June 2016 Archives

Rooftop Serenade
June 19, 2016 6:16 PM | Posted in:

Lately, this is what we've been hearing, coming down our chimney and serenading us, unbidden.



If you live anywhere in North America, you no doubt recognize the random stylings of Mimus polyglottos, otherwise known as the Northern Mockingbird (although the georeference seems superfluous since there's no Southern, Eastern, or Western Mockingbird). The mockingbird is the state bird of Texas (and also of plagiaristic, lesser states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee).

I'm not opposed to having a songbird share his musical gifts with us, but I became curious this afternoon as he competed with the soundtrack of the mindless movie we typical nap to on Sunday afternoons, and I wondered just what it was he found so attractive about our chimney. Was there a nest up there? Was he teaching his young offspring how to sing?

You should forgive my anthropomorphic tendencies on Father's Day, as I had just read an article in the Wall Street Journal in which the case was made for male birds being superior dads to their mammalian counterparts, at least those of non-human species. Among other things...
Male songbirds tutor their young on how to produce the distinctive songs of their species in a sophisticated process that may help to explain how other animals, including humans, learn complicated skills.

Darwin called birdsong "the nearest analogy to language." Indeed, song-learning in birds turns out to have striking similarities with how humans learn speech, from the process of listening, imitating and practicing all the way down to the brain structures and genes involved.
Armed with the knowledge of this theory (my usual substitute for any actual knowledge), I envisioned dad holding forth to a bevy of attentive younguns, eager to emulate his own emulations (they're not called "mockingbirds" for nothing). My curiosity aroused me from the comfort of my recliner, and I climbed onto the roof in search of the nest that I was sure kept that bird coming back to the same spot day after day.

Of course, there was nothing up there, other than the shade of the chimney vent, that apparently being a sufficient platform for his vocal gymnastics.

Mockingbird on our chimney

My disappointment at not being able to confirm the avian-dad-as-teacher theory was tempered by the good news that we won't have to endure an amplified group singalong by a whole bevy of birds. But here's one thing to keep in mind: if you want to keep a secret, don't share it in the general vicinity of a chimney, because it makes an awfully efficient microphone.

Captured by The Highwaymen
June 8, 2016 9:26 PM | Posted in:

As I drove home after work yesterday, Mojo Nixon was interviewing Mickey Raphael on Sirius XM's Outlaw Country channel. I'm not a big fan of Nixon's work, nor do I usually listen to anything but music in the car, but I was intrigued by the subject matter. It seems that a new boxed set of music and video from The Highwaymen was released in May, and Raphael - who you might recognize as Willie Nelson's harmonica player - was talking about his experiences playing with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and of course, the Red Headed Stranger. It was fascinating stuff from an insider's perspective. 

In the course of the conversation, Raphael mentioned that a documentary about The Highwaymen had recently aired on PBS and is available for streaming via its website, so later that night I began to watch it. I found the video, entitled The Highwaymen: Friends Till The End, under the American Masters category (or you can just click this link), and it will be available for streaming only until June 25, 2016. If you're a country music fan, or simply interested in American popular music history, this is a must-see documentary.

The Highwaymen are credited as country music's first "supergroup"* although Cash was probably the only member who landed firmly in the middle of the traditional country music genre. Regardless of where you slot them in terms of music, all four are legends whose influences are far-reaching, and the claim that the roots of the so-called Outlaw Country genre began with them is hard to dispute.

The documentary traces the evolution of the group from its inception (the four first united during one of Cash's Christmas specials for TV, filmed in Montreaux, Switzerland) until its disbanding a decade later, in 1995. Jennings died in 2002 and Cash a year later. Kristofferson and Nelson are still active, although the former--who will turn 80 this month--is battling memory loss even as he continues to write and record.

Along with concert footage and interviews with the principles, the documentary features a great cast of supporting characters including:

  • John Mellencamp (who competed with Prince and Sean Combs for the most stage names); Mellencamp has collaborated with Nelson to produce Farm Aid for 30 years

  • Marty Stuart (who competes with Mellencamp for the most awesome hairdo)

  • Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel frontman)

  • Toby Keith

  • Jessie Colter (Waylon's wife), Annie Nelson (Willie's fourth and current wife), and June Carter Cash (Johnny's wife)

  • and several of the other musicians who backed the group.
Gene Autry, one of Willie Nelson's heroes, also makes an appearance.

The documentary provides a brief biographical intro for each of the four, with some great archival footage and photos (witness the clean-cut, pre-outlaw images of Waylon and Willie below). It explores the special bond that the four formed over their shared music...and trials. They each took a shot at success in Nashville, and found it was, well, let's say it was not to their liking. They chafed at the country "establishment" that controlled the music business, so they either left and made their own way, or stayed and through sheer force of will (and talent) bent the system to their own visions.

Photo - Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in the early years
Waylon and Willie - The early years

The video doesn't shy away from the seamier sides of their lives, especially the struggles with substance abuse that Jennings and Cash fought (and eventually conquered). They also shared health problems; at one point, both of those men were hospitalized at the same time after heart bypass surgeries. We learn that Cash was in almost constant pain during his time with the group, thanks to a broken jaw suffered during botched dental implant surgery.

But they all had a spiritual side, and while the details aren't fleshed out in the documentary, you get the sense that they each had finally faced down personal demons, and their friendship and mutual support provided a calm and sense of peace that was perhaps missing for most of their lives. I had the distinct impression that had health not failed, they would still be happily making music together.

I've seen Willie Nelson in concert, but I never got to attend a show with the other men. Thankfully, through efforts like this documentary and the new recordings and videos, we won't miss out on some truly historic musical performances, and it's not likely a group with such charisma and talent will pass this way again.



*The term "supergroup" is used as a pretty wide net, encompassing musical acts as diverse as Cream, The Three Tenors, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It's a dubious appellation, and I apply a stricter definition than, say, Wikipedia. The Highwaymen definitely fit my definition (as do acts such as The Traveling Wilburys [George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne] and the Texas Tornados [Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers]), in which band members who each have a separate active and successful career come together for a limited time to tour and record, and then return to their primary careers.

Attraction Satisfaction
June 2, 2016 3:59 PM | Posted in: ,

Perceptive Gazette readers will recall our recent traumatic bicycle wheel failure, which necessitated the replacement of both wheels on our recumbent tandem (the rear wheel failed, but we also replaced the front one out of an abundance of caution as well as to make sure the two matched). I'm happy to report that after a delay of more than a month, we're back on the road sporting new wheels, spokes, freewheel hub,  and cassette, and everything looks mahvelous.

Bike computer magnet pickupHowever - and there's always a however, isn't there? - I overlooked the fact that the new wheels and spokes meant that I would also have to recalibrate our computers. We have a Planet Bike wireless computer on the front and a wired model on the back, and both rely on a small magnet (see photo at right) mounted on a spoke to generate a signal transmitted to the computer that allows it to measure distance and speed. Each revolution of the wheel moves the magnet past a pickup mounted on the fork, and when calibrated to the wheel's circumference, the time it takes for each revolution is the key component of the speed and distance algorithms. With me so far?

Obviously, when the bike mechanic replaced the spokes, he had to remount the magnet. But since he had only the wheels and not the whole bike, there was no way for him to know exactly where to place the magnet. So, when I returned home with the new wheels, I had to put the magnet back in the right place, so that the transmitting unit would generate a signal.

That was pretty easy for the back wheel, but I ran into a puzzling problem on the front. No matter how I placed the magnet on the wheel, I couldn't make the transmitter send a signal to the main unit. I even replaced the battery in the transmitter, to no avail. It was as if the magnet was no longer strong enough to generate the signal (and I say that as if I understand exactly how the thing works, which I don't).

I knew all along that I was stretching the limits of the wireless unit to their max; the computer was designed for a "regular" bicycle, not a long-wheelbase recumbent, and the distance from the main unit to the transmitter was now - for whatever reason - just a tad too far.

As a last resort, I contemplated just buying a wired computer, but then I wondered whether the magnet strength had any bearing on the strength of the transmission. Yes, that's right: we're gonna need a bigger...magnet. And I knew just where to find one.

I happened to have two magnets from an old hard drive laying around my workbench. [What? Doesn't everyone disassemble their old hard drives and harvest the magnets?] If you've ever toyed with one of those neodymium magnets you know that the size-to-strength ratio is incredible. If the bike computer transmitter simply needed a stronger magnet, the hard drive component would likely provide a transmission of length of, say, from here to the moon.

I tested my theory by removing the transmitter from the fork, and waving the hard drive magnet over it while standing a couple of feet from the main unit. Sure enough, the unit immediately displayed speed. All I had to do was figure out how to mount the magnet on the spokes, reattach the transmitter to the fork, and get the two aligned.

That actually proved to be a pretty simple task (and if you've followed my DIY projects, you know how truly amazing that statement is). The magnet's mounting holes were exactly in the right place to affix it to two spokes using thin zip ties. In addition, the strength of the magnet meant that the transmitter's alignment didn't have to be as precise as in the past, so that was easily accomplished. Here's what the final installation looks like (I've highlighted the magnet and transmitter in yellow to make them easier to discern).

Hard drive magnet mounted to front wheel of bicycle

Now, if this was a race bike, this would be a really stupid thing to do. The new magnet is quite heavy, and the last place you want to add weight on a bicycle is the wheel. But this wheel by itself already weighs almost as much as some entire bikes - only a slight exaggeration - so the additional rolling weight is just not an issue. The only thing I worry about now is whether we'll be picking up stray pieces of metal from the side of the road as we cycle along...you know, things like old car wheels, anvils, or lengths of discarded rebar.

The morals of this story are twofold. One, there's always a solution if you can get creative enough. And (b), always tear up your old hard drives and save the spare parts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I haven't actually tested this setup to see if the accuracy of the computer has been affected. After our next ride, I'll compare the distance reading to that of the rear computer (and probably also to my Map My Ride phone app) to see if this really was a workable solution.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from June 2016 listed from newest to oldest.

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