Friday, July 31, 2009

This Ain’t Eden

Reflections on a Vegetable Garden Part 1

We’ve had gardens in the past – small ones, usually with too many vegetables packed into too small a space. With the demands of kids and work, we often neglected them terribly, sometimes going for days without even watering them. Weeding, thinning and other more tedious chores were entirely ignored. Naturally, the harvest was pitifully small, both in quantity and in the physical aspect of the vegetables themselves. We’d get a few handfuls of lettuce, some minuscule beets and carrots too small even to be called “baby,” and pretty much everything else would fail entirely. As it should – a garden is not an automated process for most growers.

This year, we knew that I’d most likely be home through the Spring and Summer at the very least. We decided it was time to do a garden “right.” We sketched a layout on graph paper, considering the recommended planting patterns for each species along with how much of it we thought we’d want. We even accounted for the sump pump’s pipe that runs just below the surface in our back yard, leaving a path over where it ran. We bought fencing. Our neighborhood is rife with rabbits, as well as the occasional raccoon, possum, groundhog and skunk. Then we got to work.

The first chore was to remove the sod. It’s thick and dense and often appears to be about 80% weeds, which meant that we couldn’t just expect to throw some dirt on top of the grass and have the plants thrive. On the other hand, its compact, fibrous nature did make it possible to roll up and remove in chunks once we got the hang of it. There were plenty of spots in the yard that needed to be grassed over in a bad way, not the least of which being the back hill, where ivy and assorted weeds have been steadily encroaching on the lawn ever since I turned the job of mowing it over to hired hands. I used to mow more aggressively back there than they do, so the ground-cover is winning. Was winning, anyway. Several dozen square feet of sod did a nice job of fighting back against the oncoming green, leafy horde.

Removing the sod was back-breaking work and my first acquaintance with serious manual labor in a very long time. It took us several hours a day for weeks to get it all dug up, and this is just for a 21’ x 10’ plot. It wasn’t the digging alone that was hard, or even the moving of the sod and dumping it someplace else, though it was pretty heavy. It was also the chore of trying not to take any more soil along than minimally necessary, both because it made the sod sit funny when I laid it back down, and because we needed all the dirt we could get. We live in a town named Clay, and I doubt it’s named that because some popular fellow named Clay suggested it would be a dandy place for a town. Rather, the entire area seems to be deeply covered in a reddish-orange clay which is difficult to dig through and, I’m sure, impossible to grow anything in. Though if I ever decide to take up pottery… I’m sure it will be the wrong kind of clay for that, too. It’s just useless and annoying – there’s no upside to it. We have a thin layer of topsoil over this clay, not enough that I wanted to waste any.

After we’d removed all of the sod and assembled a fence on two sides (leaving the others open for access until construction was complete), the next chore was to buy some decent topsoil. I picked up six or eight bags at Loews and brought them home, because, after all, that was way easier than doing the math to calculate how much I’d actually need. More on that in a moment.

The bags looked pitifully small sitting there in the bare garden. Opening them up and disbursing their contents didn’t help much. It was immediately clear that I had a small fraction of the amount I truly needed. The result was nearly catastrophic.

Ok, I'll admit that math's not really my thing and never has been. Given sufficient time, I can always figure out what I need to calculate, but any arithmetic problem that I don't solve routinely is going to need some concentration and preferably a pencil & paper or even a calculator. This is just background info for the tale that follows.

We went to a nearby garden store where, it was evident, nobody has EVER tried to purchase topsoil in anything but cubic yards. I had calculated that I needed the equivalent of 50 bags of topsoil. The bags are each one cubic foot of dirt, or 40 lbs. So, at the garden store, I said I needed 50 cubic feet of topsoil. The woman reached for a calculator and said, "Hmm, what's that then?" and began to calculate. At this point, I saw the sign on the wall that listed prices of various goods sold by volume, all in cubic yards, and was able to deduce that she was attempting to convert my needs into that measurement. "So, let's see, we'd need to multiply by three?" she says. Now like I said, I'm no mathematician, but I'm quick enough to know that if I need 50 cubic feet of dirt, I certainly don't need 150 cubic yards. But I'm caught off-guard. I don't think I've converted cubic feet to yards since high school. Maybe middle school. It just hasn't come up for me, and I wasn't prepared. Plus, there were people waiting behind us and it was clear this was going to take a while.

Anxious to get as far away from the number 150 as possible, I respond "I'd think you'd have to at least divide by 3, not multiply." And I'm thinking Don't you do this sort of thing all the time?? So a quick calculation comes up with 16 cubic yards. She's going pretty fast and my mind’s awhirl with attempts to respond to her and somehow address the nagging feeling in my head that we've made a horrible error in our calculations.

Meanwhile, she's on the phone with their delivery guy, trying to figure out how to deliver 16 cubic yards of dirt to my house, asking me questions like "Can your driveway handle a full-sized dump truck? Otherwise we'll have to charge you four delivery fees and use our smaller delivery truck, because it can only hold 4 cubic yards."

A dump-truck? Four truckloads? My head is spinning. This feels wrong! I'm thinking 50 bags of topsoil could easily fit in their delivery truck (which is parked outside - she pointed to it). I'm thinking that at $30/cubic yard, I'm about to spend $500 on dirt, which vastly exceeds what I'd expected to pay if I just went to Loews and bought 50 bags. I'm thinking all of this while she continues to toss questions at me, constantly breaking my already feeble concentration.

I need a TIME OUT!!

I suggest that she wait on the folks behind me while my wife and I discuss the delivery. I drag my wife away from entertaining my 5-year-old to help me figure out what the hell is going on here. We start mapping out an imaginary Visio diagram of cubic feet stacking up inside a cubic yard, and we immediately find the error. We need not 16 cubic yards, but a mere 2. In fact, 16 cubic yards, assuming that the effort of carting it around didn't kill us, would probably be enough to cover our entire back yard in a foot of topsoil.

We buy our dirt, arrange delivery, and head for home, chuckling the whole way at the vision of a full-sized dump truck backing into our driveway and blocking both of our cars in the garage behind a mountain of dirt.

So kids, learn your math!

It takes us one more sweaty, dusty, crotchety afternoon to haul the pile of dirt out back and spread it evenly over the garden plot. I get mild hyperthermia and upchuck my lunch, which was a lot of fun. The next day I assembled the remaining pieces of fence, spread out the bark chips on the walkways, and fight with my wife over how best to implement a gate. Since the fence is only about three-feet high and my wife’s legs are about twelve feet long, she doesn’t see the need for a gate at all. She’d prefer to just stride over it as if it’s not even there, like some suburban Goliath. I’m David, though. I need a gate. I spend $120 buying supplies to build one. It’s not working – I need about another $50 in supplies. She goes out and buys $90 in gate pieces and we put that up. It doesn’t quite work, either, if by “working” you mean “the two pieces of the gate line up and close properly when you shut it.” But it was in and done, and most of what I’d bought could be returned. We built a planter out of the pieces that were left over. It’s the sort of planter you’d expect to get if you asked Lenny from Of Mice and Men to train a chimpanzee to do woodworking, then gave the chimpanzee all the wrong tools and some 4x4 fence posts. But I digress.

We now have an expanse of dirt, some neatly-manicured wood-chip walkways, a supposedly-rabbit-proof fence (to which I added some chicken wire after watching a bunny hop through the fencing) and a gate that kind of closes. Total cost so far: around $250. This after umpteen segments on Good Morning America about how much money you could save on vegetables if you had your own garden. Yeah, bullshit. It’d take us probably five years to go through $250 worth of fresh vegetables. I guess we should have planted fruit trees instead. Can you grow bananas in Syracuse? Anyway, the garden is in many ways an end in and of itself – I never really expected it to be a big money-saver for us, though I suppose there might be an ROI at some point, years in the future.

Meanwhile, there are seedlings taking over my library. The poor, poor seedlings. They were my first taste of true fear.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

This Cop should be Fired

From CNN:

Boston police officer Justin Barrett, who sent a mass e-mail referring to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a "banana-eating jungle monkey" has apologized, saying he's not a racist.
I propose that this fellow should be fired. Not because he’s a racist. Well, OK, not just because he’s a racist. It’s clear that plenty of cops are racist (and plenty aren’t), and if we fired all the racist cops (or firefighters or bankers or whatever) we’d have a boatload of unemployed bigots running around. No, officer Barrett should be fired because he’s clearly too stupid to be trusted with the safety and security of the people of Boston or anywhere else. I do not trust somebody this dumb to carry a firearm, a taser, a can of mace or to blow up balloons and hand them to children at an amusement park. He MIGHT be qualified to so some form of extremely menial labor if closely supervised, but there’d need to be a trial period to confirm that.

Email is not a new medium. It was born in the 70s on ARPAnet, the precursor to today’s Internet. Other than adding the ability to process HTML code, to include things like formatting and pictures and links to cheap drugs from questionable suppliers, it hasn’t changed much. So there’s really no cogent excuse for anybody to send such a blatantly career-ending, incendiary email out to a broad list of recipients including the news media. It’s profoundly stupid. It calls this man’s intellect and judgment seriously into question. It makes me want him off of America’s streets and into a career of retrieving shopping cards from the Wal-Mart parking lot and pushing them back inside the store. To put it simply, office Barrett, there’s no credible excuse or explanation for the email you sent, short of “somebody hacked my account.” Which you weren’t smart enough to come up with right away and now it’s too late.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reprint of article "Beware the Spinal Trap"

Ken over at Popehat suggested that anybody with a blog post the following article by British science writer Simon Singh, who's being sued for libel for reporting seemingly-factual information about chiropractics. It reads like facts to me, anyway, though admittedly I'm a skeptic about a lot of things, including chiropractics. I'm not as vocal a skeptic as Ken, who refers to the British Chiropractic Association as a pack of gibbering stick-shaking shaman, but he's a lawyer so that sort of scathing wit is his stock in trade. He's also a damn fine writer who needs to get off his ass and write a book. Anywho, here's Singh's article, reprinted in protest against the British Chiropractic Association's frivilous libel suit and the failure of British lawmakers to recognize the inherent necessity of their former colony's first amendment in securing the Blessings of Liberty.

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

Beware the Spinal Trap by Simon Singh

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Observations on old books

I like to browse my library from time to time. It’s extensive if you count sheer volume of volumes. It’s a bit light on the classics, though as a former English major and teacher I do have a reasonably healthy collection. But some of the books I treasure most are ones I haven’t read in ages and wouldn’t likely count as classics on any “official” list. But they are to me, because they represent a key time in my youth and an introduction to reading that sparked a flame in me that has never dimmed since.

The first novel that I remember reading – that I can place at a specific time – was the novelization of the movie Clash of the Titans. It was my “sustained silent reading” book for nearly all of fifth grade, which means I read it about eight times when I was ten. I may have read novels before that, but I can’t be sure.

Once I discovered the magic of reading, I bought and devoured novels, first from the Stop and Swap bookstore in Westvale, and later from B. Dalton and Waldonbooks at Camillus Mall. When there was a Camillus Mall. Looking through my collection, I’m amazed at the number of books that were written by Alan Dean Foster. Talk about a professional writer who could crank out the word count, this guy was all over it.

Many of my favorite movies from the late 70s and early 80s were made into novelizations by Mr. Foster. In addition to Clash of the Titans, he wrote the novels for Disney’s The Black Hole, Alien, Aliens, The Thing, Krull, The Last Starfighter, and Alien Nation, most of which I have. He also wrote an early novel in the Star Wars universe, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, which I never really liked, but I have it, too. All told, he’s written some eighty plus novels in the last 35 years. And he’s still going strong. I put Foster alongside Roger Zelazny and Brian Daley for having written some “really good shit” that I enjoyed immensely when I was young. Kudos to these champions of Sci-fi for helping to welcome me into their many stange and wonderful worlds.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 9 of a (formerly) 5-part series

Unlike on Saturday, the first hour of Sunday’s GMA Weekend went off pretty much without a hitch, meaning that the whole thing went onto the server as a complete show. There was no need to re-do any segments in the 8:00 hour, so everybody pretty much took a break for that time. Which worked out really well for me, as it was around then that I was introduced to James, the Technical Manager for GMA. He's the one in the jacket.

This guy is responsible for all of the technology used on either of the GMA shows (week-day or weekend), including lights, mics, cameras, monitors, cabling, speakers, electronics, you name it. And like everybody else I met, James was cool as hell, taking at least a half hour out of his morning to give me a personal tech-tour of the studio and pretty nearly every piece of equipment in it. “See this here?” James asked, pointing at the LCD Good Morning America logo on the front of the anchor desk, “That’s new. It’s only been there a few weeks. We’re always adding stuff like that.”

Next he pointed to the large video set decoration that’s on the wall directly behind the anchor desk. I hadn’t looked at it too closely, but it looked to me like some sort of digital modern art. “That’s Broadway,” he told me. He then took me over to the “nook” where one of the couches sits right next to the large studio windows and pointed up to a camera mounted on a metal plate, pointing out the window. The video feed from that camera was sent to the large rear-projection screen (I assume – it didn’t look like an LCD display) after being blurred and having the GMA logo added.

We poked into every cranny of the studio and James was an expert on all of it. We talked about the lights and where they do and don’t use gels to “blue” the interior light to match what comes through the windows. He told me about the challenges of working with natural light, and about how they utilized special lights on shoulder-high stands that were pointed straight at the Anchors’ faces when they were on camera, washing out any shadows that might add or accentuate wrinkles or other blemishes. He told me that the anchor desk was supposed to have wired microphones in case there was a problem with the wireless ones the anchors wore, but the desk was so new that they hadn’t been installed yet. We talked about IFBs (the little earpiece the talent wears so they can hear audio from the Control Room) and how the newest ones were wireless and completely contained within the ear. The days of seeing a spiral cord draped down behind the newscaster’s ear and neck are all but gone.

James walked me over to the weather station and pointed out the largest of the three displays. It’s a 103” plasma-screen, but they hadn’t realized when they procured it that it required 220v power. They had to hang onto it for a few weeks until a proper twistlock power outlet could be run over to it. “It’s also a touch-screen,” James said, reaching over to tap the gigantic display. The result was that the national weather map was replaced with a completely different image. “Oops. They probably didn’t want me to change that.” He laughed and tapped it a couple more times. “Most people just need to take me at my word that it’s a touch-screen.”

Next he took me to the cameras and gave me a run-down that would have made the manufacturer proud. They were HD cameras that recorded in 720p. He told me 1040p is better for sporting events and such, but for the studio, 720p was ideal. He also talked about a special polarizing filter that you need on the front of the camera if you’re going to be recording natural light. The problem with the filter is that if you have it on the camera and aren’t recording natural light, it makes everything too dark. So for the GMA cameras, they contracted with a company to build a large metal box with a manual lever that lets the camera operator physically move the filter away from the lens. “These are unique,” James told me. “Nobody else has these but us and ESPN.” He also showed me a button on Camera 1 that lets the operator switch between two different teleprompter feeds, since that camera records the News Anchor (Ron Claiborne or Chris Cuomo, usually) who has their own script.

Back out at the window, James and I talked about the remote segments they do outside in Times Square or at places like Central Park, where most Fridays GMA hosts a concert in the park. He told me how they had done music sets from places like the Hard Rock Café and the MTV/Viacom building. Because they had direct line-of-site from those venues to the GMA studio’s windows, he said they had been able to use microwave antennas to send the feed directly up to GMA, which is pretty cool and very familiar to us IT-guys. He also pointed out the US Military recruitment kiosk down below, where cabling is available from underground to operate the studio’s HD cameras when they’re taping segments from Broadway. Finally, he asked me, “Have you met the SVO?” I needed clarification that this was the Senior Video Operator and then said that I hadn’t met him. So back we went, through the control room and down a hallway to meet Arty.

All of the direct camera footage, plus any remote feeds, all come through Arty’s console. James dropped me off with the SVO, then actually went back out on set and sat in front of a camera so that Arty would have a subject to work with. With the flick a few switches, Arty was able to select only James’s skin tones, which he then could make more vivid, soften, or tint with any hue he desired. All in the interests, usually, of making the subject look better. “Nobody wants to be shot in pure HD,” James and Arty both told me. “Every little imperfection shows right up.” So they use this technology to make people’s faces slightly less distinct, while keeping their clothes, the set, and anything else in the picture pristine and perfect. Again, I spent a good twenty minutes with Arty while he showed me how they calibrate different cameras to colored bars, how he can save templates of preferred video settings for a show, and even how those settings can be carried on a ram stick for backup and mobility purposes.

Back in the control room, I chatted briefly with Lily, the show’s director, before she was scooped up in an emergency re-taping of David Wright’s news. Some American soldiers had been killed overseas, and ABC wanted David’s newscast to be updated with this information prior to the 10 AM broadcast on the west coast (which would be 7 AM Pacific time, of course). I went out on set and watched as David re-recorded his entire news broadcast, which would then be edited right into the show that had already been taped. It even began and ended with a “toss” from and to the other anchors, such as “Thanks, Kate” or “Back to you, Bill,” even though David was the only one on set at the time he recorded this modified newscast. As with Saturday, it was getting on toward 10:00 and I had to admit that I’d seen pretty much everything and then some. I wanted to be sure to stop back into the audio booth one last time to chat with Joe and Mark before I left.

And I found them in an impromptu jam session. With the 8:00 AM show having run off tape and everything in place already for the 10:00 AM rebroadcast to the west coast, Joe and Mark had some free time. They put it to use with Mark helping Joe master a piece of classic rock on his bass. The funniest part wasn’t just walking into the (fully soundproof) audio booth to see and hear these guys playing the guitar, it’s that Mark’s electric guitar was actually plugged into the GMA studio’s sound system instead of a traditional portable amp. Hell, I figured, these are the sound guys – they know what can safely be plugged in where. We talked about guitars (“Do you play, Mike?” asked Joe. “Well, “ I hesitated, “I’ve had three lessons so far and can play the Eagles ‘Take it Easy’ almost all the way through. Does that count?”) We laughed and Joe promised to try and give me a shout if he rides his motorcycle up through Syracuse sometime. Visiting the Dinosaur with somebody from the GMA Weekend team would certainly bring this saga full-circle.

I bid the audio guys a fond farewell, waved goodbye to James and Lily in the Control Room, and stopped by the Green Room to give a wave to the camera crew. Then I was down the elevator and… in a lobby I’d never seen before. Luckily I rounded a corner and saw the street, so I wasn’t as lost as I’d feared.

My wife and I decided on a last meal before our trip home, and given how much we’d enjoyed our lunch at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, we decided to head there again. They’d had signs everywhere advertising their new breakfast service. Once again, I’m going to rave about Planet Hollywood – NYC dining purists, brace yourselves.

We were again seated with no wait. We were a bit pressed for time, as our driver was to pick us up at 11:00 AM, but I was sure we’d have no problem and we did not. What we did have was one of the best breakfasts I can remember. My wife had an omelet, which was, you know, just an omelet. But once I saw the description for “Crème Brule Battered French Toast,” I knew I had to have it. It was every bit as decadent as it sounded. Yeah, it probably had 12,000 calories or something, I don’t know, but oh boy was it good.

Our return ride to the airport was a brisk 25-30 minutes and it seemed like no time at all before we were back in Syracuse. It’s always nice to be home and we found that the kids and grandparents alike had had fun together. And my wife and I, we had memories to last a lifetime, with stories to tell of the great BBQ Adventure that was finally at an end.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bunny and squirrel

Sometimes it's fun to get a look into the usually unseen lives of wild animals. Yesterday morning, I looked out my kitchen window and saw a rabbit in my back yard, near one of the willow trees. My lawn is full of clover in back, so this is pretty common.

What was uncommon, was that this bunny was hopping around like mad and I could tell that there was something else out there too. I soon saw that it was a common gray squirrel, which appeared to be playing tag with the bunny. The squirrel would dart in and poke the rabbit with his nose. The rabbit would jump up in alarm, then spring through the air to land on the squirrel. Except the squirrel was always somewhere else. All of the airborne antics reminded me a bit of the kung-fu scene from the Matrix.

Occasionally, the bunny would launch a furious assault and drive the squirrel up onto the trunk of the willow tree. After which, content in his victory, the bunny went back to munching clovers, actually turning his back on the squirrel in disdain. If the bunny could talk, and was an internet nerd, he'd have said "Pwned!"

Until the squirrel sneaked down out of the tree and poked the gloating rabbit in the tail. Then the battle was on once again. This particular scenario repeated twice until the squirrel apparently got bored and wandered off. But up until that point, it was some quality backyard entertainment for us.

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 8 of a 5-part series

Our Sunday in New York would be all too brief, but full nonetheless. I was once again up at 5:30 in order to scoot over to the GMA Studio by shortly after 6:00 AM. My wife had opted to sleep in and do a little shopping in the morning. I was relieved (though not surprised) to find that I really was on the GMA guest list – my name handwritten at the bottom of a printed sheet. Moments later, Alice was once again introducing me to all concerned, starting with the three security agents at the entry door. I’m not sure at precisely what point I noticed that she was making an even more concerted effort to introduce me to everybody than the previous day, but I’d soon learn why.

Upstairs to the studio level and more introductions, including to the security guards there and the security manager. Into the control room and more introductions before ending up once more with Joe and Mark in the Audio Booth. Here, Alice dropped the bomb – I was free to come and go through the studio. I had complete, unfettered access to the set, the control room, the audio booth, the offices, anywhere.

Go ahead, read that last sentence again. Wow, right?

I was in awe and deeply grateful. Throughout the morning I’d hear from different people that it’s much more casual and less hectic on the weekend, and I suspect that my “tour” would have probably been less extensive during a Weekday taping of GMA. All I can say to that is, “Yay for weekends!” Alice’s methodical introductions now made complete sense – she’d made certain that anyone and everyone who might have had cause to wonder why the heck I was wandering around unescorted had been briefed. Indeed, not once during the morning was there so much as a confused look or raised eyebrow.

I got myself a copy of the Lineup and spent some time chatting with Joe and Mark. I hadn’t really been able to meet Mark on Saturday, but he was very personable and took every bit as much pleasure as Joe had in explaining how their piece of the operation worked. They had two “remote” feeds in particular that they needed to have in place with the show – one being a Skype feed with a “Mommy Blogger” in Salt Lake City, the other being a Congressman from El Paso. I watched while they worked with a sound tech at the El Paso studio, then as Representative Silvestre Reyes was run through a sound check. Reyes, as Democratic Chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was speaking to some issues of possible Dick Cheney wrongdoing. Heather Armstrong, author of the blog Dooce, was the other remote guest for July 12th, talking to Kate Snow for a segment about Mommy-bloggers getting kickbacks from manufacturers for blogging about their products (which, to be clear, Armstrong said she doesn't do).

Mark and Joe spoke at length about the complexity of some of the feeds they were using, as most everything had to come from the “Uptown Studio” – another ABC studio that my wife and I had passed on Friday while walking from the subway station to Central Park for dinner. It’s there that they tape World News Tonight, The View, and possibly Regis and Kelly (I’m not sure about that last one). Anything coming in over satellite or through any other technical means besides a telephone apparently goes in and out through there, including the Skype connection for Armstrong. The actual PC that she’d be “Skyping” with was at the uptown studio, from which it was being fed down to Times Square and GMA.

There were two nice things about the GMA team’s reaction to my interest in the technical aspects of the show’s production. First, they took my quest for knowledge seriously and were happy to get into the nitty-gritty about how they did their jobs. Second, they operated on the assumption that I was actually smart enough to understand what they were talking about, despite no real evidence that that was true. In fact, I had introduced myself to those who asked as a writer, completely neglecting to mention the decade of front-line, no-shit IT technical and executive experience I’d had. Even so, they rattled off the details of their jobs like I was “one of the guys,” which was great. I learned so much in these two days about a business that many Americans watch and enjoy on a near-daily basis, but which is utterly transparent to us when it’s done correctly.

I had intended to hang in the audio booth for much of the show, as Joe and Mark were utterly engaging and had so much to say about how they did what they did. But when it got to be moments before show time, I headed in to the control room to see how they kicked it off and didn’t make it back to audio for quite a while. The control room is entrancing because there’s just so much going on all at once. The Executive Producer (Andrew) oversees everything, seated directly beside the Director (Lily Olszewski). I was never introduced to most of the people in the room, so I don’t know their specific names or titles, but there was one guy whose job was to keep a stopwatch going throughout the show, verifying moment to moment that the show was on schedule. His job struck me as particularly stressful for some reason, though he seemed in good spirits. What originates from the control room is a steady stream of directions and communications that have a huge influence on the look and feel of the show, but to which the audience is totally oblivious.

For instance, the little block of text that displays a guest’s name and/or title at the bottom of the screen while they’re being interviewed – in this case, Representative Reyes. The tag rotated at intervals between his name and his title. You might think that this rotation was set to occur automatically every few seconds. Or that somebody in the control room pressed a key when they wanted it to rotate. And that second guess is closer to the truth, yet still lacking. In fact, somebody calls out the direction to “roll” the tag, and somebody different hits the key that does it. It may or may not be done that way for every TV news program at every network on TV, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.

As a result, there’s a constant chatter in the control room as different people call out information such as what camera to use when or how much time is left in a segment. Plus they’re coordinating the talent on set (with the help of the Stage Manager, Scotty), the audio and video departments (Joe and Mark in Audio, and Arty in Video (we’ll meet him in a bit)), any remote stuff going on, and talking with each other about what to change on the fly. Oh, and I suppose they’re probably chatting with folks at the uptown studio, too, though I wouldn’t have been able to hear it. Plus, they still find time to joke around a little.

One advantage of spending two days at the GMA studio was that it gave me a much more complete picture of the whole process behind the show. On Saturday, I saw the talent, camera, sound and lighting techs, prop folks and the stage managers doing their thing out on the set. On Sunday, I got to understand what they were all hearing in their headsets from the control room. I watched most of the first hour from the control room, much of the time looking at the dozens of different monitors on the front wall and trying to figure out what each was for.

One thing I found strange was that Representative Reyes was on within the first five minutes of the show. No, that in itself isn’t strange. But sometime after the half-hour mark, I noticed his image in a bank of monitors on the far right. At first I thought it was a still image of footage that was queued up off the server – like when you pause your TiVo. Then he moved and I realized he was still sitting in that studio, on camera, mic’d up and waiting. I’m still not sure why – it didn’t seem to make any sense unless somebody just forgot he was there. Poor guy.

As a tech guy and a long-time Internet denizen, I found the “Mommy Blog” segment really fascinating. Partly because Kate Snow was talking about Mommy Bloggers (women (primarily) who write online journals about things of interest to other mothers) and how major companies were paying them to help market their products. This shows that the use of the web is constantly evolving and that companies and individuals alike are getting savvy at using it in new ways. But moreso, I was impressed by how Armstrong’s Skype connection was crystal clear beyond a brief delay similar to when a news correspondent is broadcasting from overseas. Let’s remember, this was audio AND video (one-way video only, but still) going over standard broadband using IP, AND being fed from the Uptown studio to the GMA studio, then out to the nation. That’s a lot of jumping around that her voice and picture had to do, originating at a simple laptop computer with some sort of webcam. And unlike commercial-grade Video or Voice Over IP (VOIP), there’s no Quality of Service (QoS) in place when you go over the internet – there’s no way to throttle up your connection when competition for bandwidth with other users gets intense. This isn’t anything unique to Armstrong of course, it just so happens that GMA elected to use residential-grade computer technology to talk to a web-user who was now making her full-time living off a daily online journal about her family, rather than sending a camera crew to her house.

One thing about Kate’s report that made me wish I’d been out on the set is the trio of monitors she was standing near as she did her segment. They look exactly like the ones used to deliver the weather, except they were in the wrong place and the little stage in front of them was missing. I still don’t exactly know where she was or whether that whole bay of displays could have been simply moved across the studio.

I actually met the guy who could have answered my question, had I thought to ask him. Up next, James the Technical Manager would personally explain every piece of technology used to produce the show.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Color me thrilled (the color of thrilled is neon blue)

I just read at I Heart Chaos (careful there - lots of NSFW stuff on that site, but typically you need to click at least one link to get to it) that the TRON: Legacy trailer was released at the San Diego Comic Con today, and I'm tickled blue. The original TRON was one of my top childhood movies - I was an absolute fanatic, to the point of having a TRON-themed birthday party one year. It played at the Genesee Theater near my house the summer before I turned 12 and I must have seen it a dozen times. The theatre staff even hooked me up with a freestanding cardboard marketing kit from Smuckers of TRON (Bruce Boxleitner) holding a box full of these fold-out magazinelets about the movie, with a full-size wall-poster at the center. I think they had children's activities and stuff about the movie's special effects on the inside flaps. I still have one somewhere, I should dig it out.

I remember reading the book after I'd seen the movie a few times, and then explaining the movie to my mother, who wasn't in any way computer-savvy and didn't necessarily understand what was going on. Even without the book, I would have devoured this movie completely. I was already a computer nerd at 11 and TRON was the perfect blend of computers, action, and every nerd-kid's fantasy of merging with technology to become more powerful than anybody.

The most surprising thing, to me, is that it will have taken some 30 years to see a sequel to this film. Granted, it wasn't a blockbuster success, but with all the ways technology has impacted our lives since the original TRON, it seems like there were ample opportunities to bring it back and make it a hit. The closest thing we got was the TRON 2.0 computer game. Which, don't get me wrong, was pretty damn good. It's one of those games I go back and replay from time to time because the storyline and the functionality of the game were both outstanding. But it wasn't a movie, and TRON was such a groundbreaking motion-picture in terms of using computers to directly impact the look of the film, that it deserves a sequel now that CGI has become de facto in the industry.

The trailer itself looks fantastic. Everything has a very modern, updated look to it, yet it's still very recognizable as TRON. I don't know too much about this movie and intend to do some research tomorrow, but I sure hope that it lives up to its potential and, as its title implies, its legacy.

Friday, July 24, 2009

We interrupt this travelogue for a special report...

Hollywood is under zombie attack!

Well, it's more the zombies who are under attack. Author Max Brooks, whose post-apocalyptic zombie novel World War Z is in pre-production as a major motion picture, revealed in a recent Fangoria Radio interview that the film's screenwriter, J. Michael Straczynski, has been replaced. Instead, the screenplay will be (re-)written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, whose previous works include the (in my opinion) lacklustre film Kingdom of Heaven.

I'm an unapologetic Straczynski fanboy, having enjoyed Babylon 5 immensely and since read most of his other written works, primarily comics. I trusted JMS to make an amazing screenplay out of World War Z. I have no such confidence in Carnahan, based on what I've seen of his work, and this is a movie I was really looking forward to seeing. I'm also sad because The Changeling wasn't a story that particularly interested me and I was looking forward to a major JMS-written motion picture that was more to my taste. I suppose I'll need to wait for Silver Surfer or Lensman, but they're both still quite a ways off. Although at this rate, so is World War Z.


Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 7 of a 5-part series

Note: see the top of the July 23rd Blog entry if you’re confused about the whole “Part 7 of 5” deal.

Our final evening in New York City was warm and nice. This is significant, considering how we spent much of our day. More about that later. My wife and I debated how best to get to the Four Seasons Restaurant. Ultimately, we decided that it was far enough that walking in our dress shoes might be uncomfortable. It’s possible that we could have taken the subway to get there, but the route wasn’t as straightforward as the one up to Central Park had been the night before. A cab seemed the most expeditious means of conveyance. I was concerned that our marvelous lunch at Planet Hollywood would dull my appetite for dinner, but I need not have worried. By 7:15 when we arrived at the restaurant, I was plenty hungry. My wife looked magnificent in her black evening dress, and the elegant splendor of the restaurant was the ideal venue to accent her beauty. Certainly I felt like a prince myself that evening, the city my jewel.

You enter the Four Seasons through a grand lobby with a coat check and some seats. Upstairs there’s a bar (which didn’t look to be open, but I didn’t really get a good look at it on the way in, as I was focused on the maître d’ who greeted us at the top of the stairs. Up until this point, what we’d seen of the restaurant seemed dim and empty, though refined. The dining room was different.

The room was large and fairly full, but not noisy. The décor, from the wide pool at the center of the room to the large (artificial? We weren’t close enough to be sure) palm trees at its four corners, was elegant and lavish. The windows were covered in curtains of delicate white threads that gently arced across each section of glass. We were seated in a row of tables that ran sidelong down a long series of sectioned seats, placing my wife and me side-by-side. It was an unusual configuration and not unpleasant. We faced a row of more traditional four-person tables, and the people across the aisle from us had just been served an enormous plate of what could only be cotton candy. We surmised that it must have been the chef’s special dessert for the evening, as it wasn’t on any menu we ever saw, though we witnessed several more being served throughout the evening, often with lit candles.

We confirmed with the waiter (the Captain, perhaps? I never did determine which server had which title. O CAPTAIN! my Captain! I fear I need a refill on my Diet Coke.) that our credit for the meal was in place, so the feast was on! The appetizers and salads didn’t especially interest us – they were all somewhat exotic and often seafood-based, which generally isn’t our cup of tea. My wife did elect to have a glass of wine, but we’re also not big drinkers. I count both of these choices as good. We never got any sort of bill since we evidently stayed within our line of credit, but I’m confident that a bottle of wine and appetizers would have blown us out of the water based on the rough tally we kept during the evening.

There were several entrée choices that appealed to either or both of us, and we decided on the Crisp Long Island Farmhouse Duck for two. We also ordered a chocolate soufflé for dessert. They brought me my Diet Coke in a little glass bottle, which was a nice touch. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. We spent the next twenty minutes or so admiring the décor, watching the other guests, and eating the tasty breads that were served.

The duck arrived on a silver cart. Its golden skin seemed almost to gleam as it ran with hot juices. A small burner heated a silver cup of cherry compote. Our server deftly cut apart the duck. He first removed a wing and set it on a plate. Next, he cut off one breast, after which he carefully, but with the speed of long practice, sliced off the skin. With the knife, he inverted the skin and scraped off the layer of fat underneath. He then replaced the skin on the breast meat. The process was repeated on the other breast, after which the deep burgundy cherry compote was poured from the heated silver cup.

The taste of the duck can be summed up in five words: holy crap this is delicious! The meat had a rich flavor, amplified by the crisp skin. The sauce was sweet but not at all overpowering, and the cherries were so flavorful that at first I wasn’t convinced they were just cherries and not something more exotic. We had potato au gratin as a side dish, and it was also very tasty.

When we could no longer manage another morsel of the duck, it was removed and our table was scraped clean. At last we were served our soufflé along with a small plate of confections. Our server broke the crust and poured in a hot dark chocolate sauce and a white cream, which mingled together inside the soufflé. The soufflé was remarkably fluffy and flavorful, and I could tell my wife was in heaven. For my part, I liked it, but I prefer my desserts a bit sweeter and turned my attention to the plate of small treats. It included some dry, sugared cookies, something that I think was shortbread, some soft, jellied candies, and two small chocolates. All of which were very sweet and more than met my desire for a decadent dessert, capping off what was, for us at least, a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience.

We really enjoyed our dinner at The Four Seasons. It was as good as any meal I’d eaten at some fine restaurants in places like Chicago and Las Vegas. However, my wife and I just don’t appreciate exceptional food as much as some people, because I’d never consider spending $200+ of my own money for a meal for two. And, again, we had skipped the appetizers, shared a dessert and had opted for the glass of wine rather than a bottle, otherwise I estimate we’d have been closer to $300. Which made this evening all the more special – it was an experience that my wife and I won’t soon repeat.

Feeling very full, we elected to skip the taxi-ride back to the hotel and walk. It was overcast and warm and we even felt a drop of rain at one point, but nothing diminished the joy of our last night’s stroll through midtown Manhattan. We wandered past Radio City Music Hall (Sir, how do I get to Radio City Music Hall? Practice, practice, practice.) and took in the sights and sounds of the city, its lights contrasting with the dark sky above the colossal buildings standing all around as if they, too, were shuffling through the crowded streets toward home. Times Square greeted us one last time with its riot of bright flashing colors, its smells of barbeque and spices and steel and glass and concrete and electronics and many, many people. The walk had helped to burn away the sensation of being over-stuffed and we arrived back at our hotel feeling sleepy and content.

Over the chair of our room’s desk, my wife draped her new black sweater, never worn on that warm summer evening in New York City.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 6 of a 5-part series

Part 6 of 5, huh? How’s that for a numbering scheme? I find one of the nice things about a blog, which is different from more mainstream publications, is that what I write doesn’t need to fit into somebody else’s format. There’s no editor who needs to fill a specific number of pages each issue. So when I find that a piece is running longer than expected, I just have to ask myself if it’s ok to keep it going. I’m an agreeable guy in general, and especially so when it’s me that’s asking for something, so the answer is nearly always “Have at it!” Thus here we are on part 6 of 5. At this point it looks as if it’ll end up with seven entries, but if I ask myself for an eighth, I’ll probably let that slide, too. Back to New York.

With the excitement of GMA still crackling about us like St. Elmo’s Fire, we decided next to walk the full length and breadth of Manhattan in search of a purse and a sweater. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but by the afternoon my feet felt as if that’s what we’d done.

My wife had bought a new dress specifically for the Four Seasons, as she didn’t really have anything she felt was nice enough. It’s the sort of upscale restaurant where men wear jackets and she knew how dashing I look in a dinner jacket. Yet Friday night had been cool, and she’d become concerned that the rather small dress she’d bought for Saturday wouldn’t be warm enough. Also, she’d had the epiphany that the largish denim purse she’d brought with her – perfect for holding the entire contents of a two drawers, a footlocker and the better part of a medicine cabinet – was a bit informal for the evening’s attire.

Our original plan for Saturday afternoon had tentatively been a stroll through Central Park, including a trip to the zoo and a stop at Belvedere Castle. On Friday, we’d also considered that a Broadway show might be fun, too. It had been over ten years since we saw Phantom of the Opera together, for instance, and Shrek, Wicked and several other shows looked fun as well. Getting cheap seats on the day of the show shouldn’t be too expensive, right? We decided to check at the “Theatre” desk at our hotel. The woman there was very helpful, and explained that we had a couple of choices. At 10:00 AM, the ticket pavilion in Times Square would be stocked with all the unsold tickets to that day’s matinee performances. We could wait in line for an hour or two and get the $120 tickets at half-off. Or, we could buy them from a broker, like her, at MORE than the ticket’s list price. Say, $150 or more. So, to recap, we could spend a goodly chunk of our short trip to New York standing in a line, we could visit the box office and maybe find tickets available at the full $120 price, or we could overpay for them. Too rich for my blood, thanks. We’ll wait until Famous Artists brings them to Syracuse.

So the plan was to pop off in search of a purse and a sweater, on our way to a stroll through Central Park. In retrospect, it’s clear that that’s way more walking than I’d ever consider doing, but at the time it seemed reasonable. Off to 5th Avenue we went. The night before we had dined at Tavern on the Green, best known, to me, anyway, for being the location where Ric Moranis was eaten by a demon dog in Ghostbusters. I’m a big fan of that movie, so I was delighted that this trip presented us with yet another iconic location from that movie – the front steps of the New York Public Library.

Manhattan is covered to every last inch with pavement and buildings, except for a rather remarkable number of parks. Bryant Park is one such, a swath of neat green grass behind the library. On this Saturday morning, it was dotted with visitors sipping coffee or working at their laptops or even laying out sunbathing. Several fleshy, pale gentlemen had apparently been gazing at their laptops for so long that, quite unnoticed in their reverie, their shirts had completely disintegrated and blown away as dust on the air. It was an appalling sight, but you at least had to admire their ability to focus.

We marveled at a large fountain and a statue of William Cullen Bryant, then made our historic visit to Payless Shoes, wherein my wife found a cheap clutch-purse that would do the trick for tonight’s dinner. The quest for accessories was well and truly underway!

We next made our way to Lord & Taylor, the high point of which was… leaving. There was nothing there that was remotely in our price range for a sweater my wife would likely wear only once. Still, it was a lovely day for a walk. It was sunny and bright, but not overly hot. A cool breeze blew just right to keep us comfortable and 5th Ave has a wide array of shops, old architecture, and wide sidewalks. A nearby H&M store had several sweaters that suited my wife’s taste, bringing our quest to a successful, if not overly dramatic, conclusion. We next stopped on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a rest and to call the kids. When we finished, it was getting on toward lunch time and we decided that a burger from The Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridian hotel would do the trick. By the time we reached 56th Street, we’d walked some twenty of the shorter north-south blocks along 5th Ave, plus a couple of long blocks east from our hotel to get to 5th Ave in the first place. It was 12:30 and I was weary, hungry, and on my way to cranky.

Just for kicks, we walked the 56th street block between5 th and 6th Ave three times. My address for Le Parker Meridian wasn’t very specific and we thought we’d missed it, when in fact we needed to go one more block West. This did not improve my mood. I was nearly hobbling by the time we reached our destination. A bellman pointed us toward the dark velvet curtain that hid the Burger Joint from casual view. Down a very dark hall, we found a door into, well, a burger joint. It was a simple, no-frills affair exactly as advertised. A fellow at the door, who I assume worked there, advised the few of us who’d arrived at the same time that service was at the counter, and seating was catch-as-catch can. He suggested bribing somebody to give up their table as one approach to getting a seat. I stuck my head in and looked around at the tiny restaurant as a number of people came down the hall behind us. “Get out of the doorway!” shouted one of the cooks. “Excuse us,” said one of the folks behind us. So let’s recap: I’m tired. I’m sore. I’m cranky. I’m famished. I’m being scolded by the guy with the greasy spatula. I’m in the way of the people behind us. The two things I desperately need at that time are a place to sit and something to eat and it appears that I can have one or the other here, but not both. So I did the only thing I could think to do – I fled.

A few buildings down 56th we found a little courtyard with a wall you could sit on. Not comfortably, because some jackass had affixed these thin metal bars along the top of most of the walls whose only purpose seemed to be to make it uncomfortable, but not impossible, to sit on the wall. We made some key decisions from that mildly painful perch. First off, I had used up my stamina for the day – there was no way I could spend several hours hobbling around Central Park. Second, Times Square was full of decent enough restaurants. I didn’t need “Authentic NYC,” I just needed food. And let’s face it, my wife and I are grist for the chain restaurant mill. We like chain restaurants. There, I said it. We’re not particularly sophisticated or snobbish about where we eat – we like good food and we like it at a fair price. Not all chains provide both, but I was confident we could find something.

So off we went, back to Times Square. Which, being a loyal reader (and, dare I say it, a fan) you’ll recall I was expressly told to avoid like the plague. Tough. We like Times Square. There! I said it. I wouldn’t want to spend a week exploring its nooks and crannies, but it served perfectly for our short visit. Given the choice between the Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood, and a handful of other places, I selected Planet Hollywood. First off, I knew it was huge, so our chances of getting a seat at lunchtime seemed pretty good. Also, I’m a movie nut, and I really enjoy the décor. Lastly, I’d eaten at the one in Disney World a few times and vaguely remembered that the food was at least satisfactory. It turned out to be a great choice.

I felt as if I was on my last legs when we finally arrived, as you can see from the picture. The endless flight of stairs up to the dining level didn’t help. At the top, we were greeted by a fellow who wanted to divert us to a picture-taking booth, but I just mumbled something like “not a chance” and toddled off to the hostess. As I’d predicted, there was plenty of room and we were seated immediately, much to my tremendous relief. Here’s the thing about Planet Hollywood – the food is actually really good. I’ll probably never know how good the $10 burger is at the Burger Joint, but it wasn’t any better than the delicious $15 burger I got at Planet Hollywood. In fact, my Planet Hollywood burger was better than my $50 steak from Tavern on the Green the night before. Add in a yummy vanilla milkshake and some spicy chicken fingers and by the time we left I was back to my old self. I still didn’t feel like walking around Central Park, but I didn’t feel like I was about to keel over dead any longer.

We spent the afternoon just wandering around and lounging around, which was fine with me. We found some souvenir shops to get trinkets for the kids and wrapped up the afternoon with a nice nap at the hotel. Our NYC adventure was more than half over, but two exceptional experiences were still to come.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 5 of a 5-part (and growing) series

The second hour of Saturday's GMA Weekend wrapped up, as had the first, with all four of the anchors sitting on a couch in a corner nook of the studio where the great huge windows overlooking Times Square were right behind them. After the show wrapped, they continued to sit there and chat and my wife and I casually sidled over toward them. We wanted to meet everybody, of course, but didn’t want to charge over like rabid fans looking for some celebrity attention.

Alice (that's her in the top picture with me), who had a real knack for showing up at precisely the right time, was there at our elbows to introduce us. Bill and Kate remembered the BBQ segment well and welcomed us to the show. They were friendly, but then I made a comment that really changed the welcome we received.

Several months back, there had been a segment on GMA weekend having to do with peoples’ secrets and their past. I don’t recall the specifics of the report, but when it was over the anchor team was all seated on one of the studio’s couches talking about the segment before jumping to commercial. With probably around ten seconds to go, Kate turned to Bill and asked “So what secret do you have in your past?” Totally deadpan, Bill looked straight at the camera and said, “I once killed a hobo.” Ron Claiborne laughed so hard I thought he might fall off the couch. Marysol rolled her eyes, and Kate put her head in her hands in what I took to be horror. It was just a moment in the show’s history, but it was a very funny one if you happened to catch it.

So when we met Bill, I mentioned to him that “My kids asked me if I was going to meet ‘that funny news man who killed a hobo.’” And with that comment, we were part of the GMA Weekend family. It wasn’t that the anchors had been even remotely cold before I said it, but afterward we’d established a rapport, a history, and moments later we were being whisked off to the anchor desk for pictures with Bill and Kate. Somebody I hadn’t met took our camera and snapped multiple pictures of my wife and me at the desk both with the anchors and without them. It was just one more case of us being treated as friends and honored guests, rather than just tourists come to gawk at a bunch of people going about what were, to them, just their jobs.

When that was done and everybody had dispersed, we were alone by the anchor desk with Alice. “Oh,” she asked, ”did I introduce you to the man who was taking your pictures? That was Andrew Morse. He’s the show’s Executive Producer.” Gulp. Now THAT was cool.

At this point, you might think we’d pretty much seen and done it all. Think again - there was still about an hour left in our tour, if you can believe that.

Alice had recently toured Central New York on an Erie Canal cruise, and we discussed the Erie Canal as she walked us through the as-yet-unseen parts of the GMA facility. I’m no expert on the Canal, but I’m familiar with it and had recently, as chance would have it, discussed it with my dad, who was reading a book on the subject. So I regaled Alice with information about the reasons for the canal, some details about the terrain, and even about how it had once run directly through downtown Syracuse where today there’s a major thoroughfare (Erie Boulevard) and a fountain/ice-rink at Clinton Square. She found this fascinating and lamented that she’d learned more from me in ten minutes than she had during the entire three-day cruise. I sure hope that’s not literally true, but it was flattering to hear, anyway.

Our next stop was the meteorology center, where we met Max the Meteorologist. GMA has an entire weather center where Max prepares the maps and animations that go onto the big 103” plasma screen (and its little buddies alongside) for Sam Champion and Marysol Castro (or their substitutes) to do the weather. Max was happy to tell us about what he did, and even zoomed in on Syracuse to show us the weather back home. We got to talking and he asked me some questions about a couple of the lakes nearby – Oswego Lake and Onondaga Lake. I mentioned that Onondaga is one of the most-polluted lakes in the nation (Syracuse’s claim to fame – yay!) which he found very interesting. Alice then mentioned that I was an expert on the Erie Canal (Alice seemed to enjoy over-selling my background in any subject that came up, but I wasn’t complaining. If I ever need a PR Rep, she’s tops on my list.) and Max and I discussed that for a while.

Eventually it was time to bid a fond farewell to Max and his high-tech weather center and get on with the tour. We poked our heads into Andrew Morse’s office where he and some folks were having a post-show meeting. We saw Bill Weir hunkered over a computer in an office across the hall. We met Robin Roberts’ personal assistant who was on her way to work out. We stopped in to say hi to the camera operators, who were all hanging out together next to the green room. Alice told them I wanted to be a camera man and they looked at me like I was nuts. “Why??” one of them finally asked. “Well, I don’t really. Alice just feels I need some sort of job.” It’s ok, really. My mother-in-law feels the same way. I think she’d like Alice a lot, too.

I had told Alice about my background on Point ‘n’ Click and how much I had enjoyed learning all about every aspect of the show’s production, including audio, video/camera, lighting, direction, etc. From this she’d extrapolated that I might enjoy being a part-time freelance cameraman for my local news outlets. But she also played up my on-air experience and interest in TV production, which I think had a lot to do with how excited everybody was to talk to me. I also think that tours like mine are pretty rare – most of the show’s guests probably just come on, pitch their product or story, and then leave. I was there to see it all, though, and Alice took it as a personal challenge. We literally explored areas it was clear to me she’d never been in before.

Beyond the dressing rooms and camera crew lounge (which I think was actually designated “Green Room 2”), we took an elevator down to what I believe was below street level. Here we found an employee break-room (with the aforementioned maintenance worker watching TV on his break), the full kitchen where all of the food used on the show is prepped, and a warehouse of set pieces, lights and large props like extra chairs. This was the point that I could really tell we’d gone off Alice’s map.

Next, we were back upstairs to grab some water from the Green Room and then head through the control room again. Alice pointed out Lily, the show’s director, who was busy recording a promo spot with Bill Weir that’s done live at around 9:30 AM with a station somewhere in California. We watched as they did a test connection over Skype with Mommy Blogger Heather Armstrong. They had her move about her house and fiddle with the blinds and such in search of an optimal location for the Sunday morning interview they were doing. And I got to say hi to Eric Noll, the show’s segment producer who I’d met a month earlier at the Dinosaur. We hung around in there for a while, as Alice knew I was fascinated by the technical aspects of the show’s production. We watched closely, sipping our waters, then eventually headed out the door opposite the one that leads to the set.

In this hallway, the first thing I noted were the multiple, very large signs that read “Control Room – absolutely no food or drink beyond this point.” As I’m standing there with my half-empty bottle of water in my hand. D’oh! My heart started racing as I wondered whether everybody in the control room thought we were complete tools for standing there in their multi-million-dollar command center flaunting our bottles of electronics-poison. And, of course, they’d tell everybody else on the team and all those people who’d been so nice to us would think we were jerks, too, and aaaaaagh! I’d ruined everything! Why weren’t these signs on the other entryway, too?!?

Then I remembered that several people in the control room had had a cup of coffee next to their station and I calmed down. They hadn’t noticed or said anything because evidently it was no big deal. Whew! I sure as hell wasn’t going to do it again, just in case, but it seemed a lot less likely that they’d already started trading emails about what horrible people we were once we'd walked out the door.

Our next stop was the audio room, where Joe and Mark set all of the levels for the studio mics, any remote setups, any segments playing off tape, and so forth. Mark was on the phone, but Joe was more than happy to show off his giant sound board (which looked to me exactly like what you’d see in a high-end music recording studio) and the various monitors where he matched the sound to the video. They also had a window to the side that looked straight through into the control room. Joe remembered the BBQ segment (it seemed everybody had really enjoyed devouring the multiple sets of ribs that had been shipped to the studio by the competing restaurants for the taste-test) and remembered me as well. On the Sunday morning when we taped the GMA segment live from the Dinosaur, Joe’s had been the voice in my IFB checking the levels on the mic and verifying that I could hear the anchors’ voices through my earpiece. Joe’s a biker and sometimes gets up around Syracuse on his rides, so we exchanged contact info in the hopes that we can meet up at the Dinosaur the next time he’s up my way.

Alice showed us through a few more offices, but at that point we’d pretty well seen everything there was to see in the GMA studio. We chatted again briefly with Bill Weir and then Andrew Morse (I got to tell Bill that I loved the rapport that the weekend anchors had and that in many ways I enjoyed GMA Weekend more than the weekday show. He seemed very happy to hear it. My wife liked how his eyes sparkled). It was nearly 10 AM at this point and we had to admit that there just wasn’t anything left to tour. Alice walked us down through the back hallways and out to the street and bid us a fond adieu. The tour had been everything I could have hoped for and much more I’d never dared to expect. But there was one last surprise that I wouldn’t even have imagined. I’d heard it from several people in the studio, and Alice confirmed that they weren’t just saying it to be polite. We’d been invited to come back again for Sunday’s show!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 4 of a 5-part (and growing) series

As I did my online research for my trip to NYC, one person advised me that the GMA studio tour, in their experience, was pretty quick and involved a lot of standing around in a holding pen with other tour guests. I don’t doubt that there’s a tour where this is true, and it helped to set my expectations low.

As it was, I had very little idea of what to expect from my visit to the studio. Sure, I’d worked on a show in Syracuse for a couple of years, but I had no frame of reference for the differences between a small show produced in my hometown and the official morning news program for a major US television network. Thus, going in with low expectations was a good self-defense mechanism. If it turned out to be a couple of hours in the Green Room watching the show on a monitor smaller than my living room TV, it wouldn’t be too great a letdown. But so much the better that it was nothing like that at all.

My wife and I were up at 5:30 on Saturday. The studio was directly across the street from our hotel, so we really just needed to allow time to get clean and dressed. We debated whether there’d be anything to eat at GMA and decided not to chance it – I didn’t want hunger to be a distraction. We found a little place on Broadway that was just opening up and grabbed a croissant and a muffin, then walked back to the studio, identified the correct unmarked entry door, and introduced ourselves to the security guard. Moments later, we were placed in the expert care of Alice the GMA Weekend Green Room Coordinator. Alice made sure we met everybody, and I mean everybody there was to meet, including each security guard and a member of the cleaning crew who was watching TV in a basement break room. She was extremely adept at making us feel at home and suggesting where we might like to be at each moment to get maximum enjoyment from our visit. I can’t remember ever meeting a friendlier, more amiable person than Alice and her guidance enhanced our tour tremendously.

A minute after stepping through the secured door from the back entrance, we quite nearly ran into GMA Weekend Anchor Kate Snow, who was hustling about getting ready for the show. She had her hair in curlers and didn’t look thrilled to see us at that point, but we couldn’t have been happier. Not about the curlers, per se, just to have met Kate in person, if only to say “Hello” in passing. After a trip to the Green Room, which was in fact painted green, Alice, a former State Department employee who now worked part-time for GMA Weekend making sure guests of the show were comfortable, showed us out to the set. It was glorious. If you’ve ever seen GMA (whether during the week or on the weekend, it’s the same set with one exception), you know that there’s a newsdesk, a couch, a second couch surrounded by windows (overlooking Times Square), an interview area with two armchairs, and a weather station with one enormous plasma monitor and a couple of smaller ones. These may appear to be in different rooms, but actually they’re all sets in one large studio. The cameras and talent just move from one to the next as needed. The windows look out to the northwest over Broadway and fill one whole wall of the studio.

(Click the pic for a full-sized version)

We were seated on one of two low, wooden benches near the interview armchairs. They’re actually situated right in front of the armchairs at the interview set, but the cameras shoot right over them and they’re never visible on-screen. Naturally nobody can sit on them if the interview set is in use, but on that day it wasn’t. From this vantage, we could see the entire studio fairly well, though the two couches were obscured by the newsdesk and by the camera equipment that occupies the center of the floor. Alice introduced us to several camera operators, sound techs, and Scotty Kaye the Stage Manager. Scotty welcomed us enthusiastically and seemed genuinely pleased to meet us. This experience would prove to be consistent throughout the morning – every person we met was as pleasant and warm as anyone you’d ever want to meet. Never once were we treated like outsiders or even “visitors,” but were welcomed like part of the GMA Weekend family.

Shortly after meeting Scotty and several other members of the production team (and there were quite a few of them – many of whom I either didn’t hear their names or I didn’t have the presence of mind to etch it firmly in my memory. Apologies to anyone from the team who might stumble upon this humble journal. Be assured that it’s not a deliberate snub, just my lousy memory.) Alice took us around behind the set to meet the teleprompter operator. This talented fellow normally worked only one teleprompter at a time, but today was working both. If I understood correctly, there was one for the Anchors (Bill and Kate) and a second for the News and Weather reports. He seemed confident that he could manage it, and based on what I saw I can only presume that he did so. There certainly wasn’t any overt indication that the on-air personalities were without their scripts.

Next we walked through into the control room for a quick look and were overwhelmed by the scores of monitors on the front wall, the side walls, and mounted to the ceiling. I couldn’t begin to absorb what they all represented, but I was certainly impressed. I worked at a casino for a couple of years, and every morning when I walked to my office I’d look around at the lights and the décor and the ever-present patrons and think “this is a pretty neat place to work.” I suspect that the GMA folks may get a similar thrill when they sit down and fire up those banks of monitors in preparation to broadcasting the show to the nation.

We then walked back out to the set to sit once again on our bench, and soon David Wright and Bill Weir were there, getting their final makeup applied and chatting with the crew. David is a regular ABCNews correspondent based out of Washington, DC (and a Rhodes Scholar, I would later learn). On this day he was in for Ron Claiborne, who was reporting live from Ghana. Also on the set was San Francisco’s own Sandhya Patel, who was the guest in for GMA Weekend regular Marysol Castro. Marysol was on vacation in Chicago, and even filed a story from there on the Willis Tower’s (né Sears Tower) new glass balcony.

GMA Weekend is a bit of an odd duck, as it’s similar to but different from the weekday GMA. For starters, it doesn’t use the downstairs set at all, nor does it typically have the in-studio crowds that GMA Weekday tends to pack in. These are the folks who hold up the “Sam Champion’s a cutie” signs in hopes of getting some screentime. They also much more rarely seem to move down to shoot outside on Broadway, though they have at times. They have their own signature segments, including “This Week in Three Words,” “The News You Missed,” (which I don’t remember seeing in a while, now that I think on it. A shame – it’s a funny segment), and “GMA Window” where they show some outdoor location in hi-def, with interviews of park rangers and/or local residents. But what’s most notable about GMA Weekend is that it’s only an hour-long show, as compared to the two-hour GMA that airs Monday through Friday. As Bill Weir says in their promos, “It’s different on the weekend.”

I’d gotten an introduction to how they tape GMA Weekend when I met Ron Claiborne at the Dinosaur, but on Saturday I actually got copies of the “Lineup” in my hand, including the revised copies that were distributed throughout the morning. The Lineup shows the precise order of events scheduled for the show, the duration of each, and the time to the second that it will air during the show. For example, the show’s “Cold Open,” including the GMA Weekend Theme Song, is 55 seconds long, and it’s the first thing that happens on the show. Then, at 55 seconds into the show, they switch to the 11-second-long “Live/Title/Announce,” which is a voiceover that says, to paraphrase “This is Good Morning America Weekend. Here’s Bill Weir and Kate Snow.” When this is done, the show has been on for one minute and six seconds, and the anchors start to do their thing.

But here’s where it gets funky: they tape the entire hour-long show, live, from 7:00 AM (Eastern) to 8:00 AM. There are taped segments, of course, but the show is going out live. However, some stations around the country don’t air GMA Weekend at 7:00 AM. They air it at 8:00 AM Eastern time. And it may or may not be the same show that went out live at 7 AM Eastern. You following me there? They do part or all of the show, live, a second time between 8:00 and 9:00 AM Eastern. Didn’t like how a segment played out? Do it over. Need to update the news with more recent info? Do it again. Want more current weather? Tape it over.

So we watched them tape the show twice between 7 AM and 9 AM on Saturday. There were some pieces that they aired back during the second hour “off the server,” which means they used a recording from the first hour. But other parts of the show were taped again and were partly or completely different in the second hour.

Here’s an example – one of the hot news stories on that day had to do with a mostly-minority daycare group that had been ejected from a mostly-white country club/swimming pool. The woman who ran the daycare was supposed to be interviewed on the show, but she got stuck in traffic and didn’t make it in time. During the 7 AM hour they tried to interview her over her cell phone, but the quality was poor and her tale went off on a tangent at a few points. After the interview, when the show had gone to commercial, I could hear Bill and Kate discussing (presumably with the control room as well as each other) that they really weren’t happy with the quality of the interview. So during the second hour, it was replaced with a segment David Wright had produced about GM’s Bankruptcy. Those stations who aired the 7:00 show never saw Wright’s segment, and the stations airing the 8:00 feed never saw (or heard) the interview with the daycare owner. Likewise, a segment at the end of the show on body-detoxifying diets was taped twice – once with and once without the ear-shattering super-blender that drowned out all conversation as the guest turned fruits and veggies into smoothies with the color and texture of pond scum. From the way Bill Weir guzzled down two of them, they apparently tasted better than they looked.

Watching the show being taped was neat. We were politely ushered around the studio so we wouldn’t be in anybody’s way, though I got the impression that where the stage manager told us to stand during the second half-hour was not really where the woman responsible for setting up the veggie-detox segment would have liked us. We tried our best to stay out of her way without stepping on anybody else, but it was pretty close quarters.

By the time the second hour was “on the server” and ready for re-broadcast out to the West Coast channels (for whom none of the show was live unless something major happened between 9 and 10 AM Eastern), we’d met pretty much everybody and even chatted briefly with Sandhya Patel about her trip in from California and her four-month-old twins. But we had yet to really get to meet two of the faces you’d most associate with the show – Bill Weir and Kate Snow. Meeting them turned out to be one of many memorable experiences that morning.