I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it needs a better editor.

David Benioff


<December 2017>




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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 12/8/2017

Posts - 2465
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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:50 AM Pacific

  11:51 PM

Inspired by a Facebook thread today.

Junior highThis music is hip because the older kids listen to it.
High schoolThis music is cool because it's edgy. And deep.
College freshmanThis music is fun because LET'S PAR-TAY!
College juniorThis music is so much more sophisticated than what I used to listen to.
Early 20sAw ... remember this music from high school?
Late 20sThis music is perfect for our wedding reception!
30sShut up, you snotty teens. This is GOOD MUSIC.
Early 40sHa, you kids today don't even realize this music is a cover.
Late 40sHow did this music get on a PBS special?
50sHey, those weasels are using this music for a TOYOTA COMMERCIAL!
60sCan it be 50 YEARS since this music came out?!

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  06:40 PM

Here's a little self-administered test for Americans. (Of course, non-Americans are welcome to play, too, if they want.) Sit yourself down with a blank piece of paper or a blank document in your text editor and write out the words — first stanza only — of the US national anthem. When you're done, check your answers by looking up the lyrics. (Here's one site you can use.)

How'd you do? Something like 2/3 of Americans can't get the lyrics right.

I got to thinking about this because twice in the last few weeks I've seen a sporting event at which the pre-game singer mangled the words to the anthem (most prominently, Christina Aguilera at the Superbowl).

The US national anthem presents some difficulties, I think, in a couple of ways:
  • The words only make sense if you know that it commemorates a siege and bombardment. What "perilous fight" are we talking about here? What's up with the "rockets' red glare"? In the second line, "what so proudly we hail'd," what does what refer to? Not that this is necessarily important, but what war is this?

  • The musical range, an octave plus a fifth, is at about the limit of the range for amateur singers. There's more than one reason that people applaud when singers hit that "home of the FREE". :-)
I mentioned all this on a Facebook post not long ago, and noted that given these difficulties, maybe we should have an easier song as our anthem. This got some responses. One not-surprising response was that singers should know the songs they go out to perform. That's true; if you're a million-dollar singer who gets a gig to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," you have every obligation to be a pro and get it right. (That said, the vehemence with which Ms. Aguilera was condemned in some quarters was a bit extreme, imo — I don't buy that it was a "disaster," for example.)

What surprised me a little, tho, were the responses that argued that the anthem should not be "dumbed down" just because people couldn't sing it. To me, this seems backward. The national anthem (I emphasize: to me) is something that literally belongs to the people, something that people sing as part of their pride in their nation and in solidarity with their fellow-citizens. Given this, isn't it ideal to have an anthem that anyone can sing, both lyrically and musically? As it is, we generally have to rely on professional singers for good renditions of the anthem, because, as noted, the majority of Americans cannot make it through the song.

The analogy I used was the song "Happy Birthday" — so simple, both musically and lyrically, that even small children can sing it. Obviously, no one is going to come up with a national anthem that's as simplistic as "Happy Birthday," but you get the idea — the song should serve the people, not be some sort of skills test or patriotism SAT.

It's not as if the national anthem is part of the Constitution or anything; it's only been an official anthem since 1931. I get that people like the phrase "star-spangled" and that even if most people can't pinpoint which rockets' red glare we're talking about, it makes a nice complement to, say, the Fourth of July. Still, it would be nice to have a song that would be easier to sing.

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  12:24 PM

That Mozart could be a sly fellow. Music poured out of the guy seemingly effortlessly -- legend has it that the Kegelstatt Trio was written out while Mozart was waiting his turn at skittles[1] -- but maybe it wasn't as always as easy as that. And the man did have to make a living, after all.

Take, for example, the flute concerto in D. According to S. W. Bennett, on the liner notes to the LP The Virtuoso Oboe:
[T]he financially hard-pressed Mozart had an opportunity to earn some money by writing for the flute, an instrument he disliked. A Dutch patron of music and flautist, M. de Jean, commissioned in 1778 a group of flute works, which Mozart had to supply in a hurry. He brought forth three flute quartets and two flute concertos.
You're in hurry, you have some distant patron, and you don't even like the flute. So what do you do?
Of the latter [that is, the concertos] the one in D is undoubtedly the C major oboe concerto transcribed. As "almost conclusive evidence" Alfred Einstein points to the fact that in its D major flute form, the violin parts of the concerto never go below A on the G-string, indicating that the whole work was simply transcribed a whole tone upwards.
Heh. Hey, maybe he won't notice that his commissioned flute concerto is actually an oboe concerto redone to make it more flute-y. But alas, it seems that De Jean did actually notice -- per the infallible Wikipedia, De Jean didn't pay Mozart for the concerto.

An interesting historical twist is that the oboe concerto was lost for many years, and only the flute concerto was in the repertoire. People knew from writings that there was an oboe concerto, but there was no manuscript. But a dude named Paumgartner eventually pieced it together in the 1920s:
This oboe concerto was first published in its present form in 1948, the editors using old manuscript parts in the Mozarteum library at Salzburg, but the music has long been known as the Flute Concert in D major, with the same K. number.
Kids, don't let this happen to you. If you plagiarize, even yourself, your rich patron will find out and will stop the check. And don't forget to make backup copies of your originals, just in case.

[1] Not quite; he did compose like that, but not the trio in question.

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  12:07 AM

This post is strictly about guitar setup; for those who care naught for guitar mechanics, nothing here to see. Catch you next time.

I had an interesting guitar setup experience recently. If you have even moderate experience with guitar setup, this will probably all be old hat. (And if you have none, you probably don't care. So who's reading? Hmmm.)

I got my electric a year and some ago. It's a knockoff of a Gibson ES-330:

I like it fine. As I got it, it had some relatively high-gauge strings (11s, probably). Being new to electric, I had nothing to go by, so I used that guitar as-is. I had a setup done at one point, but didn't have it restrung. During one of my lessons, tho, we were talking about bending, and my teacher had a go on my guitar. "Lighter strings, dang!" was his recommendation, so I had one of the shop guys put on some lighter ones (10). It was sort of a rush job, which more-or-less explains the rest.

The lighter strings were a definite plus. However, it seemed to me that the guitar had developed a slight buzz. (This is where the experienced folks say "duh.") I kept thinking I should take it in for another setup, but didn't get around to it.

One night, tho, I was at guitar school (not to be confused with lessons), and the owner dude (Jay) introduced Ryan, a new guy they had. Ryan was a guitar builder, Jay said, and was open for business. Specifically, you could bring him your guitar for repair or whatever. It was the same price as taking the guitar to a shop, but -- the cool part -- you could watch and, if you wanted, Ryan would teach you to do what he was doing.

So I took my guitar in and watched Ryan do his thing. The first thing he did was have a look at the alignment of the neck and body. Dead straight, he noted. Not good, I asked? Not what you want, he said. The neck should actually "up-bow" a tiny bit (we're talking very small fractions of an inch here).


That way, there would be enough clearance between string and fret as you fingered notes, but the strings wouldn't actually touch the frets (the source of the buzzing). When I'd had lighter strings put on, there was less tension on the neck, so it flattened out a tiny bit -- enough to introduce the little buzzing I'd noticed. Ryan adjusted the truss rod (whatever that is) to loosen it just enough to compensate for the lighter strings. Presto, done.

Ryan then tuned the strings. He started with a gross tuning -- setting each open string to its nominal pitch. But he explained that the in-tune-ness of the strings was not perfect up the fretboard. For example, in a simplistic guitar design, fretting at the 12th fret would not get you an exact octave. Among other reasons, fretting the string stretches it ever so slightly, which of course affects its pitch. (More)

To compensate for this, on electric guitars (and, like, violins and stuff) have a way to micro-adjust tuning. On some guitars, like mine, the strings lie over a saddle arrangement that has screws to adjust the string, known as intonators. Here's a little more detail:
[I]f the bridge is placed at exactly the theoretical position (nut - 12th fret distance multiplied by 2), the fretted notes will get progressively sharper the further up the fingerboard one plays. This is because fretting the strings stretches them by a small amount, raising the tension and therefore the pitch of the notes produced. Action height is normally lowest at the nut and highest at the last fret, so the sharping effect increases with distance from the nut. To compensate for this, length is added to the string at the bridge end. The amount necessary varies from string to string, generally increasing from treble to bass. "Intonation" means adjusting this compensation until the open notes and the 12th fret notes of each string are exactly one octave apart. (Paul Guy, "Tuning the Guitar")
The intonators on my guitar look like this:

Ryan fretted each string at the 12th fret and then adjusted the intonator until the string was in tune at that fret. The resulting stair-step arrangement of the intonators is typical. There are two such stair steps here, one for the wound strings, one for the non-wound strings; note that in each case, the heaviest of the strings is the longest. (On acoustic guitars, the bridge often has different bevels for different strings. Some, like my Takamine, have a split bridge whose arrangement approximates the stairs steps of the intonators.)

Ryan offered to let me do some of this adjustment. I declined, although I'm not sure why; it wasn't a particularly exacting job, nor could I screw up the guitar. (Much.) I was just happy to see what he was doing and be able to get explanations and ask questions. In the end, because the job was so quick, I ended up paying even less than I would have for a regular setup.

I don't have enough guitars that I can keep one around as a junker to practice all this stuff on. It's inevitable that I'll have one eventually, tho. As all guitar people know, there's always another guitar waiting to be bought. :-)

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  11:20 AM

You know what I wouldn't mind? A bit of sunshine. Wrong time (winter) in the wrong place (Seattle), I guess.

Fake reviews prompt Belkin apology. I guess I've just always assumed that some number of product reviews (and restaurant reviews) are by shills. (I'm usually most suspicious of the ones with the really, really bad grammar, haha.)

The #1 Song on this Date in History. What was the #1 song on the Billboard chart on the day that you were born? (Me, it was Elvis Presley, "Too Much.") [via Sarah] [18 Feb 2012: h/t to Rupert Charles for the updated link!]

What the Web knows about you. Check out the list in the sidebar of all the things the author was able to find about himself. [via ... just about everyone]

Facebook and list mania, aka "25 Things About Editors". John McIntyre's editor-specific take on the "25 things about me" meme that's been going around.

[categories]   , , , , [tags] product reviews, Billboard, privacy, Facebook

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  10:01 AM

A short list today. Spending too much time away from the computer. Ha!

How to get someone to answer your questions. Clever strategy, heh. [via Raymond Chen]

How Math Unraveled the 'Hard Day's Night' Mystery. You know that opening chord for The Beatles' "Hard Day's Night"? Guy figured out how they made it. [via Daughter Sabrina]

Spelling Bee. The Visual Thesaurus people have put up a spelling-bee style spelling test that's strangely addictive. [via Fritinancy]

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  10:17 AM

Alternative lyrics.

I got the key to the highway
Billed out and bound to roam
It's a new GPS box
It tells me how to get home

I'm going back to the border
This time I won't get lost
Like when we went there that last time
And got ourselves all crossed

When the moon peeks over the mountains
My beacon I'll be able to set
I'm gonna roam this old highway
And my old maps I'm gonna forget

Gimme one more kiss, darling
And one for my GPS
Coz when I leave here this time
Directions I won't have to guess



  12:20 AM

I've been taking guitar class for several sessions running, as noted before. Although members come and go, over the course of these sessions the median age of the participants just hasn't gone down much, so our jocular appellation for the class ("Old Guy Rock") these days is less humor and more just, you know, fact.

And as it turns out, left to our own devices, we always end up selecting songs that are not the, you know, sunniest pop songs. Let's see ... we've had suicide ("Fire and Rain"), regret ("Best of My Love"), regret ("Brown Eyed Girl"), regret ("Can't You See"), regret ("Layla"), regret ("Wish You Were Here"), depression ("You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"), resignation ("Flake"), despair ("Cold, Cold, Heart"), existential ennui ("Norwegian Wood"), prison ("Folsom Prison Blues"), death ("Gravedigger"), suicidal depression and regret ("Hurt"), and, um, who knows ("Ripple"). As a sample.

Well, it turns out there's a reason. I dug up an old, old quote tonight, and golly, maybe this is relevant.
Rock and roll has outlived its usefulness to most of us who grew up with it. The current hits aren't about us anymore, but that's all right--we're no longer crowding the clubs and record stores. Pop has always existed primarily for the young, the only ones who have time for it. The source of disenchantment is in realizing that the favorite songs of our high school and college years are no longer about us either--they reflect where we were in our lives then, not where we are now. This may be why so many of my friends have developed a sudden interest in country, a style of pop whose subject matter is less often adolescent sensuality than adult wreckage.

-- Francis Davis
"'Vox Populi"
The Atlantic Monthly, October 1993
Johnny Cash, anyone?

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  12:06 PM

If you have any contacts at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, or if you follow the gossip side of the cultural scene in Seattle, you certainly know that things have not been smooth in the relationship between the orchestra members and Gerard Schwarz, the music director. Just how not smooth, however, might be a surprise. The New York Times had an article on Sunday that recounts just how bad things have become:
The Seattle Symphony Orchestra has carried disharmony to new heights, lurching from crisis to crisis. There have been allegations of vandalism aimed at players, including a dented French horn and a razor blade planted in a mailbox; a players’ survey that condemned the conductor only to be deep-sixed by management; and lawsuits filed by players accusing the conductor of mental if not physical abuse.

It is a cautionary tale of how the relationship between performers and a long-term leader can go awry and how, in an artistic hothouse, a tangle of emotion and politics can veer out of control and take on a life of its own.
It's a tricky situtation. The problems are affecting morale and relationships all through the orchestra. At the same time, tho, Schwarz has basically put the orchestra on the map, and the board is presumably loath to mess with a formula that, from the perspective of fame, audience loyalty, and $$$, has been extremely successful.

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  12:20 AM

One of my favorite Christmas CDs is "Yulestride" by Butch Thompson -- holiday favorites on stride piano. (sample, 775KB).

Butch Thompson spent a long time on A Prairie Home Companion, and he is versed in that same laconic storytelling style. This is from the liner notes he provides for the CD:
In December 1954, I was the leader of a three-piece band that closed our school Christmas program with an instrumental reading of Silent Night. We had two clarinets and a cornet, and we just played the whole thing, three times through, in unison. We were in the sixth grade, and had received three months of weekly lessons on our instruments. Rehearsing at home one day, I happened to throw in a little "Good evening, friends" blues lick that I thought sounded pretty good, but my mother persuaded me that people might not want to hear that kind of thing on a favorite hymn. They might be offended, she said, or (worse, I thought), they might laugh.

So when the big might came, we played it straight. We had no conductor, so our initial attack was unpromising, as each of us waited for somebody else to do something definite. A beachhead was eventually established, a gradual crescendo ensued, and as I recall we came to a forthright conclusion. Luckily, the first few weeks of clarinet instruction are customarily confined to the low register, so we didn't have to contend with the high notes and their hazardous intonation. In fact, our little trio had a comfortable, unthreatening reedy sound, not much different from an old pedal organ. As we say in the Midwest, it could have been worse.
Well, Mr. Thompson's mother need no longer fear that people might be offended (or, worse, laugh) when those hymns get a thorough dunking in the blues. Alas, it looks like the CD is out of print. Maybe it will come back some day.

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