Saturday, March 26, 2011

Clicks, Pops, and Other Irritants

     I still remember the time I first heard a compact disk (I have an aversion to spelling disk d-i-s-c.) played and it was being played on a high quality system. I knew immediately that I would have to switch to CDs as soon as my financial condition permitted it. That was about twenty-five years ago. I eventually replaced most of my records and have no interest in even taking up room in my home with a turntable.
    Why do I feel this way? What was it about that first experience that impressed me so much? The short answer is everything. For me listening to music is an experience and anything that detracts from that experience is bad. Someone walking into the room and starting to talk is annoying to me as are background sounds like lawnmowers, traffic sounds, and construction noises. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. The problem is that at least 95% of all the music I listen to is classical music. Classical music has something modern music lacks, a wide dynamic range. The loudest and quietest parts of a work easily differ by 60db. There are actually short periods of complete silence. So how is this relevant?
     Roughly thirty-five years ago while working in the PVC industry I was involved in optimizing phonograph record compounds. Phonograph records or as they are called today, vinyl, are made of a vinyl chloride-vinyl acetate copolymer usually with fine particle vinyl chloride homopolymer added as a blending resin. Stabilizers and lubricants are added to help the polymer survive the processing step. A few percent carbon black is added primarily to cover up any contaminant that would be visible inside the record after pressing. During the 1950s RCA produced 45RPM records that were transparent red and I am truly impressed that they always looked pristine.
     The compound ingredients are mixed in a high intensity mixer and then extruded using a twin screw extruder and a special die with a rotary cutter to produce pellets of compound. These pellets are then put into a boom type extruder which forms what we used to call a doughnut. This doughnut is picked up hot and placed on the record label already waiting on the spindle of the press. A second label is placed on the doughnut and the press activated. The press platens come together in the heated hydraulic press and the polymer flows out to fill the record grooves. After a fast cooling step the pressed record is removed by hand and placed on a trimmer that removes the flashing along the edge. At that time a decent operator could produce a record every 20 seconds. Not many years after this we upgraded to an automatic press capable of pressing records at any rate the record compound would permit.
     From the viewpoint of the end user you would think that the primary objective of the record making process would be to produce the highest quality record possible at an acceptable cost. They would be wrong. If you follow the path between recording studio and record store you find a whole bunch middle men. There are sales and marketing people, distributors, shippers, and the retailer all in need of making a profit. The recording artists also get a piece of the action. If you consider that the record complete with dust jacket and album cover cost less than a dollar to produce back in those days and the final product sold for over five dollars you come to realize that the guy pressing the records does not have the highest profit margin.
     Going back to the 20 seconds it takes to produce a record you can see that making one in 19 seconds represents a 5% increase in productivity. That means an increase in profit margin and so a record compound capable of producing a record in one second less will look mighty attractive to the record manufacturer.
     Now imagine a process producing good quality records at a rate of one every 19 seconds when the processing conditions are exactly right and the compound has the optimum rheological properties. Now also imagine a slightly altered situation where the record compound being used is near its upper limit in flow properties and the temperatures of the processing equipment are a little short of ideal. You see what is going to happen. The record compound will not flow as well and some of the grooves will not form properly. This is called non-fill and causes a short burst of buzzing when played. Records can also be removed from the press while a little too hot and the operator if he grasps the record with a little too much pressure will cause a deformation beginning at the record edge and continuing about an inch towards the center. I have seen deformations so bad that the stylus actually loses contact due to the upward momentum of the tonearm when rising up the leading side of one of these deformations. Records with deformations such as this are said to be warped. Records will also warp if you store them at too high a temperature but that is a different issue.
     If you eliminate the records with obvious and unacceptable manufacturing defects you are still left with a record full of clicks, pops, hiss, and distortion. This is where rock has the advantage over classical music. With rock who is going to notice minor clicks and pops? The hiss will be completely buried in the signal and let’s face it, distortion is a part of rock music anyway.
     In the laboratory where record compounds were developed we used record platens with silent grooves and with recorded tones. When you listened to these records you could hear all of the defects in the silent grooves. With a scanning electron microscope you can see various defects in the grooves including an overall roughness. This roughness is probably not an issue if you consider that the radial velocity of the groove relative to the stylus is at least 22cm/sec so that even nearest the record label any defect causing the stylus to move less than 10┬Ám will probably be inaudible.
     At one point in my life I spent the money buying pre-recorded open reel tapes and even though the clicks and pops were gone and the distortion reduced to a much more acceptable level, the hiss seemed to worsen. Dolby systems worked pretty good at eliminating the hiss but tapes were terribly inconvenient. They were also very expensive. And as I found out later they do not have an unlimited life. I also noticed that the magnetic signal seemed to migrate into adjacent layers of tape so that you could hear an extremely weak signal in the silent areas of the music
     With a compact disk the quality of the original recording comes through and as long as the CD is treated well the sound quality does not deteriorate with age. If there is something coming through on records that is missing on CDs it is not worth the price of noise and distortion. I have CDs of the exact same recordings I had on records and have compared the two. There is absolutely no way a record sounds as good as a CD.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Settled in and Wired for Sound

     Things are looking good in our new home. All of the walls and ceilings are painted, the new kitchen is complete, the art work is up, the furniture is in place, and the majority of stuff is put away. I even took my old stereo out of storage and hooked it up.
     Let me tell you about my stereo. In addition to the newer components (CD player, DVD player, etc) I have a Dynaco PAT-4 preamplifier, and a Dynaco Stereo120 power amplifier. I left my Empire 398 turntable and my open reel tape deck in storage. The speakers I bought from my brother back around 1987. I don’t know much about speakers except how they work and what they sound like. These speakers were apparently priced originally somewhere around $600 and their sound is awesome. He only parted with them because he found better ones at a price he couldn’t pass up. In any case when hooked up to my system the combined performance is better than anything I have heard in over forty years. Yes, the system is that old.
     I purchased the Dynaco components back in 1968 as kits. This was back in the days when electronics were still made of discreet components. Integrated circuits might have been just making their appearance then. What is amazing is that the preamplifier has such a selection of inputs that one of them has an impedance matched to a CD deck that wasn’t even dreamed of back then. Is that luck or what? It also works for the DVD player. The result is a stereo that far exceeds anything I have heard in my travels. A McIntosh system would probably outperform it to be sure but that kind of equipment is so far out of my price range that I don’t even think about it. Besides my hearing is not improving and I have to wonder if I would even be able to appreciate the difference at this point.
     I hooked the DVD deck to the system and those 12 inch woofers give that wonderful big sound you usually only hear in movie theaters. Some movies like Hunt for Red October need that kind of sound. The only thing missing is a larger screen television and that will probably happen once my cash flow goes back to normal. Movies are important to me since I do not have the television hooked up for programming and in fact I have not watch television since the 1970s unless I was at someone elses house. From what I see I don’t think I am missing much. Maybe my relationship with TV can be a future topic.
     By now you have figured out that sound is important to me. I mourned the loss of my stereo while we were in the apartment and so it is very exciting for me to have it back again. My wife and I have a very extensive collection of compact disks. Between the two of us we must have over 2000 CDs. I love CDs. Anyone who tells you that vinyl sounds better than a compact disc either has a hearing problem or else listens to music where the advantages of CDs don’t matter. A lot of people will disagree with me on this but if they do they are wrong. This is a topic I won’t compromise on and so plan on a major discussion of it in the very near future.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Help! My Checkbook Has Sprung a Leak

We have embarked on a new life journey. After spending the past four or five years resting comfortably and lazily in our apartment we took the plunge and joined the ranks of the homeowner. If you read this blog you know we were looking for a place last fall but gave up. The market just didn’t seem right. Prices have dropped since then as have mortgage rates. The pieces simply fell into place for us. So during the next few weeks we will be devoting most of our time to moving.
There are several reasons for making this move now. My in-laws who are very elderly require an increasing amount of care. A few years ago when they lost the ability to keep up with the maintenance requirements of a home they sold it and moved into an apartment. Their timing was perfect considering all of the health issues that have occurred since then. In any event it is easy to see how important it is to live close to them so we can drive them to their appointments and generally lend needed assistance. Neither of them should be driving a vehicle at this point and we feel some responsibility in maintaining the public safety. We will be living about a mile from their place and that seems close enough.

The other reasons for moving now involve money. Despite prices dropping continuously during the past year, homes remain stubbornly unsold on the market. For any given home there is a maximum price that a buyer is willing to pay and an minimum price that a seller is willing to accept. Right now those two numbers are too far apart. For many of those homes where these two numbers converged a sale has taken place. I figure the market probably still has a 5-10% drop ahead of it and worked that into my offer. I have no illusions about timing the market just right. I’ll settle for close.  Luckily for us the seller accepted the realities of the market and dropped their price.

With so few properties selling right now it is difficult to judge by comparison what a fair price is but the tax assessment on the place we purchased dropped $31K since last year and we paid a price about $55K less than that new assessment. Overall I think we paid a fair price neither being cheated nor taking advantage of the seller.

Now we are in the process of cleaning, painting, and updating the kitchen.  The new stove and dishwasher gets delivered tomorrow and the garage door will be repaired right after lunch.  I think I am beginning to understand what economists mean when they talk about money having velocity. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Few Thoughts on 3 Wars

There was an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, The Guns of August 1990 , where Fouad Ajami argues that, “The last 20 years would have been very different had the American forces taken that open road to Baghdad the first time around.” We can be fairly sure that the decision to stop short of victory was made by President George H.W. Bush. Whether he was influenced by General Powell I do not know but I believe General Norman Schwarzkopf could have brought the war to a more satisfying conclusion with minimal casualties. Saddam Hussein would have been removed from the middle east equation and maybe this change would have allowed us to avoid the two attacks on the World Trade Center. Its something to speculate about.

Didn’t we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Vietnam as well? We could argue this all day long but I am convinced that militarily the war was essentially won when the Tet Offensive failed. Why the media chose to portray it otherwise is pretty strong evidence that our media has had an agenda for a long time. It probably doesn't matter since our civilian leadership had already removed victory as an option early in the game. We learned quick enough that the enemy was completely committed to victory.

Even though Truman was a committed New Dealer I still liked him. He was both feisty and I believe honest. However I totally disagree with his decision to not pursue total victory in Korea. Even if Truman was justified in relieving MacArthur of his command in Korea it does not in any way make MacArthur’s belief in total victory any less right.  We would not be dealing with North Korea now if we had gotten it right back then. Moreover the people of North Korea would not have spent the past sixty years in misery.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

My $100,000-$250,000 Tobacco Windfall

I used to be a smoker. Starting to smoke cigarettes in 1964 I might have rationalized my decision by pointing out that men smoked and boys did not. As an impressionable young man I could not help but notice that all of my role models smoked. My dad smoked as did both of my grandfathers. The movies provided addition reinforcement. John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and even Bing Crosby smoked. And so I started not so much because of peer pressure as what I might call societal pressure, a right of passage if you will.

Tobacco companies and the medical profession were still arguing about the health issues associated with smoking. Television programming was riddled with cigarette commercials. Hospitals permitted smoking. And I suspect there were as many ashtrays in the halls of government as there are Marxists now. In short there was no stigma attached to smoking.

Looking back now I can not imagine that I enjoyed my first cigarettes but somehow I acquired the habit. By the time I reached my eighteenth birthday I was fully addicted to the damned things and easily smoked a pack a day. I even smoked an occasional cigar and pipe. Upon reflection I have to admit that I probably did not look as sophisticated as Bing Crosby with my pipe. But somehow the human mind deludes itself and presents a self image that has absolutely no connection with reality.

Smoking was not as expensive in the sixties as it is now. I paid $2.87 per carton (10 packs) for most brands and for a while smoked the more expensive ($3.60 per carton) Benson & Hedges cigarettes that came in hard pocket size boxes. Unhappiness reigned in the smokers’ world when cigarette prices reached $5.00 per carton.

As the years passed evidence for the relationship between smoking and cancer accumulated. In spite of this I continued smoking regularly reaching a peak of about two packs a day. At some point I decided to quit or at least cut down on my smoking. Trying to quit is a fun activity. So much fun that I did it many many times over a period of years. Well, maybe fun isn’t the word.

I could tell you that my success was variable or I could be honest and say I failed in every attempt. When I made a conscious effort I found that I could easily get by on a half pack a day but over time my smoking would increase and I would find myself going through more than a pack a day.

Sometime in early 1975 I detected some blood after coughing. This event elevated the importance of quiting to a new level. If I needed incentive to quit this was it. But so powerful is the addiction to nicotine that even fear can not overcome the urge to light up the next cigarette.
I discovered that the first cigarette of the morning was critical and needed to be delayed as long as possible. On a work day I usually broke down around 10AM. Getting aggravated was a license to smoke. A quarrel with a poor outcome might elicit a response such as, “Why do I even care if these things kill me”. Any excuse worked.

After a few weeks of successfully keeping my smoking down to half a pack a day I determined that the time was right to just quit. If I was a man I would be able to beat this. I knew most of the triggers that would have to be overcome and prepared myself psychically to face them.

I finished dinner, smoked a cigarette, and prayed to God that I would have the strength to follow through with this. Those first hours were pure misery. I kept an unopened pack of cigarettes in my pocket at all times in case of emergency. Not having cigarettes just makes you obsess more. Failure would require the opening of the new pack and even though that was a weak barrier it was a barrier. Somehow I made it through the evening.

The next morning I fought off the urge and went to work. I skipped my coffee since I knew the association would be strong and would make it more difficult. I sure didn’t need to make it more difficult. At noontime I drove home for lunch and had my usual two sandwiches. Then the craving for a cigarette became irresistable. It had been 18 hours since my last fix and I started to lose it. I broke down and lit up. It was the best cigarette I ever smoked in my life.

Overcome by guilt I wondered if I would ever be able to follow through. Then it occurred to me that the full feeling after a meal was the strongest trigger possible. I always needed a cigarette after a meal. If I ate breakfast that day I would not have made it to noon. This best cigarette also turned out to be my last cigarette. I still remember the date, May 5, 1975.

The secret that finally made quitting possible was quitting meals. I no longer ate lunch and dinner. I divided all of my food into tiny snacks so that I was never even close to full. This didn’t make quitting easy. It just made it possible.

I would be lying if I did not admit that quitting was nearly a living hell for the first week. The physiological need for a smoke probably goes away after a week or two but it did not feel that way to me. I can not remember anymore, but the craving did not go away for a long time. The desire to smoke lasted for months.
  1. Trying to remember back 35 years I tried to think of all the things I did to bring quitting to a successful conclusion. Here are the main points I think made the difference.
    Cutting back to half a pack a day a few weeks prior to actually quitting may have helped. Smoking less means that the concentration of nicotine in my system was reduced slightly well in advance to reducing it to zero. Since I do not understand the mechanism of nicotine addiction I can not say with certainty that cutting down prior to quitting actually helps.
  2. Quitting coffee drinking removes a recurring action associated with smoking. Let’s face it, coffee and cigarettes go together like toast and butter. The same is true of beer and smoking. Anything associated with smoking has to be eliminated. I started drinking coffee again within a month with no problem.
  3. I think the pack of cigarettes I carried with me for the first few weeks was an important psychological crutch. You may be able to navigate your basement in the dark but that is no reason to not have a flashlight with you.
  4. Giving up meals was the single biggest factor. Reducing my food consumption to nibbling and avoiding eating enough to get full was critical. Dare I say that to a smoker a big meal without a cigarette is like sex without the orgasm?
  5. I changed my routine. I started taking walks and avoided activities like reading, watching television, and listening to music. They had too strong an association with smoking and so why take the risk.

It has been established fact for a long time that smoking is bad for your health. Smoking is associated with emphysema, cancer—lung cancer in particular; and smoking combines synergistically with other irritants such as silica and asbestos to cause a whole host of health problems. With governments using cigarette smokers as a major source of revenue the habit has become very expensive.

To put the cost into perspective I performed a rough calculation to see how much money I saved by quitting 35 years ago. If I assume an incremental price increase between 1975 and the present and make reasonable guesses about returns on investment over that time I figure that the money I saved approaches a quarter of a million dollars. If I assume my numbers are too optimistic I can scale it down and say that at worst I saved $100,000. (What do you suppose I spent that money on?)

There is a part of smoking I never hear anyone talk about. Smoking stinks. Tobacco smoke sticks to your clothing, permeates your home and car, and gives you bad breath. Which brings me to the question of the century. Why would someone do something that costs a lot of money, harms their health, and makes them smell like an ashtray all the time? If you were born after 1980 and smoke you have to be either self-destructive or else just plain stupid.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome

My silence for the past eleven months can not be blamed on writer’s block or a lack of things to write about. I have spent the past year mostly occupied by family and work. I am happy to say I have found time to read and watch an occasional movie. I spend the time in between wondering how to plan my future in a post-constitutional America. Words like adapt, improvise, and overcome came to mind. Updating a blog that only four people in the world bother to read never seemed particularly important.

Last fall my wife and I invested considerable time searching for a new home and on three occasions thought we had found what we were looking for. The first house we considered was perfect in several ways but overpriced. We made an offer which was not accepted and the seller’s counter-offer was still too high. The second home we considered was in many ways better but needed a new roof. We made an offer taking in account the fact that we would have to pay out close to $12,000 to replace the roof. They gave a curt no to our offer. My wife loved the place whereas I exhibited a distinct lack of enthusiasm. I figured I could adapt to any living situation and so we made a second offer which was also turned down though this time they responded with a counter-offer. Eventually we settled on a compromise price that I believed to be very generous but something I could live with if I didn’t give it too much thought. The mortgage process went smoothly and I figure we were probably within a week of final approval. Then we moved on to the home inspection.

I have participated in home inspections before and they can be very fascinating, sometimes even scary. I recall an inspector finding out that the main electrical panel was ungrounded, that the clean out for the sewer line was 30% buried in concrete, and that some of the wiring was so old that the insulation was cracking, all in the space of less than five minutes. Since the house I was looking at this past month was only 20 years old I did not expect to find problems. I was wrong.

There is something about the inspection process that opens your eyes to defects. Even defects the inspector doesn’t point out to you become obvious. Issues began to accumulate rapidly. On the outside we discovered that the garage door was showing signs of weathering near the ground. I considered this a small defect but one that would require attention as soon as the weather permitted it. The brick walkway was improperly installed and the bricks in the center were significantly lower than on the edges. This would require what amounts to completely rebuilding the walkway. I had not noticed this before.

Walking around the house we studied the way in which the deck was attached to the house but a complete examination would require removing boards from the deck in order to get a good look it. The presence of dirt, pine needles, and moisture along the line where the deck connected to the house suggested potential issues. The inspector pointed out that some of the nails holding the deck to the house were loose and could be pulled out by hand. He didn’t need to explain why this might be. The kick plate was essentially in contact with the deck and unlike the deck is not made of pressure treated wood. This became an issue on the other end of the house where we discovered that the kick plate was completely rotted out and showed evidence of insect damage, probably carpenter ants. Without tearing out parts of the house there was no way we could determine how far the rot had progressed. I won’t bore you with all the details nor do I want to give the impression that everything was bad. The heating system was excellent as was the electrical work.

At the end we decided against proceeding with the purchase and that was that. In the meantime the house in the adjacent town with which I had fallen in love and on which I would have made an offer had sold. It was a little more expensive but the taxes were 40% lower. With no additional houses coming on the market we decided we might as well wait until spring. After all there was nothing happening in the economy to suggest that the market was going to abruptly turn around and now that we are in April of the following year we can see that we judged correctly.

At the moment there are too many things going on and so looking for a house will have to wait until at least mid-May or perhaps longer.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Law of Conservation of Hair

Every now and then my thoughts drift back to my distant past. Maybe this is a symptom of an aging mind running out of synapses or something; but for whatever reason it happens with increasing frequency with the passage of time. These moments are usually fleeting but sometimes these recollections lead somewhere as happened very recently when I began thinking about childhood haircuts.

My Mom used to take my brother and I to LaSalle’s Barber Shop on Elizabeth Avenue near the corner of New Point Road. Just to the left as you entered the shop was a barber chair in the shape of a small car for their youngest customers. Slightly older kids got to sit in a regular barber chair but with a seat that was supported by the arms of the chair so that the barber could cut your hair without having to bend over. Kids who fulfilled their obligation of sitting still while the barber completed his work were rewarded with a Tootsie Roll Pop®. If this doesn’t sound like a major motivator you must consider that today’s Tootsie Roll Pop® is little more than a scale model of the original. Candy back then was bigger, cheaper, and better tasting. So what else is new?

I am not planning on discussing how things were better or worse back then. I am going to talk about hair. As a kid I had plenty of it especially when you consider that I lived in a world of crew cuts that didn’t yet know of the existance of the four guys who would eventually call themselves the Beatles and change hair styles for an entire generation. During most of my life the hair would grow like gangbusters and become a part of the heaps of swept up hair on the barbershop floor. It is a never changing fact of life just like the way prices always increase by about the amount of your last raise.

When I was in my twenties my then girlfriend asked me to grow a beard. Facial hair turned her on and I suspect it tickled in just the right way at exactly the right times. She eventually left my life but the beard remains. (Useful Hint: You can hide a lot of flaws under a layer of whiskers.)

Over time the beard grew in heavier and more manly. That’s when I noticed that my hair was beginning to thin slightly in the spot where it usually does on most men. It’s a never ending process; and to tell you the truth I never bothered keeping track. But like all the relentless and gradual changes that follow the aging process the lack of hair eventually became much more noticeable.

Among my more noteworthy observations was that my beard had become fuller and drifted into an equilibrium condition where it only changes color. The hair on my head continues to get more sparse and I definitely see the day where I will be bald on top. What is amazing is that as the hair disappears on my head, new strands of hair miraculously appears somewhere else. I have become acutely aware of the hair growing inside my nose, on my stomach, and on my back. Even my ears are beginning to sprout hairs.

All of this leads me to consider the possibility of a new natural law. Am I observing the effects of the law of conservation of hair? Indeed it seems like the amount of hair on my body is a constant. Even though it freely moves from places I want it to places I don’t want it, the actual quantity seems to remain constant. By quantity I mean mass. The new unwanted hairs tend to be thicker and more massive so that each one is equivalent to three or four cranial hairs.

Seriously though, the changes taking place on my head are common to the male of the species which means there must be a driving force behind it all. I suspect this process is entropically driven. Even though my hair previously grew neatly in well defined areas, it now grows like weeds in an abandoned lot. The body is hell bent on redistributing its hair supply more evenly at the expense of places like the head. It is not unlike the many attempts by governments to redistribute wealth that invariably looks as if they had modeled their country’s economy after the body of an aging man.