October, 2008:

Jerry Douglas at Blue Note

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Last night we saw Jerry Douglas play at the Blue Note in NYC. We saw him and the same band (with the exception of the drummer) on April 23rd at BB King. I wrote a long post about that show the next day. Every word in that post applies to last night’s show as well (other than the drummer being different), so I’ll try not to go on too much in this one.

Jerry is considered by most to be the world’s greatest Dobro player, and I am a giant proponent of that view. His fingers mesmerize as they pick and his left hand glides effortlessly up and down the neck placing the slide bar wherever it’s supposed to be. It’s no surprise then that the title of his new (current) CD is called Glide.

In addition to being an incredible musician, he’s also a helluva nice guy (more on that at the end). Rather than go on and on about Jerry, or repeat specific things I said in my previous post, I’ll provide a link here to an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal profiling Jerry Douglas. Last night Jerry sang incredible harmony on two or three songs with Luke Bulla (the fiddle player). It made this quote from the WSJ article all the more real to me:

“I’m a singer at heart,” Mr. Douglas admitted during a recent interview in Nashville, “but when I started playing dobro, I stopped singing — because it took that space in my head. At times I’ll feel strongly about hitting a harmony note with Alison’s voice, accenting the line, and it gives the illusion of there being a harmony singer.”

Jerry Douglas Dobro

Jerry Douglas Dobro

Left-to-right on the stage:

Guthrie Trapp played the guitar (or more accurately, an acoustic guitar and an electric one, roughly 50/50). I place guitar players in two major categories: Solo style artists, where the entire song is really about the guitar (e.g., Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, Don Ross, Craig D’Andrea, Phil Keaggy, etc.) and ensemble artists, who support a band, taking extraordinary leads whenever appropriate (e.g., Bill Cooley, Cody Kilby, Tommy Nash, Buddy Miller, etc.). Guthrie is in the second camp (not that any of them lacks the talent to be stricly solo guitarists!). He’s one of my all-time favorites (as I pointed out in my previous post).

Last night was magical, in nearly every respect, but if I had to nitpick one thing, it would be that the volume on Guthrie’s acoustic guitar was too low. It was perfect for his electric guitar, but someone even yelled out to him to raise the volume on his acoustic one, and he said that it was at the maximum level. I could hear it, and see his fingers flying, but it would have been even better up a few notches.

Guthrie Trapp

Guthrie Trapp

Chad Melton played the drums (the only change in the band from the BB King show earlier this year). He did an excellent job all night and seemed to be having a blast playing at the Blue Note (actually, they all seemed to be enjoying the experience).

Chad Melton

Chad Melton

Todd Parks played the bass (mostly upright, one number, an electric). He’s extremely solid, just like at BB King. We thoroughly enjoyed his play the entire show.

Todd Parks

Todd Parks

Luke Bulla played the fiddle (and the acoustic guitar on one number) and sang lead on three numbers. Just like at BB King, every time Luke took a fiddle lead, or sang, the applause went through the roof. He’s a genuine crowd pleaser.

Unfortunately, since Luke was the furthest away from us on the stage, Lois was unable to get a good shot of him given the lighting. Sorry Luke!

Luke Bulla

Luke Bulla

They came on stage at exactly 8pm, and left the stage at exactly 9:40pm, for a 100 minute show (including a one-song encore, thankfully without leaving the stage). It was a fantastic show, in every respect.

We wanted to sit right up against the stage, so we got to the Blue Note very early. The doors don’t open until 6pm for an 8pm show, but we were outside at 5:25pm. The weather in NYC was spectacular yesterday, so it was quite pleasant to stand outside. We were the 4th and 5th people on line, and at exactly 6pm, they let us in.

From the BB King show, I knew that Guthrie stands on the left side of the stage (though you could see the instruments laid out anyway, so I would have figured it out even if I hand’t seen them before). I wanted to sit close to him so we chose the table just to the left of center stage, so that we could be right between Jerry and Guthrie (that turned out to be right in front of the drum set).

That worked out perfectly, as Jerry spent a good portion of the evening facing Guthrie, putting him roughly two feet from Lois, and three feet from me. Guthrie was three feet from me, but when he took a solo, he stepped toward Jerry (and therefore toward me). At those times, his guitar was roughly 18 inches from my nose, which was as good as it gets for watching his fingers fly up and down the frets!

Guthrie’s set list was about 10 inches from me. It was also 10 inches from the woman who sat back-to-back from me. I knew she was interested in it, because she took a photo of it before the show even started. When Guthrie took the solos that he stepped forward for, he often stood right on his set list. I couldn’t help thinking that if I snagged it, I could ask a CSI person to make a plaster cast of his footprint for me as a souvenir. 😉

The instant the show was over, the woman behind me grabbed the set list before I could even blink. Lois had to lean over on the stage to grab the one Jerry was using. So, we got one, used by the master himself, but without a shoe print on it. 😉

Set List 20081009

Set List 20081009

Before the show, Lois went upstairs to buy the new CD. We both knew that we overpaid (dramatically) from what it costs at Amazon.com, but we did it anyway, for two reasons: 1) We believe (or rather hope) that the artist gets more of the sale when it’s at a show, and 2) We hoped to get it signed after the show.

Thankfully, at least #2 came to fruition. After the show, Lois went upstairs and Jerry was kind enough to sign the CD and chat with her for a minute or two. At the BB King show, he signed our copy of his American Master Series CD, and chatted with us for a bit as well. He’s simply a super person! Here’s a close-up of Jerry right after signing our new CD:

Jerry Douglas

Jerry Douglas

Typically, the Blue Note fills up earlier than many other clubs that we go to. Even though it seats 250 people, the layout isn’t the greatest (for seeing the performers), as it’s long and narrow, with the stage at the center of the long part. So, if you’re at either end of the club, you have a tough angle at best (even though the sound is great in all parts of the club). So, I believe that many people show up early, trying to get a better seat.

Last night, the club was nearly empty even at 7pm, which was shocking. We immediately thought that it was a combination of two things: 1) The economy (stupid!) and 2) Jerry is a traditional Bluegrass artist, and this is one of the purest Jazz clubs around!

By 7:30pm, the place was nearly full, and when the show started, there might have been a handful of empty seats, but the place was clearly packed and energized. For us, this has obviously been a very depressing week watching the markets and the dire economic predictions. Last night was a respite from the doldrums, clearly for many others as well.

Fixing an Old Website

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Lois and I have recently befriended an amazing Nashville-based Singer/Songwriter. Since I intend to write a long post about him in the coming weeks, I’ll leave his identity as a mystery for the moment, since it has little to do with the specifics of this post.

The story of how we met him is interesting in and of itself, but a key piece of it involved the fact that his website was badly broken. As a result, Lois sent him an email (letting him know that), and ended up striking up a friendship in the process.

His website was built a long time ago, when he was employed by a record label. At the time, the code was likely cutting edge, but by today’s standards, even if it worked (which it didn’t), it would be considered a wild mess, and extremely difficult to maintain. One example, the site is optimized for 800×600 viewing, and bothers to tell you that on each and every page. 😉

The site broke when the record label folded. They were kind enough to hand him all of the code, but he’s not a techie. Someone (I have no idea who) put it up on a hosting provider, but I can’t imagine that they tested it, or bothered to fix it if they did. Worse, the site has gone through many iterations, and all of the code for every iteration is still laying around on the host in one directory or another.

He told us that another friend of his offered to fix the site, but she got sick and hadn’t found the time to get to it. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer, since we were too embarrassed to point people to the site (even though we love his music!) so I offered to give it a shot.

As technical as I am, I am a horrible designer and I don’t have as much web experience (as a programmer) as people might think. The only two systems that I’m reasonably familiar with are Zope (which runs the main Opticality website) and WordPress (which powers this blog). I had never written a single line of JavaScript, and while I thoroughly understand HTML and CSS, my lack of design skills (and sense) cripple me when starting from scratch in those arenas.

Last week, I officially took control of his site as his new webmaster. My goal was to fix the site, not improve it in any way! In other words, it would still be the ancient look-and-feel when I was done, but at least it would work! After much head-banging, I finally achieved that last night. I’m still not announcing that site in this post, for a number of silly reasons, but my initial goal has been met.

Why am I writing this? Because I want to share a few revelations that I learned along the way.

There was a page on the site that had JavaScript-based popups to bring up the Lyrics and Stories behind a number of his songs. The popups didn’t work. Since I had never coded up any JS, nothing jumped out to me as obviously wrong. I wrote some standalone tests that mimicked what the popups did, and they all worked for me. In other words, I proved to my satisfaction that it wasn’t my browser settings that were blocking the popups.

Long story short, after much head-banging and Googling, it turns out that the popups were being blocked inside the site’s HTML/JS! What? Norton Symantec Personal Firewall, in an attempt to save its users from themselves, rewrites HTML files before they are served. It inserts a series of JS functions to override window.open() and onerror() and a few other functions. At the end of the file, it resets them.

Still, who cares what a personal firewall does on a user’s machine? We all do! My guess (and I’m reasonably sure I’m right here) is that the friend who took the files from the old record label, and put them up on the hosting provider for the musician, had the Norton Symantec Firewall installed on their machine. Each time they touched one of the HTML files, the Norton Symantec JS was inserted into their copy, which they then uploaded to the hosting site, and voila, all of the popups stopped working, for everyone!

I had to hand-strip all of the inserted JS. Why? Because unlike Zope, WordPress, or any other CMS-like system, any design element (or coding error) is propogated among dozens of individual files. The bad JS was in 50+ files, that I hand-edited. If I didn’t like a menu item, instead of changing it in one place (like I would in Zope or WP), I had to go into every page on the site that displayed that menu, and make the identical change.

You might ask why I didn’t factor out those parts. The main reason is that I wasn’t looking to introduce new problems. One of the things I’m particular good at is doing rote tasks extremely quickly. Once I knew exactly what I needed to do, I was able to accomplish the edits faster than most people. I am also proud of the fact that I didn’t introduce a single typo in all of those edits (to my knowledge).

I also added a PayPal cart for him (he was taking orders via email!). I had never done that before either, so that was another learning experience. Within 24 hours of my putting up the new cart, he has already received orders (successfully) from both the US and the other side of the world! Cool! 🙂

Finally, I incorporated a free streaming flash player so that people could listen to 30-60 snippets of a number of his songs. I had never done that kind of stuff before either, so that was an interesting learning exercise as well.

Bottom line: inheriting an old site, laden with problems, is not a fun task for someone with as few web skills as I have (had?). But, since I love learning stuff (in particular, web stuff), the overall experience was positive for me, and I’m very happy to have helped our new friend.

I can now take my time, possibly going for a complete redesign, knowing that at least he can easily take orders for his CD now, even if the site is still not much to look at…

Update: Painful epilogue. I commented out (or thought I did) one menu item. I used an HTML comment, as in “<!– blah blah blah –!>”. I tested it in both Firefox and Google Chrome, and the menu item was gone. Unfortunately, I didn’t test it in IE. A few minutes ago, I pulled up the site in IE to test something else (lucky for me), and noticed that some of the pages were 100% blank. Removing the “!” from the closing “>” made it work in IE. Ugh. Of course, since I haven’t refactored yet, I had to update 45 files by hand again… I also found one other thing that doesn’t work in IE, but that’s a Flash thing, so some more work to be done.

No Shame Left In Politics

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To be honest, there’s really little shame left in the country (world?) in general, but in politics, it’s effectively non-existent.

I could write all day about this topic, or have a post-a-day for a very long time. Instead, I’ll cram it in to this one post.

First, John McCain. Two recent giant disappointments. I was appalled when people called it a stunt that he suspended his campaign to return to Washington to work on the bailout bill. In the end, they were correct, even if that wasn’t his intention all along. While he returned to Washington for the weekend after the debate, he did not stick around (or work hard enough) to get it passed the following week. Clearly, it wasn’t his most important priority.

The second McCain disappointment is even more appalling though. One of his most often repeated stump speeches is how he will veto any bill that includes pork in it. Further, he claims he will name names, and make the sponsors of the pork famous. Well, as urgent as the bailout supposedly was/is, it is loaded with pork, and McCain voted yes. Of course he couldn’t have vetoed it, but he could have shown the courage to say that regardless of how important the bill was, he could not in good conscience vote for it as long as it represented politics-as-usual.

Next, Congress in general (both sides of the aisle), but Democrats in particular. The sub-prime mess is a direct outgrowth of the desire of Democrats to give away housing to those who can’t afford it. It gets really complicated after that generalization. I may write a long post on that some day as well (I was on the inside on Wall Street in the 80’s, supporting the mortgage business, and I invested in a sub-prime lending technology company as a VC), but this isn’t that post.

Clip after clip shows clearly that both the Bush Administration, and specifically John McCain (in addition to other House and Senate Republicans), were calling for more regulation and better oversight for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Democrats (specifically Barney Frank, Christopher Dodd and Charles Schumer) consistently defended Fannie and Freddie, and continued to praise the people we now know were clearly defrauding the public (through accounting shenanigans and other wrong-doing).

Those Democratic leaders simply won’t apologize for being wrong (I’m not suggesting they knew the extent of the wrong-doing, just say you made a mistake!). Worse, they continue to blame Bush and the Republicans for their desire to deregulate. That’s a heinous lie (blatantly obvious from watching any of the testimony from 2003 onwards!), and is beyond shameless.

The Republicans may not be worse, but they have no reason to consider themselves above the fray. Saying stupid things, whether for political gain or not (and whether they work or not) is simply shameless. When the bailout bill was defeated in the House the first time around, Congressman Eric Cantor held up the text of Nancy Pelosi’s speech, and chided her for giving a partisan speech and turning just enough Republicans off to cause the vote to fail.

There’s simply no good way to spin that. First, if true, shame on the Republicans for allowing a speech to change their vote. You should be voting your conscience, not your ego. Second, if it’s not true, then he shouldn’t have said it, just to give Republicans cover, and attempt to embarrass Pelosi. Third, Pelosi was stupid to inject partisanship into something that clearly required Republican support.

Most important in that first failed bailout vote was the lack of Democratic support, and the complete lack of honesty associated with the reasoning behind it. Aside from the fact that the Democrats control both houses, and could have passed the bill without a single Republican vote, all the Democrats needed was for the 12 Democrats who sit on Barney Frank’s committee (who voted no) to have voted yes, for it to have passed!

Folks, here’s the head of the House Financial Services committee, and one of the top supporters of Fannie and Freddie, cheerleading the bill, and his own committee members (I’m speaking specifically of the Democrats!) vote against it. These are the people who should be most familiar with the issues and the reasons why the bill needed to be passed. Yet, in the face of this, Barney Frank has no trouble playing to the cameras and offering to speak to any Republican whose feelings were hurt by Pelosi’s speech. Incredible!

Lastly (on the Congressional side), we have reports that Pelosi specifically absolved Democrats (in advance!) from voting against the bill, because they were in tight re-election campaigns, and needed to say they voted against the bill. Either the bill is that important, and couldn’t afford to fail (for the good of the entire country!), or, re-electing Democrats is much more important, and it’s OK if the country goes into a depression in order for that to happen. Again, shameless!

Finally, Barack Obama. I don’t ascribe any ill-will to Obama in regards to his love of this country and his desire to lead it honorably. That said, he’s exactly like every other politician (McCain included) who not only will do anything to get elected (there’s zero change there folks!), but he’s also every bit as calculated, for many years, to get to be the President.

I don’t believe that because he associated with William Ayers and his wife that he condones domestic terrorism. I do believe that he knowingly associated with them in order to further his own political agenda.

I don’t believe that because he was a member of Reverend Wright’s church that he beleives the heinous things that Reverend Wright regularly spewed. I do believe that Obama wanted the street cred that came with being a member of that particular church in order to further his political ambitions. I do believe that he well knew exactly what Reverend Wright was preaching (regardless of his claims to the contrary).

His ties to Tony Rezko are blatantly obvious. It’s not that Rezko is a convicted criminal that should matter. It’s that Obama directly engaged in dealings with him that personally benefited Obama!

To all of the above (and a million more examples), I say that they are all shameless. They care not a lick about any of us. They care about power, control, wealth, and most important, their own egos. There isn’t one of them that is different, regardless of whether they call themselves a Democrat or Republican.

Shame on all of them!