amongst other things.) This load needs to be accurate, effective enough to kill a coyote-size animal at 100 yards, low recoil, usable in a repeating rifle, and QUIET. (Not that I have neighbors that are looking in the windows, but I like to be considerate. Besides, if I have to get up in the middle of the night to dispatch an unruly varmint intent on dining at Che Chicken, I don't want to cause my ears to ring for the next 12 hours!)
When I conceived of this project I consulted Ed Harris, whose knowledge of such loads is perhaps unparalleled. He suggested an oversized, dead-soft lead bullet over a small quantity of fast-burning pistol powder. The current long-term test is of a 115 grain flat-point lead bullet of about 5 BHN hardness, sized to .311", over 4.1 grains of Alliant Red Dot powder. This gives me a load that is just under supersonic at the muzzle, and from a 24" barrel about as loud as one of the hyper-velocity .22LR cartridges.
Once the load passes final testing, I plan to make a whole pile of 'em.
The Lock-N-Load system has proven to be a real time saver in developing this load. The quick-change dies in the single-stage press make it much easier to put together 5 or 10 at a time for testing; when the load is settled, I'll just stick those dies (already adjusted and ready to go) into the progressive AP and crank out ammo! Nothing is as flexible, and when you're doing things that are somewhat out of the ordinary you need that kind of flexibility.
Enough about presses. In this project I needed to bell the mouths of the .30-30 cases ever so slightly, so that the very soft slug could be seated without shaving. Ever tried to buy a .30 caliber mouth flaring die?
After searching I found the answer: the Lee Universal Case Expanding Die. It has a couple of interchangeable flaring spuds, one for small caliber and one for large, which go inside of the die body which is then topped with a threaded adjuster. You simply turn the knurled adjuster knob for the precise amount of flare you need - and you can vary it in incredibly small increments. Frankly, I wish I'd found this thing years ago - it would have saved me tons of time and effort.
Of course, mounted in a Hornady LnL bushing I can pop it into any press setup as needed, so I don't have to buy a dozen of the things!
Lee comes under fire on the internet forums for being the low-cost gear supplier, but they have a lot of products that are both well made and absolutely unique. The Universal Case Expanding Die is one of them, and every serious reloader needs one on his or her reloading bench.
(Ooops, there goes that word again...!)
-=[ Grant ]=-
Why revolvers? Because I like them! I like their lines, their reliability, their accuracy, their power; I like their history, and that they are prototypically "American" firearms. (I like lever action rifles for that same reason.)
I like revolvers because they can be made to fit the hand in a way a slab-sided pistol never can. I like them because of their almost Zen-like operation: the cylinder goes 'round, the gun discharges, and when the operator wishes, the process is repeated. I like them because you can see what's happening; because they are easy to load and unload.
I did not come to these opinions quickly or easily, you understand. When I was a kid, all the other kids wanted a Colt "Peacemaker" and a Winchester '94. Not me - I looked in the Sears catalog (yes, they carried guns when I was a kid) and dreamed of owning a .45 auto and an M1 carbine. I was definitely a contrarian from the start!
It wasn't until my advanced years that the lure of the revolver affected my soul. (Though, as I've related in past posts, it was more of a challenge to my ballistic manhood than an intellectual appreciation. Introspection came later.)
Oh, the best thing about revolvers? They aren't made of plastic!
-=[ Grant ]=-
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 ]=-
Today is not going to be one of those days.
Why? I was so busy over the weekend I didn't even get a chance to think about the blog, let alone write anything! Well, that - and the fact that my elbow hurts like heck!
As you may recall, I'm suffering from a very painful occurrence of tendonitis in my right elbow. So painful, in fact, that it hurts to type! As I mentioned last week I took it fairly easy for several days, and was feeling vast improvement until I did something so innocuous that I am startled at the outcome. It involved a Junkyard Dog.
No, not the kind you're thinking of - this kind of Junkyard Dog.
As it happens I live equidistant from the knife companies of Kershaw and Benchmade (and, by extension, the firms of Gerber, Leatherman, and Lone Wolf Knives. I guess you could call this "Edged Alley"!) Over the years I've bought many Benchmade knives, and generally avoided the Kershaw brand. Kershaw just didn't have the quality of blade that I desire in my knives, and despite having met Pete Kershaw himself I was never persuaded to carry one of his products.
When Kershaw moved a lot of their production from overseas to right here in my own stompin' grounds they got my interest, but not enough to make me want to put one of their products in my pocket every day. It was when I found that they were transitioning from the use of cheap 440A and 440C steels to Sandvik steels that I became truly interested.
(Bear with me - this does eventually get back to my tendonitis!)
I have quite a bit of experience with Sandvik blades, particularly with their 12C27 steel as used in the famous Swedish Mora knives. It is, in my estimation, one of the better 'all around' steels that one could use on a general purpose knife. It holds an edge well, is very resistant to breakage, and is easy to sharpen. The fact that there were almost no folders made out of that superb yet underrated steel annoyed me greatly, and I was left to console myself with my Moras.
It was when I found out that Kershaw had gone to Sandvik steel (13C26, a very close relative of 12C27) that I decided I had to have one. The Junkyard Dog II had gotten rave reviews over at Bladeforums, so I decided that I was to get one.
(Luckily my wife intervened, and got one for me as a gift, thus saving me from the guilt of buying it for myself!)
It arrived at the end of last week, and from the start I was smitten with it. Fit and finish is quite good, easily up to the Benchmades that I own, and at the price point it is astounding. I haven't gotten a chance to resharpen the edge and really test it yet (any factory edge is downright primitive compared to what a few minutes with a set of stones can achieve), but I expect great things.
The trouble is that the blade is really quite heavy, and flicking it open delivers a solid "whack" to one's muscles. I was absentmindedly doing that while watching television the other night: opening and closing it repeatedly, just because it's fun to do. After about a half-hour of such foolishness I found that my elbow was as sore as it ever was, and then some!
So now you have, as Paul Harvey would say, "the rest of the story."
-=[ Grant ]=-
I finally got tired of my haphazard brass organization and decided to do something about it. At Wal-Mart I bought some Sterilite 6-quart plastic containers, which just happened to fit neatly on the shelves in my reloading room. Into the containers went all of my brass, and wonder of wonders - I can see what's in the box! (I have, of course, labeled them as well.)
Big plus: I can see how much of each I have; no more digging through cardboard boxes! They've really made dealing with brass much more pleasant.
Here's an idea that someone gave me (though for the life of me I can't remember who it was.) At my local pet emporium I purchased this cat feeder, which has now been turned into a self-feeding bullet dispenser!
Much better than a tray/bin/overturned box for those long reloading sessions. Cost: $4.95. I'm looking for Dillon to have them made up in blue plastic, with a price tag of $19.95. (I'm kidding, I'm kidding! Sheesh, lighten up!)
Some months back I reported that I was experimenting with new bullets and powder. I'd been using the Rainier Ballistics plated bullets for some time, but could never get acceptable accuracy from them. (This is, as I was to learn, not an uncommon complaint with the product.) When my stock finally got low enough, I started looking around for a better but affordable "bulk" bullet for general use and gun testing.
I came across a polymer-coated lead bullet put out by Master Blasters, and gave them a try. I've gone through about 5,000 now, and am fairly happy with them. They are a definite step up accuracy-wise from the Rainier, though they're by no means a top-flight match slug. (For occasions when I need better accuracy, and can shoot lead, I continue to rely on the superb bullets put out by LaserCast - still the ones to beat, in my book.) They are, however, reasonably priced and the company is fairly quick to ship.
Along with the new bullets, I changed my "everyday" powder. I'd used Hodgdon Universal Clays for years in 9mm, .45 ACP, and .38 Special +P loads. It is a great powder for those uses - extremely clean (the cleanest I've used), and good accuracy. When I started loading standard pressure loads in .38 Special and .44 Special, however, a problem cropped up: Universal doesn't like light loads! Once the loading density falls to a certain point, unburned powder grains become a certainty. They really foul up a cylinder, and always find their way under the extractor!
I searched for a powder that would burn cleanly and completely, even with relatively mild loads. I ended up with Alliant Red Dot, and it has performed very well. It's a bit sootier than Universal, but burns completely in all loads - even very light .44 Specials. I've used Blue Dot for years in Magnum cartridges, and was impressed by it; the Red Dot is just as impressive. (I'm not a fan of Alliant Bullseye, which I've always found far too dirty, but the "Dot" line is really quite nice. The fact that you can readily identify it in the powder measure - they really do have red flakes and blue flakes mixed in - is a nice bonus!)
-=[ Grant ]=-
This last year I've been using a number of new reloading tools and components. I'm generally one to "stick with what works", but that doesn't stop me from looking for something better!
Late last year I bought a new Hornady Lock-n-Load progressive press (known as the "LnL AP".) This is a five-station auto-indexing press with a motorized casefeeder. I bought it after becoming disenchanted with my Dillon and Lee presses - though I can always find something to like about any press, I'd prefer to have all my favorite things in one press which means I can never stop looking!
(Just so you know where I'm coming from, I've often bemoaned the lack of a true high-grade reloading press. No, Dillon fans, "Big Blue" isn't it! If you've ever used a Star Universal, you'll understand. If you haven't, well, go back and read my recent article Do you need a trigger job, and substitute "press" for "trigger" - the rest of it is the same!
You may well ask why I don't use a Star if I'm so hot on them. Well, it's because they're out of business and there are precious few parts and accessories available on the secondary market.)
Back to the topic....the LnL AP uses the Hornady bayonet-mount die system, in which the dies are put into adaptor sleeves and adjusted, then simply popped in and out of the toolhead where and when needed. Frankly, when this came out I thought it was the biggest gimmick I'd yet seen. Using the press for a year has convinced me otherwise. It is incredibly handy!
For instance, I often have the press set up for loading .38/.357. It's not at all uncommon to need to prep a few pieces of brass to test actions or extractors or some such thing. I can just pop the needed die out of the toolhead, then pop it into the single stage press (which I've fitted with the Hornady adaptor and adjusted so that the presses have exactly the same die position.)
It also makes doing in-press changes easier on a progressive press. For instance, I can have a die adjusted for .38 Special, and a die adjusted for .357, and simply swap them in/out where needed. The same goes for the powder measure; I can decide to put it in a different place on the toolhead to accommodate production changes or simply to experiment. You can't believe how useful the system is until you've used it - and once you have, you don't want to ever give it up!
I've come to the conclusion that if one is a SERIOUS handloader - that is, reloading for numerous cartridges and constantly experimenting - the LnL AP is the most flexible and most efficient choice in a progressive press. As I said, I've owned Lee and Dillon presses too, and while they both have their strong and weak points the Hornady is just in a different class. Great piece of gear.
Over the years I've used a number of reloading dies, and no one set has had everything I wanted. I've gotten to the point that my die sets are now pieced together with the dies that I like best, not what a manufacturer has decided to give me.
In handgun sizing dies, I prefer (in order) RCBS, Lee, and Dillon. I love the Dillon's spring-loaded decapping pin, but hate their low profile, hex-shaped bodies. (Great when permanently mounted in a toolhead, rotten if you frequently remove/replace/adjust them.) The RCBS is much better in the handling department, worse for the decapping pin; the Lee's decapper likewise is awful, but at least their body is tall enough to get a grasp on - even if it is smooth and a bit prone to slippage in one's fingers.
(I should take this opportunity to say that Lee's lock rings suck. Then again, so do Dillon's, Lyman's, RCBS's, and Redding's, though admittedly not as much. All of my dies, regardless of make, have for years worn Hornady lock rings, and the first thing I do with any new die is to ditch its lock ring and give it Hornady ring.)
I've recently started using the Lyman "M" series expander die, as opposed to the expander plug in the powder station. It sizes most of the case to just a hair under bullet diameter, then has a slight "step" to bell the mouth so that the bullet isn't scraped when seating. This is said to promote straighter bullet seating, and in that regard I believe it does. For me, though, the great part is that the cases seem to "grab" onto the bullet when you insert it into the mouth. Unlike with a plain flare, the bullet won't tip as the case starts moving into the die. You can even put a pullet into the case mouth and advance between die stations with no tipping! This is another product that I thought might be "more show than go", but I've grown to just love the thing.
While we're talking about seating, I think the best seating die is Hornady's, and no one else is even close. Their sliding bullet collar is a great idea for helping to straighten bullets as the case goes into the die, and their seating adjustment is very precise. All of my seating dies - handgun and rifle - are now from Hornady.
I don't crimp in the seating die, preferring to do that as a separate step. I've used Lee's Factory Crimp dies in the past, no matter what other dies they were with or what press they were on. I've been very pleased with their smoothness and ready adjustability, but this year I started using the Redding Profile Crimp die for .38/.357. It puts a taper crimp on the case, then a roll crimp at the very end. It is of top quality, like all of Redding's products, and produces the most consistent, best-looking crimps of any die I've ever used. I'm hooked.
The major thing I dislike about the Hornady press (and Dillon's, for that matter) are the primer tubes. I much prefer the Lee tray loading primer feed, but of course I can't use that on the LnL AP! I've found a solution in the form of a neat little tool from Midway called the Vibra-Prime. It's a battery operated collator that fills the primer tubes for you! Now to be fair, Dillon has a bench-mounted device that does the same thing, taking about 2 minutes per tube and costing around $200. The Vibra-Prime was about $30, and does the job in roughly 20 seconds. Hmmm...no contest there!
Sadly, I'm told that Midway has discontinued the device because of "poor sales." If you're tired of loading primer tubes one-by-one, call Midway and tell them you'd like to see the Vibra-Prime reintroduced!
That's about it for the hardware side. I'll write soon about the software (bullets and powder) I've been using this year - I've made some changes there as well.
To be continued...
-=[ Grant ]=-
Before Honda, before Kawasaki, Yamaha or Suzuki, motorcycle racing was dominated by the great Italian marques. Legendary companies like Gilera, Moto Morini, and MV Augusta held consecutive world titles, some of which would stand for years. All of these makers had their adherents, but the undeniable "big boy" of Italian motorcycle racing was Moto Guzzi.
The company was formed when three friends - Carlo Guzzi, Girogio Parodi, and Giovanni Ravelli - were serving in the Italian Army during World War I. Part of a flying unit, they had complimentary skills: Guzzi was a talented, though as yet amateur, engineer; Ravelli was an up-and-coming name in racing before the war; and Parodi, like his successful father, had demonstrated business acumen. The three agreed to pool their talents and form a company to make motorcycles. Ravelli, sadly, was killed only days after the war was finished, but Guzzi and Parodi soldiered on to form the company they'd all dreamed about.
Guzzi designed the machines and Parodi (whose father financed the enterprise) handled the business aspects of the fledgling firm. They knew that the key to commercial success was a reputation in racing, and thanks to their combined skill they were almost immediately successful at both. Only four months after their first prototypes were completed, company rider Gino Finzi picked up first place at the prestigious Targa Florio - a win that surprised the industry.
The company rapidly expanded their pool of engineering talent, and they would flex their muscle by making amazing motorcycles: a magnesium-cased, supercharged 250cc; a 4-cylinder supercharged 500cc in 1930; and a 3-cylinder supercharged 500cc machine in 1940. Despite these advances, their racing reputation would be made with their more pedestrian - but wonderfully engineered - single cylinder twin-cam motorcycles.
Those bikes quickly came to dominate the 250cc and 500cc classes, racking up win after win. In 1934 they cemented their hold on the top 500cc class with their introduction of the two-cylinder 500cc bicilindrica, which allowed them a spectacular win in both the 250cc and 500cc classes at the Isle of Man TT race in 1935. in 1953 they entered the hotly contested 350cc class, again with a twin-cam single, and won every World Championship until 1957.
By the mid-50s, though, they were losing ground in the "top dog" 500cc class. The twin-cam singles were decidedly out of date, while the bicilindrica had been inexplicably killed off in 1951. Guzzi needed a new bike that could not just take on the increasingly successful Gilera and upstart MV Augusta designs, but would rule over them.
Chief designer Giulio Carcano put his considerable talent to work, and what emerged in 1955 stunned the world: a water cooled, 500cc V-8 motorcycle. With dual overhead cams and a separate carburetor for each cylinder, this audacious design pumped out a then-unheard-of 72hp at a scarcely believable 12,000 rpm. Guzzi was ready.
Sadly the tire, brake and suspension technology of the day weren't up to the demands of the magnificent engine, and the otto cylindri never achieved the success intended. Moto Guzzi retired from racing entirely at the end of the 1957 season, and the bike was shelved. This didn't stop it from leaving a stumbling block for its rivals, though - in its short 2-season career it set several lap speed records which would end up standing for more than two decades, a parting shot to those who would succeed them.
Today only two authentic examples remain, both in the possession of the Guzzi company in the picturesque Italian town of Mandello del Lario. They occasionally fire one up for a demonstration run on their test track behind the factory. The sound of the engine is unmistakable, and reminds us that there was a time when Italy did, in fact, rule the world - or at least a small part of it.
-=[ Grant ]=-
One of those lessons - and one of the most important - came in the form of an article written by Ben Helprin. I have a copy of this hanging above my workbench, where it serves to inspire me. I don't know that I'm yet at the "master" stage of revolversmithing, but I work every day to get a little closer to that ideal.
While obviously photography-centric, this is a profound article for which you will no doubt find applications in your own life. Enjoy!
-=[ Grant ]=-
Expert or Master - What's the Difference?
by Ben Helprin
At the top of every craft, there are masters and experts. The difference between the two was defined by Will Connall (master photographer, photography teacher, and former head of photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California) this way:
"Let me", he said, "use the exacting art of platemaking as an example." (Platemakers are the skilled craftsmen who produce printing plates for books and magazines.) "If you ask an expert how he produces the negative for a fine plate, he'll answer: "that's easy. First I choose the correct size glass plate for the negative I want. Then, I compute the surface area of the plate and, holding it absolutely level, I pour exactly one ounce of emulsion for every 40 square inches of surface precisely onto the center of the plate. Then I rock the glass side-to-side and front-to-back, exactly the same amount each way, to spread the emulsion evenly. When the plate is dry, I load it into the copy camera, adjust my lights so that the original art work is absolutely evenly illuminated and, with the level of illumination that I use, expose the plate for 20 seconds. I develop the plate for precisely five minutes, process it normally, the end up with a perfect negative for reproduction.
"Now," said Connall, "let's ask a master the same question. He'd reply: Oh, that's easy. First I choose the correct size glass for the negative. Then, I compute the surface area of the glass and, holding it exactly level, I pour one ounce of emulsion for every 40 square inches of surface exactly onto the center of the plate. Well, no, that's really not true. Sometimes I use more than an ounce of emulsion per square inch. Sometimes less. It depends on the original copy. And sometimes I don't pour the emulsion exactly on center. I'll swirl it across to get a different spread. That also depends on the copy. Anyway, after I pour the emulsion, I rock the plate side-to-side and front-to-back, exactly the same each way, to spread the emulsion evenly. But sometimes, of course, I don't want the emulsion spread evenly. Again, it depends on the copy. I might want to rock the plate more to one side to get the emulsion heavier there, or rock it more to the front...anyway, I rock it, dry it, load it in the camera, and light the copy exactly evenly - unless of course I want to slightly shade a corner to knock it down, or highlight a portion of the copy to lighten it up. I'm not sure exactly how I'll light it until I do it. But after it's lit, I give it a 20-second exposure. Well, not always 20 seconds...."
And so it goes. Each step of the master's procedure depends, not on a set series of exacting rules, but on the interrelationship of the medium, the copy, and the desired final product.
What does this have to do with photography? Well to begin with, it doesn't mean that you can forget technique or be sloppy in your execution of it. As Will Connall noted, every master had first to be an expert. Without that initial perfection of technique, they could never advance to the master's stage.
Will's apocryphal examples were, however, meant to point out that technique is by no means the be-all and end-all of photography. Technique is the base from which you build. But the product itself, the photograph, must go beyond set rules of technique or composition, or anything else that says "this, and only this, is the correct way of producing a photograph."
Look at the work of master photographer Ansel Adams and compare it to the thousands of technical experts who attempt to imitate him. The large majority of Adams' imitators do not understand expressive content, they understand only technique. The do not trust their inner feelings, the trust only a rigorous set of technical rules.
A creative photograph is a very unique personal statement, and the technical aspects of that statement must depend on what you, as an artist, want to say. Thus, the perfect exposure isn't always one the reproduces the tonalities of a scene in exactly the same manner they originally appeared, but one that reproduces them in exactly the manner you want them to appear. Nor is the perfect print the one that always exactly matches the contrast of the paper to the density range of the negative, but the one that exactly matches paper and film to the contrast as seen by your inner eye. As Paul Klee said, "the purpose of art is not to reflect the visible, but to make visible."
So, look at your recent photographs. Are they technically perfect? If not, you still have a lot of work to do to reach the "Expert" stage. On the other hand, if your work is technically perfect and perfectly boring, if it is indistinguishable from everyone else's technically perfect work, then you have a lot of even harder work to reach the Master's stage.
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 Amazon.com
A short biography of George Washington Sears
The Adirondack Letters online edition (free!)
Wikipedia entry on Nessmuk
-=[ Grant ]=-