Step Away From the Keyboard

Admiring the Acoustics

As a gear nerd, I’ve always been fascinated by disassembling finished products and looking at the guts of a thing. That’s why so many “how it’s made” type TV shows and specials are popular — watching a bunch of random components get assembled into something useful is amazing. Many complex items are assembled entirely by machine, or need little more than some simple handling by a person to make a finished product. Some things, though, need the human touch and could never be fully crafted by a robot.
Before I even explain how amazing the place is, I want you to clear off some space in your schedule for a midweek trip south to Nazareth, PA. The C.F. Martin & Co. guitar factory tour is a must-see destination right around the corner for just about everyone. Even non-musicians will appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that goes into the creation of every fine guitar that passes through their doors.
Before it’s time to take a walk through the production floors of the factory, swing into the museum for a bit of company history. You’ll see the evolution of the company (dating to the earliest days when the founder produced 20 or so handmade instruments per year), as well as some one-of-a-kind limited editions featuring some of the most stunning inlay work you’re likely to ever see.
The factory tour itself takes visitors through the entire building with workers busy at their shifts. I nearly twisted my head off trying to take it all in — everywhere you look are guitars or pieces in various stages of assembly. On one rack might be a few dozen necks, on another might be several partially assembled bodies, another might hold a single, crazy custom job. Rarely will you see two identical looking pieces next to each other.
Some of the jobs are automated, particularly where safety is involved. Certain pieces are cut by machine, much of the lacquer and varnish is applied by robot, and the final buffing is done by a custom-designed robot that picks each guitar up with suction cups and turns it against a giant buffing wheel. Most of the intricate work, however, is done by human hands with woodworking tools. The x-braces inside every single guitar are delicately hand-scalloped by workers. Most of the custom inlays are cut from pearl or abalone by hand with a tiny little hacksaw — I saw tiny maple leaves no larger than a pinkie nail. Each piece of inlay work, naturally, has to be duplicated as a cut-out in the wood of the guitar neck or body so the inlay can be set and glued in place. It’s insane.
It’s amazing to see an army of people and just how much goes into putting together a single guitar, and the attention to detail makes it clear why these are considered some of the best acoustic guitars in the world. On the way out, past the people who play each guitar to ensure quality, I asked the guide what happens to guitars that don’t pass quality control (hey, I’d take a sub-par Martin any day!). There’s no reconditioning or outlet store. After all that work and hand construction, if a guitar isn’t up to standard, it’s sent to the wood chipper. They won’t ship out anything but the best.

Step Away From the Keyboard


TUCKER HOTTES spends some quality time with critters

 

Think your job is tough? Volunteer for a day at an animal shelter.
There I stood, with a syringe in my gloved hands, surrounded by towels and the sound of clanking bars all around me. I had to keep a tight grip on my captive — one minor lapse in attention, and it’d be a quick escape and difficult chase. The body struggled in my hand until I swooped in with the syringe and pressed the plunger. Soon, the movement ceased. Satisfied with another job well done, I placed the content baby squirrel back into the cage with its three siblings.
Since early spring, my mom has been volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary. I recently had a chance to visit, and got roped into helping with the morning feeding. This particular sanctuary is for non-predatory  wild animals. That means no pets like cats or dogs, and no predators like wolves and foxes. Just about everything else is fair game: deer, raccoons, opossum, squirrels, skunks, chipmunks, chickens, rabbits, goats, the occasional porcupine, and just about anything else that comes through the doors.
Obviously, the spring and early-to-mid summer are the busiest times for the sanctuary, with the majority of their intake coming from abandoned babies from the spring litters. By the end of the summer and early fall, most of the larger animals have already been released to the wild. Squirrels, however, have a second litter in the late summer that accounts for the more than three dozen baby squirrels presently housed at the shelter.
Picture a squirrel, and shrink it down to be slightly larger than your average field mouse. It already looks like a squirrel, with its bushy tail flicking around as it jumps and climbs all over its enclosure, but its little buck teeth aren’t quite developed enough for a completely solid diet. These little things are just as lightning quick and ‘squirrely’ as their adult counterparts, but you’ve still got to wrangle them and make sure each one gets its allocated portion of formula, measured out by a needle-free syringe.
The whole place has a very hospital-like vibe — each animal has its own chart for keeping track of feeding schedules and illness or injuries. All the feeding equipment is cleaned and sterilized between uses, and none of the materials (bowls, syringes, etc…) are shared between species or even group cages to prevent cross-species and inter-species disease transfer. I felt like I was on a medical show.
It was incredibly time consuming and exhausting work, and I couldn’t help but think about my mom and the other volunteers going in and giving their time and energy to do this seven days a week. It’s hard not to fall in love with the tiny, helpless animals — there’s nothing quite like a baby squirrel reaching up and holding a syringe with its little front feet. People like that do amazing work every day, so make sure you thank a volunteer today. More importantly, reach out to your local animal shelters and wildlife sanctuaries to find out if they need anything. Sometimes, the most helpful donations can be as simple as a few rolls of paper towels. Trust me, they’re essential — I used plenty cleaning squirrel poop and urine off me.

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WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES

suggests a few apps every college student needs

 

College students: you need these apps

It’s been a little while since I’ve had the pleasure of being a full-time college student. (Our College Extra section this week is bringing me back). I wasn’t in school during the Stone Ages, but I do come from a time before smartphones — our highest tech communication was text messaging and leaving instant messenger away messages to let people know what we were up to (away messages were like Twitter for us). We made the best of what we had, but most communications and Internet-type-stuff was still very much tied to a computer or laptop. There are lots of reasons I wish I could go back in time, but if I was going to do it over again, I’d want to bring a smartphone and/or tablet, and I’d damn well make sure I had some or all of the following apps that would have made college life even better. You should already have some of these apps, but if not, get on it.

Calendar and Scheduling
There’s never enough time in the day to balance all school and social obligations, but you can do your best with a well-kept calendar. Naming a specific app is a little tougher than other types of app, because aside from iPhone/Android differences, you’ll want your calendar to sync somewhere. Are you using iCal? Google Calendar? Microsoft Outlook? Make sure you pick a calendar app (or use a built-in one) that will connect and sync to your online or computer-based calendar, and you’ll never miss an appointment. Just make sure that syncing is working properly before you rely on it as a reminder of next week’s meeting with the professor who already thinks you’re a slacker…

Banking
I remember it (not-so) fondly: swiping the debit card only to find out your balance is $5 shy of the purchase you’re trying to make. Avoid the embarrassment by checking out your bank’s mobile banking app — deposit emergency checks, keep up to date with balances, and even set alerts if you’re running low on cash and need to make one of those “pretty please” calls back home.

Evernote
For keeping track of notes, lists, and basically any other bit of important information in your life, Evernote is the top of the game. It works on most smartphones and has apps for your computer or web access when you’re on the go. Save text notes, photos, links, voice notes, videos — anything you can think of to keep your memory in check.

Dropbox
One of the easiest ways to share files between friends and occasionally the lab partner you try to avoid is by setting up a Dropbox account. Pass documents, resources for class, or share any type of file in your own, securable online storage and access it from anywhere, including your phone. Don’t lose your flash drive with two weeks’ worth of a project sitting on it, just keep it all in Dropbox and feel safe.

Find My Car (Android)/MyCar Locator (iOS)
Let’s face it — you’re probably going to have mornings when you wake up a little… foggy. Sometimes it’ll be in a strange place. Sometimes it’ll be hard to piece together the events of the evening. But most importantly, where the hell is your car? Pull out one of these apps and tag your current location. Then, when you can’t remember where your vehicle is residing, see it on a map with the click of a button.
Of course, if you got towed, you may find an empty spot when you return, but unfortunately there’s no app for that.

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WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES is singing Tom Petty songs

 

PDA for GTA
The waiting is, indeed, the hardest part. If you’re a fan of video games in even a remote sense, you’re likely already holding a copy of one of the most anticipated releases of the year, if not longer: Grand Theft Auto V. Even more so than other genres, the GTA series and its open-world gameplay has continued to build hype with every new release. This week, PS3 and Xbox 360 gamers alike are getting their hands on the latest — and last — GTA experience of this console generation.
I pen this week’s wistful column while pining for an as-of-presstime-unreleased copy. Unfortunately, I don’t carry the sort of clout to get review copies, and let’s be honest — you’re buying this game regardless of some punk’s hurriedly written review. Still, I find myself running to other punks’ hurriedly written reviews just to kill time before I can get my greedy hands on the release.
We’re told, by both the publisher Rockstar and those who’ve had a chance to play through the game, that this is the biggest Grand Theft Auto game to date — encompassing as much virtual landmass as Rockstar’s last few open-world successes combined (those would be the excellent ‘GTA in the old-west’ Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV, and last generation’s GTA: San Andreas). The fictionalized Los Angeles and greater-LA area of the game boast everything from giant mountains to scuba-dive-able coastal reefs. There are already massive databases of secret areas and fun things to discover being assembled online — and yet my controller sits, cold, by the silent Xbox.
Earlier in the week, someone leaked an image of the in-game map to the Internet, which immediately set off a firestorm of commentary and the usual nerd-rage about the size being over-hyped, etc. Later, the first honest-to-god reviews started trickling out, and someone posted a video of them driving at top speed in a sports car across the map. It took a real-world six minutes. As far as I’m concerned, that’s impressive without adding in helicopters, fighter planes, parachutes, and blimps to experience all that distance in other ways. But, still, minor vicarious thrills through lucky big-game-site reviewers are but a minor substitute for actually experiencing the thrills of causing mayhem in a little online world.
One of the main new additions to the GTA format, which is already receiving high praise for the additions to storytelling and gameplay options, is the split narrative between three main characters instead of the traditional single protagonist. Word on the street has it this allows for a much more multidimensional story and game experience, and even lets you replay missions from another perspective to see how different characters react to the various in-game personas players can don. If only I could see what that’s like.
And so here I am, like a little kid waiting anxiously on Christmas Eve, and then raggedly deteriorating into an even more incoherent mess as the time draws nearer. I listen for the distant rumble of the delivery truck, ready to run straight into the middle of the road and grab the box from the startled carrier. I’ve turned my console on and off a half dozen times just to make sure there are no pesky OS updates waiting to interrupt me once I do get my copy. And by the time you read this, you might want to send someone over to my house to make sure there’s not a bloated, festering corpse sitting in front of the TV from not moving, eating, or sleeping once the game does show up.

Step Away from the Keyboard


Grillmaster TUCKER HOTTES is still hosting cookouts. Look for your evite soon.

 

The joys of lump charcoal
Unless you’re new ’round these parts, it’s fairly well known that I’m a grilling enthusiast. I’ve also spilled lots of ink going on and on about the relative merits of charcoal, and how it’s superior even though I occasionally enjoy the convenience of gas. These shouldn’t be new revelations to most of you — but I do have a terrible confession to make: until recently, I’d never had the privilege of cooking with the ultimate king of the grill, lump charcoal. Blasphemy!
So, in case you’re not down with the grilling lingo and various methods of lighting blocks of carbon on fire for the purposes of grilling meat and vegetables, a quick primer is in order. The vast, vast majority of charcoal grilling you’ve ever seen or done in your life happens over compressed charcoal “briquettes.” Depending on the brand and type, there may even be very little actual “charcoal” inside a briquette — they can be made from sawdust and chemicals. Some of them are pre-soaked with even more chemicals either before leaving the factory (brands like Kingsford’s Match Light) or after (by dousing with lighter fluid) to help get them prepped for cooking. If you’re doing either of those things, stop right now and get yourself a chimney starter — that’s a subject for another column, but do yourself a favor and eliminate as many chemicals from your grilling as possible.
Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is actual, charred hard woods (like oak or hickory). Scraps of lumber are heated in an oven so they char and have that flaky, make-your-hands-black texture without actually burning and consuming too much of the wood itself. The result is a carbonized lump of wood not unlike what you’d find at the remnants of a good camp fire.
Because there are no additives in (most) lump charcoals, they can be more expensive. There are even specialty boutique lump charcoals, like those made from old, charred oak whiskey barrels. However, even basic, store-brand lump charcoal produces a much smokier, more natural smell and flavor than the industrially produced briquettes. It also has a tendency to burn hotter than most briquettes, so if you’ve been disappointed with the sear on your steaks from your regular briquettes, lump coal might be your answer.
Why it took me this long to experience the joy of lump charcoal, I have no idea. I didn’t cook anything elaborate — just some steaks and corn — but it was like switching from gas to briquettes by comparison. It was a whole new level. I’ll never be able to go back. It was most noticeable with the corn, which took on a delightfully smoky flavor that I’ve not achieved even by throwing soaked hickory chips on a briquette or gas fire.
In short, for all my big talk about charcoal grilling, I will fully admit I’ve been doing it wrong. Feel free to recall any of my tips, tricks, or recipes, but for the love of god, please do it with a big ol’ bag of lump charcoal!

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WEB MASTER TUCKER HOTTES plays catch up on a few favs

 

Saving up for a rainy day
This may win the ‘Understatement of the Year’ award, but getting sick sucks. I had the distinct misfortune to pick up a stomach bug from a visiting friend who was kind enough to gift it to me on his last day of illness. Turns out, the thing is resilient and quick enough to hop into my gut and give me a miserable couple days.
The only saving grace to this particular illness is, apparently, the short duration. It’s also not completely incapacitating (except for the various assorted trips to the bathroom), so it’s not really a bed-ridden kind of affair. As such, that means plenty of time reacquainting myself with the tablet (and falling back out of love with Candy Crush all over again). It also meant I finally had a chance to catch up on one of my favorite new(ish) T.V. series: Hell on Wheels.
For the unaware, the show follows Cullen Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) as a former soldier in the Confederate army heading west to work on the railroad. The post-Civil War setting and the nature of the railroad business of the day makes way for an amazing ensemble cast of characters, including free slave Elam Ferguson (Grammy-winning rapper Common), shady railroad man Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) and everyone from Irish immigrants, a motley tent full of prostitutes, and other assorted actors who cover themselves in awesomely period-accurate grit and grime.
I loved the first season when it debuted on AMC, but last summer I crammed way too much into my overall schedule and was forced to bail after the first couple of episodes. This summer, we’re just shy of halfway through the third season, and by the magic of Netflix and On Demand, I’ll be able to finish it out. Through some kind of minor miracle, I managed to completely avoid spoilers and was able to experience some of the shocks the show had in store with no preconceived notions.
I may be feeling like crap, but there’s a little silver lining in being able to take complete ‘me time’ — other obligations, too much for a weak stomach and exhausted body, take a backseat for awesome things like Hell on Wheels and messing around online. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s been nice to feel like rundown garbage, but at least I can do my best to make the most of it.
The moral of the story? Always make sure you have a nice backlog of stuff to watch in case of a rainy day (or two days of a stomach bug). If you can’t keep food down and can only stay out of the restroom for about an hour at a time, power-watching and catching up on a T.V. show is a great way to keep your mind off things. Of course, you might want a bucket nearby just in case. And see if you can get someone to fetch some Ginger Ale and pretzels — that was my mom’s go-to remedy 20 years ago when I was a kid, and it seems to do the trick even now. Here’s to feeling better soon!