Who’s afraid of FT8?

Preface: I am planning on creating some posts addressing this in a more technical fashion. This is not a comprehensive tech essay full of footnotes. You either know what this is about or you don’t. For now I am sharing this brain dump addressed to all amateur radio operators. We find ourselves in a unique circumstance where great changes have occurred over a long period of low solar activity, and we are now emerging with some very real social turbulence in the ham radio ranks. I think it is useful to take a broad view of this pursuit, this service, and reflect on how we have moved forward, and how we can continue to move forward. 73, Pete N1QDQ

Let’s travel back to the heady days of 2010, when a new ham radio sensation called PSK31 was “taking over the ham bands”. It allowed users with less than massive transmitters and antennas to make reliable keyboard to keyboard contacts on HF. It wasn’t perfect. Many ops ran too much power, or had overdriven signals, or both, and the small stations had a bit of work to do to get through a QSO. The spectrum slices being used were narrow/cramped, and it didn’t take much to interfere with another op. You pretty much had to be on the same frequency/offset as the other station (not reliable in split mode) or it didn’t work, and a big wooly signal would wipe out a quarter of the subband. The advantage was that it took up about a tenth of the spectrum of a RTTY signal, and was more power-efficient. It also allowed many more operators to share the same slice of spectrum. As is the case today it was also a reason for the “big gun” stations to sneer down their noses and tell “lesser’ operators how they were killing ham radio.

FFW to today, and we are in much of the same predicament with a newer mode called FT8. It is even more flexible than PSK31, works at even lower signal to noise ratios, and is implemented primarily through one application called WSJT-X. It does not support anything much beyond the bare bones exchange of callsign, location and signal report. That makes sense since the suite of modes associated with Joe Taylor K1JT, Steve Franke, K9AN, and a cadre of experimenters was developed for very weak signal operations like Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) and Meteor Scatter. It turns out some of these modes, specifically FT8 and FT4, are very robust over traditional HF frequencies and propagation modes. And yet, despite allowing a large number of contacts over a small slice of spectrum, with lower power, and lower s/n ratios, FT8 users are again subject to ridicule by keepers of the mid-20th century technology flame. This extends to purposeful QRM, sneering memes about how FT8 ops are not real hams, how their QSOs don’t count, how it is “cheating”, and so on. Even as predictable as it is, it puts the ugly side of the “friendliest hobby” at the forefront of the much needed conversations around how our spectrum allocations are utilized, and how they will be used going forward.

Which is a shame, because these computer-controlled weak signal modes on the HF bands are nothing if not entirely consistent with the traditions of ham radio, and the central thesis of evolving to incorporate new technology as it emerges. The integration of existing and new technologies into radio communication is the hallmark of ham radio. What began as the transmission of Morse Code (tech adapted from the wired telegraph industry) using a spark gap transmitter, quickly evolved to a continuous-wave (CW) transmission based on the implementation of the vacuum triode as a tunable oscillator and amplifier. The spark-gap blasted RF across a big slice of RF spectrum. CW turned that on its head and allowed for more efficient narrow-band communications. Suddenly there was more room for more operators to communicate with less power over longer distances.

When modulated carrier audio came into being, it was double-sideband full carrier amplitude modulation, or AM. This is what we hear when we listen to the AM broadcast band. It takes a lot of power to generate that signal, and it also takes up a lot of spectrum. As the need arose for more efficient communications modes (portable equipment, lower power requirements, covering greater distances) it was found you could do away with the carrier (which was the reference frequency for the audio sidebands) and then one of the two sidebands. Thus Single Side-Band (SSB) was created. By giving the receiver the necessary oscillators to rebuild the audio information, the transmission could be made using much less power. This mode relied on the many improvements to vacuum tube technology, including miniaturization, lower power circuitry, and the use of multiple oscillators in new configurations. These fundamental modes of radio communication, data and audio, integrated new technology as it appeared, and hams were pivotal in their widespread adoption. As well, hams were pivotal in the development of new modes of radio communication based on these principles. They were, as now, radio experimenters. They were doing for free what governments were doing under much less liberated circumstances.

Radio technology eagerly adopted every advance in electronics tech, from vacuum tube minaturization, to the semiconductor, the integrated circuit, the standardization of component packaging, and then the microprocessor. Microprocessors were a natural fit for radio communications because they can manipulate control voltages and logic states at a blinding pace. The earliest and slowest microprocessors were adding communications capabilities beyond the analog realm. It also turned out you could emulate an oscillator with a microprocessor. Even at audio frequencies this was a giant leap for oscillator miniaturization and stability. Once these microprocessors were integrated into computing platforms, handling user input, program code execution, data storage, and data output, the modern era of computer/radio hybridization was in play.

It is simple enough to state that a radio station operating without some form of semiconductor and microprocessor technology is indeed a rarity. I know of no hams who are aching to go back to drifty oscillators and inefficient transmitters. Yes, that gear is still in use by a few stations, but I’ll bet each one has a modern rig right next to it. While modern technology has come to dominate the scene, all of the historical phases of electronics technology still have a place in the pursuit of radio communications (ok, maybe not spark gap). The fundamentals of radio still apply regardless of the technology.

So I ask, earnestly: How did this illustrious, enjoyable, and diverse pursuit of technology applied to radio communication become beholden to gatekeepers who selectively decide which modern technology is appropriate, and which they believe makes one a “fake ham”? It is almost universally the cry of hams who are “fortunate” enough to have a tower(s) supporting a big directional antenna(s) fed by a kilowatt(s) of RF, using modes established in the WWII era, who demand that they be crowned the gatekeepers of What Is Correct.

The facts are decidedly at odds with their position. If they were in any way in the majority it would be reflected in radio equipment sales and development. I believe the “average” ham has a somewhat modern 100W transceiver with a simple antenna, and a few helpful accessories. Additionally, they own a computer, which has become not only extremely cheap, but extremely effective. Somehow, in the middle of a deep and prolonged solar minimum, the airwaves are increasingly being used by many low power stations using compromised antennas, often with portability in mind. One reason this has been possible has been the development of modes like FT8. When you can run a 1-30W transceiver into a $20 homebrew end-fed wire, controlled by a $50 Raspberry Pi “toy” computer, and make a contact 10,000 miles away, it opens up the accessibility of radio communication in a myriad of ways. I made my first JA contact from my new QTH using 35W into a wire vertical, and FT8. It’s just as valid as any other contact.

I agree that the FT8 QSO is not very satisfying from a “chat about the weather and your radio” perspective. But let’s be honest, a typical CW conversation is name, location, rig, antenna, and brief weather observation. It’s fun. I love it. But it isn’t exactly deep bonding going on there. FT8 is giving the user more of a “contest mode” QSO. Being that it is good enough for the biggest stations in the world, as long as an actual contest is afoot (every weekend, #jussayin), why is it less appropriate in weak signal work? Maybe it’s has to do with the fear of losing status? Maybe it’s the need to ensure that kilowatt stations using 80 year old tech continue to dominate the way hams use their HF spectrum allocations in the 21st century? I can understand it, objectively, though I have not been able to assemble that kind of station. I also understand bullies. All too well. Ham radio needs to face up to the fact that it has a bully problem.

Unless you have been under a rock you know that every slice of the radio frequency spectrum is being eyed by some monied interest somewhere across the globe. Each time you see a nation kick their amateurs off an allocation it should raise an alarm. One would think the response of established spectrum users would be to promote increased usage and improved spectrum efficiency. It is counterintuitive to act as if relying more heavily on old tech is some kind of hedge against spectrum loss. I also fear that hams hold themselves to a standard that is not recognized outside of ham culture. An objective survey of the HF allocations would hear a small segment of intense activity in the bottom 100KHz, and then a lot of SSB voice spread out across the rest of the allocation.

My purpose here is to begin a conversation not end one. This is the scenery as I see it, from my perspective as a ham who has held an Extra Class license for almost all of my 27+ years of ham-life. I am often operating portable equipment, often at QRP or slightly higher power levels. I try to enjoy all that ham radio has to offer. I like HF QRP CW, as well as digital modes, as well as VHF/UHF contesting, as well as SSB, and SWL, and applied electronics concepts, and so on. I feel that there is a disturbing social pushback on the current practices and adaptations many hams have made in the era of condo rules, suburban/urban constraints, restricted public space access, and accommodating family and work life, by a small population of operators who don’t share those constraints. All of the tools available to hams have a place. And it is a great credit to hams everywhere that there is a general respect for gentleman’s agreements and international spectrum guidance. What I hope we see as this next solar cycle heats up is not just continued cooperation, but greatly enhanced cooperation. There is room for everyone, and every facet of the hobby. There has to be. The alternative is unimaginable, avoidable, loss.

Endnote: One piece of Amateur Radio News that spurred me to write this piece is this: FT8 Ruling The Airwaves from DXWorld.net. I believe it shows how a more efficient mode of communication increases the effectiveness of the power output on hand, and how attractive that is to many hams. I don’t think it is more complicated than that.

Always Loud Somewhere

I’ve been a licensed amateur radio operator (ham) for almost 30 year and have had both runs of heavy involvement and runs of “doing other things”. I’ll delve more into these details, but hams in the USA are licensed by the FCC and have access to some very nice chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum. The equipment is readily available and well supported. To me it is the original “tech nerd” hobby. It goes back to the dawn of radio, and the dawn of the vacuum tube. At that time if you wanted to be a ham, you built the gear. Now… there is a lot of great commercial equipment and for most ops homebuilding is secondary.

Every operator has a central thesis, a set of goals, or a set of constraints that inform their pursuits. For some it is “MORE POWER GOOD”, for some it is “mnmlsm”. One of mine is that two-way radio works, but not everywhere all the time. I call it “You Are Always Loud Somewhere”. I can set up a radio and antenna, pick a mode of operation, and call out to the radio wilderness in search of other operators. In ham parlance, I am calling CQ. Seek You. Get it? Hams are a cryptic bunch.

The 2-way element of radio involves a second station listening on the same frequency I am transmitting on, and being able to reply and be understood. It actually works better than one might think. There are 750,000 licensed hams in the USA alone. It isn’t great by TV ratings measures, but it’s respectable. Also, hams might have outsized influence due to their proclivity for… communication. Of all kinds. For better or worse.

Another thing that hams rely on is a phenomenon whereby the effect of solar radiation on the ionosphere effectively turns it into a “radio mirror” reflecting radio energy back toward earth. Some of the energy from my radio signal is directed up toward the ionosphere, gets reflected back down, and I am now audible 800 miles (for example) away. That can happen multiple times, allowing my signal to travel halfway around the world, or more. Once our signal leaves our continent (roughly) we call that DX (distance). While useful, that kind of “enhanced propagation” is a fickle mistress. Some days it is like transmitting into a lead sponge. Other days you are chatting to an operator in South Africa on less wattage than it takes to power a clock radio.

So that is the backdrop for “always loud somewhere”. You might not be loud where you want to be loud, but somewhere your signal is crushing it. There might be another op there. We can only hope.

Hams have some tools to increase the odds. One obvious tool is to create a stronger signal by emitting more power. Think of the difference between your local AM pea shooter and something like WTIC or WFAN (for those of you who still own an AM radio). One of them is always strong over a large coverage area. The other is community scale. It requires less power, but still communicates well. Also, there are many ways to tailor the radiation pattern from an antenna for a specific goal. Do we want to work distant stations, or communicate locally? Do we want to create a very high uptime communications link, or are we looking for a bit of sport?

I’ll wrap this post with an example (we now go full ham lingo mode. strap in):

I have been experimenting with both homebuilt and commercial portable/lightweight antennas for the past two years. I haven’t had a fixed setup at home, so even if I am operating from home, I am still “portable”. One antenna I recently acquired is a Chameleon MPAS Lite. It’s a “military grade” portable antenna system, and is designed to be easy to set up and still perform well. This is not the norm. In the “engineering triangle” the lighter and easier to set up an antenna is, the more compromised it is and the worse it performs. Also, some of my favorite wire vertical antennas, like the PAR Trail Friendly, require an overhead support or a portable mast. That raises the complexity, weight, and logistics hurdle. The MPAS Lite is self-supporting, low visual profile, and can be configured for local coverage or to give you at least a fighting chance at long distance stations. I had heard good things, so I gave it a shot.

Here is a map of contacts I made on March 23, 2021 using an Icom IC-705 transceiver at 10W into the MPAS Lite. This was done during an afternoon here in southern New England, and conditions were very poor. I tuned across the entire 40M band and it was dire. Like “is my radio broken?” dire, and triple checking antenna connections dire. Then I moved up to 20M and it wasn’t great, but I could at least hear a few strong stations. There was a bit of solar storm effect happening, marked by deep and rapid fading (QSB). I was seeing stations drop 7 S-units in under a minute, and then rise back up. On FT8 I expected to be riding the waves. However, as it was my first real wring-out for a new antenna I decided to at least tune it up (MFJ 901-B, the “cockroach” of ham gear*) on a few bands to see how easy that would be (it was easy).

I was working my way higher in frequency and ended up on 10 Meters. This band has been my nemesis for the past 12 months. I always check it, and never hear anything. Even on FT8, the propagation beacon that has become a global phenomenon, I was 0-fer. That’s hard to do, because it seems that at any time of day, somewhere in the world every FT8 calling freq is choked with activity.

This day was different. I ran into a trans-equatorial opening to South America. Who knew if I could make any contacts, but I could at least hear them. Also, it had less rapid fading than the lower bands. It was fading in a 3-5 minute cycle and not fading as deeply as 40 and 20. In meteorological terms it was like a “radio inversion” instead of lower bands being in better shape, and conditions falling off as you go higher, the real action was at 28MHz. Since we are right at the vernal equinox this could have been a seasonal thing or tropospeheric ducting. Regardless of the propagation mode I will deinitely make a 10M check more often.

Here’s what I was able to do on a low power (10W) radio and an antenna that I have no expectations of for DX work:

The green icons are 10M contacts. Orange 20m, Red 17m, Blue 30m. That stray green icon in Europe… That’s a fail on the mapping app. It is actually J79WTA in Domenica, showing up under his Swiss call HB9MFM. This is also an Islands On The Air (IOTA) station, NA-101.

I have some thoughts on the different portable antenna options I have been using and am working up a kind of “shootout” over weight, ease of setup, performance, and durability. I hope to be posting the first of them soon. Until then, go be loud somewhere.

Pete, N1QDQ

*cockroach = will be the last thing still working before the sun swallows the earth

Radio. Radio.

This WordPress site has been dormant for a while, but I want to use it to store up a few Amateur Radio posts, and maybe share some content. Watch This Space. Pete

Why are we scapegoating “China Sword”?

The following is a largely stream-of-thought article on the recycling side of waste management systems in North America. I could have used “United States” instead, but this issue is broader in scope than that. Many people are using the term “crisis” regarding a change in Chinese policy. I think we can learn more if we approach the issue as “from crisis, opportunity“. This is my own work and does not reflect the policies or opinions of my employer, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

When it comes to the recycling side of the solid waste industry in 2019 there is one King Kong-sized boogeyman. High Prices? Bad Markets? Excessive Transport Costs? All those problems and more are thrown at the feet of “China Sword“, one of the names given to a Chinese pivot away from importing post-consumer recyclables from North America. This policy is tied to surging costs and shrinking profits in the waste management industry.

The Chinese Recycling Market Genesis Story goes like this: For over 20 years China’s expanding manufacturing industries were sending container ships full of consumer goods to the North America. These ships would unload at a major port such as Long Beach, CA, but there were insufficient corresponding North American exports to fill the containers for the return trip. The economics of transporting a load of empty containers back to China were terrible, so bringing back *anything* was preferable. Thus a “black hole” for post-consumer materials was born. Those containers were filled with post-consumer recyclable material from North American households and businesses. From the North American perspective it was a miracle. No domestic processing requiring labor and machinery and electricity was required, only cheap rail shipments to the west coast, and the material was GONE. On the Chinese side the main end product for these materials was packaging for Chinese electronics and other consumer products, which would be exported to North America, and then theoretically returned to China to be born again as new packaging.

If that sounds too good to be true, it was. The quality of the material being delivered to North American docks was terrible. Much of it had high rates of contamination, or worse, involved good looking material on the outside and garbage on the inside. It is likely that none of this material would have been accepted for processing at a North American facility. As we will see, the costs involved in removing that contamination strip the materials of their intrinsic value. It was not long before the Chinese decided they would not be a dumping ground for this poor quality material. None of this was (or should have been) a surprise to North American brokers. Any serious student of recycling processes, markets, materials, and policies is not buying onto a “magical end market”. The charade continued until the proverbial well ran dry. At that point a crisis was born. China hit the brakes. Where importing poor-quality recycled materials may have been economically sound at one time, that time came to an end. China’s economic path from a producer of trinkets to a producer of iPhones led to a mature modern economy, with global economic ties and massive earnings.

It appeared to be a sudden reversal from the perspective of the US. But how could it have been. Waste management is a multi-billion dollar industry, employing economists, international business analysts, experts in everything from curbside collection to trade policy, and it revolves around the banking industry. That banking industry is doing their own due diligence. How could the entire industry, the transportation industry, and their financiers have overlooked this iceberg? My cynicism tells me they didn’t.

Much like the Chinese consumer goods of the 2000’s, North American recyclables were overwhelmingly destined for export markets. There had been very little investment in processing infrastructure on this side of the Pacific. Likewise, there had been no reason for collection programs to stress high quality over sheer volume. The export markets had not demanded it, and domestic markets were glad to limit themselves to materials such as white office paper and high-quality plastics, both known for low contamination rates and high value. Pre-Sword, if a municipal collection program was getting paid $20/ton for mixed recyclables, why would there be a reason to worry? As seen from the generation/collection side of the process it seemed like a status quo had been established, and there was very little indication it would change. Processors were offering 5- and 10-year contracts with guaranteed rebates. Generators and trash haulers were writing those rebates into their cash-flow calculations. Ah… Good Times! Not many were aware that this model relied on a distant market with a rapidly growing consumer sector and a government with the ability to alter course on a dime. The ones who were aware seem to have been satisfied to ride the wave until it crashed.

And crash it did. The closure of the Chinese market caused a virtual evaporation of system capacity. Post-consumer material had nowhere to go. The end markets (purchasers of separated recyclables) who would take the material demanded very low contamination rates (Between 1 and 5%, and lower). China had set their acceptable rate at 1.5% and then lowered it to 0.5%. As far as North American MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities or MRFs, pronounced “murfs”) were concerned this rate was impossible to achieve. Without a huge low-cost destination for post-consumer materials, the focus began to shift from quantity to quality.  Many MRFs were running their material through their processing line a second time to reduce contamination. This effectively halves their capacity and doubles their labor and energy costs per ton. The result is spiking costs.

As 2019 progresses, the old contracts fade away, and the shock over post-Sword economics sinks in. Processing a ton of recycling might cost as much as disposing of a ton of trash (or more), a previously unthinkable scenario. Where there were once $20/ton rebates, the cost to deliver recyclables to a MRF (called a tip-fee) was suddenly $25-$75/ton. States, municipalities, corporations, MRFs and brokers are all wondering who will pay for these new costs. In cases where long-term contracts with rebate pricing were in force, they were either torn up or the contractee was hit with higher “claw-back” costs in their next contract (making up for losses under the old rebate contract. Some scenarios involved both tearing up a contract as well as claw-back pricing. Could it be that the closure of the Chinese “Magic Market” exposed North American markets to the actual costs of their waste management policies? Can I make that any more of a leading question?

To turn specifically to the United States, our current solid waste management practices matured under those pre-Sword conditions. The expectations of cheap markets for poorly-sorted recyclables have been baked in to our system over the course of decades. That system relies heavily on export markets. It has failed to develop domestic processing and remanufacturing capacity in the shadow of those export markets. It also relies heavily on long-haul transportation instead of local and integrated, collection, processing and remanufacture. The challenge we now face is one of self-examination, education, commitment, and investment. Can we face up to the facts regarding our laissez-faire approach to waste? The idea that we can mass-produce products and packaging, with no regard to the implications, continues to be discredited every day. Whether it is a global adjustment like China Sword, or a local town-hall budget meeting erupting into a shouting match because the money is simply not there, the current system benefits very few and places a massive economic and environmental burden on the public at large.

To return to the opening question, why would we blame China for this scenario? Do they have some kind of mandate to take poor-quality material from halfway around the world, only to spend money to separate it into useful parts, dispose of the contaminants, and hope to end up in the black? None that I know of. More to the point, considering the importance of the Chinese market to the North American waste management industry, why was there no trade agreement in force regarding recycled materials. It was basically one giant handshake deal. This is the quicksand upon which was built the economic basis of the materials management economy for over 20 years.

There is a feeling that the market will settle, costs will relax, and a “new normal” will take shape. For most people in the waste management industry from the consumer/generator to the recycled content manufacturer it can’t happen soon enough.

I intend to come back and dig deeper into these issue in future posts, but I would like to close with a few observations about where the opportunities and solutions might lie:

Strong National and State Policies: To date the waste management industry has largely been left to run itself. It is important to give credit where credit is due. The industry has developed the technology and the economic strength to process much of our nation’s waste material. However, in the end it still operates on a volume basis. The incentive to reduce waste is simply anathema to the waste management industry. This is similar to the relationship between the electric generation industry and energy efficiency. EE measures take dollars out of the system. In the waste management industry, waste reduction plays the role of energy efficiency. The industry has been able to manage waste materials through a network of landfills, waste-to-energy facilities, and recycling facilities. No industry would voluntarily takes profits off the table, and as a bloc the waste management industry lacks the scope to put a value on efficiency and develop the policies and partners to make it work. What is needed now is a strong framework to guide the conversion of that industry to one that works for the next 100 years. It simply must evolve to yoke a reduction in waste generation to improvements in separation, processing and disposal.

The Supply/Demand Void: With the market value of post-consumer recyclables at a deep low there should be a buyer to embrace this buyer’s market. Right now that seems to be limited by processing capacity and the ability to reduce contamination to the new, lower, standards. As well, separated, high quality, low contamination materials are still holding their value in the marketplace. The real boat anchor is mixed recyclables (many of us know this as Single Stream, or Blue Bin). As I was once taught, the technology required to fix a problem is exponentially greater than the technology required to create it. Creating mixed recyclables is easy. Separating them into the component parts and maintaining the integrity of those parts is exponentially more difficult and more costly. The mixed recycling days should by all rights be coming to an end. Hence…

Source-Separation. This term can be used to describe separating recyclable materials from trash, but it also means separating recyclable materials by type before they are commingled. Separating materials such a cardboard, certain plastics, textiles, food waste, electronics, metal, and packaging at the source (the consumer in most cases) yields cleaner and more valuable material without the need for expensive post-processing. This approach also reduces the total quantity of mixed recyclables, lessening the strain on MRFs trying to meet the low contamination rates the market demands.

Cooperative and Expanded MRF Infrastructure: A MRF is a fairly innocuous industrial process. Most of these facilities can be sited in a light industrial zone with access to highway and rail/ship/manufacturing infrastructure. Cities, regions, or states might find the best solution to cost is to contract with a facility to process their recyclables. By keeping the size of each facility down the transportation costs are kept down, and the amount of post-process materials (baled separated recyclables) is likewise kept to an acceptable level as considered by the host community. It is important to note that even clean separated materials sill require baling, storage and marketing. A move away from mixed recycling is not a threat to the MRF industry, but a lifeline.

Integrated Processing and Manufacturing: The conversion of post-consumer recyclables into consumer products the final link in the chain. The transportation costs involved in this process can be mitigated by locating manufacturing facilities within a short-haul of one or more MRFs. Similarly the opportunity for long-term supply contracts sets the stage for enhanced source-separation, decreased contamination, and decreased processing costs. Any MBA will tell you that this is a recipe for long-term control of both costs and materials supplies.

These approaches can all be part of the answer to “what’s next” in the aftermath of China Sword. This crisis presents and opportunity to build the next house on firmer ground, with known costs, and reliable cash flows. This is what drives investment, and ultimately creates a sustainable model with room to grow and change as future opportunities present themselves.

 

 

A Tale of Two Mothers

2019 has seen two very promising releases in the Zappa Influence/Tribute genre, and it is only March! On one hand it is Liverpool’s Finest, The Muffin Men, aka the “Flab Four”. On the other is Michel Delville and The Wrong Object, Belgium’s answer to “What if you were very good at pretty much everything?” Both groups have been working at a high level for quite some time, and they both deliver the goods.

Roddie and the boys go first:

The Muffin Men have been at this game as long as anyone I can think of. They have hosted Jimmy Carl Black, Ike Willis, Denney Walley and many other guests at their tours and live shows. I was lucky enough to see both of these bands at the Moo Ah Festival in Corby, England, and I have seen the Muffinz at Zappanale as well. Both bands deliver an excellent live experience, but what about on repeat listening?

I sent some e-cash over to Roddie Gillard (£5 plus £2 P&P for UK, £2.50 for Europe, £3 for USA. paypal roddiemuf@hotmail.com and don’t be shy to round up that conversion for international shipping. That’s a steal.) for a copy of “(It’s All) Smoke and Mirrors – Live in the UK 2018“. What I got back was worth it, and then some. I know the Muffinz are heavy, as their incredible Fairies Wear Boots / Brown Shoes Don’t Make It mashup has proven to me already. This rekkid is heavy business in the same way. The band is tight, powerful, and funky in the way Zappa’s 1988 band would understand. They also sound like a much larger ensemble by keeping the arrangements tight, especially between keys and horns.

Opening with a super-tight Peaches is a good sign, and the album seems to just keep geting better (is that possible, I thought). The arrangements are more direct than some of the Zappa versions you might be familiar with, delivering a little more instant gratification. That is not a bad thing. As you stick with it you get to the meat of the CD which to me is Easy Meat / Village of the Sun / The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing… If you aren’t cranking the hell out of that I can’t help you. Nobody can. This is to my mind a benchmark of how it is done. In a world where shows are often poorly paid, poorly attended, and the travel is cramped and tiring, the Muffinz hit the stage with the goal to sound like they are playing Wembley (Anfield, actually!). Jumpy, Rhino, and Roddie have been the stable core of this band for so long that I have come to expect this kind of performance. Hearing them deliver on it, as I was not in the UK in 2018 [damn], is almost like being there. Some of the nuances are straight out of the Zappa catalog, while others are nods to the classics, often winking at the greats of the UK rock scene and beyond. It makes for a great record, especially cranked up as the soundtrack for a long drive. If you are still on the fence regarding what passes for bands playing the music of Frank Zappa this should burn the fence down. Get on with it!

Next up is a Mother of a Different Color, The Wrong Object’s Zappa Jawaka (order info at link) Michel Delville is the kind of guitarist I love to listen to. He can wear his influences on his sleeve and still sound like himself. His preference is to be in the ensemble unless coming to the fore is necessary. When he does he straight-up shreds. The Wrong Object is a powerhouse group, and while I am not genre/idiom dropping, they opeerate where eagles dare. Where many bands switch gears with a magician’s flourish, the Wrong Object method is more seamless, more compositional. The stylistic shifts happen at full tempo, on the beat. This is the kind of precision and composition I have heard in this context from Corrie van Binsbergen (Look her up, do it now) and very few others. All of that is on display with Zappa Jawaka, an homage to Zappa in a very progressive and modern fashion.

The Wrongs can drop your jaw with Zappa-authenticity, but they are also free to do that in many other ways. That freedom allows the band to play to their strengths and use the compositional framework as exactly that. There is an intent and a precision to this band, without sounding stilted or over-rehearsed. Make no mistake, this album gets very heavy. Not that I should have been surprised. Michel’s work with Tony Bianco in Machine Mass is not for the soft-prog-wallpaper crowd (pro tip: Machine Mass Plays Hendrix is a great disc).

Not unlike The Muffinz “Smoke and Mirrors“, there is gold right in the heart of this disc. “This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich” gets the respect it deserves, which is much. And did I say Zappa Authenticity? Hell yes I did. This rendition is worth the price right there. The Wrongs gave me reason to do a double take with the spot-on vocal and arrangement. It also sets the stage for a divine and sublime Apostrophe / Chunga’s Revenge mashup. This recording is heavy where it needs to be, free where it needs to be, and frankly klezmer-esque where it makes all the sense in the world. While this album is a studio effort, it has the open feel and flow of a live recording. I don’t hear any telltale overdubbing or looping or effects. It is the sound I recognize from their live performances.

These two recordings display the Zappa legacy on two different stages. The Muffinz rock those small club stages across the UK and elsewhere. The recording needs to be played LOUD. It has that rock-club-recording grit to it and to my ears it just makes it better. The performances are not, however, simplistic and dumbed down. They are full of all the “eyebrows” a Zappaphile demands. There is no velvet glove, just the iron fist of power and precision. While it might sound like I am setting the Wrongs up as a more delicate Object, I am certainly not. This band delivers in a different manner, but not a less effective manner. You feel it in the way they game the Zappa system, lulling you into a feeling of comfort then dropping the hammer with something unexpected. Possibly more to the point: The Wrong Object sounds like The Wrong Object playing Zappa (I’ll be reviewing their new release Into The Herd very soon), where the Muffinz sound like Zappa and more Zappa!

You really want to see both bands live, and if that is not possible, listen to both records. [Updated for spelling and clarity on 19 March 2019. pb] Here are the lineups:

The Muffin Men – (It’s All) Smoke and Mirrors – Live in the UK 2018 – Ian Jump (Jumpy) guitar, vocals; Roddie Gillard – bass, vocals; Rhino – drums, vocals; Phil – keys, vocals; Michael – sax, vocals. Peaches en Regalia, Cosmik Debris, Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, City of Tiny Lights, Jones Crusher, Easy Meat, Village of the Sun, Pick Me I’m Clean, The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing, I’m The Slime, Advance Romance, Whipping Post

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The Wrong Object – Zappa Jawaka – Michel Delville – guitar; Pierre Mottet, bass; Laurent Delchambre – drums, percussion, samples; Marti Melià – tenor sax, clarinet, vocals; François Lourtie – tenor and soprano sax, vocals. Wonderful Wino, Mr Green Genes / King Kong, Big Swifty, This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich / The Sealed Tuna Sandwich Bolero, Apostrophe / Chunga’s Revenge, Sleep Dirt, Wedding Dress Song / Handsome Cabin Boy, I’m The Slime

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The Disclaimer

I’m not a music journalist. Thank me later. I detest the trend of comparing every band to some other band. It’s lazy. It is shorthand. It lets the writer off the hook, bypassing the need for deep thought ot deep listening.

What I write is largely reviews of music I have purchased directly from the artist. I know some of these folks personally, but I pay for the music whether it is downloads, CDs, concert tickets, whatever. If I think a recording is off, I’ll say so, but if I don’t like it I probably won’t waste my time writing about it.

Same for photography, food, travel, and anything else. Life is too short.

Let the Music Play

This blog has been dormant for quite a while, but my plan is to start putting up music reviews, and some longer-form pieces on learning, performing, and experiencing music.

Coming up very soon: A Tale of Two Mothers

Ginger Beer the easy way…

 Here is a bottle of Cruzan Aged 151… What was I thinking??????

I previously stated that here in southern New England we have adopted the Bermudian “Dark and Stormy” as a regional favorite. My sense of local drink history tells me it started in Newport, RI and the south fork of Long Island, and spread out from there. This is the spicier version of the Rum and Coke, or more specifically the Cuba Libre (viva lime wedge!!!). I won’t belabor the point: it is a highball of rum and ginger beer, garnished with a lime wedge. You should be able to figure out how strong you want it and not need a recipe. Squeeze the wedge or don’t. Your call.

The Gosling’s rum people have a lock on the “Dark ‘N Stormy” recipe, made with their dark rum, their ginger beer, and your lime wedge. If that sounds excessive, think of it as a badge of honor traceable to the Bacardi Cocktail. Bacardi had a bug up their bung about Bacardi becoming generecized (kleenexed, if you will) and started policing bars to ensure that their rum was not being subbed out of a “bacardi cocktail” for some other, lesser, rum. (Please, no laughing) Goslings wants the same kind of respect, but it seems over the top. You now have to avoid the shorthand “‘N” and use “and” or “&”… I guess. The truth is that not only can you bypass the Goslings Dark entirely, you can bypass their ginger beer as well. Sure, prepared ginger beer is super convenient, but it is also super sweet. You can use crushed ice, or water, to dilute the drink, but you will also dilute the ginger flavor.

Enter Ginger Syrup. This could be the solution to the D&S issue, and it can add a kick to other drinks as well.

There are two paths to follow:

One involves using sliced peeled ginger in a simple syrup base, then straining. The drill is the same for many flavored syrups. You make a simple syrup at some ratio between 1:1 and 2:1 sugar:water, add your flavoring as the sugar gets fully dissolved, steep for a few hours, and strain. Hit it with a small dose of silver rum as a preservative and you are done. It will last a while and does have a ginger flavor.

But you will not be happy. You want a strong ginger bite with real ginger heat. You are always looking for stronger siblings in the already limited ginger beer family. Reed’s is kid stuff. D&G is as close as you have been to the ginger promised land. You, friend, need to get on the juice. No, not Barry Bonds’ juice. You need to juice that ginger, then use that as a base for your syrup. In fact, you can stop at the straight juice stage and blend with syrup to taste, but that might be overkill and involve taking a lot of notes and using a precision measuring device. You can go straight to ginger syrup by mixing one part ginger juice with two parts simple syrup. Either way it is better than anything you will buy.

I was introduced to straight ginger juice by my friends Sharon and Mike, who have Caribbean roots and know what is what. I get my ginger at the Indian market because it is better and cheaper than the regular supermarket stuff. Then I peel it (a spoon works great to scrape the thin skin off the rhizome) and feed it into my impeller juicer. Viola, juice. Blow ya head off if yer not careful.

Here is a more complete exploration from Summit Sips

The resulting juice will be super strong. Probably too strong to take straight unless there is serious cash prize money involved. But nailing down an exact ratio will be difficult because some ginger will be stronger and some juicers will be more efficient. Let’s start like this:

  • 1/2 oz ginger juice
  • 1 oz simple syrup
  • 1.5 oz Jamaican Rum*
  • 4 oz sparkling water
  • 1 Lime Wedge
  • Combine ginger juice, syrup, and rum over ice in a tall glass
  • Stir.
  • Add sparkling water
  • Squeeze/drop lime wedge, stir, serve

As usual I will not get prescriptive with your rum selection other than to say that the charm in this drink is the way a stronger rum flavor plays with the spicy ginger beer, with a little lime kick for balance. Using a dry white rum may not be horrible but it will miss the mark. It will be drinkable, just not delicious. Your usual dark rum suspects like Goslings, Meyers, Coruba, and El Dorado will do just fine. Likewise, Plantation 5, Pussers, Bacardi 8, Angostura 7… will be delicious. You want a big tasting rum to tangle with that big tasting ginger root.

If you notice a trend, you are correct: I put a lot of stock into the mid-range of the rum world. Rum is, after all, relatively rough company. You can get some very amazing sipping rums, but they are hard to compare without spending a lot of money since they only come in full size bottles and run upward of $35 a piece. Cheaper than a scotch habit, but still, not cheap. In general I stick with a rule of avoiding sipping rums in highball drinks, and only using them in cocktails when they will stand out and I have the time to do a proper job of it. That rule is a money saver as well as allowing me to stretch my rum dollar further and get to know more good rums in place of many fewer great/expensive rums.

That’s it for now. Next up is a list of resources for rum information and tiki culture.

Corby 2015 – The Rundown Cometh

Just a quick warning that I will have a few observations from my recent trip to the Festival Moo Ah in Corby, England. Yep. Another Zappa-themed festival in a European location with its fair share of beer and elsewhere. Uncle Ian is a Corby resident so I will be kind: I like Corby, but at one point I was sure that it was not reciprocal. I wish I could have seen more than the view from the taxi or on my escape from The George… My feeling about England, and this was my first trip, was that it is lovely when you have lovely company. Conversely, when things go sour they do so in a big way.

First the summary version! I expect to have a few more on music, food, and a solar eclipse. My trip was based out of the Manchester area, so I will start there:

A great party was had in the Manchester area, and it was great fun to see my Zappateer/Mancateer friends in their natural surroundings. 🙂

obshire_2015 28

A great road trip was taken to Corby! 🙂

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I had to choose a room at the Inn, and I did not choose wisely 😦

evelien_george-1photo by evelein langereis

The first night full of good friends and good music. 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmike fox and helen tate

I returned to a hotel room that was a miasma of chip-fat (fryer grease) 😦

Booked a new room at 5:00am over a prehistoric GPRS connection 😦

New hotel was 2 miles away and gave us a 7:00am check-in  🙂

I still had not really slept in three days and my diet had been poor, at best 😦

Was able to attend a commitment ceremony for friends Steve and Susan 🙂

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Was starving and ate a double burger at the UK equivalent of Applebees 😦

Reception for Susan and Steve

Second night of music was great, but I was in rough shape 🙂 😦

Actually slept some on Saturday night, took it easy with breakfast, but… damage done 🙂 😦

Ignored GERD-symptoms and had an epic drink-up with curry on Sunday night 🙂

curry cheers!

Crazy Train grinds to a serene halt on Monday morning and much lounging around ensues 🙂

Fantastic family dinner with my hosts! Hard to beat that 🙂

Out the door at 6am on Tuesday to return home 🙂 Guiness and an egg sandwich at 6:30am in Manchester airport 🙂

obshire_2015

All told, a really fun time at a really fun festival. I need to thank everyone including Ob, Mrs. Ob, the Oblings, Danny, Steffen, Bengt, the residents of Mancunia, Uncle Ian, Andy, Canadian John from London, YoungPumpkin, Ged, Eric, the Dutchies, the Vikings, Rupert and Kevin, some mad bloke named Rick, and a seemingly endless string of amazing people who I now count among my friends.

Sorry, Charlie…

It has been a very shaky start to the new year. My groaner of a first 2015 post was symbolic of the way the year kicked off. And things may have been looking up until a mass murder in France took the lives of some of the greatest satirical minds of my generation, along with their friends, co-workers and protectors. Charlie Hebdo. I saw this weekly paper on my trip to France in 2011, and it stirred my desire to learn the French language a little. (I got carried away, and am still learning the language, albiet slowly, in fits and starts). The cover of an issue of Charlie Hebdo stood out like a beacon from a newsstand. Whatever that was, I wanted some. I was not disappointed. One reason for the fascination was that Charlie Hebdo destroyed my notion that the French people were not funny. Maybe I was blinded by their appreciation of Jerry Lewis, or the deeply un-funny Gerard Depardieu. Maybe I was just ignorant. But my highly-tuned cartoon radar saw immediately that these French were not only funny, they were hard-core funny. They were not fucking around. No punches pulled. You were being told to get the joke even if you WERE the joke. I was in France to pay homage to Frank Zappa, and he had prepared me well to appreciate the genius of Charlie Hebdo.

Until Wednesday, January 7, that was all there was to it. I sat at my desk, at work, at 7:30am and it was as if I was reading fiction. Two hours after the attack I was reading a headline in complete disbelief. How could this be true? …that kind of reaction. Then the churning stomach, the rage, the sadness, the confusion.

I would see the Charlie Hebdo covers on the internet, sometimes digging a little deeper, and I could understand enough to get the joke. But not being on the scene in France, specifically I am not French and furthermore not Parisian, I could only glimpse the joke. They were playing to the home team. I was watching from afar on a lo-res feed. In Paris, they are heroes. Not “were” heroes. Are Heroes. The French take their satire very seriously. Wine. Charcuterie. Satire. Charlie Hebdo. They were committed to not pulling punches. They were not letting their audience make editorial decisions for them. What is the point in that? Why bother with satire if you are letting the object of the satire tell you what is in-bounds? No. If Le Monde wants to play that game, there is plenty of game for Le Monde. But Charlie Hebdo is the prow of the free speech ship. Taking the brunt of the waves and the weather.

And that, of course, is what will be glossed over as this tragedy is examined by every hack with a microphone or a PhD or a blog (even I am glossing over something, I’m sure). The core concept of free speech, the concept that makes satire and critical commentary possible, is to be free from that kind of sensitivity. The existence of that sensitivity, when it rears its head, is a giveaway to where the next jab should be directed. Like a fighter covering up a bruised rib, that is where you direct the next blow. Charlie Hebdo walked the walk. Their mission was to occupy the deep center of free speech protections and put everyone else to the test. Does the government support free speech? Immigrants to France, knowing full well that they are living in the cradle of free expression? Foreign interests, who may or may not be aiding and abetting by giving quarter to extremist voices? They all stand in some measure as less free than Charlie.

I have made the point that Charlie Hebdo may not have been an outlier as much as the surrounding voices stepped back when called, leaving Charlie exposed and unprotected. The threat of extremist violence is no laughing matter. Not something to be taken lightly. Most people are not dealing with the threat that they will be assassinated for their latest blog post or news article. If you are thinking that I read Tony Barber’s piece in the Financial Times, you are right. When he writes “It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.” Errrr… Tony, they are not purporting to do anything. It is actually free fucking speech, you imbecile. It is not up to the speaker to provide the common sense. Charlie Hebdo was not yelling FIRE in a movie theatre. The common sense is that they have a right to speak and draw and satirize. The offended must have the common sense to respond in kind, with a pen and not a kalashnikov rifle.

But all of that is conjecture. Cabu and Charb are gone. Wolinski, the same. Tignous, silenced. Honoré, snuffed out. This is not an academic exercise. It is the kind of reality we have avoided in the US by sanitizing so much of our public speech (and as Ted Rall points out, by getting out of the political cartoon business, almost entirely). We, Americans, the holders of the flame, stepped back when the call was to step up. We now pull punches as a matter of course, letting the offended set the rules of engagement. We are not alone, but we are a good example. Even the dimwitted David Brooks managed to not make a total hash of this concept in the NYTimes: “Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.”

No. We are NOT Charlie Hebdo. And to maintain otherwise requires proof. What we did is let Charlie Hebdo take the heat while we relax in air-conditioned comfort. That is the truth. Do we want the lives of the good people at Charlie Hebdo, called by name to be slaughtered by maniacs, to mean something in the long term? Can we pay homage to their legacy in a meaningful way?

If the answer is yes then we need to reexamine our lives and our rules and our hysterical reactions. We need to ask ourselves if we are better off living as appeasers or dying as free men. Maybe we will not get all the way there, but if we try then we are at least learning from this sad episode and not just spackling over it like we do with so many other offensive acts. Can we bring ourselves to walk the walk in the face of this aggression? That may very well be the defining question of civilized peoples in the 21st century, and we can thank a group of French “cartoonists” for the lesson.

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Image by Dave Brown, cartoonist at the Independent UK.