Innovation in music is generally bad, but…

I think it is fair to say that just about every technological innovation in music since about the time I was born left the world being a worse place (be it the CD player, mp3s, mp3 players, mp3 compatible CD players… transistor amps, digitized techno, digitized anything, everything in the 80’s and etc.). Exceptions are few and far between, but today I came across a big one.

This trinket is certainly not for me. But I appreciate the fact that it is a modernized classical coil based guitar pickup design with the string separation nobody ever cared to develop. And the possibilities for musical creativity is are quite amazing starting with the idea carried by its predecessor allowing the insertion of a (low) octave effect on the lower two strings. An ability to put effects on certain strings independent of each other, and to do so with the same analog effect pedals running into the same tube amps that made music (before I was born) what it is, is kind of amazing. For someone to approach the same problem that has already been addressed (with disastrous results) by Roland midi pickups in the 80’s in a truly analog and sonically conservative way is true genius. I cannot wait to hear what people do with it. Until then, if you are a more creative guitarist than me, get one of these! But definitely see the demo.

How you can never be smart

Apparently, when I was a toddler (not like I remember, but I am often told), my parents were also not morning people. So to prevent me from waking them up, they left sufficient entertainment and some food (chocolate milk) for me in the crib at night before they went to bed. This way I would not stay hungry and entertain myself in the morning while they crawled out of bed.

Some 38 or so years later, Stela and I are also not morning people. So we decided to try this same approach to manage our little monster. Been doing this for a week or two. One day she didn’t drink the bottle. Otherwise all seemed cool.

Yesterday we noticed that she found the bottle shortly after we left it, a little after midnight. OK. Must have been a fluke. Today, we noticed that she woke up at midnight and was frantically looking for the bottle of milk.

Try to be smart in this world and a 16 month old will outsmart you. Now we have to figure out how to decondition her from waking up at midnight in search of food. We’ll never know but I am fairly sure she has been drinking the bottle of milk just minutes after we left it for a week or two now.

Best music gear review ever by ItchyHead from Memphis, TN

I was monitoring the Cyber Monday deals for music gear. Musician’s Friend put up the Hohner Roadhouse Blues Harmonicas – 5-Pack (Keys of G, A, C, D, and E) in Custom Case for sale. They were dirt cheap, so I glanced at the reviews. (And, as expected, those sucked badly.) But in there I found a true gem of a music gear review titled: These caused me to get forcibly removed from a blues jam. I am sharing.

I am twenty years on the harmonica circuit now, with such blues experience that you would not believe it. But my last harmonica set was destroyed in a flash flood and I needed a replacement quick. I ordered this pack of harmonicas and took it down to Blind Willie’s to sit in on a blues jam. No sooner did I blow the first note when I knew something was wrong. I have struggled all of my life with horrible head lice problems and something in these harmonicas is like a magnet for these wily lice-bugs. They came pouring down my face and swarmed into the harmonica as I tried to add some panache to “Gimme Three Steps”. I inhaled sharply and several lice bugs flew down my windpipe, causing me great discomfort and horrifying the patrons and the band members. Blind Willie is a superstitious old fool and all of this convinced him that I was the first of a new seven plagues of Egypt so he threw me and my now lice-ridden harmonicas out into the street. I was almost hit by a Geo Metro.

BOTTOM LINE No, I would not recommend this to a friend

Last trial run of the MSEM book, in Bamberg

Last summer I taught Multilevel Structural Equation Modeling at ECPR’s Summer School in Methods and Techniques. This summer, my coauthor, Bruno Castanho Silva did the same course. Today, we have a complete draft of the MSEM book (also co-authored by Constantin Manuel Bosancianu). For the last time, before we send it to the publisher (SAGE, QASS), we get to use it in action. I need to thank the University of Bamberg (with special thanks to Thomas Saalfeld) for inviting me to do this workshop on MSEM and giving us the opportunity to see how the book works in action and get feedback on our full draft.

How I came to love Strats

The sound, I always loved. My dad is a Strat player. And I had many Strats and similar guitars (including a Fender blue floral MIJ reissue when I lived in Nebraska). But those guitars and I could never agree with each other.

I was always more of an acoustic player. One thing about acoustic guitars is that they have no (like zero) crap on the top to be (potentially) in the way of playing. A Strat is a delicate machine where you have to strum paying attention to the knobs, switches and even the middle pickup, which is sometimes (or in my case, often) in the way.

The middle pickup issue is the easiest to live with. I always preferred guitars without a middle pickup (none of which would ever sound like a Strat), but as long as they leave me some space (and Strats do) I could work with it. A two humbucker with pickup frames and middle pickup, not so much…

The pickup switch placement is my second vice. A looser strum and I change from neck to bridge pickup. (And that is a change people notice even if you switch back quick…) But since, my playing is more refined. I can work it.

But this third one, I cannot deal with. The damn volume control. Apparently, the place I rest (or have, or whatever) my finger when strumming is right there at the volume control. I understand that having the volume control handy like that comes with great benefits, some tricks you cannot do, say, on a Gibson or a Tele, but those tricks are not me. And the natural movement of my hand while playing, what does it do? It turns the volume down. Basically, I cannot get through a quarter of a song, no matter how much I try, without turning the volume down, and usually all the way down. (And that change people really notice.)

But I love the Strat sound. I have been thinking about custom builds that overcome the issue. Maybe one that leaves off the volume control, puts it at the second knob leaving the third as overall tone could work. But it never looked right whenever I saw one of these set ups. (See above.) Or just pull a Tom DeLonge (as seen on his signature Fender Strat) and have no tone.

Still, the only Fender Strat I have seen that pulled off the limited knob set up was the pink Hello Kitty Squier with the slightly modified pickguard. But that will not get me closer to a Strat tone either (and neither would the Tom DeLonge) .

Enter a trip I once took to Stageshop, the best and really only worthwhile guitar store in Hungary, where they handed me a beat up looking Fano guitar. (By far the best guitar I have ever played, with a price to match at 7 digits in HUF – granted it started with 1 and ended with six 0s, but still – 3250 EUR, 3800 USD) That white Alt-de-Factor SP6 (actual one pictured below) had, what I learned to be called, a ToneStyler instead of a tone pot. (Though it was not the reason it was the best guitar I ever played. Not even close.) Here’s how the ToneStyler works. It is (in the case of the Fano) a 10 step rotary switch and every one of them sends the signal through a different value capacitor. The tone control rolls in a mix of the capacitor into the signal (I am sure I am screwing the terminology up – electricity is less my thing than sound). With the ToneStyler here, you can select 10 different sounds.

The ToneStyler is simply a better tone pot, in my opinion. Unless you want to use it for smooth sound effects, I think it is superior in sound and control in every way to a traditional tone knob. But they have one additional property. They don’t simply turn like any other volume or tone pot. It requires a bit of effort on the part of the player to switch between the positions.

So I got to thinking. What if I just replaced the volume pot in a Strat with a ToneStyler. The end of the story is that this worked like a charm. The rotary switch does not change just by gentle accidental touches to the pot making my main Strat problem a thing of the past. Sure, if I hand my guitar to someone, they are weirded out by the fact that the volume pot is a switch, the middle pot (well, maybe I should not get into it in detail, but it is called a Dan Armstrong wiring – look it up if you are interested) and the last pot becomes the volume down where I am use to having my volume on the Tele, far-far away from everything I could accidentally hit. Except, now I can also have that Strat sound. (Have been listening to a lot of John Mayer this year and it is hard not to lust for that sound – but I know… I know… the sound is mostly in the hand, and that is true. But a good guitar, a good amp, a healthy dose of placebo effect and some optimistic imagination certainly helps as well.)

ToneStylers are ridiculously expensive for what they are. I have looked to pick up a few older models on sale or used ones. I have a good enough stash now (even for so many projects). And if not, I bought a handful of rotary switches and planning to make my own. (Many on the net described how they built their own ToneStyler clones.)

By the way, a 10 way switch is overkill. Even if you set one at bypass and one at tone all the way up, you would not need more than 4-5 additional sounds. My vote is for the 6 way switch. They do make 6 way switches as well, so that’s cool, though my Strat now has a very old model which was a 16 way switch. It is ridiculous, but it works.

The Productivity Trap

from PhDComics.com

There is a trap that is very easy to fall into in academia. You are constantly under pressure to do more. Deadlines are coming up, the work you have to get through is simply unmanageable. So you get stressed, easily distracted, mentally tired. I keep running for food (which especially sucks on a diet). Have way too much coffee with hopes to jump-start my brain. Even now I am writing this blog post instead of doing what I need to.

When this happens to me, I simply cannot get things done. Trivial tasks, as doing edits to a draft I have already marked up with paper (well, iPad) and pencil. This should be easy.

And the next thing I know, half the day is gone and I made a dozen edits that would normally take me 20 minutes with a fresh mind. Would it not have been better to just take the darn day off and get it all done in 20 minutes the next day with a fresh mind? Yeah, it would have.

Don’t be like me. Take time off! Recognize the trap and do not fall into it. If you do this right, it will make you more productive and you will get more done, on average.

Lets talk guitars (some are up for grabs if you are interested)

Something I have way too much of, with way too many projects coming up…  I should thin the existing the herd. (Let me know if you are interested.)

I didn’t have much off time in the past few weeks, but in the little I did have, I hit this project I have been wanting to deal with for months. I have this Peavey Reactor AX from the 90’s. (The more premium line of the Made in USA Peavey tele guitars. The last line of affordable electric guitars made in the US.) The more premium AX line came with blade pickups but one of the coils in the neck pickup was dead in mine. Had to do something with it. (That neck pickup was everything but useful anyway. I like the bridge pickup, but, lets face it, the only reason to put a blade pickup into a Tele is because you refuse to play anything but Teles and you need a different sound – this was not the case for me.)

So I dug through my drawers and found a few options. I had a re-wound American Standard pickup (I understand it was wound by Lindy Fralin for a more beefy tone. It has an awesome vintage white string coil cover.) I also had a hot ceramic Made in Mexico Fender Strat neck pickup. The neck pickup in this guitar was strat sized. I had several tele neck pickups lying around as well, but that would have required a new pickguard at minimum. So I needed a strat pickup for the neck.

(I also got a beat up Peavey Predator AX strat I got from someone in Alabama. Stereotypically, it came with a huge vinyl John 14:6 sticker on it along with that MIM Fender in the neck and three (3!!) Kent Armstrong HR1RAs that are completely rusted up due to what I assume to be the Alabama humidity and many hours of sweaty Christian rock.  I don’t know what I am gonna do with these Kent Armstrongs. They look like hell. Would be a great relic project but I am not a fan of these pickups, in general. I rewired this guitar with more classic strat pickups I got from Italian Boutique maker Alberto Arcangeli, aka Dreamsong Pickups, who is a super nice dude. I also had that strat refretted with vintage steel frets. It is my preferred Peavey of the two, I have to admit. I have a third one, but that is a whole different beast from the perspective of comparability – Floyd Rose, Humbuckers, EVH… great neck though.)

So I kept on digging in the drawer and found an unidentified (and unidentifiable – I have no clue where I got it) strat pickup with more vintage measurements. For the bridge, I also found the prototype Alberto made for my Baritone, a tele bridge pickup with a more vintage vibe. (In the end, this pickup was not very balanced in the baritone so he had to make one with staggered polpieces, which works perfectly now. But I had this left over.) Given the acoustic and tonal characteristics (and the looks) of this guitar, I figured the more vintage vibe, vs the more in your face set previously described should work better.

So I got to work. Lead on the strat pickup was ridiculous, but I was able to fit it with the pickup switch working backward. I only had to extend ground (which should be OK). The two pickups are RWRP as far as I can tell/hear, so that is cool too. I found a nice white cover for the neck pickup. You be the judge, but I think it looks a lot cooler than a black cover. (The original pickup was black and this one had a black cover too.) The result, this shitty neck pickup sounds great. Totally delivers that strat neck sound. The bridge is pure tele joy. The in between is somewhere in between the in between of a tele and a strat in tone. A very useable sound that can imitate the best of both worlds. I am super happy with the results.

I’ll play with it a bit more as its new set up is a lot of fun, but I already suspect that it is going to need a new home. The neck is a sporty, fast playing rock neck and I prefer a chunky, beefy vintage baseball bat. I will keep the strat (same neck) and probably set it up for versatility once this project I last wrote about is done. (For versatility, I am thinking Seymour Duncan Twangbanger in the bridge, said MIM start pickup in the middle with its own volume control as a subtle roll in for those country licks, and a Seymour Duncan Little ’59 in the neck.)

I have so many tele projects it is not even funny. I bought this body (left) a while back from the same dude I got this strat body from. And I should have also bought the one on the right too (as I love it and it was peanuts) but it was too close to linked strat body in style and color. It is sitting at my friend’s place in Nebraska. I need a neck and have my eyes on a few pieces.

I am also eyeing this beast only to make sure nobody can accuse me of being anti-second amendment. (I guess the shotgun shells here help as well.) But this would need a new neck as well. (Maybe I could find a nice sneakhead for this.) And that pickup (or pickup routing) would be hard to hide. It cannot stay as such. (Holes on the back, but not a string through set up. Shitty. Plus an Esquire should be… well… an Esquire) I would probably have to get a bridge like this below (as this is the only thing I found that is wide enough to cover a humbucker hole – that research was done for my Fender Baritone Blacktop conversion back into a real tele). On the baritone and I am super happy with this bridge, but stylistically I am not sure this is the right hardware for this ammo crate salvage body.

I guess I could make both of these Esquires, one with the Fralin rewind and the other with the Peavey Blades.  I still have another a tele set sitting around somewhere so I guess I would just have to stay on the look out for something tele and awesome. (And the baritone has a horribly heavy body too. I would not mind replacing.) I have a pickup set for a Brent Mason set up as well. (At least the vintage stack tele for the bridge and the hot stack strat for the middle. I also have a vintage stack neck tele but, honestly, I would not mind pairing it with a Don Mare Big Box either… I love that sound.) So plenty of tele projects in my future I feel. One thing I am sure about, one of these should be a bender. (Probably this Mason-Big Box one.)

Man, I saw an American Fender Strat (!!) with Glaser B and G (!!) benders for under a grand. I should have jumped on it immediately, but I was weirded out by the fact that it was a strat and not a tele. But hindsight, I totally could have worked it. See “versatile” set up above. But there is this German dude who makes B/G bender conversions and builds dual bender Teles. Last I asked, he was willing to make me one for under a grand without the pickups. (That was two years ago, and while I don’t know this guy’s work, it may be very good, he is definitely not Joe Glaser.) I do wonder if he could do a Tahiti Coral finish for me… hmmm…)

I also have this black Epiphone Dot. It was fun to play around with but I just can’t justify keeping it around since I purchased a similar style Duesenberg (hunted down a Japanese Limited Edition just for the color). I also have a pretty good 000C-16 Martin acoustic (with Fishman) that is not getting much lap time. (It is a very special line and time guitar not to be confused with the pile of garbage the 16 line became after 1995. Best value for money as far as Martins go.)

So if you are interested in the Peavey tele, Epi Dot or the Martin, make me an offer.

Books

As I signed my name to the third piece of paper recently (or was it the fourth), I am wondering, where is that person who swore they would never write a book. Now, with this signature, I have three book contracts, and even an edited volume forthcoming soon.

So lets talk about these a bit. It is good to take stock of what am I doing.

Hawkins K, Carlin R, Littvay L, Rovira Kaltwasser C (eds.) (forthcoming) The Ideational Approach to Populism: Concept, Theory, and Analysis Extremism and Democracy series at Routledge

I am very much looking forward to this one. A little over a year ago I wrote an opinion piece in Nature where I argued for the importance of systematic comparative analysis. This book is our (Team Populism‘s) first attempt at this and, while not perfect, I am pretty happy with the outcome.

Then there is the almost finished book with my former students, Bruno Castanho Silva and Constantin Manuel Bosancianu on Multilevel Structural Equation Modeling. There is no book dedicated to the subject, to date. There are a few good book chapters, but we wanted to do something more accessible to a less technical crowd (and since Bruno asked me if we could just write this equation in landscape, I am not sure we succeeded). We pitched the idea to SAGE’s Little Green Book series a while back and they liked it. We managed to workshop earlier draft chapters at the 2016 and 2017 ECPR Summer Schools in Methods and Techniques and in a few weeks we will do it again. Hopefully it will be a complete draft by then. This solely depends on my writing and editing superpowers. (Yeah, I should be writing that and not blog posts.)

(On a side note, how inept I am at up to date quantitative methods technology will become clear at the bottom of this post, but I am proud to see that my former students’ webpages are on github – a platform I very much need to learn how to use. (And they aren’t the only ones to have their pages on github.) Not having the time to learn everything I want to learn, I hope, is compensated somewhat by pushing my students down rabbit holes they need to tumble-down to get (well) ahead of where I am at. #FeelingOldUnder40. I know, I know, I am embarrassing…)

Riding on the success of this idea and after years of discussions on what we should collaborate on, Jochen Mayerl and I sat down after the 2016 ECPR Summer School and spent two days discussing (and pounding out) what a short introductory Structural Equation Modeling book would look like if we wrote one. Fortunately SAGE’s same series, that was visibly missing a modern SEM book from the 170+ book repertoire, sounded convinced. We spent some time a year later working out some of the details, but the work starts early next year and hopefully we will have a draft to pilot at the 2018 ECPR Summer School.

But even before that, Cambridge University Press approached Kirk Hawkins to write a short book for their new Elements series on how the 2016 US election (read: Donald Trump, but we think also Bernie Sanders) fits into the comparative world of populism. Americanists in the US can be quite detached from the world of comparative politics and it is clear that current events caught them (as much as everyone else) by surprise. Americanists want to look into Trump and populism, so instead of reinventing the wheel (or rather, further confusing an already massively muddled concept – there is a lot of that going on nowadays), maybe placing the US in a comparative context where populism has been studied for decades is not a bad idea. And the Elements series looks like a great medium to do this. This also gives some opportunities to show off systematic comparative research (which is still the exception in populism studies).

The irony of Kirk (the American) asking me (the Hungarian) to write a book with him on American politics (not his field, much more mine) should not escape anyone. Between the two of us, I think we have sufficient chops in systematic comparative research on the level of elites, masses, focus on Latin America, Europe and, of course, the US to do this right. This is going to be fun. I am very much looking forward to it. And it is going to be tough as deadlines are tight. They want the book by the end of January. (February might actually be doable. At least these things are short, which, in the case of the SEM book may be more a challenge than an asset, but…)

There is another reason I am looking forward to this. Recently, a medical researcher colleague asked me to help with some stats. I figured I will finally do this the right way. I have been teaching R and good coding practices for years to my students but I never internalized them myself. I figured I will do this right, for once. (I won’t open SPSS, etc.) It was so much fun. For most of my political science work I rarely get to open a stats package. I rarely open
R and not realize it is way outdated and I should upgrade. When I have to run something, it is usually in Mplus and I can usually get a collaborator to give me clean, Mplus ready data (or I am in a rush and do it in SPSS, thought it has been a while). Now I have a project where I can and will do everything myself and do it right. Looking forward to learning more about visualization in R. I did a workshop with Martin Molder but still never had to open ggplot2.

So I have three books to write before the start of my sabbatical (assuming the request goes through to leave next fall for a year). What will I do on my sabbatical? I guess I have ideas. CEU’s Comparative Populism Project will start to produce data. There are multiple other grant proposals, grant calls in the pipeline with the potential to keep me busy doing populism research (or, at least, scientific busy work with hopes of generating something useful – like data – for research). Maybe another book? Definitely articles. I do have a plan at the back of my head to write one more stats book, this one on experimental design for political and social scientists. We will see if that happens. I need to do a lot more research on what is out there before I commit to writing even a proposal for this.