Grant Muller

Cruel Jewel 50: A Race Report

Before we get into this, I want to clear up a few things:

  • Trekking poles – Bring them with you. Take them out immediately. Don’t bother putting them away. This isn’t Umstead or the Virginia Creeper trail. Some points of the race are so steep that you can reach out in front of your face and touch the ground. The downhills are straight down, because you know, who likes switchbacks.
  • Salt – Its Spring in the south. The temperature will be somewhere between stifling and oppressive. You’re going to sweat a lot. Take somewhere close to the lethal dose of salt for you height and weight for the day.
  • Rain Gear – Its still Spring in the south. The humidity is either 90% or raining. If its the latter and you’re 16 hours into the race at night on the side of a windy bald, you’re going to get wet and cold. I made the mistake of eschewing rain gear and was shivering in my short-sleeved shirt for the better part of 10 miles in a raging thunderstorm. It might encourage you to move your ass, but see notes on trekking poles; you can only move so fast on terrain that is fondly referred to as the Dragon’s Spine (or as I normally refer to it between heaving breaths, the worst-trail-in-the-world-dear-god-why-do-I-keep-coming-back-here).
  • It’s 56-58 miles, not 50. That matters. And don’t go thinking that you’re halfway through at mile 28. When you hit Skeenah Gap at mile 34ish, look at your watch. Double that time; thats probably how long its going to take you to clear the last 22 or so miles.

Alright, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s begin.

The 2017 Cruel Jewel 50 started at 8:00 on Saturday May 20th at Camp Morganton in North Georgia, 20 hours after Cruel Jewel 100. I woke at 6:30 AM full of anticipation, water, and salt. My wife had been feeding me salty this that and the other for a full 24 hours. I packed my gear and headed to the Camp with plenty of time to mill around, chat with my friends, and fret over the day to come. 100 mile racers were rolling in from their efforts the prior day; few looked chipper as they taped their toes and waddled like sweaty penguins back on to the course. I had a lot to look forward to.

My pack was full of salt, protein drink, tailwind, salt, some snacks, water, salt, trekking poles, chapstick, and some salt. I’d been training for a solid 6 months for this effort, repetitively running up and down Kennesaw Mountain nearly every weekend, and slogging away on the stairmaster at least once a week. I packed that away as well. At 7:50 AM the RD scraped a line across the gray gravel path outside of the camp with his foot; the starting line. After a few shouted announcements, we were off. 100 or so raving lunatics took off down the path to Snake Nation Road, and the race was on.

Paces varied between “Why am I running so fast?” and “Am I going out to hard?”. I tried to stay in the latter camp, and several runners pushed ahead of me on the easy section of open road leading to the first trailhead. I was playing it safe today, and didn’t mind being toward the back of the pack at the start; it was going to be a long day. The heat of the open road was mounting, but as we caught up with some of the 100 mile runners they confirmed some positive news; it was better than the day before. The temperature would reach a mere 86 degrees today compared to Friday’s 90, and the humidity had miraculously dropped into “Sweating actually matters” territory.

At some point on Aska Rd, we turned out onto the first trailhead under welcome shade at Deep Gap. I was still a bit anxious on the initial loop. Had I taken in enough salt? Running with Matt, he informed me of his strict schedule during the heat of the day: 1 SaltStick every 30 minutes. It seemed like a good strategy so I adopted it. Barely 4 miles in we deployed the trekking poles. They never went back in my pack.

Heading up Davenport Mountain was a good taste of things to come. Not so steep that you’re filled with self-loathing over your decisions in life, but no picnic either. I carry too much upper body weight to be a stellar runner, but the trekking poles made up for any genetic disadvantages I may have as a runner. In no time we were headed back down to Deep Gap Aid Station.

On the way down the mountain I had a niggling sensation in my right calf. My nemesis, the muscle cramp was creeping up. Matt’s schedule of 1 SaltStick every 30 minutes may work for him, but I was going to have to up the ante to stay ahead of ol’ crampy. I started popping those bad boys once every 15 minutes until the sensation passed. If I made any good decisions during the race it was that one. By the time I reached Deep Gap again at mile 8.5, Lord Crampus was satisfied with my salty offerings. I still ate a handful of potato chips as extra appeasement.

We headed out onto the trail again, ready to link up with the Benton-MacKaye trail. I have no idea who Benton or MacKaye were, but they sure knew how to cut a pleasant trail through the mountains. The descent to Weever Creek Rd was difficult; I later found that we’d be climbing right back out of the hole we were rushing into, but the trail was so damned beautiful I didn’t mind. We passed several 100 milers, looking tired but determined on their way up the trail. These guys and gals had soldiered on for almost 24 solid hours now and were a little more than halfway through. I did my best to raise their spirits and send some positive vibes their way, and pay my respects as I let them pass on the crowded single-track trail. If my day was hard, their’s was hellacious.

At Weever Creek Rd I had the chance to catch up with old friends, give a few sweaty hugs (Thanks Sarah!), eat a few salty chips, and gulp down some pickle juice. Pucker up. 13.5 miles in and it was time to re-fill the packs with water, salt and Tailwind. If my mood was anxious at the start, I was quickly heading towards elated. Matt and I stomped up the trail out of Weever Creek road toward Stanley Gap and the next aid station.

The climb up Rich Mountain is similar to Davenport. You won’t question your existence or see the White Buffalo, but you’re going to do some work. We trudged ever upward, passed several runners, and by the time we reached the top the game was finally on. The descent down Rich Mountain is a steady drop to Stanley Creek, and the perfect place to make up some time. I took advantage of my good mood and the conditions, put a smile on and took off. Somewhere in here I lost track of Matt but ran into several other runners that I’d see throughout the race. People had come from all over to experience this: Chicago, Dayton, the Philippines. How lucky am I to have these proving grounds in my backyard?

At Stanley Creek aid, almost 19 miles in I was craving nothing by ice cold coke. I never drink coke, but today the caffeine and carbonation were right on the money. I had several refills, more pickle juice, and literally drank from the salt shaker. The next section started with a few miles of open road, and the sweat was already flowing in the 85 degree heat.

This segment of the race started fast and furious. The road is relatively flat, so if you’re feeling fresh you can make up some time here. The sun was oppressive so I remained cautious, but packed in some quick miles here before the onslaught of the trail again after Old Dial Rd. Along the way I encountered a few 100 milers still doing the work, still getting after it. I walked with a woman from Canada who was looking a little sleepy. I donated my emergency caffeine gel to her, and we kept on until we hit the Toccoa river. It was too tempting to pass up; she got in and sat down for a while, and I dunked my hat and threw it back on. It lit us back up. I left her with another 100 mile competitor and headed up the trail. A few more miles of ups and downs to Old Dial Rd where my crew (wife) and friends were waiting.

By the time I reached Old Dial people around me were starting to think I was high. I wore a permanent smile and did my best to spread my mood to anyone I encountered. Cary, Bill, and Nikki were waiting on our fellow runners there. I felt positively pampered. Bill and Cary helped me fill my pack. Cary had made me some miso ramen noodles on a camp stove, and even though I didn’t feel like I needed to sit down, I gave myself 2-3 minutes to suck down some noodles and salty broth. The soup was hot, but really hit the spot and packed away another reserve of salt for me to draw on. Aaron, friend and 100 mile competitor wasn’t too far ahead. He’d had some early struggles with nausea in the brutal heat but was pushing ever onwards. I wanted to catch up and spread some good energy. I grabbed another cup of coke before heading out up Garland, Brawley Mountain and Bald Top.

A few miles in I encountered Aaron and Ivars. They were taking a rest when I came up on them, and I probably annoyed the hell out of them, but rest time was over and we got moving again. Hopefully it wasn’t to their detriment. We were on one of the hardest sections of the BMT during one of the hottest parts of the day and I count it as a blessing that I encountered these guys when I did. We all slowed down and trudged up and down together, bantering about ultrarunning, youtube, past races, and what we were planning at the next aid station. There are few things in life better than shooting the shit with your friends on the trail. In no time we’d hit Wilscot Gap.

At Wilscot we’d agreed to hide away in our crew’s cars for a few minutes and spend some time in the AC. Rich Schick had suggested this strategy to me a few days ahead of the race, and it worked like a charm. 5 Minutes in the cool air, some ramen noodles and coke, and I was a new man. Caitlin, who’d spent the morning pacing fellow friends, was going to join on and march us over Wilscot to Skeenah Gap. A lot of runners stress over the effort ahead of them. Caitlin drinks a beer, shrugs, and says “Lets get on with it”. I didn’t drink a beer, but the attitude was inspiring so I took that with me along with the excessive runner’s high I was experiencing as fuel for the effort to come. Aaron and Ivars got a little rest in the car as well, and after some changes to provisions were ready to head back out towards Skeenah Gap.

The climb up Wilscot Mountain is rough. You’re getting closer to the real deal on the Duncan Ridge Trail; this is really the last hurrah of the relatively pleasant BMT. We trudged on toward the top, taking almost no breaks. The heat was abating and I was sweating less. I started to reduce my salt intake and stuck mostly to Tailwind, protein drink and water. Around the top of Wilscot I looked at my watch. I’d been at this for almost 10 hours now, and I was about to reach the last pleasant aid station before the real work began. Extrapolating ahead to make the finish in fewer than 20 hours, I decided it was time to break away and make for Skeenah on the double. Coming down Wilscot I went for it, and hit Hwy 60 at Skeenah Gap at a full run where the whole crew was waiting.

I got a lot of help from Cary at this aid station, the last time I’d see her before the finish. I refilled on protein drink one final time, topped off the rest of my fluids, grabbed a Snickers and slapped my headlamp on for the night. Dark clouds descended and the smell of turned over soil permeated the air. It was going to rain. I hadn’t brought any rain gear; I figured if it did rain it was hot, so it wouldn’t matter. I had neglected the cool mountain air, and didn’t appreciate just how much rain we were going to get. It was looking ominous as I waved goodbye to my wife and friends at Skeenah up the long climb to the Duncan Ridge Trail and the finish.

The climb out of Skeenah is notoriously steep. There are multiple false tops where you feel like running might be an option, but around every turn is another uphill march. It continues for several miles until you hit the Duncan Ridge trail, and make the left turn into the hills from hell. The race prior to this point was the warmup, and downright pleasant in comparison. It was time to get to work on the spine.

The sky dripped and the wind raged just as I saw the first blue blaze. Thunder in the distance signaled the oncoming storm, and I passed several 100 milers who had stopped to gear up for the drenching. Rain is usually my element. It cools me, my sweat rate drops off, and I typically pick up the pace dramatically. The sky opened up just before nightfall, and so did my pace. I wasn’t too cold yet, but I moved fast up the steep inclines and carefully quick on the declines. Several times I surfed the mud for 5 or so feet, only my trekking poles kept me from taking a butt slide or going over forward. I still don’t know how I managed to make it through the entire race without a single fall.

I could tally off the mountains, gaps and balds that you have to cross on your way to Fish Gap, but this race report is already dragging on. The only advice I can give is to put your head down and march upwards. Stop and breathe when you have to. Smile, you signed up for this. Use gravity when you can, carefully, on the downhills. Just keep moving forward.

The space between Skeenah and Fish Gap is a bit of a blur. Its a long section whether you measure by time or mileage. The lightning lit the sky every few minutes, illuminating everything on the dark trail for an instant. I’m certain I heard boar in the underbrush. Other runners claim to have heard bears calling. I think I saw the shadow of at least 20 in the distance every time lightning struck. That might have been my imagination. The rain and fog were so thick that using your headlamp on anything but the lowest setting was impossible. I just pressed onwards until the welcome light of Fish Gap appeared in the distance through the rain.

It was a dark moment for many runners at Fish. 100 Mile competitors had been at this for over 30 hours at this point, exhausted and underfueled, they were cold and hypothermic. Shivering under a tent or beside a fire, many decided to call it quits here, so close to the end. Many considered it, but hardened up and carried on. I ran into Mark, working his way through the rest of his 100 mile effort and looking really good! I crewed and paced Mark at the Bear 100 in 2016, and knew from experience that he could turn it on at the end of even the toughest races. Today was no exception. I made my stop quick. I was getting cold in nothing but my short sleeved shirt and needed to move fast to keep my body hot. I ate a few snacks, some coke without ice, and pressed on.

The next section of the race is in my opinion the toughest. Your tired legs are begging for rest. There is no such thing as a flat section after the first quarter mile out of the aid station. If you’re not ascending, you’re descending. To some degree I count it as a blessing that I was wet and cold. It made me move when I wanted to stop. The rain let up for a while, but the damage to the trail was done. Slipping and sliding on the bare mud was the rule for the rest of the race, and any chance of picking up speed on the downhills was out of the question. It was better to play it safe and finish rather than risk taking a spill off the trail to improve my time. Besides, I was already having a good time, so what did my finish time matter? Somewhere in here I met up with a few runners who were marching at exactly my pace, and I stuck with them for some good conversation about bears, beers and family. The previous 10 miles I’d covered in relative solitude, it was good to have folks nearby for a while.

By the time I reached White Oak Stomp I was starting to feel the effects of a very long day on my feet. I was still happy to be out there, but ready for the race to be over. I had warmed back up since the rain had stopped to little more than a sprinkle, but still made my rest brief. It was here that I ran into friends Wes and his pacer TJ. Wes had taken a spill early on that earned him a softball sized welt on his right calf. By some miracle of personal fortitude he had put this injury aside and managed to get out in front of our normal crew of racers over the course of 90+ miles. Taking a little rest at White Oak Stomp to change out a few articles of clothing, he looked ready to take on the rest of the race. Ellen, who I’d met in the previous section was ready to head out of White Oak right when I was, so we trudged out together.

The hike out of White Oak is as steep as it gets. Here you can touch the ground in front of your face as you ascend. Its a relatively brief climb, but brutal. We reached the top heaving a bit, and started making the long, treacherous descent. This three mile section is hard to take even in good conditions; the slick trail meant constant sliding, testing foot positions, and struggling to stay upright. I had several near misses, but Ellen kept her footing nicely. It was long and slow, but not impossible. I sympathized with the 100 mile competitors; every footfall is work at the end of a 100, every one of these steps were extra credit.

The sky opened up again during the descent into Wolf Creek. The going was so slow that I was having a harder time keeping my body temperature up. I was begging for some uphill as we approached the bridge at Wolf Creek, and the race delivered just in time. The last aid station is just a water stop. We walked right on by; the torrent of rain was plenty to drink if you just opened your mouth a little as you hiked.

The trail had turned into a creek bed of ankle deep water. The last 4 mile section is plenty runnable in good conditions, but a barely hikeable swamp when wet. We slogged ever upward, getting quieter as I began to shiver. We both wanted this race to be over. We reached the road suddenly, and I knew the rest of the trail very well. We crossed down the stairs and into the park. I bid Ellen adieu in an effort to move quickly and get my body temperature up in the last 2 miles. I was at a dead run when I hit campsites at Vogel, and the rain was driving hard all around me. As much as I could sprint at the end of a 50 something mile race, I did. The horse had smelled the barn, and I was ready to cross the finish line and find a nice, hot fire. In the pouring rain, to a crowd of perhaps a dozen, I crossed the finish line and accepted my belt of victory. To an outsider, the end of an ultramarathon may seem anticlimactic, but for me its a reminder that the joy was in the running, not in the finishing.

My race was over, but my day wasn’t. I still had friends out there working their way toward the finish, and I wanted to be around to see them cross the line. After a quick bite to eat, I peeled my shoes and wet shirt off, hopped in the car to get to our hotel room for a quick shower, then headed back to the finish line. One by one friends new and old were rolling in. Wes survived his early injury and crossed with TJ with confidence. Mark managed to stay awake and crossed the line shortly afterwards. Matt had caught up to Aaron at White Oak stomp, and a few hours later they crossed the line together at a run towing a crowd of fellow combatants with their pacers. A highlight of the finish, Ivars appeared minutes behind Aaron, at a full sprint, decked out in a red cape he’d fashioned for himself from a red Georgia Bulldogs tablecloth he’d found at the aid station. Ivars had fallen asleep for a spell and when he woke, was completely re-energized, if a bit cold. He’d solved his hypothermia problem ingeniously and hilariously. It was inspiring to watch these guys and gals fight their personal struggles out there and overcome them all to finish, come hell or high water (and we had both).

After the requisite post-race elation, we congratulated each other on a job well done, and planned our next battles. As drowsiness started to set in, we said our goodbyes, satisfied with the weekend’s work.

People seem to think running is a solitary. Absolutely not. You have the support of the good people who volunteered their weekend to work at aid stations, make you grilled cheese sandwiches, and teach you what a Pickleback cocktail is. You have the folks who spent the days prior to the race marking trails so you don’t get lost out there. Many of us have crews and friends out there to give us aid and to keep an eye on us. You have your fellow runners out there on race day, reminding you that this is only 10% race, 90% community. You have your training buddies, keeping you honest and making sure you get out of bed for the long hauls in the months prior to the race. You are literally surrounded by friends and supporters the entire time.

I’d like to thank the Race Directors for putting on a hell of a good show. But most of all I’d like to thank my wife, who tolerates many long hours of training, and sacrifices weekends to come out and support me whenever she can. In the days leading up to the race and for the duration of the struggle, nobody helped me more than she did. I’m lucky to have her by my side.

RPM 2012: Year Of King Richard

2188404253-1Occasionally, between the software, traveling, work and more work, I get a rare opportunity to play the drums. The call usually comes at the end of January, and has become the most welcome distraction in February in years.

It’s The RPM Challenge

In February 2011, Tim Alexander asked me to "play on a few tracks" for his Letter Seventeen album. I hadn’t had a chance to record in over a year, so I eagerly accepted and contributed a few tracks. It was fun as hell.

This year, when Tim again asked me to "play on a few tracks", I unknowingly agreed to play on almost all of them. With an additional wrinkle, I would only be here half the month. It would turn into a whirlwind two weeks as I raced to record drums for eight of the ten songs (nine if you count the one I failed on), prepare to leave the country and grow another year older. Cutting it a little close for comfort, I uploaded the last of the tracks from my lodgings in Quito over a frustratingly slow internet connection.

Two weeks later Tim mailed the final cut of The Year of King Richard to Portsmouth, NH and another RPM challenge was complete.

Let’s Talk about the tracks:

YOKR opens with So Social, the signature track of the album and easily the most tiring to play. Sprinting in with a 16th note roll and an easy to spot homage to "The Knack", the energy of this song was an exciting way to kick things off. I’d obviously taken a year off from the drums as I approached the end of this song out of breath, and it goes without saying that it took more than one take.

With the warm up out of the way, we move into Dancing Machine, a post-disco inspired open-hat affair. It’s tragic that most drummers, rythm aside, can’t dance to save their lives. Throwing a tom roll into the middle of the chorus was wacky at first, but turned out great in retrospect. Keep your ears open for the 16th note open-hat beat in the bridge; that machine-gun hat pattern once peppered the entire song but proved to be too distracting.

Tired from dancing, Tim takes a step back with Time Bomb. "Think R.E.M." Tim told me when he first introduced the song. I went back and listened to some Dead Letter Office and gave him my spin on it. As usual, I took things too far and played the heavily syncopated beat you hear at the end throughout the entire song. Tim reeled me in though, and the album is better for it.

Year of King Richard, the title track, would be the song that got away. After hearing it once I was desperate to play on it, and after several takes of what I thought was a good beat, I simply couldn’t get the sound I was looking for. After turning in a few disappointing scratch tracks to Tim, I had to admit the song did not need me. I made a few suggestions and took a back seat on this one. Still, it’s my favorite song on the album.

YOKR behind us, Tim sidesteps any notion of being locked into a genre or era and we find ourselves back in the 80’s. Law of Motion is another open-hat dance number, this time with a significant synthesizer presence. The arpeggiated line in the bridge is classic. I almost never do splices, preferring to do one or two takes of a track all the way through and just get it right. I was made to play Laws of Motion it seems, as I did exactly one take of the song.

Next is Deep Hole, a song that any project manager I know can relate to, and certainly anyone who’s ever "bitten off more than they can chew" will understand. At first, the drum track on this song was a busy double-time beat that seemed a bit too cheery. I miced my toms and took the song into a deeper hole, preferring the ominous half-time gloom to set the mood. That and I really wanted to play my 16" tom like a hi-hat.

If you want me to go is primarily Tim and his guitar. At first I intended to play on it, but Tim looked at me like I had an elbow growing from my face when I mentioned it, so I went off and did some more failed takes of Year of King Richard.

"Can you play a Motown beat?", Tim asked me when he introduced Number Q. "Sure," I answered while googling "Motown beat" to figure out what it was. What came out was somewhere between Beast of Burden and swamp rock. So I didn’t exactly nail the Detroit thing, but Number Q did turn out to be one of my favorites on the album. You’ll wanna come out and see this one live when I can talk Tim out of the safety of the studio.

On Summer Nights I couldn’t help myself. I had to throw a rolling tom beat into this easy going, California pop number. I intentionally dropped in and out of the song to draw the listener into the simple strumming of the guitar and de-emphasize the presence of the drums. Did I mention the toms?

"Just go listen to Tomorrow Never Dies on Revolver." Tim told me after a few failed attempts at the last song on the album, Lavender Haze. After the Beatles’ refresher, I approached this song with a bit more freedom, a lot more ride, and enough ghost notes to fill a haunted house. Of, um, snare drums. The addition of Amit Chabukswar’s tabla rhythms and Gary’s sitar really made the point. It was an open end.

So that’s the album. It still amazes me how much you can accomplish in less than a month. Someday we’ll be as good as Beck and record it all in 48 hours. So go buy Year of King Richard on iTunes, CD Baby, or download it from bandcamp. Oh, and visit the Letter Seventeen site and tell us what you thought, or like Letter Seventeen on Facebook.

Another Southern Odyssey

Exhausted, sore, and half-asleep, I stare into the read-view mirror of our van. While I wait for Jeremy to appear on the horizon behind me, I strike up a conversation with a much younger version of myself.

“We enjoy this?”

“Hell yes!”

The young me grins from ear to ear, gripping a roll of quarters at an all-night arcade lockin. A bearded, haggard, and much older me smiles back before I run off into a maze of video game consoles. Probably to play Tekken.

Jeremy’s head pops up over the ridge, and I’m back in the van. I rub my eyes and hop out into the dewy morning grass, stomping around to warm up. Jeremy is moving slow. Part of me wants to urge him on rather than take his place, but he’s already picked up almost six miles of the eight mile run, he needs a break. In a few minutes, a slap bracelet wraps around my wrist and I’m off again; the two mile run ahead of me will be the shortest and most difficult.

A year ago, I ran the Southern Odyssey, my first 24+ hour relay race with a group of friends from High School. It was a tiresome saga full of ups and downs, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. When John sent out the APB to get the team back together I was all in. We paid our way into the race and had what looked to be a full team. We all looked forward to a milder, less intense Southern Odyssey in 2011.

A year later as I hobbled down a country road toward my next pit stop, I recalled how we still managed to end up with eight runners. There were dropouts related to injuries just weeks before the race. John, initially the organizer of the team, had moved to Malibu several months prior and couldn’t make the trip out to Atlanta to join the team. Then we had injuries along the way. Drew, one of our strongest runners, struggled to get by with a taped up calf. Aaron, himself a sub for a runner we lost to injuries before the race, was run off the road during his third leg. He rolled his ankle so badly it looked like a grapefruit was growing from his leg. We divided up the extra mileage and persisted.

As I rounded a curve on what seemed to be a neverending hill, I heard a long low note. The vuvuzela.

Jeremy, perhaps the most upbeat person I’ve ever met, had brought a host of toys along for the ride. One was a vuvuzela. By the end of the race this $.60 plastic horn would become the sound of mercy on the horizon for our team as we approached a pit stop. You can hear it bellow a half mile away, and the sound means one thing. You’re getting close.

The vuvuzela urged me on. I woke from whatever half-dream state I was in and found new energy to continue. It was a reminder that weariness and exhaustion can easily be overcome with the right stimulation. In my case, the sound of a $.60 plastic horn.

And so it was another Southern Odyssey. Many of the trials and tribulations are the same from year to year, but to truly understand you must experience it yourself. I always come away from it feeling deeply satisfied. Perhaps its the binge eating afterwards. Whatever the case, I can offer this advice:

Buy a vuvuzela. Buy six of them and leave them around the house. Leave one in your car. Leave one in the bathroom. Take it to your kid’s basketball game. Take it to your next board meeting. Use it to annouce the birth of your daughter to the rest of the maternity ward. No matter what the occasion, the vuvuzela is the most appropriate way to celebrate it.

Is it Avant Jazz Industrial Noise? No, It’s STFUnity.

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Its not jazz. It’s not fusion. It’s not electronic. It’s not industrial. I don’t have a word to describe what happened when musicians of very different backgrounds got together virtually to create music.

I can only call it STFUnity.

Finished while I was on holiday in India, STFUnity is what happens when an anarchist saxophonist blasts over the work of a precision drum programmer. Its what happens when an algorithmic composer high-fives his drum kit, then asks for someone to play a solo over it. Its what happens when a keyboardist demands that the entire album be mixed into one of the tracks…indeterminately. Its alternately gentle and violent instrumental frosting spread over an electronic layer cake that got up and triple-lindyed off a countertop.

I haven’t listened to many of the the tracks since their early completion some time ago, and I find myself remembering fondly the process of creating them as much as the result. Built almost entirely over the web, the project was initiated by Bill Graham and Jason Blain early in 2010. My contributions came primarily in the form of sound design and algorithmic control, though a few tracks I laid the base for, leaving Jason and Bill to render further. You can read about that here and here.

One track I haven’t mentioned is BitBlit. Written in 25/8 time, I played the drums live, then sliced what can liberally be called a “pattern” into constituent parts varying in length between 8th and half notes. Then, using GOLSequencer I changed the entry point and various effects, mangling the once straightforward 4/4, 5/8, 7/8, 5/8 sequence into something unrecognizable.

That ‘straightforward’ part is supposed to be a joke.

It’s worthwhile to listen to a before and after, so you can see how much different the tracks are once other members of the group get a hold of them. Notice how BitBlit as I rendered it graduates to full-fledged song from cheesy video game interstitial.

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BitBlit Before

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BitBlit After

So, what are you waiting for? Download it. It’ll crush your bones at no cost (that means it’s free). Click here.

In Defense of Shoes

Go to your favorite hiking trail. Walk down the path, then sit down for a moment and take off your shoes and socks. Keep walking.

Notice where your eyes go.

If you’re anything like me, or the people I’ve watched perform this same exercise, your eyes go directly to the path in front of you. Sharp rocks wait to slice your foot open, introducing hookworms or bacteria into your bloodstream. Tree roots have grown across the path plotting a stubbed toe for every passerby. Acorns roll onto the trail from a nearby oak, lying in wait to do some damage to those tender arches. The path, no matter how well-trod, is rife with danger. So you keep your eyes peeled to avoid even the tiniest obstacles.

But think about where your eyes aren’t.

No longer are you surveying the landscape for a hidden predator. No longer are you keeping your eyes peeled for a blackberry patch or a rabbit, frozen by the appearance of a potential enemy. No longer are you thinking of how beautiful it is to see the blooms of a wild cherry tree as the wind rustles their tiny petals. No, you must keep your eyes on the road ahead.

You can put your shoes back on now, and enjoy those cherry trees.

Shoes have gotten a bad rap lately. Blamed for everything from knee problems to spinal injury, walking shod is starting to look like less of a boon than a liability. But as the exercise above illustrates there are distinct advantages, especially to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, to sporting something on your soles.

Shoes are a tool. Like most human inventions, it gave us a distinct advantage over our competitors and the environment, allowing us to perform a simple act:

Looking around.

The ability to become less concerned with the path under our feet, and concentrate on the road ahead is too tremendous to describe.

To draw a nerd parallel, computer programs often have "watchdog" routines built into them. These watchdogs prevent the program from crashing by performing constant checks to make sure that everything is moving smoothly. These watchdog routines take time. They consume processing ability. They take up space. If you could remove these watchdogs, you’d have capacity for other things. If you can become less concerned with what you’re walking on, you can become more concerned with the beauty of the mountain pass you’re walking through.

Shoes are important. No matter how much our modern minds would like to demonize what walking shod has done to us, its important to remember what walking shod has done for us. Is it clear that poorly designed shoes can cause detriment to our gait and posture? Absolutely, and our modern ability to examine this can in some small way be traced to that fact that we at some point decided that we were tired of training our eyes 3 feet in front of us, and instead began to look miles ahead.

I go barefoot often. I have been running and walking in goofy toe shoes for years. But I respect ancient man’s decision to wear shoes, no matter how poorly we’ve designed them in recent years. The same goes for the agricultural revolution, which has received some poor press in modern times. I may not eat wheat, but that doesn’t diminish it’s importance to our ancestors.

It’s imperative to recognize that human civilization is built with a scaffolding. That scaffolding at times is found to be dangerous, and alternatives are sought and implemented. Bamboo is replaced with pine. Pine is replaced with steel. Then you find that there was nothing wrong with the bamboo and you return to it. It’s just scaffolding, the civilization is what you’re building.

That’s ok.

You live in the times that you live in and you climb the scaffolding that you’re given thinking its the safest place to be.

So respect shoes, even if you don’t wear them all the time. Who knows how much of our modern world depended on that simple innovation.

Image courtesy of matthetube. Article first published as In Defense of Shoes on Blogcritics.

The RPM Challenge and The Power of Constrained Creativity

rpm_11_tshirt_webIt seems like there is a time-boxed challenge for everything out there on the internet. For writers there is NaNoWriMo, for moustache growers there is Movember. Game programmers have Dream.Build.Play. If you do it, there is a challenge for it, and if there isn’t, you can create one. I’ve always wanted to get involved with one of these little challenges, but find myself unwilling (or unable) to commit the time. It’s either work, running, or remodeling a kitchen that gets in the way. When Tim Alexander asked me to play drums for a few tracks on the RPM Challenge this February, I jumped at the chance.

After that I asked him what the RPM challenge was, and what kind of music he was writing.

The RPM Challenge

The RPM Challenge gives the recording artist a month (in this case the shortest month) to record an entire album start to finish. 10 Songs or 30 minutes. Go. No recording before February 1, recordings must be submitted February 28. Or 29 in a leap year I guess.

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Tim described his music to me as “Big, dumb pop songs”, but that doesn’t really do them justice. Sure, they’re pop, but in the hilarious way that They Might Be Giants are considered pop. The songs are catchy and original, and the subject matter is usually off the wall. This is Tim’s second year with the RPM Challenge, he successfully recorded Backstage Stories in 2010.

The music sounded like a lot of fun, but I had a secret motive for wanting to get involved. Besides the desire to get into one of these creative challenges for the first time, I hadn’t played my drums in damn near a year. I had let my brand new Peavey Radial Pro 1000’s languish due to life’s little setbacks for months. This was the motivation I needed to get my new kit record-ready and my butt back behind the set. I slapped some new heads on the kit, rearranged things a bit, and by the end of January I was miced up and ready to go.

The challenge was a breeze, but of course, I was only committed to playing a few songs. Tim would put the files I needed in a shared Dropbox folder, I would load them up in my DAW of choice, bang out a couple of takes, then send the wavs back to Tim for inclusion in his mixes. Toward the end we had worked out a system that involved me providing a stereo reference mix plus all the unmixed tracks that Tim could use to really dial in the sound he was looking for. It went great, and I got the chance to live a creative challenge vicariously through Tim. Not to mention play my new drums. You can hear the results on the Letter Seventeen Bandcamp site.

Embrace Creative Constraints

I see a lot of potential in these time-boxed challenges. First, they absolutely require focus. I know in my daily routine I bounce back and forth between working, coding, writing, training, reading, and in general not focusing on any one thing day in and day out. For people like me, these challenges are the creative constraint we need to force us to focus on one thing for a short period of time, whether it be a day, a week or a month, and let the other stuff wait for a while. This allows the unfocused among us to continue “unfocusing” most of the time, then really apply our energies at intervals in a concentrated effort to finish just one thing. To borrow an analogy, “Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale”. The same can be said of listening and writing music. If I consider all of my unfocused time as inhaling, gathering information, listening and really forming ideas, I can focus all the data I’ve gathered into one concentrated exhale. Then maybe breathe normally for a while. It’s a bit like Agile software development, you set yourself up to sprint for a very short period of time, concentrate on that and that alone, and come out the other end with something complete.

These challenges also force you to organize your brainstorms into something finished. Sure, with some of the challenges like NaNoWriMo there is a premium on getting as many words on the page as possible, but at the end of the day those words have to mean something for them to be worthwhile to you. You could go all month, typing a dictionary into your word processor, or stringing together 500 disparate riffs into 10 songs and calling it a finished piece, but you wouldn’t really be doing yourself justice. The point is to have a finished work that you can show off at the end. You’ll be proud for having finished, but you’ll be prouder for having finished something worthwhile.

Lastly, there is an emphasis on “shipping” with these challenges. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Steve Job’s, “Real artists ship”, and these challenges have a built-in way of separating the “real artists” from the twiddlers: a deadline. Much has been said about artificial deadlines, but the presence of a community around you, working toward the same goal, in many ways competing with one another to be “real artists” creates some kind of unique motivational magic. From Tim’s RPM page:

2578047960-1I wrote 5 songs in 25 years. Thanks to RPM 2010, I wrote 13 more in 15 days and used 11 of them for my album. My wife had heard me sing maybe 3 times in 17 years. Then I released an album. So I basically went from zero to 60 in a month.

Powerful stuff.

You can check out the fruits of Tim’s labors, Snowbound, at the Letter Seventeen Bancamp site.

GOLSequencer, HarmonicTable, and MidiReference on GitHub

With just a little trepidation I have checked in the code for all of my free software goodies into GitHub. I was getting several requests to provide access to the source for several of my old projects, so rather than emailing code around on a case by case basis, I have simply checked everything in to GitHub for posterity. Who knows, maybe someone will jump in there and fix all the bugs.

I have written some other tools for my personal use that I will likely check in there as well, so check back if you’re interested in that kind of thing.

HarmonicTable

GOLSequencer

MidiReference

Growing a Moustache May Cure Prostate Cancer

mo_iconIndirectly of course. During the month of November men across the world will be embracing the practice of doing ridiculous things to raise money and awareness for a cause. Breast Cancer has Barbells for Boobs and pink ribbons, Prostate Cancer has Movember, which is kind of like wearing a pink ribbon, only it’s the same color as the hair on your head and you wear it on you lip. In the founder’s own words:

Movember challenges men to change their appearance and the face of men’s health by growing a moustache. The rules are simple, start Movember 1st  clean-shaven and then grow a moustache for the entire month.  The moustache becomes the ribbon for men’s health, the means by which awareness and funds are raised for cancers that affect men.  Much like the commitment to run or walk for charity, the men of Movember commit to growing a moustache for 30 days.

Simple. Grow a moustache, pushbroom, crumb-catcher, or fu manchu for 30 days just like your manly counterparts from the gilded or Reagan ages, raise money and awareness for prostate and other man-centric cancers. You can keep your moustache when it’s over.

So I’m committed to growing a moustache for 30 days for the Art of Manliness team. Beginning Movember 1st my lip won’t see a razor for 30 days. I’ve never had a moustache, or any other facial hair for that matter (with the exception of my most excellent sideburns), so this ought to be interesting. Do I need some wax? I’ll do a weekly update to show off my cookie-duster, and you can show your support by going to my Mo’ Space and donating, joining my team, or growing a ‘stache of your own.

See you in Movember. With a moustache.

An Evolving Experiment in Fitness

33509_151121254902481_134920633189210_454964_590541_nMy lungs are raw from gasping for 7 minutes solid. My vision has only now returned from the blurry and wild eyed stupor I was in just a few hours ago, when I crashed on the gym mat in an effort to get my heart rate down to a safe level. I still haven’t fully recovered from tonight’s workout as I write this and reflect; slightly sick and slightly satisfied feelings mingle with one another and I cannot predict if I will wake up with an upper respiratory infection or the desire to push myself to this upper limit again. Probably both.

Its been almost a year since I first wrote about my experiment in fitness. I had to some extent forgotten about it until Labor Day of this year, when I ran the 10K Classic in Marietta GA. Before the race I realized that I hadn’t really spent much time running in the past few months. Since July maybe? I got to thinking that I might not run well given my lack of preparation. “Oh well”, I thought, and pushed my way through the herd to the front of the starting line. “Why not go for a PR”.

I finished the race well, with a time that put me in the top 200. Afterwards I began to ask myself “If I haven’t been running and I still finished well, what the hell have I been doing?”. I certainly haven’t been running long distance; that goal in the original experiment was almost entirely forgotten (though I will be running the Southern Odyssey 200 mile relay race in early October). I got out on the bike several times over the Summer, and I’ve only seen the pool a handful of times, but I know I’ve been training…where have I been?

I guess I keep a training log for a reason, time to check it out.

Winter – Spring 2010: Staying the Course

In my previous post, I mentioned that I would execute the following:

Workout 8-12 times per week. Select 5-6 workouts from one of the sources listed below:

Crossfit Optimum Performance Training MEBB Catalyst Athletics My brother, James. Make something up (keeping HILV in mind)

Perform 1-3 workouts each on the bike, swim, or run using the the same HILV methodology (Crossfit Endurance was my main source for these latter workouts, sometimes substituting old sprint and time trial workouts).

Based on my logs, I continued to work this way throughout most of Winter and Spring of 2010. I slipped from time to time, but I got out around 8-12 times a week, usually focusing on running but throwing in a ride or a swim from time to time to make sure I had the triathlon covered. A look at my personal records during this time doesn’t yield any change from the PR’s covered in the previous post. I stayed the course, making no gains but experiencing no losses. I was fine with this. Then in the middle of July, I made a change.

Summer 2010: CFK

My brother had been asking me to check out a new gym that a friend of a friend had opened up near Kennesaw Mountain called Crossfit Kennesaw. I was obviously  familiar with Crossfit, but had never been able to get over and check out one of the gyms. Either the workout times were inconvenient, or the gyms weren’t anywhere close, or I had already planned my training for the night. Finally I had an opening on a Thursday evening and headed over to check it out.

CFK is your standard warehouse gym: no machines, no nonsense. The gear you need, none of the stuff you don’t. There is a workout on the board. There is an alternate workout. These are simple workouts, much like the ones I was following with my earlier prescription, and I picked right up on the philosophy. It’s greenhouse hot in the Summer, and without a doubt it will feel like a fridge in the Winter. You’re going to be extremely uncomfortable when you start the workout anyway, would the AC really make you feel better?

The workout the evening I came in was a creation of Chris, the proprietor of CFK. 4 rounds: 15 Thrusters and a 400m run. There were 5 of us in the gym that night, 3 of us brothers, so naturally it turned into a friendly competition. I won. “Will you be open tomorrow?” I asked before leaving.

Looking through my logs I have been training at CFK almost exclusively since then. I’ve gone from 8-12 tough workouts a week to 5-6 brutal ones. I spend about 6 hours a week training, give or take, down from the almost 10 I was committing, which is leaving more time open for other things (namely work). I intend to continue training like this, throwing in the occasional 5K, 10K, day on the bike, or swim as I feel like it.

The Results

On the Run
5K time 10K Time
Pre 10/10/09 21:01 44:03
Post 02/15/10 20:36
Post 09/06/10 45:52

This is where the results become hard to decipher. My 5K time improved early in the year, when I was on my old prescription, but not by much. My 10K time is slower, but the results are deceiving. The course between the two times are much different, and I find my time on the recent September run much more respectable.

Other Indicators
Old Max Current Max
Deadlift 335 lbs 355 lbs
Bench Press 205 lbs 225 lbs
Squat 215 lbs 225 lbs
Shoulder Press 135 lbs 155 lbs

Again, not impressive numbers, but still an improvement as I’ve moved through the year. That is the only goal I’ve set. I’ve learned a lot about the squat since joining the crew at CFK, and hopefully the empowerment of my posterior chain will begin to show in the upcoming months.

Also, I can do a proper muscle-up. On the rings. Good enough for me.

Now What?

Here we go with another year. My workout time is down significantly, my performance results are the same if not better. My weight has not changed, my strength to body mass ratio has improved. I will continue to monitor my results.

New goals? I will set them in the future, right now I intend to continue training like I am to prepare my body for…whatever. Next challenge: The Southern Odyssey 200 Mile relay. We have 9 runners right now. If we get up to 10 I only have to run 20 miles. I hope we have 12 team mates…

Inside The Korg DW-8000: Don’t Put Solder on a Battery

DW-8000-1 Recently a friend asked how hard it was to replace the CMOS battery in Korg DW-8000 keyboard. I assumed it couldn’t be that hard, looked up what kind of battery it accepted (CR2032) and said “yeah, 5 minute job”. I failed to take into account early 80s circuit construction. Sure, its no Maestro PS-1B, but I certainly discovered some “opportunities” upon cracking open the case…

Getting it open is easy enough. As with any device built before the iPod age there are far too many screws… 2 in each corner, several straight up the middle, a bunch to hold the rather flimsy keyboard tray in place. etc. NOTE: To open this thing, you need to turn it upside down, make sure you support the bottom right corner so the joystick doesn’t get smashed.

Once open, you’re probably presented with a ton of dust and 3 filthy circuit boards populated with far-from-RoHS compliant components. Dead center in the 2nd board is the battery…

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which is soldered to the board.

 

 

 

 

DW-8000-7 This probably only sounds ridiculous to me, but really, who solders a consumable part directly to the board. Honestly, this kind of thing calls into question the entire circuit design. I got the dead little bastard freed from its pinholes and went to grab another battery holder. I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to find a holder with the same pin out, so I opted to get whatever CR2032 battery holder I could find and shoehorn it in there.

 

I found some suggestions on the internet for doing this, one involved adding some extra wires to the pins of the holder and running them under the new holder. After examining the board I decided a more stable replacement would be to drill another hole inline with the positive lead circuit trace. This is better explained with pictures:

DW-8000-11

 

Grab the tools you need. The battery holder (RS #270-009), a couple of reamers, and a tiny drill bit. You can go with just the drill bit, but if you need to widen any holes I like these little reamers.

 

 

 

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Look for a spot around the battery circle that is still sitting on the positive lead on the reverse side of the board. Its easy to see through the board to spot the lead, and for me the hole was right next to the T in “BATT”. In this picture the hole has already been drilled.

 

 

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Start drilling on the reverse side, at least enough so that the lead won’t tear when you drill through on the other side.

 

 

 

DW-8000-13

 

 

Mount and solder the battery holder (making sure that the polarity is correct), then insert the battery. Done.

 

 

 

No sweat, but certainly not a 5 minute job. The moral of this story? If you’re designing a circuit with a replaceable part (like a battery), please don’t solder it directly to the board. The amateur that has to repair it in 25 years will never thank you, but they’ll still appreciate it.