Give the Gift of Power (and Light)

Sure, you could buy friends and family member an Amazon gift card, or a pair of gloves, but it’s fun to think beyond the obvious. Here’s a fresh idea:

Get a Yeti

Sure, Yeti has done an amazing job with their line of pricy coolers that now seem to be available in a great many retail stores. They’re terrific for camping trips, tailgating, and long car trips. However, that’s not the Yeti I mean. I suppose it might be interesting to give someone an abominable snowman, which is the origin of the term Yeti. What I mean is the kind of Yeti that’s made by Goal Zero, a company that specializes in portable power.

The front panel looks a bit complicated, but that’s because the Yeti does a lot of different things. Basically, you’re looking at a big battery that can power all sorts of things. Model 1000, which costs about $1,300, is new for this season. You charge the battery by either plugging it into an AC outlet (18 hours for a full charge), or attaching a set of solar panels, also made by Goal Zero, available separately (in a variety of sizes and capacities). When you need the power, you discharge the battery in a number of different ways: you can recharge a laptop computer more than fifteen times, or a mid-sized LCD television about a dozen times, or your smart phone more than fifty times, or any combination. On this particular model, there are two AC outlets for output, five USB slots, and a 12-volt (car charger), and more. The Yeti 1000 weighs about 40 pounds.

You can spend less money for a lighter, simpler Yeti: the 12-pound Model 150 costs about $200, and you can use it charge a laptop once or twice, or a smart phone about ten times. There is one AC output and there are two USB outlets. There are seven different models; if you are considering a purchase, aim higher than your current needs.

Go Smaller

When I traveled this summer, I insisted upon reliable portable power for my flashlight, tablet and smart phone, but I wasn’t about to carry a Yeti. Fortunately, Goal Zero offers a nifty small battery and charger that makes an ideal gift. No AC power, but the USB system is very well designed. I especially like the Venture 70 Recharger because it will charge a tablet once or twice, or a phone a half dozen times. And, it comes with a built-in (very bright) flashlight. The USB cables frame the device and never get lost. You can charge the device via an AC/USB combination overnight. The Venture 70 costs $150, and you can add a Nomad 20 portable Solar Panel for another $200. The combination allows you to operate, and recharge, just about anywhere. A smaller version, the $99 Venture 30, can be purchased as part of a pre-packaged kit.

For the car

I’ve got my eyes on a combination flashlight, solar panel and floodlight called the Goal Zero Torch 250. I feel more secure because the light can be lit by hand crank, an increasingly popular option for flashlights used in vehicles (crank it for a minute and get two minutes of light). I like the built-in solar panel: it’s modest, and it requires 24 hours of sunlight to fully charge. This clever, well-built device is priced right at $80.

Get a Flashlight

If you haven’t shopped for a flashlight in a while, you may be surprised. I was. Today’s flashlights are high-tech, high power devices that cost $100 or more–and provide a remarkable amount of light. I’ve had good luck with LEDLenser, a German company now controlled by Oregon-based Leatherman, which makes pocket multi-tools. I especially like the model P7-2, which costs $70. It operates on three AAA batteries, and if you press the special button, it will provide 320 lumens–a great deal of light if you are, for example, walking a dog at night. It’s small enough to fit into your hand, or into a purse (or a man bag). I tried some of LEDLenser’s lesser lights because they’re smaller, lighter and less expensive, but I’ve come back around to the P7.2. There are options for flashlights that operate with button batteries, and also flashlights that can be recharged via USB. Lots of options here.

LEDLenser competes in a crowded field, but I like their products and I prefer shopping on their website. Nitecore and Fenix are among the quality competitors. And if you would like to do some serious research about innovative flashlights and features, here’s the place to go.

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Painting Outdoors

Technically, the correct term is “en plein air,” which means, more or less, “in the open air” when translated into English from the original French. For the experienced artist, plein air painting means spending the day outside, regardless of the weather, bugs, access to bathrooms, lugging heavy or messy gear, trying to concentrate while passers-by stop to tell you all about how their great niece used to be able to draw but met this guy and things didn’t work out but she’s still a really good artist even though she doesn’t draw as often as she used to and then wonders whether the girl drew, painted, or did something else entirely.

I love to paint outdoors. In fact, I strongly prefer painting outside to painting indoors, even though my easel and other gear is heavy (I paint with pastels, which weigh a lot when you carry too many of them, as I do), but I’ve never been quite sure whether I’m doing things properly. I don’t want to bother other artists who are, clearly, more experienced and more talented than I will ever be. So I muddle along.

Fortunately, the former editor of Plein Air magazine, who was, for many years, the editor of American Artist magazine, has written a very helpful (and inspirational) book entitled The Art of Plein Air Painting: An Essential Guide to the Materials, Concepts and Techniques for Painting Outdoors. His name is M. Stephen Doherty, and he is doing a wonderful job as the print version of a trusted teacher.

Willingness to paint outdoors requires more than straightforward skills. It requires a real desire to be part of the place that you’re painting. It’s a mindset, an attitude, a combination of willingness to be flexible and a desire to capture the light and sensibility that you cannot quite find by referring to a photograph. That’s why the book begins not with a discussion of portable easels (that comes later), but with an insightful illustrated essay posing as Chapter 1: “Why Paint Outdoors?” He focuses on the mental game and also shows himself in the game, on the street, easel set up just beside a construction site so he can get just the right view, messy paint-covered sweatshirt and slight scowl and all. He ponders how much of the work needs to be done outdoors–if you finish up indoors, which is often tempting if the weather or other conditions aren’t ideal–does a plein air painting retain its plein air status if it’s only 20 or 30 percent painted outdoors? How about 70 or 80 percent? No matter. If you do any of the work outdoors, Doherty says it counts.

The book’s emphasis is on oil painting–and that makes sense because most people who paint outside tend to work in oils. But he does take the time to address the needs of those who work in watercolor (which is difficult inside and even more difficult in the field), pastels, acrylics, and so on.

As with most books of this sort, there are profiles of artists that the author admires, and lessons to be learned from each of them. There are also good large photographs of many types of plein air paintings, useful both for inspiration and also for studying technique. I like to see a good history chapter, too, in part because it’s fun to consider myself part of a longer tradition that once included John Constable, and Jean-Baptiste Corot, and best of all, painters who were part of the majestic Hudson River School.

There are bits about drawing outdoors–I wish there was a lot more of that. There is plenty of good guidance about choosing locations, finding the best spot, knowing your physical limits, simplifying what you see so you don’t get lost in details. I wish there was more about patience–after a few hours of painting outdoors, the fatigue is always a factor, and I never know quite when to give it up for the day.

Most of all, though, there are pictures. Lots of pictures that were painted outside. Remember: Doherty was a long-time editor of one of the world’s finest magazines about art. He knows how to choose images, and that’s probably the book’s greatest strength. It is a joy to meander through the pages, browse, stop for deeper study, then move on to well-written commentary about most topics that plein air artists rarely see in book form.

Nice job!

Joseph McGurl is one of many superb artists included in The Art of Plein Air Painting. Click on the image to see more of McGurl’s work.

 

 

The Other Sam (The Record Man)

For many years, the very best place on planet earth to shop for LPs (or, if you prefer, records), was Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada. As it happens, Yonge (pronounced “Young”) is one of the world’s longest streets, but that’s not why I visited as often as possible. There were two very large record stores on Yonge Street around Gould and Dundas Streets — A&A Records, and my multi-floor, multi-building favorite, the flagship store for what became a 140-store chain, Sam the Record Man. The stores are long gone. And that’s why I was so surprised to see an advertisement on the mobile phone provided by my hotel in Hong Kong–an advertisement that encouraged me to visit–who else?–Sam the Record Man in Hong Kong. My curiosity got the better of me, so I devoted an afternoon abroad to unravel the mystery.

I found Sam’s place in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, a few blocks from the very large and modern Times Square mall (which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with NYC’s Times Square). But this version of Sam’s was not a giant record store at all. It wasn’t even a storefront. It was located on the fifth floor of a nondescript old office building, and Sam is not Sam at all. His name is James Tang. And he is a very smart guy who cares a lot about recorded music. That’s why he opened what may be the world’s first record museum.

And no, I didn’t understand what that means, either. Briefly, here’s the theory. Just as the original version of, say, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are available for public inspection at museums, so too should be the original versions of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic (which many critics include on their top ten list of all time best). But these master tapes are not available to the general public–decades after they were created, they are locked away in the vaults of large corporations. Sam/James believes that’s the wrong thing to do. But that’s the just the beginning.

After some tea and conversation, he asked me if I’d like to listen to some music. I never say no to that type of offer. So we begin to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it sounds just wonderful. Better than any recording of the song I have ever heard, and not by a small margin. He explains that I am listening to a studio master tape. Voices are alive, instruments sound instinctively right, the mix holds each sound in its own distinctive space. In short, I feel as though I am in the studio with The Beatles.

He then asks me to listen to another rendition of the same recording. This time, I’m listening to a very clean vinyl copy, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the first recording. We go through various renditions, one on reel-to-reel tape, another on cassette tape, and more. We keep returning to the master tape, and there is no question that these renditions sound very different from one another. Then, we try some classical music, some jazz, and other pieces. The effect is more and less pronounced, but the pattern is clear, and I am absolutely certain that the differences are profound. But why?

He offers what I believe to be a very good explanation. First, he explains why the tape recordings sound better than the records or CDs. James shows me the first of several charts.

From the start, James explains that the ratings are completely subjective, but the more I listen, the more I respect both his ability to appreciate sound quality and his ability to place a reasonable numerical rating to describe the experience. Pegging the master at 100 percent, the reel-to-reel version sounded excellent, but the master sounded better. I experienced something similar when listening to the ultra-high-end systems, powered by the best professional reel-to-reel recorders with second generation master tapes (the original are in a private vault) at VPI, maker of superior turntables. And, despite my misgivings, I had to agree that cassette tapes really did sound a lot better than the CDs (he rates them at 50-55% vs. 30%; I cannot rate my experiences with this level of precision, but the difference was profound).

Where does vinyl fit into the matrix? Yeah, there’s a problem with vinyl. You see, vinyl is not struck from a master tape. Instead, the master tape goes through several steps before a consumer LP becomes available.

The process begins with the master tape, but the metal stamper used to make the vinyl record is already second generation (“grandson” to the master tape), and the first pressing of the consumer record is the third generation, or great grandson. To James’s ears, you’re hearing less than half of the sound, and sound quality, that you would hear on the master tape. And that’s with a first pressing, under ideal conditions, listening to product from a record label that took the time and spent the money to get things right. Of course, most record companies don’t, or did not, lavish so much attention, which is why even the best used vinyl recordings from the golden age (say, 1960s and early 1970s before the oil crisis) don’t score much more than a 40 percent.

How about newer vinyl? You know, 180 gram special pressings worth $30 or $40 or more? To James’s thinking–and I keep hearing this from others I respect–you are better off buying a used version of the original record. Or, much better, tracking down a collectible first pressing from one of the labels that did lavish the necessary attention (say, Japan Toshiba’s Red Vinyl line from 1958-1974), and you may be very pleased with what you hear (on a very good two-channel stereo system).

James does sell the very highest quality collectibles in his shop, and for some people, that’s just plain heaven. For the rest of us, James initially sounds like he has taken an interesting theory a bit too far, but then, you listen. First you listen to the music, then you listen to James, then you listen to the music again and begin to realize that what he says makes a whole lot of sense. And then you realize that two or three hours of your time in Hong Kong isn’t nearly enough because he is so hospitable, so passionate, and so much the believer that you become one, too.

I have not stopped wondering whether, somehow, it would be possible to listen to the master tapes of the recordings I love. Sure, I’m happy with my growing collection of vinyl (typically used, typically in very good shape, typically $4 or so per disc, typically pressed in the UK or Germany under the good to very conditions), but James insists that there is more enjoyment on those master tapes, and I am fairly certain that he’s right.

The question, which is, for him, a quest, is how to gain the opportunity to listen to those master tapes. He is one man fighting the good fight, but he’s not doing to do it alone.

If you visit Hong Kong, do contact James Tang and ask for a tour of his museum and a demonstration of what I heard. I believe you, too, will become a believer.

There is lots and lots and lots more on his website.

 

Experimenting with a New Medium

We all find our comfort zones, but every once in a while, it’s fun to try something new. For me, something new is, in fact, something quite old: a formulation of colored pastels that includes oil. Remember “Cray-Pas” from elementary school art class? I’m playing with the grown-up version, originally designed by Henri Sennelier, in Paris, in response to his friend Pablo Picasso’s request for oil paint that could be applied in stick form.  Nearly seventy years later, Pastels à L’Huile, or Oil Pastels, continue to be a part of art supplier Sennelier’s product line. Since I enjoy working with pastels, I thought I’d try a boxed assortment of 24 oil pastels and consider the possibilities.

Unlike most media, oil pastels can be used to draw, paint or otherwise color on a remarkable range of surfaces including (but not limited to) paper, canvas, cardboard, wood, metal, plastic, or glass. And like watercolor pencils and watercolor sticks, oil pastels can provide the color in a mix with a solvent–essentially providing a very portable set of oil paints with minimalistic clean-up. They look, feel, and behave a bit like lipstick. Have a look at the video and you’ll see the possibilities.

The best way to get a sense of oil pastels is to buy a few a handful (visit Rochester Art Supply, or Dakota Pastels). For a basic introduction to the art and craft, I picked up a used copy of Oil Pastel for the Serious Beginner by John Elliot (I like other titles in this series, especially the ones about watercolor and pastels). You might also visit a few sites, like Eric Green’s Beginner’s Guide to Oil Pastels, or, even better, Explore Oil Pastels with Robert Sloan which is, easily, the best website about oil pastels in the world.

Sloan’s work with oil pastels is excellent. Below, two images from his website gallery, both already sold, but several equally handsome pieces are available.

Of course, there is nothing like getting your hands dirty. Sennelier’s set of 24 assorted oil pastels is just about right for the start–a spectrum mostly comprised of mid-tones, a bit lacking in lights and darks.

At the most basic level, you can use Sennelier oil pastels as you would crayons–an adult version of crayons, carefully isolating each stroke in the same way that some children keep their peas far away from anything else on the dinner plate. For graphic work, that’s a reasonable approach, but you lose out on some of the magical quality of oil pastels. These little guys (they really are fairly little) blend colors just beautifully–but you must use a very light touch to get the best possible effect. Once you start filling the surface’s texture with the pasty output, mixing and refinement becomes challenging.

I found a helpful way to practice, and refine my technique: I use “the wire side” (highly textured) of Canson’s reasonably inexpensive Mi-Teintes paper, and when I start filling  the small pores in the paper with pigment, I have pressed too hard.

Another helpful note: the stickiness requires a special kind of attention. When blending, the stick picks up the blending color, so it’s not unusual to see a yellow oil stick with a film of, say, bright red or green. With dry pastels, you can usually wipe this off easily. With oil pastels, you must be vigilant, always keeping a lint-free bit of cloth nearby so you can wipe stray colors off the sticks. At first, this is annoying, but I got used to it.

Each stick is supplied in a paper wrapper–very useful to keep your hands clean, because the sticks become sticky and softish. But they do break inside the wrappers, and there’s not much you can do about that (then again, you can buy a larger, thicker version of Sennelier Oil Pastels, which may be preferable for some artists).

On and off for a year, I’ve been playing with these oil pastels. At first, I found them to be exceedingly difficult to control, an emotional return to my childhood frustration with Cray-Pas–just too thick, too rich, too everything for my comfort zone. In time, I came to understand the value of a lighter touch. Now, I find myself happy and content, mostly sketching and blending colors, every-so-softly, finding that I can experiment with color mixes with an immediacy and vivacity that’s not readily available in other media. It’s just plain fun to sketch with oil pastels, and if drift into nonrepresentational mode, so much the better. It’s tough for me to get a clear representation of a real life object with these sticks, but that’s why I use other media. It’s tough for me to enjoy the gentle abstraction that I find easy with oil pastels when I try to do the same with other media.

I tried a blending stick–Sennelier Oil Pastel # 221–and at first, I disliked rubbing what seemed like a white wax candle on my work. Then, I tried again, several more times, and I began to appreciate the way the blending stick pushes the vivid colors together. I can do the same with my finger with dry pastels, but the effect is different here (and, besides, finger blending with oil pastels, at least with my fingers, makes an awful mess).

All of which makes me admire the sample work from Robert Sloan even more. I am not yet at a point where I can exert real control over the strokes–and when I see the precision that he achieved on his big cat drawing, I feel good because I know that it is possible for a human being to exert that kind of control on what are, so far, tools that I have not yet mastered.

That’s the fun, of course. If you already know how to do something, maybe there’s not much opportunity to learn. Right now, I am just a beginner, and I celebrate the frustration, the sheer joy in knowing that I can and will learn, and develop at least a modest form of mastery over what amounts to a sophisticated version of crayons (in the best professional sense of the term).

Samples of my work? Perhaps in a few years. For now, I’m happy as a beginning student in a new medium. No need to embarrass myself. I’m learning a lot, and I’m reporting my progress. And doing my best to spread the knowledge I’m gaining along the way.

Another thing I’ve learned about myself (though I suppose this is common to others, too): I am always drawn to collections of bright colors across the spectrum, but these sets are not always the best choice for learning about a new medium. Lights and darks make all the difference, so I will soon be enhancing my basic spectrum set. For those with a bit of money and a sense of adventure, two other sets are probably a better place to begin than the 24 Assorted selection–the wood box set of 50 “Original Picasso Colors” (on sale at Fine Art Store for $117), or, for $50-60 more, the set of 72 colors in a nice cardboard box (Fine Art Store: $173). Both include a useful mix of light, mid and dark tones–of course, the 72 set is preferable. Or, you can just buy a handful of whatever oil pastels you’d like–Sennelier products are widely distributed throughout the world. Just visit a good art supply store.

Sennelier is not the only company offering portable oil sticks–Holbein sells a very wide range of colors (224 to Sennelier’s 120), and Cretacolor sells a similar product under the name AquaStics, which are water soluble. Winsor & Newton sells much larger and thicker Oil Bars–with a different formulation that categorizes their product as more closely related to oil paints in solid form, less aligned with oil pastels (“Don’t mistake them for oil pastels, though – Oilbars are made to a special formulation of linseed or safflower oil and wax.”–from the company’s website). Sennelier also makes and sells oil sticks.

Reform School

The memory is hazy, but the term is familiar from childhood. Kids who behaved badly were threatened with reform school. I just read up on the term. Sure enough, it was a teacher’s idle threat—reform schools were popular beginning just before the Civil War, and mostly fell apart nearly a hundred years ago. Reform school was a place to send incorrigible boys while keeping them out a adult prisons, where they were abused, transformed into criminals, and often, both.

“Reform school” is one of the few English phrases that might be a tesseract—a multidimensional geometric shape (square is to cube as cube is to tesseract). When the word “reform” is used as a verb, not an adjective, it leads the way to the school reform.

We can flip that term on its head, too. Like reform school, public schooling is an ingenious idea born of a far away period when families were in need of literacy, and citified behavior. Learn to read, write, speak and behave properly, and, odds were, you would find worthwhile, long term employment and economic success.

Looking at the term today, school reform feels anachronistic. Henry Ford’s comment about faster horses comes to mind (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”), even though he never said or wrote those words. We accept school as a permanent institution because we cannot imagine a better modern solution. What else would we do with 50-55 million kids every day? Our economic system is now based upon parents who, by and large, work every day to support increasingly expensive lives. So we think in terms of constantly improving, perhaps even reforming (that is, re-forming, or forming in a new way) our schools.

Perhaps the phrase, and the concept, or reformed schools are too limiting. Perhaps the generation of children and teenagers are as diverse in their interests as they are in their heritage. Perhaps their insistence upon trusting the video and social media on their cell phones is, in fact, a very powerful tool for customized learning.

Perhaps children and teenagers have already bypassed their concerned parents’ desire or need to reform school. Instead, many are already pursuing the divergent, often disruptive, path to learning on their own. Or, perhaps, reformation into classrooms with rows of permanent desks, all eyes on the teacher in the front of the room, really is the best way to train young minds.

Or should we be concerned, instead, with learning reform, or, more clearly, learning reorganized, recontextualized, re-formed, or just plain reformed? How might that look? Would we move from the well-intentioned IEP to a celebration of well-organized self-directed learning?

How does any of that marry the once all powerful needs of industry? Or is everything just moving too darned fast for those needs to matter in a world where digital changes everything much faster than contemporary educators can teach? Are students reforming the beliefs, knowledge and understanding in their minds with a reformulated version of a teacher? Perhaps the key is teacher reform?

Finally, there are the strange bedfellows, curiosity and education. The former is associated independent thinking—parents encourage children to “think for yourself.” The latter is concerned with consistent results for the good of society—teachers encourage children to “learn the curriculum” which allows limited opportunity and encouragement for individual thinking, self-expression, divergent paths, and imagination. We certainly need to regenerate the curiosity and creative thinking that becomes lost in so many students, so many children, as the education system helps them to mature. In short, we ought to re-form or reconstitute curiosity in every grade and in every way. So we might be attempting to reform curiosity, and maybe that’s wise because reforming education sounds like something that might be impossible to do because school boards, principals, teachers and other educators are not trained to think or behave as reformers in any sense of the term.

Reform school? Sure, but let’s not spend all of our intellectual capital on a movement that digital transformation will eradicate with or without our help. Reform learning? Sure, and if we don’t get to it soon, Google will take care of the problem for us, or a Facebook might. And, in any case, kids are already reforming learning, on a massive scale, without adult supervision. Reform the teachers? Their own political solidity may assure the demise of a once noble profession. Reform education? Read your Clayton Christensen—this is an industry ripe for a massive disruption because the incremental variety almost always leads to a forgotten enterprise. Re-form curiosity? You bet! Encourage students to pursue their own paths, albeit in an organized way! Sounds good. Also sounds like, well, like college on a very good day.

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Above, John Dewey, who was doing a lot of writing and thinking about these ideas long before I was born. He wasn’t the only one, of course, and there have been many since, but some of Dewey’s ideas continue to resonate. From PBS: “To Dewey, the central ethical imperative in education was democracy. Every school, as he wrote in The School and Society, must become “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.”

The Sage and Family Man

The place was a mess. It had “fallen into ruin: windows were broken, the roof leaked, the terraces had rotted through, graffiti defaced the front of the house, souvenir hunters had chipped away at [the] burial shaft…bats and rats gamboled and searched for food in the empty dwelling.”

Good thing the owner already did. Seeing his house this way would have broken his heart.

After he finished with the Presidency, and politics, Thomas Jefferson finally completed Monticello, and did precisely what he had hoped to do before he got talked into running for president in the first place–he gave himself time to think, roam and inspect his farms, read the classics, write to friends, and, as a “hobby,” built what became the University of Virginia not far from Monticello. Like George Washington, Jefferson was constantly short on funds, the result of a slave-based farming economy that required far more personal attention than a public figure could provide, and some lousy luck.

From the University of Virginia collection

I just finished reading about 500 pages about the life of Thomas Jefferson, my third presidential biography (I hope to read at least one book about every president, which may not be so easy to do because there are gaps in the literature and gaps in my patience for some of the people who served in the office). I began with Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (Chernow wrote the Hamilton biography that inspired the musical), and continued with David McCullough’s magnificent John Adams (the basis for the HBO series starring Paul Giamatti). There are lots of Jefferson biographies, including the classic six-book series, Jefferson in His Time by Dumas Malone, and Jon Meacham’s more recent The Art of Power. I chose the new Jefferson book by Rice University Professor John B. Boles because it seemed to be fair-handed, and because it seemed to balance personal and professional life without overdoing it on the brilliance of Jefferson’s accomplishments and authorship. I am not a presidential scholar, so it’s difficult for me to evaluate the quality of the work, or to compare it with other lifetime biographies, but Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty seemed to fit the bill.

Begin at the beginning. Based upon available accounts (Boles consistently prefers available accounts to his own intuition), Thomas’s father Peter was an intelligent, well-read, ambitious man who married well, bringing the Randolph family and the Jefferson clan together in one of Virginia’s great extended families. Peter died young, and left a considerable amount of prime Albemarle County land to the family. So begins the saga of Monticello.

When he was 26, Thomas became a college student, attending William and Mary College in Williamsburg and greatly benefiting from one particular professor, Dr. William Small, a Scotsman, who focused Jefferson’s keen intellect on rational thought. Jefferson wrote that Small had been “to me as a father,” and “to his enlightened & affectionate guidance of my studies…I am endebted for every thing.” Small introduced Jefferson to two friends: a law professor named George Wythe, and the royal governor Frances Fauquier. So began Jefferson’s introduction to public life and politics–in the very small capital city of the colony of Virginia, early in the 1760s.

Through a growing circle of political connections, Jefferson made his way through the courts and eventually into the legislature. Boles presents Jefferson’s professional and personal growth by presenting the young legislator’s growth in good alignment with the colonial struggles against an increasingly aggressive England. Even in his earliest work as an attorney, Jefferson’s principles were explicit: “Under the law of nature…all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to be his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it as his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of his nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.” This was written in connection with an April 1770 case involving a complicated multi-generational question about miscegenation and slavery.

Like George Washington and other wealthy Virginians, Thomas Jefferson relied upon slaves to operate his plantations, operate small businesses, and maintain some degree of economic stability (not his strongest suit). Wisely, Boles does not allow the chronological storytelling to become bogged down in lengthy inquiries into Jefferson’s philosophies about slavery in general or his own slaves in particular. It’s well known that Jefferson has more than a personal stake: his decades-long relationship with Sally Hemmings–and the majority of slaves under Jefferson’s control were members of the large Hemmings family. That discussion is reserved for chapter 29, after Jefferson has reconciled differences and renewed friendship with John Adams, after Jefferson’s 90-plus year old body finally gave out. Boles allows Jefferson a fair amount of latitude here. Basically, the author presents Jefferson as man of his time, and at the time, his behavior was considered perfectly reasonable–despite the fact that Jefferson’s outlook on slavery in general was restrictive. In essence, Jefferson hoped that his decisions and his writings would begin a long movement in which slavery would be eliminated in due course, not as the result of any single action.

There is a great deal of story in these 500+ pages–life in Paris (which he adored), returning to the U.S. and reluctantly becoming the nation’s first Secretary of State, his complete and all-encompassing love for his daughter and so many family members (most of all, Jefferson was a family man), his philosophical differences and battles with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, his love for and extreme distaste for politics, his raw ambition and relentless curiosity, his utter disappointment with Merriwether Lewis who utterly failed to document the science and much of the detail in his documentation of the famous expedition with William Clark, and his ability to manage an astonishing range of interests and activities that can be experienced, at least in a cursory way, by a largely rebuilt Monticello estate.

So it’s off to James Madison for me. I need to decide whether to pick things up with the Lynne Cheney biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, or the Kevin R. C. Gutman biography, James Madison and the Making of America (which seems to be very focused on the U.S. Constitution, and less on the man’s whole life)This decision is made more complicated because of a weak link in the chain: of the two James Monroe biographies that might follow, neither is likely to suit my purpose. Suggestions are welcome.

 

The Future of Television (in Black & White)

9-14-17 NYer

As reported in a magazine that will soon celebrate its 100th birthday.

The Respect She Deserves

Perhaps it was just a whimsical idea that takes shape on vacation, when the mind is free, the ocean breeze is blowing, and a violin shop appears out of nowhere. Or maybe I really will learn to play the violin. Without any musical experience or proper knowledge, I wandered into the shop and asked a few silly questions about buying a proper violin and learning to play. The shopkeeper, who also fixes violins and other stringed instruments in a workshop above the store, was patient with me, and suggested that I read a book to learn more. He recommended a book. I bought it, read it, and found myself not much smarter than before. I put the thought of a violin aside, then focused on where we might eat dinner that night.

Exhausted from far too much driving, we completed the next day’s drive with a visit to a favorite bookstore. And there, nearly forgotten on a bottom shelf, was hardcover book with an illustration of a violin on the cover. It was not a how-to-play or how-to-buy book, but some sort of story that combined music, science, and biography. It was late, I was toting a basketful of books, and tossed American Luthier onto the pile. (And recalled that a luthier made guitars, but I was not so sure they also made violins. They do.) The subtitle was appealing: “The Art & Science of the Violin”–this was more the book I had in mind. The author is Quincy Whitney, formerly of the Boston Globe. The subject of the book: the extraordinary work of Carleen Hutchins, an extraordinary scientist and craftsperson who did nothing less than reinvent the violin (and, along the way, a family of eight violin-like instruments, including one of the coolest upright string basses the world has ever known).

From the start, it’s clear that Ms. Hutchins is an extraordinary human being. She begins as a most curious child, then a teen who can build all sorts of things, then finds her way first into science as the kind of teacher who keeps a menagerie and a small farm in her classroom, then meets the right person at the right time and begins to play the viola, then decides she’ll build one. (Her whole life is like that.)

Well, the violins we know, the ones that are played by nearly all classical violinists and nearly all contemporary fiddlers, are all based upon designs developed in the 1550s by Andrea Amati. Two generations later, grandson Niccolo Amati continued the family tradition, but lost his kin in the plague. He taught two apprentices whose work continues to define the contemporary design of violins. Both are revered: Guarneri and, of course, Stradivari. When the latter died in 1727, the art, science and craftsmanship associated with Cremona violin-making was nearly lost, but two hundred years later, a new violin-making school was begun, apparently initiated in a fit of nationalism by Benito Mussolini in 1937. Stradivari made over a thousand violins, and half of them survive.

For hundreds of years, the violin has been a standard instrument for classical musicians, and, of course, for chamber groups, chamber orchestras and symphony orchestras. The past is revered, the classic instruments are revered, and the tradition is revered. But Carleen Hutchins asked the obvious question: was it possible to improve upon a design that was five hundred years old? Working initially as a craftsperson–always in her kitchen (her home in Montclair, NJ was always her workshop)–she developed a deep understanding of the science of acoustics and surrounded herself with friends who played in chamber groups. She learned to solve problems by testing (her basement was elaborately soundproofed to allow for extremely careful measurement in the wee hours when traffic and other sounds in her suburban neighborhood were least obtrusive), then by tinkering, making the tiniest adjustments by reshaping the fine contours of the plates, sound post, and other component parts. What began with an improved viola became a family of eight violins, each one sensibly placed within a range that would be familiar as soprano, alto, tenor, contrabass, etc. What began as a personal curiosity found itself on the cover of Scientific American magazine (1962, 1981), and also, the cover of the New Yorker (1989).

A violin is not invented or perfected in a moment. It must be played, enjoyed, improved, adjusted, and sometimes, rebuilt, often over years, decades or centuries. In fact, many high quality violins are antiques that been rebuilt and rebuilt so often that little of their original material remains. Still, this is the way the culture has evolved. And that culture is not especially welcoming to an inventor with a better mousetrap. That’s why so many of Hutchins’ instruments ended up in musical instrument museums, and so few have been heard on stage in performance. Happily, there is the Hutchins Consort, and they perform on Dr. Hutchins’ instruments. You can also watch some video, however limited, including part of a documentary in progress called Second Fiddle.

For the moment, my interest in the art and science of violin is sated. Author Quincy Whitney did a terrific job in telling a complicated story about art, science, music, social trends–I devoured the book in less than 36 hours. Will my path lead to learning the violin? For the moment, I’m curious but undecided, but much smarter than I was on Saturday afternoon before the book found me.

 

A Bedroom Becomes a Small Art Studio

When we first bought the house, I claimed one of the bedrooms as my home office. Decades of working at home, writing books, listening to music, messing around with making art, organizing my thoughts, creating pencil roadmaps for my company, and much more. Recently, another bedroom became free and I decided to build myself a modest art studio. Admittedly, the idea is pretentious and perhaps unnecessary–at best, I am a weekend artist–but I absolutely love the separation of art from my other business. And I am spending more and more time in this luxurious 10 foot by 12 foot getaway.

The room was a boys’ bedroom, and I just finished the job by removing the curtains with the baseball team logos. I’m still scraping the Mystery Science Theater logos off the window. But otherwise, the place is mine. Perhaps my process will be useful to others.

I started by creating as much open desk space as possible. IKEA to the rescue: a pair of white Limmnon 79-inch long, 23 inch deep desktops, each costing $45. One for each long wall, plus an ALEX 9-drawer white cabinet for storage, and a variety of old storage cubes recaptured from the basement and from other rooms. So far, I have not found the perfect roll-around task chair–a future project. The bookcases remained in place–the white Billy shelf units that are both inexpensive and look great.

Most larger art supply stores and websites carry BEST easels. I found mine at Rochester Art Supply, which does business online at http://www.fineartstore.com

So far, I’ve managed to spend time and money on pastel painting, drawing, and watercolor painting. Pastels are best done on a substantial easel, and that became the room’s centerpiece. I wanted something sturdy that would, hopefully, last for years. I always needed a special sort of easel that would allow me to lean the artwork forward so the dust would fall from the pastel painting. Options were limited, and ultimately the decision came down to two easels, both made in the U.S.A. by BEST and distributed by Jack Richeson (of Wisconsin). I like the simplicity and lightweight design, and the price, of the Deluxe Lobo (over $200), but I wanted something more substantial, perhaps with some additional control. The answer: the Halley Easel (over $450), far sturdier and more versatile, too. If I intended to stow the easel between sessions, the Lobo would have been just fine, but the Halley seems to raise my own expectations for myself, as high-quality tools often do.

Next issue: lighting. There were two bedroom windows, north-facing, but they didn’t provide much light for work during the day (and, of course, they were useless at night). For a larger pastel work, I needed substantial illumination from above and behind me. It was worth thinking this through. I started by clamping old inexpensive photography lights–the kind used by every student because they’re inexpensive, onto the top shelf of the bookcase. I replaced them with smaller versions of the same thing, and spent about $40, including daylight bulbs (once quite hard to find and expensive, they’re now common and cheap).

The flood lights were wonderful for work at the easel, but far too bright for every day room lighting, and totally useless for watercolor and drawing at the desk, I researched task lights–somewhat unfamiliar to me–and found a very cool company called Daylight. They make lights for all sorts of very specific tasks–that is, lights that can focus illumination on close-up jobs like sewing and applying make-up–jobs that require odd angles, or a lot of light in a very small space.For watercolor and drawing, I want a concentrated pool of light in the work area, but I don’t want to light up the whole room (which can be distracting).

The new Luminos ($350) updates the old architect’s fluorescent tube lamp with daylight bulbs, three levels of illumination (including a high-output setting that’s too bright for normal use but a wonder for very close work), and a strong but flexible arm with a long reach (long enough for me to swing it from the desk to the easel). The demo video is instructive. Daylight also makes a nice assortment of desk and floor lamps, and I decided to try the Slimline table lamp ($150) for the second desk–the throw is smaller, and perfect for the smaller work I tend to do at the second desk. Admittedly, these lamps cost more than the typical desk lamp, but they are extremely well-built, durable, and most important, they provide the kind of high-quality illumination that’s necessary to do your best work. I learned a lot about lighting through experimentation with these instruments–initially, I admit to being skeptical of the need for sophisticated task lighting, but I am now thoroughly converted and would prefer not to work any other way.

Next up: keeping the place clean. Watercolors are easy–I make a mess on the surface of the IKEA desktops, and I just wipe up with a paper towel. Pastels are a constant challenge–the dust circulates throughout the room and ends up everywhere. Since the room is carpeted (probably foolish, but I couldn’t justify the expense of new flooring). I bought a desk chair pad–a big piece of plastic–from IKEA and placed it under the easel. I also attached some double-sided tape just beneath the pastel painting area, and that picks up the dust. I bought two inexpensive mini-screens so I could prop open the two windows, at least during the warmer seasons. But there was still dust, participles that are not especially healthy if they are in abundance. I considered wearing some sort of mask, but that’s not the best way to encourage leisure-time painting. Then, I started to learn about air purifiers. Good solution!

Learning about these devices is not something you can do quickly. Typically, an air filtration system draws the unwanted particles into a filter, which must be replaced from time to time. U.S. Government Department of Energy standards require a HEPA filter to 99.97% of all 0.3 micron particles from the air that passes through the filter. (From Rabbit Air: “Although companies do not claim anything beyond 0.3 microns due to the difficulty of measuring/testing for particles under that size, it is generally assumed that any HEPA filter is more efficient at trapping smaller or larger particulates than 0.3 microns due to filtration research.”You must also be concerned about how quietly the filtering system does its work–some can be quite noisy. And you must consider the size of the space to be filtered. All of this is explained in various articles, worth reading.

Initially, I thought I wanted the a filtering system in the Artist Series (from $520) from Rabbit Air. They’re well-built and they look great. A closer look at my specific needs told me that I’d found the right company, but the BioGS (from $370) was a better fit. Here’s a look at both of them (click on the picture for a link to each web page.)

There is a lot of useful information on the Rabbit Air pages–it’s worth an hour to understand everything.

What else? Plenty of time to organize too many art supplies. The need for pleasant music (mission accomplished thanks to some forgotten stereo equipment in the basement). And–big discovery, however obvious it may seem–once a painting is complete, it needs to live somewhere. When I kept all of the finished work in a box flat box, this was not a problem. Now, I felt the need to display recent work, if for no reason except my own assessments. Once again, IKEA provided a solution: 45-inch long Mosslandia “picture ledges” (just reduced: now just $9.99– and I hope they’re not being discontinued).

The conversion from boy’s bedroom to small art studio took about a year. Why so long? I’ve never done this before, so I allowed plenty of time for experimentation, bad ideas and failed attempts. Seems to me, this is sort of thing you’ve got to grow into–find what’s comfortable for you and the way you prefer to work. Keep the expenses as low as possible for most everything–but allow time and money to investigate and invest in proper lighting, proper work surfaces (the easel was a terrific decision), and expect the unexpected (I never would have considered an air purifier, but it’s a wise addition). Of course, it’s easy to become obsessed with the space and never actually get any work done (I’ll confess to some of that), but once the space is complete, what a pleasure to have someplace to go do what I enjoy. A place for grow. A child’s room. For an adult.

Two-Channel Stereo (Part 11: Turntables)

For more than twenty years, I listened to LPs on what turns out to be a reasonably well-respected turntable. It’s a Rotel RP900, and in 1993, it sold for $500 (about $850 in today’s dollars). Apparently, some or all of the turntable was made by the British company Rega, now among the best-known turntable makers. Through the years, I used several phono cartridges, most recently the Shure V15Vx, a discontinued item I found on Audio Shark for over $500 in today’s dllars. So, for working purposes, I’ll assume my “analog front end” cost about $1,500—including a $200 phono pre-amp.

As I’ve been listening to more and more vinyl, I wondered whether a greater investment would significantly improve the experience of listening to records. As I wondered, I found myself spending $20-30 in record shops specializing in vinyl—not buying the new pristine artisan pressings that seem to cost $25-40, but used copies that cost a tenth as much (so $30 bucks buys 8-10 LPs in surprisingly good condition).

I poked around the web, trying to understand whether I ought to upgrade my phono pre-amp (a.k.a. phono stage), my cartridge, my turntable, or some combination of the three. I found several retail stores willing to help me answer the question, but it was unreasonable for me to ask the small business to spend hours with me as I swapped out various combinations of the three analog components. I started by experimenting with a better phono stage pre-amp, the Sutherland Insight, and I was very pleased with the improvement. Then, I upgraded the phono cartridge to the Dynavector DV-20X2L, and once again, the listening experience was much better than before. Would a replacement turntable take me much further? Or would the step-up offer only incremental improvement—at a high price? (Audiophiles are forever pondering these questions.)

To organize my thinking, and frame the appropriate questions, I rely upon Robert Harley’s book, The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, now in its fifth edition. Chapter 9 explains “Turntables, Tonearms and Cartridges: The LP Playback System” (thank goodness, for it is among very few reference sources that provide a comprehensive overview). For the serious listener, Harley recommends an investment in the “analog front end” of about forty percent of the total investment in a two-channel stereo system. Practical guidance: “A mid-level turntable and arm cost $800 to $1,500,” often including the cartridge. He goes on: “There are roughly three levels of quality and price above $2000. The first is occupied by a wide selection of turntables and arms costing between $3,000 and $6,000. In this range, you can achieve outstanding performance. Plan to spend at least $1,000 for the phono cartridge appropriate for these turntables.”

Without reading his bible too literally, I was now able to understand the jump from the Rotel turntable would require an investment of at least $1,500 and probably $2,000—plus the cost of the cartridge. That’s a lot of money (not for an audiophile, perhaps, but for the rest of us)—or so it seemed until a friend pointed out that my current turntable, still in service, was easily twenty years old. Is it worth spending the equivalent of $100 per year to own a proper turntable that could “achieve outstanding performance?” Perhaps.

Facing “a wide selection of turntables,” how do you choose the right one? I spoke with any expert who would engage in conversation, but I also spent a lot of time reading articles from what I consider to be the better online publications specializing in high-end audio. Here’s a terrific list called Daily Audiophile, a useful starting point from the uniformly excellent Analog Planet blog, more from TONEAudio’s Analogaholic, one of The Absolute Sound’s helpful Buyer’s Guides (BTW: Mr. Harley runs the editorial side of TAS), and perhaps best of all (and sometimes controversial), Stereophile’s descriptions of Recommended Components, soon to be updated with the Spring, 2017 selection.

Armed with too many notes, I entered the fray of online retail sites, previously described in an earlier article. Utter confusion! Some products still current, others being closed out, some demos with and without cartridges. Unfortunately, visiting each manufacturer’s website was not as helpful as I would have hoped. I was intrigued by the Rega RP6 ($1,495) but I couldn’t figure out why it cost half as much as the Rega RP8 ($2,995), or why the physical base of the more expensive model was shaped like a butterfly, not like a rectangle. It was very difficult to find a meaningful comparison between the RP6 and the RP8 on the web—here and there, an amateur YouTube video, only marginally helpful because (of course) I could not actually hear the turntables properly. And even if I could hear the turntables, I was unclear how to listen to the turntable without being largely affected by every other piece of equipment as well as the sonics of the listening room itself.

A snapshot from one of the five Rega Research tour videos on Analog Planet.

One of the voices of sanity in the analog jungle is a writer/editor named Michael Fremer. And he showed up with help—just in the nick of time. Michael visited the Rega factory, and recorded a very detailed video tour (over two hours, presented in five parts), complete with interviews and clear explanations of every part of the turntable manufacturing process. For the first time, I understood how a cartridge is made (at an impossibly tiny scale), why certain strategies are used to design and build the base of each turntable model, why tone arm manufacturer is such an art, the importance of motors and belts, and so on. If you are considering—or dreaming about—a better turntable, this feature-length presentation is well worth your time.

Linn-Sondek’s flagship Klimax LP12 turntable.

Feeling more comfortable with the whole idea of shopping for a turntable, I began to explore more specific options. One dealer was very pleased with turntables from Thorens and Teac, but others were less enthusiastic, and there wasn’t much press attention paid to these two companies. Linn-Sondek, which offers its classic LP12 in a variety of mix-and-match parts, but I didn’t find much energy in the community for current offerings. Everyone seemed to love SME, but prices started around $7,000, more than I could or would spend. Similarly, Music Hall turntables were well-reviewed, but their best turntable was below my threshold, so I moved on. I was intrigued Clearaudio’s Concept and Performance turntables, but never found enough information to seriously consider either one. I was curious about vaguely familiar company called VPI Industries, but there were so many models available online, I just about gave up trying to understand what was available (apparently, the various Classic models—there are several—are still available from online retailers but they are discontinued). Mostly, I had been curious about a model called the Scout, but finding my way through the various Scoutmaster, Scout 1.1, Scout 2 other models required far too much time and effort.

What I really needed to do was listen. I wanted to listen to a series of promising turntables, each connected to same high-quality stereo system, each with the same cartridge, same cabling, same everything—by limiting the variables, perhaps I could make some sort of reasonable decision. That would be best achieved through engagement in the local audiophile community—Saturday listening sessions are not uncommon, but require some research.

Available for about $30 in 180g vinyl (new), or $3 used (source: Discogs).

I was able to sit on a comfortable couch and listen to a good clean recording of “Sometimes in Winter,” an ideal test track on Child Is Father to the Man on the very first album by Blood Sweat and Tears. We started with the newly-redesigned VPI Scout ($2,199), which sounded similar (but better) than my current Rotel turntable. The sound was clear, present, and strong, but the vocals were not front and center, the horns were not as nuanced, and the sense of space could be better. All of this made for a very pleasant listening experience, but I was ready to move up the line to the similar-looking but heftier VPI Prime ($3,999). In just a moment, I heard the difference—the horns were crisp and full, the vocalist had stepped up and was now center stage well-separated from the background, and the overall soundstage was not only larger, but considerably more detailed. Why? Better materials, better components in the turntable, a better motor, a better base—and all of these add up to better sound. At that point, I had, more or less, made my decision, but, of course, I was curious how much more I would hear when I listened to the VPI Prime Signature ($5,999). Of course, the more expensive turntable sounded better—but here, we get into the incremental jumps. The sound was undoubtedly heftier, more substantial, even more clear with improved presence, and an even greater sense of accurately reproduced instrument sounds, especially among the brass instruments. I wanted to remember what I had heard, so I walked away without listening to VPI’s highest quality turntables—the three models of VPI Avenger, or the completely awesome (and very large) VPI Titan.

The VPI Scout, VPI Prime, and VPI Prime Signature. Note the heft of each successful platter and base, the sophistication of the feet, the size of the motors, and in the first two, the thickness of the turntable platter.

Of course, listening in a well-appointed professional listening room is not much like listening at home. I decided to give the VPI Prime a try. We added the Dynavector DV-20X2L that sounded so good on the Rotel turntable, and connected it to the Sutherland Insight pre-amp, also a wonderful friend for the Rotel. And off we go with a DG recording of Emil Gilels performing Brahms’s first piano concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic—with its bombastic opening, now so clearly rendered with absolute distinction between the instruments, and minimal (if any) congestion in the extreme sequences with what sounds like tons of instruments all blasting their hearts out. Shift to the quieter string and wind sequences, and everything is sweet, present, energetic, really wonderful.

But I must be careful. The tonearm (3D printed, by the way, which is very nifty and apparently a great contributor to the quiet of the turntable operation) is balanced on what appears to be (and turns out to be) the polished point of a dart. The adjustments for proper operation require extraordinary care (but they can be learned by the average person, perhaps one less thumb-clumsy than me). The turntable’s aluminum platter weighs twenty pounds, but spins seemingly without any friction at all. The rigidity of the base matters a lot—and there are a lot of theories about both the construction of the base and the necessary weight of the platter—but here, there’s an 11 gauge steel plate holding fast to the MDF base. Overall, the VPI Prime feels very strong and well-made, but the tone arm assembly, with its exposed rear cable and its various knobs and dials, feels as though I’ve entered an unfamiliar technology realm.

And yet, none of that matters. Not when Emil Gilels is playing the piano, and I’m litening to a turntable, a cartridge and a phono stage that were, five months ago, a completely theoretical idea. Now, the sound feels so natural, so effortless, so entirely pleasant, so exhilarating, that I wonder why I waited so long to improve the “analog front end” of an otherwise terrific stereo system.

After a few weeks of listening, I’m back in the record stores, happily rediscovering favorite rock, jazz, Broadway and blues albums from long ago, and grabbing high-quality classical antiques (yes, antiques—$3.99 each) made by Deutsche Grammophon, Melodiya, Angel, Columbia, Philips, Decca, and other labels that will, in time, be lost to a world dominated by Spotify and iTunes. Me, I’ve found something far more satisfying. And fun!

BTW: This article is part of series.

A closer look at the VPI Prime turntable, with a closer look at the tone arm base below.

 

 

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