Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Old Sounds

I find this fascinating. The Smithsonian and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have used modern technology to decode audio originally recorded in the 1880s. As explained at, the 1880s was a fertile decade of experimentation in sound recording. Once the basic principle of capturing air vibrations in a permanent physical medium was understood, scientists and engineers "recorded sound magnetically. They recorded sound optically, with light. They tried to reproduce sound with mechanical tools, also with jets of air and liquid. It was an explosion of ideas...." Many of their experiments were lost to history because the one-of-a-kind devices that recorded and played them were long gone. Until now.

Mark Twain's recently released autobiography mentions Mr. Clemens trying out one of the earliest wax cylinder recording devices, procured from Thomas Edison himself, in 1891. Clemens was a beta tester/early adopter, if you will. He said he recorded four dozen cylinders but found the device too unwieldy for literary work, and quickly went back to dictating to a secretary. None of those recordings are known to have survived; consequently, no one today knows exactly what Clemens sounded like. Can you imagine if even one of those cylinders were found and restored? What a treasure it would be to hear Mark Twain narrating his own writing!
Film of Twain shot by Edison in 1909. Unfortunately,
Mr. Clemens didn't live long enough to make a Talkie.

Karen and I have an old hand-cranked phonograph that came to us through her family, a Pathe Actuelle made about 1924. It spent decades in a garage and, except for its beautifully glossy lid, most of its finish is dry, cracked and nearly black. I verrry painstakingly removed some spattered paint from the doors but we've otherwise left it alone, afraid to refinish it. I actually prefer it the way it is. Good honest wear.

I love this thing. I've learned that this model had an unusual design and there aren't many of them around. Instead of the familiar horn, a carefully suspended paper cone at the end of the tone arm amplifies and produces sound. I try to play it every few weeks just to keep the spring limber. Here's a little video of the phonograph in action that I just shot this morning for this post:

By the way, at about 1:05 into the recording you can hear a squeaky meow from Amber the Simple Cat, rubbing through my legs and wondering what's going on. Also by the way, yeah, that's Scotch tape holding the paper cone together. It was torn when we got it. I'm ashamed, but it was necessary until we come up with something better. An additional by the way: we installed our modern stereo equipment in the bottom of the phonograph cabinet, where records were stored way back when. I enjoy the irony.

Can you imagine what it would have been like to bring one of these machines into an early 20th Century home? Powered by nothing but a coiled spring (no electricity required), it would have opened a universe of songs, symphonies, lectures, stories. The World in a wooden box. People who'd never heard music more sophisticated than a small-town brass band suddenly knew Beethoven and Wagner. What a miracle! I imagine radio and television had a similar impact; the Internet may prove to. But I can't think of any other invention in the last hundred years that even comes close.

Every time I play our phonograph, I picture family and friends gathered around it 90 years ago, marvelling at the noise. I'm sure they danced to it; Karen and I find it impossible not to.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Another Slice of the Literary Life

A story from our vacation I didn't have room to tell yesterday:

Tuesday evening, downtown Monterey hosted a three-block-long Farmers Market. As Karen and I wandered among the produce, arts and crafts, and street food vendors, we noticed a used book store half a block down a side street and stepped inside to find a small two-story shop packed with tomes both old and new, lit and smelling just right.

The proprietor was a distinguished older woman. We could tell from overhearing her conversation with another customer that she had read, and had a strong opinion about, every book in the place. I climbed the creaky dog-legged stairs, found an interesting book on the craft of writing (Stein on Writing by Sol Stein) marked $7, and brought it back down to buy. As I turned the corner onto the first floor my eye caught a trio of books high on a shelf, and standing on my tip-toes I was just able to pull down one of the three volumes comprising the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, circa 1770.

"Just out of curiosity," I said, "how much are you asking for these?"

"Oh no," she scoffed, as if someone asking the price of a book in her book store was the most absurd thing she'd ever heard. "No no no."

In the next half second, three possibilities occurred to me:

1. She had sized me up and decided I couldn't afford it, which was probably true.

2. She had sized me up and decided I didn't deserve it, which hurt my feelings.

3. It just wasn't for sale to nobody no-how. Which turned out to be the case.

Still trying to convince her I was worthy, I blurted out, "I love the Britannica. I have the ninth edition from 1892." It was passed down to me by my great-grandmother and holds a place of honor on our family-room bookshelves.

"No no," she said. "I've never seen a set like that and doubt I'd ever find another."

"I've never seen it before, either," I said.

"Did you look at that one?"

"Yeah, I thumbed through it."

"Now you've seen it," she answered, crisply closing the matter.

Still not sure where I stood with this formidable woman, I handed her the Stein book I'd found upstairs.

"Well, since you won't sell me the encyclopedia," I said as lightly as I could manage, "I'll take this instead."

She looked at the Stein book.

"Do you want to be a writer? Or are you?"

"I am a writer. Hoping this book will make me a better one."

She gave me another quick once-over.

"Five dollars."

A $2 discount. I took that as a sign I'd been deemed a little worthy after all, paid the lady, and stepped happily through her door back into the market.

The Old Monterey Book Co., 136 Bonifacio Plaza, Monterey.
I didn't think to take a photo, but found this online. Thanks to

L.D. at the Monterey Daily Photo blog. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Away to Monterey

Earlier this week, Karen and I took a short 28th Anniversary (!) vacation to Monterey and Carmel, two seaside resort towns on the California coast. Although they're just a few hours from our home, I hadn't visited the area in many years (Karen has had a few more recent business meetings there). Monterey is famous for its Cannery Row, immortalized in the Steinbeck novel of the same name, and between Monterey and Carmel lie some of the best golf courses in the world--about which, much to my father-in-law's disappointment, I couldn't care less. But it sure is purty.

There's some interesting geography at work here. Monterey and Carmel lie about five miles apart at the south tip of Monterey Bay, which takes a big shallow bite out of the Pacific Coast. On the map below, you can see how Monterey sits on the protected inland side of a stubby peninsula--when you're standing on the shore you see land nearly 360 degrees around--while Carmel is on the opposite side facing directly into the Pacific. As a result, the waters of Monterey are as calm as a lake, while the coast of Carmel is pounded by frothing surf. Their ecosystems and microclimates are distinctly different. It's a dramatic contrast in a compact area.

I'll tell you all about it with a few pictures and captions, then maybe have more to say on the other side . . .
Karen shot this sunrise from our hotel room balcony overlooking Monterey Bay. 

One of our favorite genres of photography, the long-armed one-handed self-portrait. I'd be embarrassed to admit how many of these we shoot. So I won't.

The region's leading vistors' destination, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I'm standing along the far railing overlooking the manmade tide pool. State of the art when it was built in 1984, the aquarium is a spectacular don't-miss attraction. Twenty-six years ago, it also served as the location of . . .

. . . the Cetacean Institute of Sausalito in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home." You know, the whale movie. This view is the reverse angle of the snapshot above; I added a little orange dot to mark where I'm standing--or where I will stand in 26 years. Except for the movie-magic San Francisco skyline, whale tank, whale (George or Gracie, not sure which), and being 130 miles from Sausalito, this is pretty much how it still looks. Karen and I have stayed married 28 years because she only rolls her eyes a little when I exclaim things like, "Oh, these are the steps Dr. Taylor ran up to pull Spock out of the whale tank!" Ah, l'amour.

Immediately below is a video I shot of feeding time at one of the aquarium's big tanks, which held tuna, sea turtles, a sunfish, one hammerhead shark, and more. Most fascinating was a school of 20,000 silver sardines that flowed around the tank like mercury. A century ago, sardines were the primary catch canned on Cannery Row. Today the bay is a protected marine sancturary and shopkeepers reel dollars out of tourists' wallets. It's a fair exchange.

The aquarium has several terrific exhibits but my absolute favorite was the jellyfish. They're housed in featureless tanks with deep blue backgrounds and then lit so that their translucent bodies almost seem to glow.

More jellies, and a short movie below that captures others in motion. They're so incredibly beautiful it's hard to remember they're alive. They're like works of art.

The water's rougher out along the peninsula facing the Pacific. This is Bird Rock, and what may not be immediately apparent--at least, it wasn't to our eyes on the scene--is that the rock and ocean are jam-packed with barking sea lions. Below is a close-up of the same photo showing dozens of them sunning themselves on the rock while dozens more float in the water with one flipper raised into the air (for temperature regulation? Voting?). Still others frolicked in the waves, doing something I can only describe as surfing. It's a good life.

Through the cypress trees, the beach of Carmel. We went prepared for cold rain but lucked out and hit amazing shirt-sleeve weather.

I wanted to finish up with a word about marriage. It's a little dismaying when you've been married long enough to start winning door prizes and condescending praise ("Anybody here married for ten years? Fifteen? Twenty-five? Wow, twenty-eight, isn't that great folks!"). I remember attending some 25th anniversary parties when I was a kid and those people were OLD. But when you do it right with the right person it seems to fly by pretty effortlessly, especially with kids occupying 24 years of it. Happy Anniversary, Sweetie, thanks for putting up with me.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Two Girls, One Chair

What a difference 24 years makes.

Happy Birthday, Sweet Angels! See you soon.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wednesday Tapas: Conferences, Chairs & Celebrations

Brief bites for the mid-week:

* * *

I've gotten a couple of recent inquiries about the Comics & Medicine Conference I'm helping organize for next July in Toronto (this will be the third international "graphic medicine" conference, following 2010 in London and 2011 in Chicago). The Call for Papers deadline was February 28, and everyone who submitted a proposal should have received an e-mail explaining that they'll hear back by March 31. We'd hoped to review all of the proposals and finish our selection process earlier, but we got so many that it's taking more time. In fact, I'm afraid we may have to turn down some very good ones just because we don't have enough time/space for them all. We have our work cut out for us; I promise we take it seriously.

Registration for the conference is not yet open, but should be soon. Check our blog once in a while for updates.

* * *

What is wrong with you people?

I've been blogging since July 2005, sharing my innermost thoughts, passions, wisdom and wit. Working hard. Baring my soul. And yet day in and day out, the post that consistently attracts more visitors than any other is the one with this doodle of a guy sitting in a chair:

I drew that in about 14 seconds to illustrate a point about the comics medium that cartoonist Mike Lynch shared with me. It goes like this: one cartoonist asks another to illustrate the abstract concept of Loneliness. The second cartoonist sketches the sad-looking fellow above. The first cartoonist says, "No, that's not loneliness," and draws an enormous empty rectangle around the sketch. "That's loneliness."

Swell. Except now everyone who googles the phrase "how to draw sad man sitting in chair" ends up on my site. You wouldn't believe how many people are looking for tutorials teaching them how to draw a sad man sitting in a chair. It's an enormous untapped market!

So for all those folks, here's your free semi-professional cartooning tip of the day: Start with the chair.

* * *

Tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the year, the anniversary of my baby girls' birth. Not so baby anymore. Twenty-four. Geez.

Karen and I'll take them out to dinner, and I suspect (spoiler alert!) there may be cake and gifts involved. See you tomorrow, Chiquitas. Happy Birthday Eve!

* * *

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Brian Has Left the Building

What a good day.

I think my Cartoonist-in-Residence stint at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center went quite well. After a quick lunch at The Warm Puppy Cafe in Mr. Schulz's ice arena, I crossed the street and set up in the museum's classroom. Today was a corporate "family day," which made the place relatively crowded. I brought some pages of original art to display, some slides to show, some books to sell. I also brought pens and a few blank sheets of paper, but the flow of visitors was steady enough that I never actually had time to sit down and draw. Instead, I spent two hours talking to some very nice folks.

My wife Karen, who's indispensible support at things like this, had a previous commitment and couldn't make it until near the end. Luckily our friend Marion showed up, stole my camera and took some nice photos, including those immediately below. Meanwhile, the museum's Education Director Jessica worked determinedly to get my PowerPoint presentation looping on the room's monitor long after I'd given up, and at last succeeded.

My new pal writer/filmmaker/teacher/cartoonist Jason Whiton came, as did several young people including a talented comic-creating brother-sister team, a sixth-grader who drew a dog and cow for me, and a high school student who interviewed me for a Career Day-type project ("How much money do you make?" "None of your business.").

Being interviewed about my semi-career while sitting behind my drawing board covered in blank pages staring up at me accusingly. The usual.
Yeah, I brought my spaceship. People love the spacehip.
Things got extra-special and even a bit life-altering toward the end, when Jeannie Schulz dropped by to say hello. Jeannie is a lovely lady whom I've been lucky to get to know a bit, but she's never invited me to tour Mr. Schulz's former studio that lies a literal stone's throw from the museum. Until today.

Talking with Jason and Jeannie.
With Jeannie and my finally-working PowerPoint presentation. I love this picture because Karen framed it so that it looks like I'm saying the word balloon painted on the wall. It's a quote from Mr. Schulz that reads, "Drawing cartoons is a great way to share your ideas." Couldn't have said it better myself.

To be clear: after Mr. Schulz died, his studio's drawing table, furnishings, and many of his books and other possessions were installed at the museum, where every visitor can see them set up just as they were. But Mr. Schulz also kept a drawing table, furnishings, art supplies and such at home. It's those that Jeannie has moved into the corner of the studio, making a workspace that's both an artificial re-creation and totally authentic. Because the studio is still part of a working office not open to the public, not many people get to see that.

And I sat in the chair. At the board. The beautiful dark brown board in whose surface we saw dimly wrought letters and pictures from Mr. Schulz's hand. I'm not being metaphorical: we could literally make out actual words and shapes impressed into the wood. The Schulz Museum needs to have an archeologist do a rubbing of that thing.

At the Board of Inspiration and Intimidation.
Familiar windows and curtains.

The Plastic Bin of Sacred Relics.
Many thanks to the generous Jeannie, Jessica, everyone at the museum, and everyone who dropped by to visit this afternoon. You made it a very good day.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Cartoonist in Residence or Repose

I haven't yet mentioned here that I'll be March's Cartoonist in Residence at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. tomorrow (Saturday) from 1 to 3 p.m. Every month the museum invites a cartoonist to spend an afternoon in the upstairs Education Room drawing and chatting for anyone who wanders by. If nobody shows up I'll take a quiet nap. Try not to startle me.

This opportunity came up at the last minute, after I guess the previously scheduled cartoonist cancelled. I love the museum and its staff, and in fact just a few weeks ago told Education Director Jessica I'd do anything for them anytime, so she called my bluff. Well played, Jessica.

I was the Cartoonist in Residence a couple of years ago and had a wonderful time. My plan is to bring some original artwork from my books, maybe a few props, and sit there and draw. I'll also have a little PowerPoint slide show looping on the room's TV and a few books to sell. I don't have a talk or lecture planned--that's not the point, although some visitors seemed to expect it last time. They came in, sat down, and stared at me. Waiting. After a few uncomfortable minutes I said, "I'm happy to talk about what I'm doing or answer any questions but, uh, what you're seeing is pretty much it." Their puzzlement was very funny. Dance, monkey, dance!

A few pictures from my last gig (note to self: wear a different shirt):

The last photo is me talking with Jeannie Schulz. I'm her not-so-secret admirer. The restraining order says "stalker," but that's just legal mumbo-jumbo.

The Schulz Museum is worth a visit whether I'm there or not. If you're in the area, check it out!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A New Look

Yep, I updated my blog format. The old template was increasingly buggy and too narrow, especially for posting images and videos large enough to see. This new design promises some features that look interesting, though I'm sure I won't fuss too much with it. Keep it simple.

I'll continue to fine-tune layout, colors and such. If you see any problems or have any suggestions (I'm not sure I like that ghosted comics background), let me know. Thanks!

This is Why The Internet Was Invented

Thanks to my cartoonist pal Justin Thompson for showing me this, which by itself totally justifies the past 30 years of computer and Internet development: a site titled "Batman Running Away From Stuff" ("Stuff" is not the actual word used but this is a family-friendly blog) that took a quick snippet from the Adam West "Batman" series, turned it into an animated GIF loop, and invited readers to fill in the background. (Subtitle: "'60s Batman is a Coward.")

That's all it's for. I find the results hilarious--partly for the very reason that this is how we choose to use the nearly miraculous high-tech tools of the modern world. Of course it is. My two favorite examples:

Submitted by Benjamin

I am reassured by the certainty that no matter how sophisticated our computing and communication technology becomes, there will always be someone eager to do something incredibly stupid with it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Newest Coolest Picture Ever, Apollo Edition

I periodically post pictures that I claim to be the coolest ever, most of which have something to do with space and a few of which come from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) currently free-falling around the Moon and mapping it with unprecedented precision. The latest Coolest Picture Ever is one of the latter.

Over time, as the LRO's orbit drops closer to the surface, its images get clearer and more detailed. Like this one, showing the landing site of Apollo 15 from just 15 miles (25 km) overhead (that link leads to higher-resolution versions):

Some of what you're looking at: In the center is the base of Apollo 15's Lunar Module "Falcon," the legs left behind when astronauts Jim Irwin and Dave Scott blasted off in the top half. I love the detail visible in the descent stage's shadow. The spot marked "ALSEP" is the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, while the "LRV" is the Lunar Roving Vehicle--the Moon dune buggy first used on this mission. And weaving around and among those features are the paths made by the astronauts' boots and Rover's tires, tracks that will endure on the Moon millions of years longer than anything humans have created on Earth.

I am simultaneously amazed that we can see those footprints four decades after they were made, and disappointed that we haven't been back to make new ones in the four decades since. But mostly amazed. That's so COOL!

In fact, it may be the Coolest Picture Ever.

Value-Added Bonus: here's the last time someone saw the Falcon's descent module from the surface, as transmitted by a video camera deliberately left running on the Rover. Just looking at the angles of where the LRV, ALSEP and descent stage are, I wonder if the white blob to the right rear of the descent stage is part of the ALSEP (it could also be a boulder, crater rim, or something else--distance is hard to judge on the Moon). If so, it's a two-fer! "Up we go into the wild blue yonder" indeed.

Appreciate this. It'll be a long time before anyone sees its like again.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Davy Jones

I don't have a lot to say about the death of Davy Jones but couldn't let it passed unmarked, partly because it hit me a bit harder than I might have expected. As sad as it is to lose Mr. Jones, I'm sure much of what I'm mourning is my own lost youth. The first LP I ever bought was a Monkees album. I loved their television show, which holds up pretty well to my modern middle-aged eyes. It's creaky and painfully forced in parts, and OH! that awful laugh track, but you can't deny the boys' anarchic joie de vivre.

For years--decades!--liking the Monkees was uncool. A shameful secret best kept to yourself or whispered among furtive fellow travelers. They weren't a real band, just some casting-call wannabes assembled by TV producers. The "Pre-Fab Four," an artificially engineered knock-off of The Beatles. That's broadly true--and, in my mind, just put the Monkees about 30 years ahead of their time. Backstreet Boys? N'Synch? Davy was already a hit in the Broadway musical "Oliver." Monkee Mike Nesmith was a genuine folk-rock talent, writing the song "Different Drum" that Linda Ronstadt made famous. They had skills.

Critics complained that they didn't play their own instruments. Studio musicians did do most of the work on their first couple of albums, but the Monkees could play and did for later records and concerts. Even if true, so what? Half the bands in history, including the most artistically respected, relied on hired hands. Rap artists don't play instruments at all. By all accounts, the Beatles themselves liked the Monkees and considered them legit.

Plus, they pretty much invented music videos. That's a key reason for the group's rediscovery in the 1980s: MTV had a lot of broadcast hours to fill and, at the time, not a big library to draw upon. The Monkees had two years of bits like the one above all ready to go. Voila: retro-hip Monkee Renaissance.

The Monkees also had some of the best songwriters of the day composing for them: Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, Gerry Goffen and Carole King, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. It's interesting; the Monkees song I hear most often on the radio today is one that wasn't a hit in the Sixties, King's sarcastic suburban portrait "Pleasant Valley Sunday." Who knew?

Part of the Monkees' disrepute is wrapped up in the historical disrespect for Pop Music in general. Who's cooler, Neil Diamond or Jimi Hendrix (who briefly opened for the Monkees on tour, until everyone realized what a train wreck that was)? Yet over time people grew to realize that even Pop could be done well or poorly, that good Pop had value, and the Monkees made good Pop. To the surprise of many, even some of us who were fans, their work has stood the test of time.

The Monkees TV show only aired for two seasons. The band survived a while longer, as its members grew more creatively assertive (and, it has to be said, less commercially successful as they did so). In 1968 they starred in the movie "Head," which I've never seen. Co-produced and -written by Jack Nicholson (yeah, that one), it's reportedly a psychedelic stream-of-consciousness disaster deliberately meant to deconstruct the Monkees phenomenon--its artificiality, the hit-making apparatus, the teen heart-throb machine, all of it. Someday I've got to watch this thing. Sounds like it could be more relevant now than ever.

Meanwhile, "Head" provides the clip below of Davy singing Harry Nilsson's "Daddy's Song," just a song-and-dance man doing what he did best. He was born in 1945, making him about 22 when he shot this scene. So young. You may be able to watch it without smiling, but I couldn't.

One of the benefits of losing your youth is not worrying whether anyone thinks you're cool.