Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Loneliest Liberal: Obsessions, magnificent and mundane

By James Knudsen

Genius is not without its drawbacks. I write this as an assumption, not a statement of fact based on firsthand experience. Having avoided the genius gene generally, I come to my informed conclusion based on the historical record. Whether the genius in question was a person of the sciences or of the arts, being blessed with a gifted mind always seems to entail a concurrent trait or circumstance that, all things being equal, one would just as soon avoid. Michelangleo, an unquestioned genius with the hammer, chisel, and paintbrush, was nonetheless an unapologetic slob who ate merely for the sustenance it provided. Ponder that for a moment. Michelangleo, sitting on the scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel with his assistant and not caring for a moment whether his Subway sandwich was accompanied by Doritos of the Nacho Cheese or Cool Ranch variety. A lengthy Wikipedia entry seems small compensation for such a shortcoming in the tastebuds.
    If nature doesn’t create hardship for the genius, society may be counted on to make his or her life unpleasant. Galileo, for his insights into our solar system, was thanked in 1633 by The Inquisition, which included the banning of his writings, requirements that he “abjure, curse, and detest” his opinions and be placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life – without cable or wi-fi, I might add.
    Michelangleo and Galileo labored in different fields and had to cope with different personal struggles, but they shared the trait of having a lifelong obsession that would change the world they lived in. In this regard I can claim empathy with the great minds of history – except that my obsessions are fleeting and annoying as opposed to lifelong and landmark. As a child I would pour over catalogs. I wasn’t picky – the Sears Christmas Wishbook was an early favorite – but I could devote hours to Montgomery Ward’s and J.C. Penney’s as well. Later came the Estes catalog of model rockets, the Atlanta Cutlery Company catalog of knives, and, with the arrival of adolescence, my drug of choice became catalogs detailing the many ways one could make an American V-8 engine produce more power.

Adulthood has brought the resources to move away from catalogs and obtain actual objects. My most recent object of interest is something we all use on a daily basis, but rarely consider: the microphone.
    Having reacquainted myself with photography, I began to consider using my DSLR as a video platform. Internet research quickly revealed that the onboard microphone of most still cameras is an inadequate compromise at best, so I began learning about microphones. The exact moment I became infatuated with microphones is unclear – the past several months have been a haze of post-war, dynamic, cardioid microphones.
    I just threw out a bit of jargon that needs explaining, so let’s get everyone up to speed. The first microphone was invented in the latter part of the 19th century. Thomas Edison received the patent, but most consider an Englishman, David Edward Hughes, the rightful inventor. The big breakthrough came in the 1920’s with the development of the “moving coil,” or dynamic microphone. These are essentially speakers working in reverse: a moving inductance coil, attached to a diaphragm, sits in a magnetic field and creates a varying current when sound, striking the diaphragm, causes it to move. Cardioid, from the Greek, kardiakos for heart, describes the pickup pattern of the microphone element. Simple, right?
    Today’s cell phones, cameras, and computers use electret condenser microphones, which can be made tiny in size and cost. Consider that an Electro-Voice 664, a popular dynamic microphone from the 1950’s, checks in at about 1-¾ pounds. A modern electret microphone doesn’t even register on a digital scale that detects mass down to an eighth of an ounce.
EV 664Modern electret mic
    It should come as no surprise that these 21st century marvels hold no interest for me. Like so many consumer goods, the microphones that continue to capture our imaginations, and our eBay dollars, are the ones from the second half of the 20th century. It may be their connection to certain iconic figures. The Shure 55 microphone is often referred to simply as, “The Elvis Microphone.” And then there’s the construction. As mentioned earlier, microphones were substantial devices at one time. In particular, the microphones built by Electro-Voice seem to have been designed to specifications from a Pentagon paper calling for resistance to nuclear attack and the ability to double as a truncheon.
    How this latest obsessive interest of mine will end is anyone’s guess, but at least microphones are easier to store than cars. I really should consider working with oil on canvas – those you can roll up.

Copyright © 2016 by James Knudsen

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for informing me on your latest obsession. Have fun working with them.