got them turntable blues

Does anyone have any advice about what to look for or what to buy in the way of a stereo turntable?

My Mom has a nice selection of vinyl LPs of classical music from the 50’s and 60’s. I gave her a used Sony direct drive turntable about five years ago to replace a POS belt driven Panasonic that she had used since the mid-80s. That Sony had some interesting features: a tone adjustment knob, a built-in strobe, an S-shaped tone arm, a semiautomatic lift mechanism, an anti-skating adjustment, and a new cartridge and/or stylus. The internal workings turned out to be a bit dicey though. The turntable had some trouble starting shortly after I sent it to her. More recently, the tone arm would not automatically lift or return to its cradle — making it impossible for the turntable to ever stop spinning.

My Mom took apart her current turntable (go Mom!) and discovered that a plastic gear in the mechanism had shattered into a few pieces. She’s gluing those parts, and I am asking for the model number so I can try to locate the service manual. Hopefully, I can order the necessary parts online somewhere and she can have a new gear instead of a glued old one.

In the meanwhile, I have also been asked to provide advice and counsel regarding a possible replacement. Looking around, there are a lot of expensive turntables for serious audiophiles and for DJ work out there these days, but few that fall into the mid-range home market that would be ideal for my Mom. It seems that all the best “home” turntables were built in the late 70’s and through the 80’s, making me wonder if I shouldn’t recommend eBay.

So are any of my readers vinyl geeks? Should she buy new or used? And what features are really important in a turntable? As you can tell, I have some idea… but my music collection started on tape and moved to CD. Vinyl was never really part of the equation for me.

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eating up a sweat

I tried making chicken curry yesterday. I used this recipe that I carried with me from when I first moved to my Grad School Stomping Grounds from the Land Of My Birth. It’s a recipe from my Mom’s cousin D. D. decided somewhere in his mid-30’s that he wanted to become a doctor. No decent medical school in the United States would take a man pushing forty, so he ended up studying medicine in India. He left a copy of the recipe with my Mom when he visited us in 1984, shortly after his return to the States.

It was not an especially hot curry, I thought. Eating it did not make me want to down an entire pitcher of water, or anything like that (though it did have some cayenne pepper in it.) It did however, make me break out in a sweat, and a pretty heavy sweat at that. So much so in fact, that Mrs. Geek asked “are you ok?” when she looked over at me just after I finished eating. I did feel a little bit odd… though that might be due the fact that I spent a couple hours cooking with all these aromatic ground spices like ginger, tumeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and corriander in the kitchen. Mostly I just felt very warm and wet on the surface of my skin… all over my body.

I’ve always heard that curries were eaten in hot climates to bring a sweat to cool you down. Now I believe it. This curry worked, big time.

blueberries and blues

It’s been too long since my last update. I started work on a new project at Company O. a couple weeks ago. As I finish the transition from the old work to the new, I find that the new work is very rewarding, but very intense. It is new software technology that we are attempting to pair with pretty much state of the art new computer hardware. That sort of thing is generally a recipe for trouble, and this project is proving to be no exception. We’re making progress, but we are also fighting for every step because of poor documentation, incompatible hardware, and the learning curve associated with new technology. The intensity of the project is starting to intrude on my sleep; I awoke early in the morning with lots of thoughts (some work-related, some not) running around in my head… and I cannot fall back to sleep.

Things haven’t been all work recently though. I got to go visit with friends D. and J. last weekend. The city where they live was having a blues festival, and their house is located not far from the location of the main stage. So, I went over there, got to drink some good wine and beer, got to eat some good BBQ, and listened to live blues from their front porch.

I was asked to bring a dessert item, so I made a blueberry pie from scratch:


I was grateful for the excuse, because I spotted the fresh blueberries in the produce section of the market a few days before and had been dying to make one.

Blueberry pie is always associated with a special set of memories for me. My grandmother often used to make pies from wild blueberries (which we called huckleberries) that she used to either pick at a local “u-pick” farm or buy at a local farmer’s market (before they were really called farmer’s markets.) I even remember going to pick huckleberries a few times, in a relative’s back yard. There are two kinds of huckleberry bushes, those close to the ground (“low limbers”) or those that get to be a couple feet tall (“high limbers”). The berries I remember picking were generally low limbers. My grandmother used to take these and turn them into these marvelous fruit pies, that I used to relish because they were a “summertime only” seasonal item.

I didn’t have the family recipe for blueberry pie filling handy, so I dug out the 1970-vintage copy of “The Joy of Cooking” that we inherited from Mrs. Geek’s late mother. After recently re-watching the “Urban Preservation I” episode of Good Eats, I discovered that a berry pie filling is essentially a thick jam, with fruit, some sugar, a thickener to assist natural pectin, and an acid. In this case, the fruit was two packages of fressh blueberries, the thickener was a cornstarch slurry, the sugar was cane sugar, and the acid was a little lemon juice.

The pie was very well recieved. D. commented that she didn’t like the amount of salt I put in either the crust or the crumb top… which lead to some debate between D., J., and myself. On the other hand, D. noted that she went back for a second slice of pie… and she doesn’t like berry pie and NEVER does that. J. and I. just loved it. I took some leftover pie home with me and it didn’t last 36 hours once it got back here.

So that’s it. Things have been busy, very busy. But there has been some time for fun too. Now if I could just sleep a little bit better.

Independence Day fireworks

Yesterday was an interesting day for its many and uneven qualities. Please note: interesting does not necessarily equate with good in this case. No, it was a day of many ups and downs.

The day started off humorously enough while I was doing some grocery shopping. An older British gentleman was wandering around the local grocery store trying to raise spirits by telling jokes. I don’t know if he does this every Tuesday morning, because I’m usually working. In my case, he came up to me while I was checking out the “olive bar” and told me a rather off color joke about Queen Victoria that does not bear repeating. I let out a chuckle, and he checked to make sure that I was not offended. I kept thinking: oh the irony, to hear a dirty joke about a British royal on the day in which we “colonials” commemorate our declaration of an end to monarchy.

Mrs. Geek and I spent the next few hours snarling at each other, once I got home. Our apartment is in sore need of some reorganization. Neither of us are “everything has its place and belongs in it” neat freaks, but we do have standards… and our apartment has become so cluttered that it is impossible to really make it neat beyond the “everything has its pile, and belongs in it” stage. I don’t know what finally pushed Mrs. Geek over the edge on this, but she had a very emotional response to all the clutter and demanded that we do something about it right away. I’m still feeling rather burnt out, and was hoping to spend a rather quiet day doing as little as possible… which I realized was not going happen after watching Mrs. Geek pace about the apartment like a caged animal. She snarled at me because the mess was making her uneasy… and I was snarling at her because I wasn’t on the sofa, leisurely enjoying one of the six Company O. paid holidays I get every year. In the end, we cleaned a few shelves, cleared up a few old piles, made a few new piles, and attacked the whole pile problem by agreeing to purchase nearly $1000 in new furniture in the next few months (including some IKEA BONDE shelves and the mother of all mission-style media cabinets.)

After this, I did some cooking. I was watching Lidia’s Family Table over the weekend in which Lidia was doing interesting things with chicken, capers, olives, and marinara sauce. Though I could not find the exact recipe on her web site, I figured I could approximate without much difficulty. I made a batch of tomato sauce from scratch, dusted some chicken breasts with flour and sauteed them, covered the breasts with the sauce, added some sicilian olive salad (with garlic and pepperoncini), capers and red wine, and topped each breast with some fresh mozzarella cheese. Et voila! A delicious dinner entree!

I ended the day watching a very odd mixture of TV. Mrs. Geek and I have been watching the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle version of Pride & Prejudice on DVD. We watched that for an hour or two before Mrs. Geek chose to retire. I elected to stay up later than I should, and started watching Damnation Alley. I kept thinking two things as I watched the film: I wanted to hear George Peppard say “I love it when a plan comes together”, and I kept thinking how the “Landmaster” in the film got re-used as the “Paperboy 2000” in Chris Elliott’s short-lived sitcom Get A Life.

immersed in early blues music

It’s a four day weekend leading up to Independence Day here at the Geek household and I’m using some of it to immerse myself in blues music. I recently picked up Elijah Wald’s book Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Wald’s goal is to tear down a lot of cultural mythology about the roots of the Delta blues, and artists like Robert Johnson in particular, that have arisen since the blues/folk revival of the 1960’s. Although I’m only about three chapters into the book, it’s a pretty interesting read. He’s discussing the early history of the blues genre, describing its relationship to vaudeville, ragtime, minstrel, and “old time” (country) music.

To assist in my appreciation of the book, I checked up on some early blues MP3 music that I downloaded from The Internet Archive. It’s all digitized copies of old 78 RPM records, so all the copyrights have theoretically fallen into the public domain. The recording quality is highly variable, but it’s all fascinating stuff by artists both well known (like Ma Rainey, Charlie Patton, and Son House) and fairly obscure (Cannon’s Jug Stompers and Henry Thomas.) To get the files for yourself, go to the The Internet Archive, click on “Audio”, and enter the following search string: subject:”blues” AND subject:”78rpm” AND mediatype:audio. That will get you about 50 different recordings, with more being added by aficionados all the time.

The range of artists doing blues or blues-like music in the collection is quite varied. There are jug bands, banjo and fiddle players, singers backed by jazz bands, and early “blues queens”, as well as the classic singer/guitarists. Most are black, but (surprisingly) a few are white. All sound like the blues in some way or another, but these songs also contain many elements common to country, bluegrass, folk, and bawdy vaudeville music. Many of the vocals in particular have a nasal quality that I think is more associated with country music today. Black and white singers have a different take on how to use that nasal sound, but it is clear that they are listening to each other and trying to do very similar things.

Of course, in doing all of this, I feel like I’m getting in touch with some of my roots. As I have mentioned before, my Dad is a son of The Land Of The Confederacy… and from a town actually mentioned in the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. That puts my family smack in the middle of blues country back when the music was forming. Though my people were poor and white, and the bluesmen were poor and black, I like to think that the musical stew that produced both bluegrass and the blues is in my blood, somewhere.