Archive for August, 2010

Now for a rest

Monday, August 30th, 2010

You know you’ve had a busy weekend when your return to work on Monday morning feels like a much-needed respite. Of course, my “daily grind” is pretty cushy compared to what most of humanity has to deal with – it’s indoor work, no heavy lifting, lots of amiable companions, and a 401K (more or less). But work is work, indoors or out.

My nephew got married in Greenville, SC, all of our kids showed up with their respective spouses/companions/partners, and/or pets, and we made a full weekend of it. There was the rehearsal (some of us played and sang in the wedding), the rehearsal dinner, practicing some more on Saturday, the wedding proper Saturday evening, the reception, an impromptu after-after party in our hotel room, and a family brunch Sunday morning. We narrowly made airplane connections, burned gallons of fossil fuel on I-85, made our way through the beautifully contorted streets of Greenville and its surrounding areas (in some ways, Chicago is easier to navigate for me), shot gigapixels of digital photos, ate tons of food, and danced until our limbs would barely function.

Pursuant to the dancing comment, I would like to acknowledge the skill, enthusiasm, and musicianship of The Wes Loper Band, who played the reception. The night started with Wes playing and singing solo as the guests gathered, and the band steadily picked up steam from there. They made their way through an impressive set list (from classic Allman Brothers to Prince to Zac Brown), and their accurate covers were enhanced by a couple of really clever and unexpected segues, such as Dixieland Delight to Country Roads to I Want You To Want Me. I don’t think they took a break the whole night, and they were in full swing with a packed dance floor when they brought the reception in for a smooth landing, dispatching all of us out into the night to wave sparklers as the happy couple leapt in to a waiting limo and cruised off in pursuit of their future.

As my brother-in law observed, weddings and funerals are about the only times we do these really big events, and weddings are much more fun. We great time visiting family members new and old, and making new friends.

I wish happiness and success not only to the happy couple, but to all of us that are cruising off in pursuit of our futures.

Pets, antimatter, and the Beatles

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

In the late 70s, a non-invasive diagnostic device was introduced into medical practice. It was originally called the Computed Axial Tomography (CAT) scanner, which unavoidably led me to a terrible pun which doesn’t really translate to writing. (That small technicality is not enough to prevent me from proceeding, much to your lack of surprise, I’m sure.) I would say, “Did you know that dogs can’t see through people, but cats can.” CATscan. Get it?

I finished the short book in Antimatter last week. I confess, antimatter sounds like something that was made up by a clever science fiction writer. Antimatter is made of antiparticles with polarities, charges, and spins exactly the opposite of those that make up our world. Its great plot value is that, if antimatter should ever come in contact with “ordinary” matter, the result would be a complete conversion to pure energy, probably involving a giant explosion, which would leave no trace of the original matter.

Antiparticles were originally postulated by physicist Paul A. M. Dirac in 1928 to explain a theoretical physics conundrum. Other scientists proposed that antimatter was created at the same time as matter in the big bang, and in equal quantities. While this solves some problems, it creates others, such as, “Where is all that antimatter now?”

Antimatter and antiparticles would have been an arcane and little-known theory, until still other scientists began to find actual evidence of antiparticles in their cloud chambers and bubble chambers. With careful observation, experimental physicists can now consistently detect the occasional appearance of antimatter particles on earth. It seems that antimatter particles are created in small but measurable quantities when cosmic rays strike the molecules in our atmosphere.

Finally, high-energy physicists (you know, the ones that drink a lot of Red Bull) succeeded in actually generating positrons (the antiparticle equivalent to the common electron), and figuring out a way to store significant numbers of positrons in an electromagnetic field. (Obviously you can’t just put them in a bottle. It’s much like the joke about the guy who invented the universal solvent, but couldn’t find anything to keep it in.)

All of this would have remained trapped in the mind-numbing realm of physics journals and graduate-level textbooks if a series of clever scientific medical technologists hadn’t figured out how to actually use positrons for medical diagnosis.

Editorial note: I realize that the preceding paragraphs are full of passive voice and vague descriptions such as “scientific medical technologists.” If you haven’t figured it out yet, scientific discovery is a messy process, frequently involving scores of contributors over decades. Rather than omit critical participants, or boring you with long lists of names, I’ve decided to summarize in this rather crude fashion, and leave further study as an exercise for the reader.

Anyway, it turns out my pun about dogs was at least partly wrong. Apparently feral animals can’t see through people, but pets can. Yes indeed, Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanners are based on the use of positron antiparticles, which are actually generated by small cyclotrons and embedded into tracer fluid that is injected into the patient. The positrons eventually collide with electrons, their matter-based counterparts, and each collision generates two gamma rays that fly directly apart from each other. Detectors positioned around the body part of interest use these gamma ray emissions to track and record biological activity in the area.

I find this to be an amazing story. Dirac modestly proposes a purely theoretical solution to a quantum physics problem, and over the next five decades, his theory is not only confirmed, but turned into a rather clever medical diagnostic tool. This ranks right up there with my previously-posted infatuation with the laser.

And the Beatles? It turns out that much of the development work leading to the CT Scanner was done by EMI, an electronics research company now better known for their music and recording prowess. Their recordings of a then-obscure British pub band produced unexpected commercial success, helping fund their development of medical products, including the CT scanner.

So, in response to all those well-intentioned adults in the 60s who thought Beatles fans should have their heads examined, they can now have them examined more quickly and conveniently thanks to, er, the Beatles.

Stress, antimatter, and more

Monday, August 16th, 2010


I’ve gotten in trouble at home more than once by saying, “You’re not sick, it’s just stress.” Turns out I was (as is so often the case) both right and wrong. Wired 18.08 (the one that also has the tell-all article about AT&T, Apple, and the iPhone network meltdown) has an extremely enlightening article about STRESS. I think the article’s description of the impact of stress on our lives, and vice-versa, deserves your attention. I hope you will read it and profit by it, whether you are a “stressor,” a “stressee,” or, like most of us, both.

A few salient points:

  • It is not busyness in a job that makes it stressful, it is lack of control.
  • Exercise only helps reduce stress if you want to exercise. Forcing yourself to exercise because you think you should causes more stress.
  • Insufficient sleep aggravates stress, which in turn makes it hard to get to sleep the next night. Vicious cycle.
  • Stress is like “a slow motion stroke,” with profound negative physical effects on the body and its resistance to disease.
  • A stress reaction can reduce your memory and your ability to learn. Not good for the modern workplace.

Some ways to reduce stress (explained in more detail in the article) include:

  1. Make friends
  2. Confront your fears
  3. Meditate
  4. Drink in moderation
  5. Don’t fight

I’m telling you, you really need to understand the information in this article. E-mail the link to yourself as a reminder if you don’t have time to read it now.

And, hey: chill out. (Sadly, the article points out that my saying that to you does practically no good at all, and may even increase your stress. Sorry.)


I picked up a little light reading last week, a book called Antimatter by Frank Close, Professor of Physics at Oxford University. Although my undergraduate degree is in Physics, I stopped understanding it just beyond the part that helps you operate a pool cue. As a result, my degree, coupled with my lack of contemporary physics knowledge renders me neither physh nor phowl. This very readable little book has encouraged me to find a good overview of physics and catch up to the discipline.

I’ll let you know if there is anything critical for you to understand about antimatter.

Pratchett quote

I also bought another book in the Terry Pratchett Discworld series. Here’s a quote I found amusing, referring to a dwarf blacksmith’s belief in a higher power.

“Besides, when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer, it’s nice to be able to blaspheme, It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, ‘Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!’ or ‘Aargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!’ ”


I’ll close with a cartoon that manages to combine marriage, math, weather, and work. (Click on the cartoon for a larger version.)

Adam cartoon

This cartoon caused me to wonder how many other jobs require actual prediction, especially in such public view. Most of us analyze, synthesize, publicize, innovate, educate, document, market, report, or just work through an action item list. I suspect few of us actually prognosticate like a meteorologist. Hmmm, that might make a good T-shirt slogan.

And on that note, adieu.

Why pick?

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Last Friday night lightning struck a tree about forty feet away from me. It hit amidst preparations for an outdoor wedding on the grounds of an old house in a sleepy Georgia town. A thunderstorm was blowing through, and I was walking back to my van from a small tent in the yard, wondering how on earth I was going to set up a sound system in the middle of a windy rainstorm. I knew the lightning strike was close: the delta between flash and boom was darn near zero. After it hit, I just kept walking; I couldn’t think of anything better to do. I passed the caterer’s truck, and saw a pair of white eyeballs, which turned out to belong to a rather startled man sitting in the truck. He pointed right beside where I was standing and said, “It hit that tree! I saw it come out right there,” pointing to the base of a huge oak. I didn’t feel a thing, electrically speaking, but I confess that the boom was a little frightening. What could have been very serious turned out to be a non-event for me, at least physically.

Mentally? Well, it did have some effect. The storm blew over fairly quickly, and the rest of the band showed up on schedule. The afternoon progressed into evening, and hence into night, as it so often does. We set up the sound system and the lighting gear, played the gig, and the happy couple danced their first dance. We packed and loaded our instruments and equipment, illuminated by the headlights of the truck, and then we all made the long drive home. But all night and into the next morning I was musing on a question stuck in the back of my mind. Why do I choose to make music in public? There are certainly other ways to enjoy musical endeavors that involve less work, and less chance of becoming an unintentional electrical conductor. There’s a lot I could have thought and written about related to music and my involvement with it, but the proximity of the lightning mostly just led me to ask “Why?”

To correct a common misconception the non-musician may have, it is definitely not about money. There is certainly the pure line of thought which separates art from finance, but there is also the rather more mundane aspect, that it is usually a lot of work for relatively little compensation. While there are skilled musicians who make a decent living (or at least a reasonable supplementary income) from their craft, I am not one of them. I did make enough a few years back to report my music income to the IRS, but that was mostly because I didn’t keep a good record of expenses. It had never mattered before. Even though I do get paid occasionally, it doesn’t offset mileage and expenses (strings, straps, cords, and the like), not to mention the value of time that I could be spending in other ways. Fortunately, I’m a pretty low-maintenance picker. I’ve generally managed to escape the Curse of the Guitar Player (How many guitars does a picker need? Just one more.) Thanks to the kindness and generosity of family and friends, I have acquired a decent collection of instruments that meet my picking needs.

So if it’s not for money, then why? Herewith is an Ordered List of some my best answers, from worst to best (probably).

  1. It’s better to do something than nothing – I don’t watch much television, I’m not a professional sports fan, and most of the diversions other people spend their time and resources on, though interesting, just do not draw me. Although I did whine a little earlier about other ways to spend my time, those are mostly domestic activities that suffer when I play – grass cutting, garage cleaning, that sort of stuff. I feel like music is a way for me to stay active, to keep from “vegging out.” Sometimes it even feels like a workout.Howard Finster
  2. Pleasing people – This reason includes two sorts of people, as shown in this Unordered List (see previous link):
    • The people I pick with
      I like to support my family and friends who ask me to pick with them. I’m fortunate enough to get to play with a variety of folk, from serious bands to more casual configurations. I like interacting with them, accomplishing something with them. I don’t take lightly the invitation to play, and I like to think I contribute positively to their efforts. If the band doesn’t show up, the organizer looks pretty lame, and I don’t want that to happen to any of my fellow pickers. So I show up and play to please my peers.
    • The audience
      Regardless of the venue, even if it’s someone’s living room, the people sitting in the chairs went to some trouble to get there. I feel like, as a performer, I owe it to them to provide them a positive experience for their trouble. They are the “public” part of playing in public, and thus their need for music is a critical element.
  3. Receiving praise – I must confess that I really enjoy positive reactions from the audience. The reactions don’t need to be significant, profound, or even verbal. Last Sunday, one guy in the crowd sat there with his eyes closed during most of the gig. But his body language and movements made it clear he was not sleeping – he was soaking it all in. In one of my favorite songs (“The Load-Out”) from one of my favorite albums (“Running On Empty”), Jackson Browne sings to the audience, “…the only time that seems too short / Is the time that we get to play / People you’ve got the power over what we do / You can sit there and wait or you can pull us through….” I know what he means.
  4. The pleasure of music – Even though I am not a particularly adept player, even a blind hog occasionally finds an acorn. There are times when things come together to produce real music. Maybe a vocal harmony, maybe a tight rhythm, maybe an ad-libbed note that works even better then I expected, whatever it is, it is really a pleasure, and it almost always cancels out any negative feelings I may be carrying around at the time. This gets to the part where music is a form of art. Musically speaking, I’m probably more of a Howard Finster than a Monet, but I do sometimes feel like there is an artistic aspect to what I try to do.Monet

You may be thinking that I’ve left something out. Do I feel no obligation to share my gift (humble though it may be) with others? After considerable thought, I’ve concluded that I am not special in that respect – we all bear that obligation. I believe that each of us has a gift, art or skill that we can, and should, share in some way. You may be good at drawing, or building, or coaching, or organizing, or balancing books, or just “showing up.” I like to say, only partly in jest, that my real spiritual gift is moving heavy objects. And whether you believe the Source of your skill is a Supernatural Creator, a Caring Community, Darwinian Selection, or (more likely) your own personal blend of all of these, you will feel better if you share your skill. There’s a related philosophy, referred to as “paying it forward,” which dates at least back to a Greek philosopher (probably even farther back), and to Benjamin Franklin, who gets credit for “rediscovering” the notion. While I don’t pretend it covers all of the spiritual and humanistic aspects of our need and desire to share our gifts and skills, I think it makes an excellent start.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll keep on picking. And wearing non-conductive footwear, especially during thunderstorms.

Format note: The nested unordered list above is erroneously displaying numbers in my browser. I think it’s a WordPress theme problem, but I don’t have time to try to fix it right now. Apologies to those of you who are bugged by it. I am in your ranks. To the rest of you, please ignore this note.

Paint By Number

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

My wife’s family has a cemetery near where the old home place stood. The cemetery is surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. The fence had rusted to the point of needing a paint job, so my wife organized a family painting party. About three weeks ago I took a morning off to scrape and paint a test section. This Saturday we did the entire fence. Here’s the story by the numbers.

4 feet the length of my test section
3 feet the approximate height of the fence
1 hour the time it took me to scrape the test section to my satisfaction
30 minutes the time it took me to paint the test section
240 feet approximate total length of the complete fence to be scraped and painted
100 person-hours my estimate of what it would take to do the whole fence, factoring in break times and a reasonable level of participant effort, but not including removal of overgrown scuppernong vines from the back fence section
1 gallon my estimate of the amount of Rustoleum Gloss White oil-based paint the entire fence would require for a single coat, based on my usage rate on the test section
3 number of gates (which require significant additional work and which I did not include in my estimates)
20 people number who replied “yes” to the official Evite
16 people the number who showed up to work on the fence (more than I expected; my Evite estimate of 50% is usually pretty close); ages ranged from midteen to senior citizen
6:30 AM arrival time for the first participants (us)
5:00 PM departure time for the last participants (also us)
77F/89% Temperature and humidity at 6:30 AM (source: Weather Underground)
91.4F/68% Temperature and humidity at the end of the day; also the max temperature; fortunately most of the day was overcast, although the sun was out between 1:00 and 3:00 PM; it did not rain until all of the painting was completed and dry
8 hours my estimate of the actual time we prepped and painted, less the 30-minute lunch break, but including other individual breaks
128 person-hours actual time it took to do the whole fence
2.5 gallons actual amount of paint used
1 quart amount of paint it appeared that the participants wore home on their clothing and various appendages (non-scientific estimate)
20 number of Chick-Fil-A sandwiches eaten during lunch break
20 number of small bags of Frito/Lay chips eaten
16 estimate of the number of oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies eaten
12 gallons of ice water consumed during the whole day
1 number of watermelons eaten
120 estimate of the number of photos snapped during the day
4:30 PM approximate time the first pictures were uploaded to Facebook
100 estimate of the number of songs that were played over the day
10% estimate of the number of Allman Brothers songs
28% amount I underestimated the labor required to scrape and paint the entire fence
250% amount I underestimated the paint required for the entire fence
Infinity amount I underestimated the fun we would have
$83 rental price for portable toilet for the weekend
$61.01 rental price for 3Kw Honda “quiet-run” generator; (Ronnie also brought a generator which he used to power a small grinder much of the day, too, and for which we are most appreciative)
130 lbs approximate weight of generator
2 gallons approximate fuel required to run the Honda generator the whole day, powering 3 or 4 small power tools, 3 fans, and a Bose iPod dock
Priceless value of the generator and portable toilet
20 years estimated life of Rustoleum Gloss White paint when applied to a properly-prepared surface (source: Rustoleum Corporation customer service)


  • Yes people suggested sandblasting, and I’ll be glad to explain why we chose not to, if you really want to know.
  • We plan to do a second coat of paint, combined with a cook-out, sometime later (preferably cooler) this year.


This was taken near dawn, hence the relative darkness and graininess. Click on photo for slightly larger view.