Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Frank and Bing kind of Christmas

I just watched "Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank," an old television Christmas special.  Talk about Christmas from a different time.  I love watching these time capsules, especially ones that lead to such a hip past. 

The time- 1957.  The scene- the fabulously modern and cool pad of Frank Sinatra as intepreted by a set designer on a film stage.  The occasion- Bing swings by for an evening of high-octane egg nog, dinner, a few jokes, and of course singing. 

When the show begins, Frank is singing and trimming his Christmas tree with the look of a guy who hasn't hung a single ornament on his own tree for over 20 years.  He awkwardly drops an ornament, which luckily lands on a lower branch instead of the floor.  He picks it up and hangs it on the tree right next to another ornament.  The song he's singing, "Mistletoe and Holly,"  is a bit of a typical Sinatra ring-a-ding-ding tune, with a Christmas lyric.  That's the one and only song that is Sinatra being hip.  For the rest of the show the songs are traditional Christmas songs done in a rather restrained style.

Who hasn't had this happen to them: the doorbell rings, you wonder who could that be, you open the door, and there stands Bing Crosby.  It happens to Frank in this very tv show, but this is just a typical evening for the Chairman of the Board and he isn't too fazed by it.  Bing is dressed in a very nice suit.  Luckily Frank was wearing a suit while hanging out at home alone trimming the tree, so he doesn't feel underdressed.  They exchange gifts, which turn out to be each's own latest Christmas album.  After a few jocular put-downs it's down to business: singing.

I don't know how many times I've put on a suit, gone over to a friend's house, and hung out with him sitting on the couch singing Christmas songs, but it's a lot.  So it struck me as perfectly normal for a couple macho bros like Bing and Frank to do that.  Sometimes solo, sometimes together, they worked their way through seven or eight classics like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Silent Night, Away In A Manger, and finishing with Bing's tour-de-force White Christmas.  Somewhere in the middle they answer the door to find some carolers dressed in Victorian clothes, thereby giving the Binger and Ol' Blue Eyes a chance to sing a little louder for a couple tunes.

Sinatra is credited as being the director.  This special was filmed in color despite being broadcast in a decidedly black and white tv era.  Bing comes off as more relaxed and sings better.  Frank appears more distracted, stiff, and appears to be reading cue cards for a lot of the lyrics.  It's amazing how little movement there is on camera.  They just stand next to the bar or sit on a couch and sing, with one unchanging camera shot the entire song.  The camera never zooms in or cuts to a different angle.  In the fifties you didn't need a bunch of quck camera cuts, you just needed Bing and Frank sitting on a contemporary couch singing Oh Come All Ye Faithful.  There wasn't much else to do in those days other than sit around and wait on the internet to be invented.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dinosaurs In Space!

Did you know that despite disappearing for good 65 million years ago, two dinosaurs have managed to accomplish what you and I have not- they have been in outer space!  OK it might be a bit of a exagerrated headline stunt to say two dinosaurs have become astronauts.  It would be more accurate to say some fossilized parts of two dinosaurs took the super-saver economy fare flight into space in the space shuttle cargo hold.

On July 29, 1985, STS-51-F, the 19th space shuttle launch, sent Challenger up for a an eight-day mission.  On board was kind of a portable space station called Spacelab that NASA occasionally sent up with the shuttle.  The shuttle cargo bay doors would open up and expose Spacelab to outer space while the scientists inside did dozens of experiments.

Space Shuttle with Spacelab module in cargo bay

One of the seven astronauts on board was Loren Acton, a physicist who was born in Montana and had a degree in Engineering Physics from Montana State University.  In 1978, three years before the first shuttle mission even flew, he was selected to be one of the scientists to ride up on the shuttle and work experiments in the Spacelab modules.  He spent seven years training for his flight.  When it was time to go he packed and took along some fossil bone fragments from a Montana fossil dig.  The bones came from a dinosaur called Maiasaura Peeblesorum.

The crew of STS-51-F.  Dr. Acton is in the back row with the beard.  Not pictured- Maiasaura

Maiasaura means "caring mother lizard," and was given this name because they appear to have been very involved in the care and feeding of their young for perhaps a longer period of time than a typical dinosaur.  The babies eventually grew into an adult that was an amazing 30 feet in length.  They spent their days chowing on vegetation in huge herds, possibly numbering as many as 10,000 individuals.  One lucky winner among them got to go on a shuttle ride, to his surprise.


Incidentally, on that same shuttle flight there was a bit of comic relief in the form of some "competition" between Coca-Cola and Pepsi.  Coke designed a type of mechanism that would fit over one of their pop cans and allow astronauts to drink a can of Coke on the weightless space shuttle.  They made an arrangement with NASA to send some cans up on the shuttle so the astronauts could try them out.  When Pepsi got wind of this they convinced NASA to let them join in the fun and quickly designed a weightless dispenser for their own can. 

Pepsi and Coke cans with weightless dispensers attached

NASA promoted it as kind of an experiment in both the practicality of using everyday objects in weightlessness and also a test of whether ones taste perception is altered in space.  Sadly, neither version of the special weightless adapters for pop cans made much of an impression on the astronauts, not to mention that apparently due to a design oversight there was no fridge on the shuttle, so the cans of pop were not even cold.

It would be a 13-year wait before another dinosaur was selected for a shuttle mission.  This time the lucky saurischian was called Coelophysis.  Coelphysis was an early dinosaur and would  have lived about 150 million years before Maiasaura, so he had to wait a long time to get his ride.  Finally, on January 22, 1998 (STS-89) he got his wish and blasted off on space shuttle Endeavor.  A Coelphysis skull from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History was on board.  I was never able to determine if they provided him with a space helmet. 


Coelophysis was a lot smaller than Maiasaura, only about 10 feet long.  Instead of lazily munching on plants all day, Coelophysis darted around and stalked and basically went on a carnivore power trip.  Word is he was not pleased with the menu on the shuttle.  He is particularly revered in New Mexico, where he is the state fossil.

Perhaps to make up for his extra long wait, NASA allowed Coelophysis to one-up Maiasaura by letting him go on board the Russian space station Mir, too.  This Endeavor mission was transferring equipment, astronauts, and trash back and forth with the Mir.  After chilling with the Ruskies a while, Coelophysis eventually returned to Earth and the museum, where to this day you can see him, maintaining his job of standing perfectly still 24 hours a day.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Scilly Naval Disaster

It is the fall of 1707.  Several European nations were halfway through the 13-year long War of the Spanish Succession.  In a power trip not unlike some present day NCAA schools, France and Spain were considering uniting into one super-conference to get the upper hand in Europe.  They figured if they hooked up they would have a better chance to take out their arch-rival Great Britain in the Fiesta Bowl of world domination.  Not wanting to be outcoached, Britain cock-blocked France and Spain by phoning up the Dutch, Portugal, and others, and started up the Euro Trash Conference. 

British forces were in the Mediterranean, attempting to smack down the French at their port city of Toulon.  A fleet of ships was sent by Britain to Toulon to help reinforce the troops.  They decided to put their own Urban Meyer in charge, sending Sir Cloudsley Shovell, the Commander in Chief of the British Fleets along to call the plays.  They did engage in some fighting, but ultimately the French threw a red flag and challenged a call.  It was reversed by the replay booth, so the Brits decided to just run out the clock and go in for halftime.  Ordered back to England, Sir Cloudsley and a fleet of 21 ships sailed past Gibralter, out of the Mediterranean, and headed home.

Sir Cloudsley Shovell

Sir Cloudsley was on the ship HMS Association.  At 165 feet in length, it boasted 90 cannon and carried 800 men.  They led the way out into the Atlantic Ocean and north towards England.  The convoy was battered continuously by bad storms and strong gales.  Eventually Sir Cloudsley peered out into the storm, switched on his right turn blinkers, and hung a Ralph into what he thought was the safety of the English Channel.  His men, thinking they were finally about to win the BCS, dumped Gatorade on Sir Cloudsley and did some embarrasing touchdown dances on the fo'c'sle.  There was one thing though- there was still time on the clock.

There was one little problem about sailing the Seven Seas in 1707.  You and your shipmates often didn't know exactly where you were.  The reason for this is that there had yet to be developed a perfect system of determining longitude.  Longitude is simply a way of noting how far east or west you are.  If you are out of sight of land on a ship you have no reference points to tell where you are exactly.  There are no clues to tell you precisely where you are on a map.  The way to solve that problem is that if you know the exact time of day locally, you can compare it to the exact time of day that it is in a known reference point, say London, and you can then calculate how far east or west of London you are.  You can then pinpoint your location on a map.  But if you are hundreds of miles from land, who are you going to ask what time it happens to be there? 

Sir Cloudsley and his 21 ships thought they were safely in the English Channel and almost home.  Sadly, due to the storms and other problems inherent with navigation at the time, they had miscalculated. They were actually still some distance west of the southwest tip of England.  It sucks to be them, because exactly 304 years ago today, on what truly was "a dark and stormy night," they sailed  unknowingly right toward the Scilly Isles.

They thought they were in the English Channel, but were actually at the Scilly Isles (in blue)

The Scilly Isles lie about 30 miles off the very tip of England.  There are 145 granite rock islands, of which 5 are inhabited.  Many of these islands are little more than house-sized rocks sticking out of the ocean.  Not big enough to live on, but plenty big to trash a ship slamming into one in the middle of the night during a storm.  And that is exactly what happened. 

The Scilly Isles

 Four of the ships hit rocks and sank, including the Association.  Estimates varied, but it is accepted that between 1,400 and 2,000 men lost their lives that night.  Sir Cloudsley's body washed ashore on one of the inhabited islands the next day, seven miles from where his ship went down.

Engraving of the disaster

Needless to say, this was big news back in London. The British government was getting pretty sick and tired of this bogus longitude problem and all the 15 yard roughing the passer penalties it was creating.  In 1714 they created the Board of Longitude.  The Board got together and wrote up one of those snappy mission statements saying something like "Working toward a market-driven, customer-oriented, fiscally responsible ability to calcuate longitude like a boss"  They established the Longitude Prize, a carrot to entice scientists off their asses, out of the pubs, and get to figuring out a way to calculate longitude consistantly and accurately.  The Board made it rain with some eye popping cash prizes- 10,000 pounds if you could calculate longitude within 60 nautical miles, 15,000 for within 40 nm, and 20,000 if you could dial it in to within 30 nm.  In 1714 dollars that's some serious wild weekend in Vegas spending money.  They also offered smaller prizes for people who made genuine contributions to solving the bigger problem.

It was known that the best way to calculate your longitude was like this:  If, before you leave on  your ship voyage, you have a clock that is perfectly set to a known standard time, and you take it with you, you can always look at it and know what your reference point time is.  Then, when the sun is directly overhead, you can use noon as your local time, and utilizing the reference clock you can calculate your longitude pretty accurately.  So the problem was not to be solved by coming up with a new way to calculate longitude- it required inventing a better clock. 

In the 1700s, clocks were totally mechanical devises. They were made up of springs and gears, with no batteries or quartz movements or anything like that.  The metals used weren't as rigid and reliable as they are now.  Even in the best of times your clock at home, assuming you were rich enough to own one, had to be reset often.  For a ship at sea, with the pitching and rolling and varying temperatures and humidity, clocks were notoriously bad at keeping accurate time.  It didn't do any good to set your clock before your voyage, it would be soon be inaccurate.  In order to calculate your distance within 60 nm you needed to have a clock that stayed very accurate for weeks or months at sea.  It took a master clock maker, John Harrison, to finally solve the problem. 

John Harrison

Mr. Harrison built his first grandfather-type clock when he was 20.  Over the years he came up with many intriguing improvements to clock design.  Starting in 1730, he began working on designing a clock to compete for the Longitude Prize.  Over the next 42 years he worked his way through the design and construction of five of what became known as maritime chronometers.  King George III personally tested the 5th chronometer from May to July of 1772 and determined the clock to be accurate to within 1/3 of one second per day.  These chronometers were incredibly expensive.  At first they were approximately 30 percent of the cost of a new ship!

Harrison's 5th and final chronometer 

The bad thing is that the Board of Longitude must've been a bit grumpy or something, because they kind of seriously dissed John Harrison.  They often kept his chronometers for years as they supposedly tested them, and rather than call a press conference and award him the big prize money they tended to cough and act like they had something in their eye, and then they would say they had to go take a phone call, but they'd be in touch.  Eventually even King George got a bit irritated by the Board.  They did eventually give Mr. Harrison some money, but they never actually awarded any of the grand prizes to him or anybody else.  The Board of Longitude must've had a good lobbyist, because it lasted for over 100 years until it was finally abolished by Parliament in 1828. 

The locations of all four shipwrecks of the Scilly Naval Disaster have long since been determined, and are popular dive locations.  Not much is left of the ships except the dozens of cannon and some huge ship anchors.  And the War of Spanish Succession?  Everyone eventually grew tired of it and took their ball and went home.  France and Spain threw in the towel on their conference realignment and all the soldiers scattered to trade their uniforms for tats.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On This Date...

Sorry for the long layoff.  I misplaced my computer.

Several interesting music-oriented things happened on this date in history.  Let's check some of them out:

1.  Chuck Berry's birthday.  Chuck Berry was born today in 1926, so that makes him 85 years old for those of you looking around for your calculator.  He was born in St. Louis, MO.  A lot of historians put Chuck at ground zero for the birth of rock and roll.  His mixture of country music (as it sounded in the early 1950s) and T-Bone Walker-style blues guitar licks created the classic 1950s rock and roll sound.  His biggest hits came in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Sadly, he has been pretty much a nostalgia act since the 70s.  His last true studio album came out in 1979.  Chuck often toured by himself, and arranged to be paid in cash and for a local band in each town to back him in his concerts.  The primary benefit of this is that he got most of the money and didn't have to deal with a band touring with him.  The downside was varying quality to his concerts and that he eventually did a few months in prison for tax evasion.  He still occasionally plays live and still lives outside St. Louis.

Chuck Berry in 2007

2.  Gary Richrath's birthday.  Who, you ask?  Gary was the original and long time lead guitarist for the band REO Speedwagon.  In the early 1980s REO was one of the biggest bands out there.  By then, however, I had already quit listening to them.  Most of their huge 1980s hits were power ballads, a genre that didn't interest me.  If you back the clock up a few years, though, REO were rockers. Not heavy metal, but more of a fast boogie-woogie party rock and roll with a great guitar sound.  I first took notice in 1977 with the song Riding the Storm Out.  It was off their new live album "You Get What You Play For".  I bought that album and wore it out, mostly focusing on Gary Richrath's guitar playing.  Unfortunately they followed that up with the album with a cheap pun in the title- "You Can Tune a Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish" which ushered in the song "Time For Me To Fly".  This was a big power ballad hit, and unfortunately distorted everything they ever recorded from that point on.  They lost me.  They lost Gary Richrath, too, in 1989.  He quit the band because he wanted to get back to playing rock songs, while lead singer Kevin Cronin preferred the overwrought emotional stadium rock songs.  Gary was born on this date in 1949, and he's now 61 years old.

Gary on the "You Get What You Play For" album cover

3. Paul McCartney's first performance with the Quarrymen:  Before the Beatles, there was the Quarrymen.  This was a musical group made up of John Lennon and several other kids from the neighborhood.  They were called the  Quarrymen after Quarry Bank High School where Lennon attended school.  Paul first saw the Quarrymen perform at a churchyard picnic in July, 1957.  He later joined the group, and played his first show with them on October 18, 1957-exactly 54 years ago today.  By 1960 most of the Quarrymen had quit the group, George Harrison had joined, and the Quarrymen chose a new name- The Beatles.

John Lennon and the Quarrymen on the day Paul McCartney and Lennon first met

4. Video Killed the Radio Star-  Today in 1979, this song, by the Buggles, was number one in the U.K.  The Buggles were Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes  They were basically a studio-only band and did not perform concerts.  They recorded and released the single "Video Killed the Radio Star" right at the end of the 70s, with lyrics that looked back nostalgically at radio and the worry that radio as a star-making source was losing it's power and being taken over by television.  With a hit on their hands, Horn and Downes quickly wrote and put out a Buggles album in February, 1980 called "The Age of Plastic."  It had a couple of other minor singles but no additional hits.  The duo next spent a year with the band Yes before releasing the second Buggles album in 1981.  This album went nowhere, and the Buggles came to an end.  On August 1st, 1981, "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the very first video played on the brand new MTV (back when they played videos).

The Video Killed the Radio Star single

5. Julie London- On this day in 2000 Julie London died at age 74.  Most people know her as nurse Dixie McCall on the tv show Emergency! from the mid-1970s.  What many don't know is that in the 1950s she was a very popular singer.  She was working as an elevator operator when she was discovered, and ended up recording 32 albums in her career.  She was Billboard magazine's most popular female vocalist in 1955, '56, and '57.  She was married for a while to Jack Webb of Dragnet fame.  Later, after divorcing Webb she met and married Bobby Troup, a bandleader who wrote the popular song "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66."  In the 1970s Webb created the tv show Emergency! and cast both Julie London as Nurse Mccall and Bobby Troup as Dr. Joe Early.  They remained married until Troup's death in 1999.

Julie in her 1950s singing heyday.

With husband Bobby Troup in the Emergency! days

This concludes today's history lesson.  Now go and do something productive.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Graffiti Yellow 2001 Fender Stratocaster

2001 Graffiti Yellow Fender Stratocaster

I'm the proud new owner of a somewhat rare and special 2001 Stratocaster.  It comes in the not-so-common color of Graffiti Yellow.  Supposedly in the mid-80s Jeff Beck asked Fender to make him a guitar the same color as the hot rod in the movie American Graffiti.  As a result, Graffiti Yellow.  This color was used from 1987 until the early 1990's on some high end Strats called the Stratocaster Plus.  Graffiti Yellow Strats were made in very limited numbers, and eventually it was no longer offered as a standard color.  It still is not available to this day.

In 2001, the state of South Dakota had a special promotion in their state lottery in which approximately 100 Graffiti Yellow Strats were given away.   I'm not sure how you could win one.  Did you have to scratch on a ticket or what?  There is this video of a tv commercial that apparently ran in South Dakota at the time.  The commercial says 100 are to be given away, but on the back of mine there is a plate saying it is number 14 of 115.

There is evidence not all these guitars were given away in the lottery.  For example, there is this summer of 2006 newsletter (scroll down to page 2) from the South Dakota lottery referring to a man winning a "leftover" lottery stratocaster at a Sioux Falls Canaries minor league hockey game.  So 5 years after the lottery they were still handing them out. 

These lottery Stratocasters were all made in Graffiti Yellow and were manufactured at the Fender Custom shop in Corona, California. The Custom shop does not make any of the regular manufacturing run versions of the the Strat.  They make things such as expensive one-of-a kind highly decorated guitars, or special order guitars for famous musical artists.  They also tackle special jobs such as the 115 guitars needed for the lottery giveaway. 
Wasting no time trying it out!

I got mine through an EBay auction.  I was bidding on it while Lyndy and I were on vacation in Mexico.  I bid a couple times from the laptop in the hotel lobby, and I cast what was ultimately the winning bid on an iPod Touch from a ferry riding back to the mainland from Cozumel Island.  The ferry had free wi-fi access.  I got a little bit lucky because I was actually outbid, but the winning bidder ended up backing out of it, so it fell to the second highest bidder, which luckily was me.  It was shipped to me by UPS from Minneapolis, MN.  So in ten years it hadn't moved very far from South Dakota.

The guitar looks like it has barely been played at all.  Luckily, whoever won it in the lottery was not much of a guitar player.  I bought it from a pawn shop/estate type dealer in Minneapolis who sells a lot of used guitars.  It originally had white pickup covers and volume/tone knobs, but like I did with my blue Strat, I switched them to black.  So out of the 115 of these made, mine may well be the only one with the black trim look to it.

I only had it for a couple of days, long enough to spend literally less than 10 minutes strumming it (mainly to see if all the pickups worked, etc.) and the chance came to really break it in.  My band Lo Pan's Revenge played at one of the parties held for Evan and his high school graduation (see next blog entry).  I took the new yellow Strat to the show and ended up playing it for more than half the songs without really having spent any time getting used to it.  The result?  It played and sounded great!

The Graffiti Yellow Strat makes it's debut!

Evan's Graduation from Topeka West

Evan graduated from Topeka West!  His ceremony was yesterday.  Here he is with his robe right after the ceremony ended:

This is a view of the kids on the floor of the Expocentre during the ceremony:

Over the weekend, in addition to the ceremony, Evan attended three parties held in his honor.  He definitely had a lot of fun celebrating his completion of high school!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Drive Train

There is an organization with a  website out there called the Prelinger Archives, and they have thousands of old films available for viewing and downloading.  Most of these films are of the type you would have seen in school growing up, such as "It's Tough to be a Teen", or "What's Going On Down There?"  Others are films created by corporations either to be viewed by their employees, or as advertisements between movies at the theater.  Most of them were made from the 1940's through early 1970's.  All of it is in the public domain, so you can download these films for free and do whatever you want to do with them.

In 2006, as I periodically do, I was browsing through some of these old films and I got to watching a lot of automobile advertisement clips produced by the major auto manufacturers.  Feeling creative, I decided to make a music video using clips from these car ads. 

I sat down with my guitar and wrote some music that was supposed to give the feel of a carefree ride in a vintage car.  Using an electric guitar, bass, synthesizer, and drum machine it took two or three nights to record the song.  I consider this song to be by one of my musical alter egos- Optic.  That is the band name I use for recordings in which I play all the instruments myself. 

Next, I downloaded a bunch of the old car ad films, which averaged about 5-7 minutes long each,  and set to work editing it all into a video.  To edit the video, which took several days of work, I went through all the car films and chopped them up and created a bunch of short clips.  On some of them I altered colors or did other editing tricks like speeding them up to enhance the presentation.

  This is my first attempt to post a video to this webpage.  The video looks ok, but the sound of the recording is a little distorted to me.  Nevertheless, I present to you "Drive Train"

Drive Train, by Optic. Written, recorded and produced by Darren Danger in 2006.