Why I’m not an electrical engineer

November 3, 2017

Once upon a time, I was a geeky kid, with all that implies about my social standing. And my geekiest interest was electricity and electronics. I wrote a big paper on how vacuum tubes worked, tried to figure out the bands on resistors, almost started a fire in front of a class by hooking up some thin wire from a transistor radio antenna to one of those big horking dry cells. I was well on my way to what could have been a happy and prosperous life, though it wasn’t at the time particularly happy.

What happened? I discovered music.

Now, it wasn’t that music was cooler than electronics, particularly the music that interested me. But what Tchaikovsky and Mahler taught me was that music made it possible to reach inside of somebody and rearrange their guts. I’d been emotionally manipulated my entire life, deliberately or accidentally, and this was my chance to get even with the world. And if I was going to be a stranger in a strange land (hadn’t read that one yet, but it would come), well, composition was stranger than wiring. If I was in study hall looking at wiring diagrams, I was doing what everyone else was doing: studying. If I was writing music, nobody else could do that. But that also meant I could play the misunderstood victim a little harder. Once, I was working on an orchestra piece and was approached by the best rock guitarist in the school, who enthused about what I was doing. Maybe he actually understood! Then he pointed at an empty measure.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s a whole rest,” I said, crestfallen.

And composers could be culture heroes. Beethoven was forever, but did anyone write fan letters to the guy who invented the transistor? Electronics guys all worked behind the scenes. Even scientists in general did. There never seemed to be a personal public face of science, in the 1960s.

So I resolved to be a composer, and decided I didn’t need science stuff. In high school, I never took biology (which was icky and gross) and took the physical science and chemistry that I had to. I bailed on math after geometry. I was a terrible math student (by my lights; Bs rather than As) because I really didn’t care, and nobody tried to make me care. It wasn’t until later, helping my dad lay out a building, that the light flickered on briefly: “Oh, Pythagorean Theorem!” To this day, I am largely STEM-illiterate. I’m not proud of that, but it doesn’t pain me enough to cause me to change it, at this late date.

45 years later, my music is still about rearranging peoples’ guts, shamelessly emotionally manipulative. But the gut-rearranger has to be engineered. Is this material strong enough to support 20 minutes? Is there enough mass here? Is weight distributed evenly? Yes, that’s architectural, not electrical; one could draw parallels between my use of tonality and various elements of electronics, but it’s more of a stretch. It could be that I think I’m designing churches and am actually designing strip malls. And I’ve learned, very slowly, that one has to design to the capabilities of the builders. I’m not a Gehry, or a Xenakis. But I think my music is comfortable to live in. And some people like having their guts rearranged.


25 years ago

January 28, 2011

…about this time, I was at Refrigeration Research in Brighton MI, the place where I used to work, trying to peddle some junk-bond-based mutual funds for First Investors, the place I was working for at the time. I don’t recall if I found out there, or when I got back to the car. I hadn’t paid much attention up until then; people had been going into space, mostly successfully, most of my life, and it was no big deal anymore. Sure, there was all that “first teacher in space” hoopla, but I’d grown up being unimpressed by teachers, and saw no reason I should be impressed then. So when it happened, I sorta went “Oh shit…that’s really sad”, but  it never occurred to be to write a Challenger memorial piece.

At the time it was (and became more so) All About Christa.  If you ask the man on the street who was on the Challenger, the list will begin (if it begins at all) and end with McAuliffe (unless you’re an Akronite, in which case you might remember Judith Resnik). At the time, we sensed there was something wrong with that, which is where the jokes all came from.

What were Christa McAuliffe’s last words? “Gee, what does THIS button do?”

Did you know Christa McAuliffe had blue eyes? One blew here, one blew over there.

The tragedy wasn’t in the lives lost, unless they were friends or family. How many times have we lost 7 or more military at a time? We don’t commemorate that 25 years later. The tragedy was that it ended our belief in technological miracles. We learned that NASA was just as screwed up as any other part of government, that private engineers could say there was a problem but the suits upstairs would reliably bend over for the state. That loss of innocence is worth remembering and mourning today.

On tomorrow’s skyshow

December 20, 2010

“naturally the folks who natter about the spiritual origins of polyamory backstage at every RenFest are in a tizzy.”
So says Tam, linking Roberta X, who suggests that the Wiccan Church of Canada is making way too much out of a regular and perfectly natural event.

I wuz one, once, so I can relate to the idea of reading omens into everything. But what was it an omen of in 1554…which was not one of the better years to be a witch? Here are a few of the events that immediately followed:

1550 About mid century, infanticide began to come to the notice of the courts. Along with this development, witchcraft is increasingly seen as a secular crime rather than an ecclesiastical or spiritual mistake.
1557: Toulouse witch trials took place, during which forty witches were condemned and burned.
1560 Women begin to be accused of witchcraft and sexual crimes. For the first time women have legal standing as the accused.

If it’s a “transformative energy”, I’d want to be really careful about what was being transformed. Look at the symbolism: the Goddess is going to disappear, on the longest night of the year, darkness on darkness.

Linux time at home, anti-virus for your car?

May 24, 2010

IBM, the company that enabled the Holocaust, has just filed patents giving it (or licensees such as the State) constructive ownership of your car. Meanwhile, researchers on the Left Coast have hacked a sedan.

Wir sind gefickt.

Long pig stew with tea: Space Coast, FL

April 16, 2010

The TEA Partiers were out in Florida to protest sky-high government spending, deficits reaching to the moon, millions of dollars going up in smoke…eh, maybe not so much.

Ms. CONNIE SMITH (Space Coast Patriots): Now, some people might say this is an entitlement program. But the space center provides so many more benefits than any entitlement program. We get tons of technology, tons and the high paying jobs that come out of here. What high paying jobs are we getting from Cash For Clunkers?

What kind of jobs and benefits would we get if Kennedy were sold to the highest bidder, and we gave private enterprise the freedom to explore and homestead space? Or if we all kept our money and used it to vote for the kind of jobs WE wanted to see?

“MY program is essential; YOUR program is a boondoggle.” Good luck with that…

Lisa Rainsong and the bugs

August 24, 2009

Today the Plain Dealer online version has a wonderful piece on my dear friend Lisa Rainsong (one of Ohio’s better composers) and her new project studying insect music. There’s a nice little video where she explains it all, far better than I ever could.

Lisa’s also an avid birder, carbon-sucking Earth-destroyer that she is. 😉

Charles Walters RIP –and Olree reviewed

January 17, 2009

I just received word of the passing of Charles Walters, Editor Emeritus of Acres USA, from kidney failure. I had just finished his Minerals for the Genetic Code, and had been considering doing a review. This appreciation will become that review, even though it is considered bad form to speak ill of the dead. But it’s possible to acknowledge Walters’ importance while still pointing out real problems in his work.

For one thing, Walters couldn’t write as well as some people claim. His style managed to be both baroque and folksy at the same time, filled with words like “bespeaks” , and contrived and anthropomorphic verbs. Occasionally one will find non-sentences that appear to be transcriptions from notes, as this one from Minerals... ” Calcium functions in the body, solidity of the body, essential to fetal growth during pregnancy, found in cartilage, fluids and tissue and body alkalinity.” He would often assume knowledge of a reader that one could not reasonably expect, including undefined acronyms. And he had a positive aversion to citation. Minerals doesn’t even have a bibliography, let alone footnotes, and when these are absent from bold claims of governmental or agribusiness malfeasance, it makes Walters sound like a crank.

This connects to my other major complaint about Walters: his advocacy of neo-mercantilist agriculture policy. I’ve been a regular reader of Acres for about 4 years now, and I’ve still not figured out exactly what he thought should be done. He supported agricultural tariffs and parity adjustment,opposed free trade, and apparently thought there was a role for positive government intervention. But he recognized negative government interventions (though not the largest: fiat money manipulation). How could government, owned by whom it is owned by, ever be relied on to fix the problem? At the same time, his advocacy of consumption of locally produced food was a call to action for those of us (perhaps most of his readership) who think that the only ag policy the US should have is the aggregate of consumers’ food preferences.

All that aside, Acres has been and is an essential resource of eco-agriculture and food politics, which would not exist without Walters. Nor would the work of William Albrecht be as well known, and the work of those following in Albrecht’s footsteps would not exist. His shoes will be hard to fill at Acres, especially considering how much of the journal was still written by him. He was a leader. I regret that I never got to meet the man; I’ve always wanted to go to the annual Acres USA conference, but coming at the end of the semester and at the Christmas build-up, it’s never been convenient for me to do so.

Now on to Minerals:

This is “An exposition and analysis of the Dr. Olree standard genetic periodic chart & the physical, chemical & biological connection”. Dr. Richard Olree is a chiropractor who has been working on a kind of unified theory of natural health involving trace minerals and subatomic particles, DNA, chiropractic, acupuncture meridians and the I Ching. The basic concept is this: certain minerals are required by certain genes, but are replaceable by certain other minerals, with ill effect. When minerals balances are off, health degrades as the body uses the wrong mineral. Some minerals are necessary for the uptake of others.  Some minerals can help protect against radiation and other mutagens.

The first part of the book rambles a bit, with information on fluoridation and GMOs, which are connected to but not a part of what Olree is doing. Some of this material is a history of Olree’s predecessors and influences. The 2nd part examines each of the 64 positions in detail. For some, there is little information. Others are more extensive. The I Ching connection is really not explored, possibly because Walters does not understand it. For example, selenium is #50 (Ting ; the Cauldron. “Fire burns over wood. The superior man tends the fire and secures the success of the offering.”) Selenium is an anti-inflammatory, and is essential in sugar metabolism, so it might “tend the fire” in that sense. But Walters doesn’t discuss it at all.

The 3rd part (and 1/3 the book) is the most useful. It is a guide to sourcing trace elements from herbs and foods, with biological and common names, part used, and parts per million of the element. If government has its way, we won’t be abe to buy supplements, and this may help us with mineral balance.

I’m still on the fence about most of Olree, but I think he’s on to something (though he may be mixing it with things with no rational scientific connection), and I wish he would write a book himself, with footnotes.  I’ll be poking into this periodically, to see what else I can glean.