Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gear Review: Epiphone Les Paul Special

This probably won't be the last guitar I'll ever buy, but it's the last one I've bought so far. I got it "on sale" on Black Friday (Nov. 25) of 2011. Those Guitar Center scamps had the thing marked as $119 for several weeks, arranged like that one puppy at the pet shop right up front on the main aisle. Then, mere days before Black Friday--$109!

That made me think that maybe it wouldn't hurt to go look at it instead of walking by. I thought about that for a few days, not wanting to just impulse-buy a guitar I didn't really have the space for, even if it was on sale. But like many guitar players, I have Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. Fortunately, my GAS is mild and manageable and only has me buying the occasional instrument at a reasonable price.

Besides...won't hurt to just try it out a little. Plug it into an it. No wife or girlfriend to roll her eyes and scoff when I extoll its virtues--I don't have one with P-90 pickups, after all, and I don't have a Les Paul. The Les doesn't sound like my Stratocaster knock-off, my Peavey T-15, or the cheapie Tux. It really is about the sound, not about the color...though I didn't have a yellow guitar, either. And I'd never had a new one, just second-hand.

Off I went, visions of maybe bringing back a $109 bargain on that Black Friday. Everything was exactly as it had been when I got to Guitar Center...except that the GC scamps had put the price back up to $119. So much for that.

I picked it up, anyway, and took it over to a suitably big and loud-looking amp. Turned it up just loud enough to hear what I was doing, played around for maybe 40 minutes...and seriously considered putting it back on its stand and leaving, friendly puppy feeling or not. Then I considered trying out its sister guitar, identical in every way but the color--transparent cherry instead of transparent "TV Yellow", because  don't have a red guitar...There was a black one, too, but I've already got some. I played it some more, gradually deciding that I liked it enough to take it home.

There was only one thing wrong with the Les: the selector switch had a bad solder joint, so one of the pickups was dead. I could have made some noise about it, but I'd rather just fix things myself. Says something about Gibson/Epiphone's quality control, though. It only took a minute for me to solder the wire properly. Yeah, I shouldn't HAVE to fix a brand new guitar...but I'd rather fix it myself. Trust issues. My damn guitar.

So. Here's what I got:


More than the sound and the shape, I really REALLY like the feel of this guitar. The finish on the back of the neck is smooth enough that for the longest time while I was playing and getting used to it my fretting hand would overshoot. The only clear coat is on the back of the neck. The paint is flat yellow and shows off the body grain nicely.

The guitar's marketed as a "Special," Epiphone's entry-level Les Paul model:
--2 P90 single-coil "soap bar" pickups
--24-3/4" scale length
--mahogany body and neck
--rosewood fretboard
--bolt-on neck
--22 "Jumbo" frets
--single volume and tone controls
--low-mount 3-way selector switch
--flat translucent "aged" TV Yellow body & back of neck
--chrome hardware
--pearl inlay dots
--no pickguard
--rear access to electronics
--made in China
--single-piece wrap-around bridge; 2 height-adjustment screws, 2 intonation screws

There's a "Custom Shop" label on the back of the headstock, but apparently there's no such shop. Specials are made on the same line as any other Epi, just in smaller quantities. Heh.

Very good balance. The neck stays where you leave it, unlike that aggravating "Tux" which won't stay put. The mahogany feels solid without being heavy--lighter than a maple, heavier than poplar.

The P90s are very loud and bright, but they mellow out nicely when the volume is rolled off. It sounds best straight into an amp. Doesn't seem to like effects processors like the Zoom 505 or Digitech RP100, which both come off harsh. Through my Crate amp, I brought out a damn good and passable Alice In Chains sound--"Rooster" sounds amazing, even with my hackery. Surprised myself, there.

For all the good feel and comfort, though, this guitar kicked my ass. I had to work to play songs I was used to getting through without effort. Three years later, I still haven't figured out why I had so much trouble. With that Gibson-style 24-3/4" scale length, it's not strung nearly as tightly as my Strat copy or the Tux (both with 25-1/2" scales) and should be slightly tighter than the Peavey T-15 (23-3/4"). I went from wondering whether there was something wrong with the guitar to wondering whether I'd had a stroke or something. I even set it aside and played one or another of my other axes for awhile to keep my morale up.

Maybe it was the working out on the Strat copy and heavy strings, but we worked out our differences after a few months. All the other guitars are hanging out of the way and the little Les Paul is always within grabbing distance.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

More pieces of the Medical Puzzle--BIG pieces.

Big developments, lately--all thanks to my right elbow screwing up in June.

I went to my doc about it in July; he sent me to an orthopedic guy. The appointment came up in August, more than a month after my elbow stopped being a problem. But that doctor sent me along to Occupational Therapy for my non-hurting elbow anyway.

Part of the routine there was "riding" an arm/leg machine, sort of a seated cross-country ski thing. I could run that thing on a low load for 15 minutes non-stop, something I'd never manage just walking. This led me and my therapist to think maybe I should get into lower-body therapy to try building my stamina and walking strength.

Back to the ortho doc, who asked me a few questions about the symptoms I've had when I walk or stand. He recommended that I go to a cardiologist instead: whatever my walking troubles are, they don't start with my legs. Find and fix the big problem and we'll deal with this later.

My regular doc set up a cardio referral. At that appointment this morning, the cardio doc said my heart's fine, based on an echo-cardiogram this morning and the stress test I took over the past two days (more about that next). He's got me set up for lung capacity/function tests next week, since that's the next big possibility in all the issues I've been having.

In the meantime, I had a followup CT in October to see whether my aorta damage had gotten worse.

It did. Now I'm going to need surgery to fix it. The vascular doc sent me in for a stress test to make sure I'm good for the surgery.

First half will be a carotid/subclavian bypass, where two arteries are moved over to tie into the carotid. Four weeks after, a stent will be run up from my thigh and placed to close up the damaged "pocket" that started all this medical stuff 52 months ago.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pic of the Day: The Internet Loves Us

The Facebook Oracle offered this to us this day; the first "Related" link is comedy gold:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Scumbag Gets His Due (well, some of it).

In the early days of this blog, I wrote about this former acquaintance of mine who has earned the nickname Scumbag several times over.

While looking through the Google's brain for other people I knew in Tallahassee back in the day, I went looking to see if Scumbag was still in trouble with the law.

Didn't expect the results I got, but I wasn't terribly surprised. He is a Scumbag, after all--the guy who sat and watched TV while his recently-exed fiancee' tried to kill herself with an overdose. The guy who squealed when he got busted by ATF when he tried to sell an illegally-assembled Uzi to undercover agents. The guy who caused a rollover crash on Appalachee Parkway in Tallahassee by changing lanes without looking or signalling; a car with several girls climbed the guardrail at the railroad overpass not far from the State Capitol building. He didn't bother to stop and check on them despite having bragged about being an EMT (he also said he'd been a Navy SEAL, fought in Iraq in 1991, got Gulf War Syndrome, was taught Japanese swordfighting by Musashi himself, and that he's a powerful warlock. Heh.).

He was convicted on the gun charge, went to prison for a few years in 1997, and appealed the decision all through the '00s, claiming his civil rights had been violated. Apparently there are some other interesting bits on his rap sheet...but his most recent criminal enterprise took the cake and burned the freaking bakery down.

He and his ex-girlfriend were arrested in June of 2012 for multiple instances of sexual assault upon a 14 year old girl.

He was charged with TWENTY-FIVE counts of sexual assault on a juvenile and another 25 for possession of porn. His ex got 5 counts of sexual assault on a minor.

Once I stopped gloating that his ass was arrested (yet again), I asked the Great Google (pbuh) whether Scumbag had gone to trial.

Why, yes. Yes, he had. In March of 2013 he and his ex were convicted. Scumbag got 15 years plus 36 months probation with 256 days' credit for the time he'd already spent in the box. Girlfriend was convicted on two lesser counts and got two 60-day terms and credit for 29 days' jail time.

Not nearly enough. There's nothing I despise more than someone who hurts a kid (and that's even taking Republicans into account).

I had my share of shitty adults as a kid--the stepfather who flailed me with his belt or threatened to take me out back and beat me with an axe handle.

There was one shitty teenager, though, who might have wired my rage button more than the abusive stepfather did.

In 1973, we moved four times, going from Pensacola to West Palm Beach to Loxley, Alabama to Mobile, Alabama. Prichard, actually, which lies close to the port, the Africatown Bridge, and a couple of miles north of downtown Mobile. I've spent hours in Google Earth scouring Eugene Avenue, trying to remember what our house looked like and where one of the neighborhood kids lived.

I wasn't quite 6 yet. Maybe that's why nothing looks familiar now. But I do remember the school yard fronting along the north side of Meaher Street, an easy walk north along Eugene. I remember a day when I was out exploring the neighborhood and stole a "Coca Cola" keyring dangling from the ignition of a parked school bus.

I remember the neighborhood kid and some friends playing with the new Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle in front of his house. I don't know how many times we played together after that first meeting, or what his name was, or even how long we lived in the neighborhood. Not very long, since we moved twice the next year.

I do remember the kid's older brother, who tried to molest me.

You might not want to read any further. It's not particularly graphic, what he did, but "trigger warnings" are a thing.

Everyone else was out of the house--parents at work, kid at summer school, according to Big Brother. All I've got is mental snapshots: I'll give you these opera glasses if you'll do something for me...him with his underwear down...mine down...a few awkward moments of him trying (and failing) to get me to blow him...I didn't know enough to be afraid or disturbed, didn't know what any of this was about...and then I was climbing a tree, playing with the shiny glasses. I didn't actively block it from my mind, but I can't remember giving it much further thought until I was in my 20s, when suddenly everything popped up again.

The neighborhood hasn't changed much, from what I can see in Google's Street View. Still tree-shaded, with kids playing in the quiet streets or sandy yards. The school's been rebuilt and faces the street where I stole the bus keys. I wonder whether that kid's brother molested anyone else, whether he ever got caught. I'd like to think some other kid's big brother grabbed him and went all Frank Castle on his ass.

I'd settle, though, for learning that Scumbag gets a few bales of shit beaten out of him while he's in prison. No rape and no stabbings, just a series of ass-whippings he's had coming to him for a long time.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Even More X-11 Progress!

This is getting to be a habit. It's been about 8 weeks since the last update, 12 weeks since I dropped a different distributor in.

The difference has been amazing. For much of the last two months, I've been making adjustments to the ignition timing and carb settings. Since I'm running the car with a non-computer-controlled carb and distributor, I don't have a manual or sticker for where the base timing should be set. I went with 10 degrees BTDC, plugged the vacuum advance in, then set the carb mixture and idle speed.

Much better. I've had none of the hard-start issues that plagued the car over the last couple of summers. I did have a bad afternoon the day I drove across town to get the X's tag renewed, though. I didn't have any tools. The car stalled as soon as the front tires touched the tag office parking lot and several more times on the way home. I never figured it out, other than the car was running hot. After it cooled down for a few hours, it started right up with no trouble. I got out the timing light a few days later and put things like they should have been weeks before. Fixed.

The next Friday, I went back to the tag office to get the Tracker's renewal. No troubles, no overheating. While I was sitting in line, I thought about the tachometer I'd repaired several months before. It was in a box behind my seat. The dash was only partly put back together from last year's electrical project; all I needed to do to be done was...hook up the stupid tachometer, adjust it, and install it properly.

I'll do a writeup on the tach separately; there's a common problem with GM tachs from the '70s through the '90s where a resistor goes bad and makes the thing read too high, too low, or not at all. I found a website with some decent step-by-step directions. The repair is dead simple if you're even okay with a soldering iron.

The tach worked, needing only some adjustment to read correctly. Once I got that done, I kept going, putting the instrument panel back together (so now I have fully-functional gauges AND dash lights), putting the heater/air conditioner controls back in (so now I have a working heater and defroster for the first time in 18 months), reinstalling and wiring the front stereo speakers, and bolting the steering column into place for the last time.

There's still the glove box to reinstall, but man, does the dash look good. The engine's running better than ever before...though there's still the small matter of getting that freaking dead muffler from last year swapped out.

On an X-11 related note, I recently found a program that let me grab almost all of the Chevy Citations Forever Yahoo Group, which I've been trying to archive for at least 6 years. It's called PG Offline and should work for most Yahoo Groups, as long as you're subscribed. I nabbed everything back to March of 2002. Everything for the 3-4 years prior to that is corrupted and useless. THANKS, Yahoo. Still, the yield was more than 31,000 posts spanning 12 years. That's not bad.

PGO is primarily an offline reader; you can grab a range of posts or the entire archive and look them over without needing to be inline. It also lets you export an archive to an SQLite database for further hacking. I found an SQLite browser which further let me save the post archive as a Comma-Separated Values file.

From here, I'm going to write a little Python code to go through the CSV and save all the posts as conversation threads to make stuff easier to find. There's a ton of technical stuff formerly locked up on Yahoo's servers that I can set free and make available to group members--engine swaps, parts sources and numbers, and like that. We're always getting new members who can't find info about parts.

Next grabbing project will be the group's photo archive. muahahahaha!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

X-11 Progress!

It's been about 4 weeks since I dropped a different distributor into the X.

Holy crap, what an improvement.

It could just be a matter of ignition timing. I was never able to turn the other distributor far enough either way to get better timing. It turns out there was a metal vacuum line in the way in one direction, but I couldn't find an obstruction that would keep it from turning the other way.

Could have just pulled that distributor out, turned the case 60 degrees, adjusted the rotor back the other way--all to make what was the #6 spark tower #1. Just swap the plug wires accordingly.

But then, I wouldn't have been able to use this other one I had, would I? =)

The replacement item came with a box of goodies shipped from a guy down near Orlando, Florida. He had a little Holley 4160 4-barrel carb, an Edelbrock intake manifold to fit the X-11's 2.8L V-6, and some miscellaneous bits to make it almost a drop-in weekend project. I paid him $300 and waited. He had the parts in his barn and needed some time to get them together, box them up, etc.

I didn't sweat it. But it did take nearly 2 years.

I could have gassed up the Tracker and taken another road trip...

Nah. No way. According to the Google, the drive down and back would have been even longer than 10 hours there/ten hours back.

No. Way. I don't think the Tracker could make the run, with its engine so close to overhaul time. The little guy deserves a rest.

Fed-Ex did the work instead. The carb turned out to be from a 1972 or so Ford 302 marine engine. It's a little larger than I'd like; the 2.8L V-6 calls for about 350 cfm of air flow. The smallest Holley 4-barrel flows 390 cfm, which is fine. My Holley pulls 450 cfm. That shouldn't be an issue, really.

The intake is Edelbrock's aluminum 2-piece--the manifold itself plus an adapter casting to match a 4-barrel carb. There's also a 2-barrel adapter which would let me either go back to the existing Rochester 2SE carb I'm running or to a Holley alternative. For that matter, with the 4-barrel adapter in place, I could even install one of the all-in-one fuel injection systems from Holley or elsewhere. All it takes is a thousand bucks or so. (heh)

Both the carb and the intake are just going to stay in the box for the time being. To swap it all in will take some planning and some parts I don't have yet. Because the intake was intended for rear-wheel-drive vehicles like the Camaro and S-10/Blazer, the coolant outlet will end up on the passenger-side end of my front-wheel-drive car, so I'll have to work up a long, long, long top radiator hose. I'll also have to design a different air intake. The Holley is huge compared to the little Rochester 2-barrel. There's not a lot of room between the top of the engine and the underside of the hood, so the existing air cleaner would have to go.

The distributor is a mechanical and vacuum advance version of the 2.8's all-electronic item. The car's existing power and tach connectors plug right in, so I went from this:
...with the coil mounted on an ugly homemade bracket and the wiring spliced to plug into the X-11's factory this:
...a factory installation that looks like what the car came with. Except for the computer-controlled stuff.

The past 4 weeks have been amazing. I've gone from a struggling starter to an enthusiastic one for the first time since I got the car in 2009. I'm still getting a little hard-starting trouble when the engine's hot, but I haven't been stranded so far.

Next project is to dial it all in: get the timing set, get the carb adjusted, and hopefully get a little more power out of the thing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

RIP Robin Williams

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
-- Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. Yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
- David Foster Wallace

I'd usually add my usual Rush song, "Afterimage," which is my go-to song for someone dying. It's appropriate, given the opening lines--"Suddenly you were gone / From all the lives you left your mark upon."

But they have a much more powerful song, 'The Pass,' on the "Presto" disc that hits pretty hard, the way news of Robin Williams' death did:

Here's a link to the Songfacts page for "The Pass," in which Neil Peart says of suicide that "I just can't relate to it at all, but I wanted to write about it. And the facet that I most wanted to write about was to demythologize it - the same as with 'Manhattan Project' - it demythologized the nuclear age, and it's the same thing with this facet - of taking the nobility out of it and saying that yes, it's sad, it's a horrible, tragic thing if someone takes their own life, but let's not pretend it's a hero's end. It's not a triumph. It's not a heroic epic. It's a tragedy, and it's a personal tragedy for them, but much more so for the people left behind, and I really started to get offended by the samurai kind of values that were attached to it, like here's a warrior that felt it was better to die with honor, and all of that kind of offended me. I can understand someone making the choice; it's their choice to make. I can't relate to it, and I could never imagine it, for myself, but still I thought it's a really important thing to try to get down."

I like Peart's modification of an Oscar Wilde quote in the chorus:

 All of us get lost in the darkness
 Dreamers learn to steer by the stars
 All of us do time in the gutter
 Dreamers turn to look at the cars

...but I disagree that there's some heroic battle here. Depression is a pain unlike anything physical. When it combines with despair, nothing else in life matters. It all goes away--family, friends, accomplishments. Dawn Summers posted this on Twitter--"How depression makes suicide look:"

 I haven't been this close to it, but I've seen the view. It fucking sucks. There aren't many famous people I care that much about, but only three make me choke up when I think of them, for the way they touched so many people's lives: Johnny Carson, Carl Sagan, and now Robin Williams.