Bringing a new Harmony to our home theater

November 21, 2017

My purchase of a new OLED television and then a new AV receiver meant it was time to revisit the remote control situation at Meador Manor. And, as usual, that meant spending time and money on a new solution to an an old problem.

The old universal remote control

Logitech Harmony 880 Remote

In 2007  I purchased a $128 Logitech Harmony 880 Remote Control to operate my system. That universal programmable remote, with its programmable display keys, allowed me to just press one button to turn on the television and receiver, along with any other devices, set each to the appropriate inputs, and control the system. Thus it allowed me to avoid relying on five different remote controls, although I still needed a dedicated Voice Remote to use the Amazon Fire TV Stick, since it relied on radio rather than the infrared signals the Harmony 880 could produce. As I changed out devices over the past decade, I would hook the remote up to my old MacBook Air laptop to reprogram it, customizing various options and buttons. I had to replace its rechargeable battery pack once over the years.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

I painstakingly reprogrammed the Harmony 880 when I installed the new television and AV receiver. That meant hooking it via USB to my old MacBook Air, which has the outdated programming software on it, to change out devices and adjust activity settings. I also had to aim the new television remote at one end of the Harmony in order to teach it various command codes, since the old database for that remote no longer kept up with the latest components.

However, no matter how much tweaking I did, I could never get it to reliably power on the devices, set them to the appropriate inputs, and get the sound set the way I wanted. It kept getting one or more of the variables out of sync. The old remote could actually control each device, but it couldn’t reliably track system status and sequencing.

What next?

The new Harmony Companion with its hub

After spending a lot on the new television, receiver, and Apple TV 4K, I wasn’t in the mood to spend a fortune on a really fancy universal remote. But I also couldn’t merely rely on the LG Magic Remote that came with the television. While the HDMI-CEC connection gave it control of the receiver, it still could not control the Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, or Sony VCR.

I found that Logitech now offers, at the same $130 price point as my Harmony 880 in 2007, a two-piece Harmony Companion remote control system. It consists of a powered hub and a handheld unit which, unlike the old single-piece 880, doesn’t have a screen.

I decided that could be a worthwhile tradeoff since that means the Companion’s handheld unit can reportedly can run off its CR 2032 lithium cell for months, since it has no screen to power and only communicates with the plugged-in hub. That sounded nice, compared to having to remember to set the older and bulkier 880 remote into a charging station every week or so. And for some years I’ve had to jiggle and press it to get it to actually connect and charge. So I bought a $130 Companion remote system rather than dropping $300 to get the Harmony Elite, which sports a programmable screen on its handheld unit.

The separate hub plugs into AC power and sits in my cabinet on top of the Blu-Ray player. It blasts IR signals out into the room, which bounce off everything and reflect to control the television, receiver, Blu-Ray player, Apple TV 4K, and old VCR. The system includes a wired IR blaster you can also connect and place strategically if you need to place the hub itself in a closed cabinet.

Setup

The hub also handles WiFi and Bluetooth signals, so I was able to program the system wirelessly with a Harmony app on my iPad, rather than having to connect it via a USB cable to a computer like I had to do with the 880. The Harmony app is available for both iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.

It was simple to plug in the hub and use the iPad app to connect it to WiFi. Programming it to identify my devices was as simple as inputting the manufacturer and model of each one. However, I found that it could not control the old Sony SLV-N81 VCR except to power it on and off. I couldn’t complain too bitterly, since that VCR dates back to 2001. I used the iPad app to manually teach the system the basic commands by selecting a button on the Harmony remote to be programmed and then pressing the matching button on the VCR’s own remote while aiming it at the top of the hub, repeating the process for each command.

So now I had the new remote able to control the television, receiver, Apple TV, Blu-Ray player, and VCR. The next step was to add “activities” like I had with the old 880. You can have plenty of different activities and individual device control via the Harmony app, but the dedicated handheld unit can only support six activities. So I set up:

  • Watching a movie with the TV’s Amazon app
  • Using a different Smart TV app, such as YouTube
  • Watching broadcast television
  • Watching a disc in the Blu-Ray player
  • Using the Apple TV 4K
  • Watching a videotape in the VCR

Harmony 880 vs. the Harmony Companion

Three buttons on the remote trigger the specific activities via short and long presses. I do miss the ability to select a device for manual control while in the midst of an activity, something the 880 could do, but I’ll learn to grab my iPhone or iPad for that when needed. And I was happy to be able to install the Harmony app on Wendy’s iPad, since that will make controlling the system less cryptic for her with its labeled activities.

The Harmony app on an iPad

I was able to set up the various activities, and by adding a few delays and extra commands here and there I was able to get everything to work well. I was gratified to find I again had single-remote control over everything in the system, able to press a single button to begin or end various activities.

There are also six Smart Home buttons on the remote which are labeled for use with Philips Hue bulbs, programmable outlets, and the like. So I could theoretically put some of my Hue bulbs in the living room lamps and have them automatically adjust for various activities, or use a programmable outlet to control a lamp.

Our home automation consists of Amazon Echos in the kitchen, office, and bedroom, one Philips Hue bulb in the lamp on my nightstand, and an old wired programmable thermostat. Wendy has made it clear that she’s reached her limit on home automation, so I haven’t added any more Hue bulbs nor programmable outlets. Consequently, we have no use for the Harmony Companion’s Smart Home features.

The bottom line

If you want to control a system of devices from different manufacturers with a single remote control, the Logitech Harmony Companion will do the job if you also have access to a tablet or smartphone.

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Updating our AV receiver

November 21, 2017

My previous post documented the new OLED television I purchased in October 2017 for $1,600. Since the television is actually one component of a basic home theater system, before completing that purchase I thought about what additional hardware upgrades might be needed. First I considered how to get content onto the set.

  • Broadcast television: We don’t have cable TV, but our chimney-mounted antenna pulls in various HDTV broadcast stations from Tulsa. Of course these signals are only 1080p resolution at best, with no wider color gamut or high dynamic range.
  • Television apps: The set comes with its own YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, Google Play Movies & TV, Hulu, Sling, and LG Channel Plus apps. We already have subscriptions to the first two services.
  • Amazon streaming: The old TV required use of a 1st generation Amazon Fire TV stick and a Voice Remote, which we often used for renting or watching streaming movies via Amazon Prime. We could use it to access Amazon Music Unlimited, although we mostly employ Echo devices around Manor for the latter. The new set’s built-in Amazon video app, which I think will support UHD with HDR 10, rendered the old Fire TV stick  superfluous and didn’t require that we invest in a new Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD.
  • Apple streaming: We weren’t so lucky with the 4th generation Apple TV which Wendy and I use to share YouTube and website videos via Airplay to television, and on which we occasionally rent a movie from iTunes. It still worked fine, of course, but I spent $199 on a just-released Apple TV 4K with 64 GB of storage so that we can enjoy rented iTunes movies with Dolby Vision’s higher dynamic range and wider color gamut.
  • Google streaming: I have 1st and 2nd generation Chromecasts, but wound up never using them even though I pay for Google Play Music. That subscription is just a cheap way to get the ad-free YouTube Red service. Since the television has its own Google Play Movies & TV app and YouTube app, I won’t bother with a new Chromecast Ultra, especially since I can use Amazon or Apple for streaming movies.
  • Optical discWhen I sold off my collection of over 350 CDs back in 2010, I also sold off a few dozen DVDs. But I still have a collection of DVDs and Blu Ray discs, mostly music concerts and oddball television series one cannot reliably access via streaming services, along with favorite movies with added features like commentaries and documentaries not currently available via streaming services. So I considered purchasing a new UHD Blu-Ray player to replace my regular 2008 Sony BDP-S350 player, which cannot support higher dynamic range, wider color gamut, or 4K resolution. But the UHD Blu-Ray product category is immature and the disc options limited, so I’m waiting to see if anything comes along to make that upgrade worthwhile.

So I got off easy on input devices, only choosing to upgrade the Apple TV. The TV also had plenty of HDMI inputs and a great remote control, allowing me to make do with my 2003 Panasonic SA-HE100S audiovisual receiver. But, having upgraded the picture so greatly, I thought it was time to see what I could do to improve the sound without spending too much more.

The old receiver and surround sound speakers

The old Panasonic receiver

Back in 2003 my Panasonic SA-HE100S receiver cost me $300. So it predated the HDMI standard now most commonly used in home theater systems, instead relying on optical audio and RCA stereo inputs and outputs. It was old enough to sport presets for things no longer part of most home theaters, such as a compact disc (CD) player and multiple videocassettee recorders (VCR). However, I still have an old VCR in my system,  which I use on weekday mornings to play aerobic workout tapes I recorded in the mid 1990s.

Back in 2003 I hooked my then-new receiver up to a new $300 Onkyo SKS-HT500 home theater speaker system. The speakers are 5.1, meaning there are left, center, and right speakers along the monitor wall, left and right surround speakers, and a subwoofer that is so large it doubles as a lamp table. The surround speakers are not ideally placed; one sits several feet away on the mantle above your head when you watch a movie on the couch, and the other is on the floor right beside the other end of the couch.

I’m not interested in shifting them to unsightly locations that would provide better sound, and I simply don’t care about overhead sound from Dolby Atmos and similar systems. My old receiver had no automatic calibration to balance the surround speakers nor equalize them for optimum sound. So the few available speaker settings were just manually adjusted back in 2003 and never adjusted again, except for my occasionally tweaking the gain on the subwoofer.

The Onkyo speaker system, unchanged from 2003

 

Making do for awhile

My old receiver actually still worked okay with the new television, despite its antiquated inputs and controls. I initially used the television as the HDMI hub and sent its output audio to the receiver via a digital optical cable.

I did notice that the playback sound for my Apple TV was not in sync with the picture. I had to modify the “AV Sync Adjustment” setting in the Sound menu of the television, by trial and error, to adjust the audio timing to restore synchronization.

However, I noticed that my old receiver was sometimes playing in stereo when I expected it to use its Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS-ES surround sound. And even after reprogramming, my Logitech Harmony 880 universal remote was having trouble getting the television and receiver to both sync up to the correct settings and inputs. Those issues and a passing comment from Wendy on how the receiver seemed dated were enough to prompt to go shopping for a new one.

The new receiver

Given that I wasn’t going to spend the money to replace my basic surround sound speakers, I saw no reason to break the bank on the new receiver. But I did want something that would be fairly easy to use, could serve as the HDMI hub for the Apple TV and Blu-Ray player, supposedly supported pass-through of high dynamic range and wider color gamuts, and could automatically calibrate my surround sound speakers.

After considering the various online reviews and recommendations from CNET and other trusted sites, I opted for a Sony STR-DN 1080 receiver, which cost me $598. I’m chagrined to note that Black Friday sales have currently brought it down to $400. Ouch!

My new receiver is a Sony STR-DN1080

The new receiver sports a minimalist appearance, helping it fade away in the cabinet below the television. Unfortunately, the old silver Sony VCR in there still stands out.

A tangled mess

When the new receiver arrived, I pulled the television cabinet away from the wall, exposing my WiFi router, which was perched atop a tangle of wiring. I actually had fun untangling things and discovering that I was able to eliminate quite a few outmoded cables.

Cables for the long-missing TiVo were removed, and I replaced various older and longer HDMI cables with some short ones I bought which were definitely HDMI 2.0-compliant. Both the television and the receiver had one HDMI port with ARC, which standards for Audio Return Channel. This lets you connect the two with a single HDMI cable and pass sound either way, from the TV to the receiver or vice versa. More importantly, this port supports HDMI-CEC or Consumer Electronics Control, where one device can control the power, volume, and the like of the other.

The wiring of the old receiver

Making our lives more interesting, each manufacturer has its own brand name for HDMI-CEC; LG calls it SimpLink. So I made sure I set the television to “Audio Out (Optical/HDMI ARC)” and navigated its settings menus to enable LG SimpLink. Then I made sure I enabled “HDMI Control” in the receiver. That let me retire all of the digital optical cables plugged into the old receiver.

Pin connectors vs. binding posts

My old surround speakers terminated in stripped speaker wires hooked into pin connectors and some binding posts. I wish I could have instead just used banana plugs to connect the speakers, as that is so much easier and the new receiver had a full set of 5-way binding posts. But I wasn’t about to try and solder banana plugs onto the old wires. Instead I just suffered and painstakingly threaded 14 different wires into various posts, being careful to heed the old labels I had attached to each one 14 years ago to track the + and – terminals on each of the five surround speakers and the two remote speakers in the office. I needed the signals to go to the correct speakers and avoid phasing problems.

Subwoofers, for whatever reason, still use RCA-style connectors, so that was the one speaker that was easy to switch to the new receiver. If you are ever puzzled by the myriad connector types (there are over a dozen different ones on my two receivers), Crutchfield has a nice illustrated guide to them.

Comparing the connections on my new receiver (top) and the old one (bottom)

The new receiver supports up to seven speakers and two subwoofers in various configurations. I’m using a 5.1-2 setup of five surround speakers, a subwoofer, and two remote speakers. But I could give up on the remote speakers and reconfigure those channels for a) two upward-firing Dolby Atmos speakers which would bounce sound off the ceiling, b) two ceiling-mounted speakers, or c) back left and right surround speakers. However, I’m unlikely to ever upgrade the speaker system for any of those options or a second subwoofer.

I hooked in the radio antenna, but I did not bother to hook my old VCR in. There is a 75-ohm coaxial cable going from it to a switchbox that can connect it or the outdoor antenna to the television. I don’t listen to my old aerobics videotapes during my workouts, instead listening to podcasts on Bluetooth headphones connected to my iPad. But if I ever want to listen to a tape, the television can send the audio signal to the receiver for me through the HDMI-ARC cable. The Apple TV 4K and Blu Ray player hooked into the receiver with HDMI, leaving many HDMI ports free on both the receiver and the television for any future devices.

The little calibration microphone

I plugged in the little calibration microphone in the front of the receiver and held it where we sit to watch movies while the system ran a calibration. It didn’t take long, creating a variety of odd sounds to decide how to adjust each surround speaker and the subwoofer. Everything sounds fine to my ears, which are anything but golden.

I completed most of the setup on the receiver, confirming it could playback sound from the various devices and switch video as needed. Both it and the television can pair to Bluetooth headphones, so I can avoid annoying Wendy, whose hearing is far more sensitive than mine.

The receiver also has WiFi, so when either of us turns on AirPlay with our iPads or iPhones, the TV and receiver turn on and tune that in automatically, which seems a tad creepy but is convenient.

After installing the receiver, I did a firmware update that reportedly added Dolby Vision HDR passthrough, something my Apple TV 4K would require. I installed HDMI 2.0-compliant cables and ran the Dolby Vision HDR setup on the Apple TV 4K, but it failed. Tweaking settings on the receiver did not help. So I unhooked the Apple TV 4K from the receiver and plugged it directly into a spare HDMI port on the television. That got Dolby Vision to work. So the only device I’m currently feeding through the receiver to reach the television is the Blu-Ray player.

The bottom line

The new receiver under the new television and atop the old VCR

Everything now seems to be working fine. Upgrading the receiver was another expensive hassle, but now the speakers are supposedly calibrated, and the television and receiver work in perfect harmony in controlling each other.

Speaking of harmony, since 2007 I had used a Logitech Harmony 880 universal remote with my home theater. As various devices came and went, I was able to reprogram it with my old MacBook Air to operate almost everything with one remote, although I still had to use a Voice Remote for the old Amazon Fire TV stick. The new LG television solved that issue, and its Magic Remote is fun to use, but is unable to control the Apple TV 4K or the Blu Ray player, let alone the old Sony VCR. Long tweaking sessions could never get the old Harmony 880 remote to properly set up the inputs and muting on the newer devices for different sources.

So in my next post I’ll detail my experience in replacing the Harmony 880 with a new Harmony Companion universal remote.

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Oh, LED!

November 19, 2017

The Black Friday 2017 shopping season is almost here, and if you’re thinking about a new television, there’s one I can recommend based on recent experience. I splurged on a 55″ LG OLED television last month, which I was able to get at Black Friday-level pricing.

I should note that I can’t boast that Meador Manor has a true home theater. Unlike some rich folks, we don’t have an elaborate home theater room with a big expensive screen, projector, surround sound, fancy seats, or lighting. We just have an entry-level surround sound system in our living room, hooked up to a television that sits on a stand. We mostly stream movies from Amazon or iTunes, share YouTube videos via Airplay, and have a regular Blu-Ray player. But, nonetheless, our new television is pretty impressive.

Currently you can buy the same television for “only” $1,500, but if you’re like me, you need some good reasons to plunk down that sort of cash! So I’ll outline for you what I had before, why I chose this unit, my initial impressions, and the additional forthcoming upgrades it has prompted.

What to look for in a new television

My 40″ Sony LCD TV

In 2010 I upgraded from a 30″ HDTV cathode ray tube television television to a 40″ Sony KDL-40HX701 LCD television that cost $800. I’ve been very happy with that television, but it is considered small by today’s home theater standards, and it can’t support the higher resolution, higher dynamic range, and wider color gamut that have become available for some movies in recent years.

Mind you, Wendy and I rely on our iPads for most of our video watching, only turning on the big system to share a movie or a video clip with each other and for my weekday morning workouts to old aerobics videotapes. Meador Manor has not had cable TV service since 2008, when I switched to internet-only service. While I do have an antenna I mounted on the chimney back in 1995, and it pulls in many HDTV broadcast channels from Tulsa, we almost never tune those in.

So why in the world did I just spring for a new television that cost me $1,600, and is still $1,500 at Black Friday prices? As usual these days, the answers are acronyms: HDR and OLED and DCI P3; but I didn’t buy it for its other major abbreviation: 4K UHD. Below I’ll make some sense of this blizzard of acronyms and their meanings for my older Sony Bravia KDLHX701 and the new LG OLED55B7A television.


Display type (important): LCD vs. OLED

Old Sony set: Its pixels work by having placing a thin-film-transistor liquid-crystal display (LCD) in front of a cold cathode fluorescent lamp. So it creates darker areas, including its attempt to display black, when its liquid crystals are energized and untwist, so that far less light passes through two perpendicular polarizing layers. The color is provided with red, green, and blue filters. Some light always leaks through, so “black” on these sets is a dark gray, limiting its contrast.

oled-and-lcd

New LG set: Its pixels are organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) which directly emit light when energized in what is called electroluminescence. The different colors come from organic compounds in the diodes that produce yellow (i.e. red and green) light or blue light. Color filters allow these to be manipulated to produce red, green, blue, or white light. Since each pixel is self-illuminated, when one is turned off you get a true black with incredible contrast. This creates a much more pleasing image, even though OLEDs cannot reach the highest brightness levels some LCD sets can produce. My new set reaches 1,000 nits of brightness in its highlights, which is quite good.


Dynamic range (important): SDR vs. HDR

Old Sony set: Its backlit LCD produces standard dynamic range (SDR) images, meaning it has a typical brightest-to-darkest ratio for its pixels.

aja-sdr-hdr-chart.jpg

New LG set: Its OLED technology gives it high dynamic range (HDR), so there is a greater difference between its brightest and darkest pixels. It supports both the HDR10 Media Profile and Dolby Vision HDR standards, which are the two most common standards for transmitting high dynamic range information in a video signal. Supporting both standards allows me to not worry about that latest format war.


Color gamut (important): Rec. 709 vs. DCI P3

Color gamut refers to the range of colors a set can produce. Older HD televisions like my Sony set provide the range of colors in the Rec. 709 standard, but newer sets can offer a broader range of colors, which is also called a “wider color gamut”. My new set covers 99% of the larger DCI P3 color space standard for digital movie projection, so that’s good enough. Someday we’ll have sets that cover the even larger “Rec 2020” color space, but there’s no telling when that will be.

17662543dab6fdc0b7


Resolution (unimportant): 1080p HD vs. 4K UHD

Old Sony set: Its 40″ diagonal screen has 1920 x 1080 pixels, which is the top resolution of standard high-definition (HD) television.  As for how it builds up each image and how often that is refreshed, it can show typical high-definition videos with 1080 progressive scan lines with 24 frames per second for most movies (actually displayed at 60 frames per second via a duplication process called 3:2 pull-down) or 60 progressive frames per second for videos, while also supporting the lower-level HD resolution of 720 progressive scan lines and the old-style NTSC television signal’s 480 scan lines which interlaces half of them at 60 frames per second for an effective 30 full frames per second.

UHD-4K-HD-SD-resolution-comparison.png

New LG set: Its 55″ diagonal screen has 3840 x 2160 pixels and can show ultra-high-definition videos with 2160 progressive scan lines. It scales up the older lower-resolution standards as needed.

Whereas switching from standard definition to high definition was important for a sharper picture, this change is NOT.  At a normal viewing distance from any reasonably sized television, our eyes simply cannot perceive the increased resolution. At Meador Manor, we sit eight feet from the screen. So we would have to upgrade to a screen size of 80″ or more to actually perceive a difference between HDTV’s 1080p and UHD’s “4K” resolution of 2160p.

Screen size and viewing distances

So you really shouldn’t buy a television just for 4K resolution and certainly should not ever waste money on an expensive 8K set. Cameras are the same way, where the number of megapixels is now generally so high you don’t need to worry about it. Computers went through this sort of shift long ago: we used to be able to tell a computer would be faster because it had a higher clock frequency (various megahertz and then gigahertz numbers), but that has stalled out and now you have to think about how many cores are in a chip and how a solid state drive is the key to fast performance.

The bottom line? If you already have a large LCD HDTV, don’t upgrade unless you get a set that supports HDR and wider color gamuts, and you should shift from LCD to OLED technology to really get a visual bang-for-your-buck.

The initial experience with our new 55″ LG OLED TV

The big new OLED TV arrived a couple of weeks ago. I knew it would be incredibly thin, except for the lower portion with the electronics, but it was still startling to compare it to the older LCD television. However, since we don’t mount our TV on the wall, the thinness is not a feature we really care about, while the reduced weight was certainly nice for moving it about.

Hooking up the system components was easy, even though my old audio receiver lacked HDMI ports, since I could use optical audio out from the TV to the receiver and the TV itself had plenty of HDMI ports for the Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, and more. It has built-in support for Amazon Prime video, so I didn’t need to plug in my older Amazon Fire TV Stick, and I replaced my 4th-gen Apple TV box with a new Apple TV 4K box for $199 to ensure any iTunes movies we rented would be the best available.

My new 55″ LG OLED TV

Example images from various sources

To try and illustrate the imagery the set can provide, I set a tripod on the couch with my Canon EOS Rebel T6 digital SLR camera and used a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens to take some shots during the day with daylight streaming in from open blinds on the left side of the view. The TV actually looks better in person than it does in the shots, since the camera picks up pixellation that is not perceived by the human eye when actually viewing the set, and its own sensor interacts with the incoming light differently from human vision.

My first views were of 4K HDR screensaver videos on the Apple TV 4K, which were stunning for both Wendy and me. The extra resolution doesn’t matter for watching something from the couch, but 4K is so high-res you can get within a couple of feet from the screen and not see any pixels. The high dynamic range and wide color gamut of the OLED set means it finally lives up to the hype about seeming like a window looking out on the world, given the limitations of the human eye.

Apple TV 4K Screensaver

You can try viewing one of the Apple TV 4K screensavers on a computer monitor using YouTube, but you have to be sure to click the settings gear icon at lower right, pick Quality, and select the 2160p 4K version, and of course the monitor or device you watch it on may not actually reach 4K resolution. Notably, the YouTube versions do NOT support high dynamic range.

I loaded up a preview of The Martian on the Apple TV 4K, which claimed to be streaming in both 4K and with HDR. I tried to capture a shot showing how HDR allows for very bright and very dark imagery in the same shot, without blowing out all of the highlights or losing the shadow details. Note that this is an effects shot, so it was NOT actually rendered in 4K resolution.

iTunes preview of The Martian in 4K HDR

Amazon video is built-in to this LG television, so I got a shot from the 4K preview of Wonder Woman from that. However, the video and effects in that film were not true 4K. Again, the banding you’ll see in the shot below is not perceivable when you view it in person.

Amazon Wonder Woman preview in 4K

The TV upscales lower-resolution signals, so I connected the chimney-mounted antenna I erected back in 1995 and pulled in a 1080p HDTV broadcast from a Tulsa station. It looked great.

Over-the-air HDTV broadcast

So what about a simply terrible legacy video source? The unit has to deal with that each weekday morning when I play back an episode of Everyday Workout from one of my quarter-century-old videotapes. From 1993 to 1997 I recorded episodes off the Lifetime cable channel onto VHS tapes, cramming 10 or more episodes onto each tape by using the low-quality EP/SLP mode that recorded six hours of video per tape.

Inputs on the new TV

At first I tried the weird combination dongle that came with the TV to connect my VCR’s composite video cable and RCA stereo audio cables into a single yellow port on the back of the TV. The sound worked, but the video would not show up, no matter what settings I adjusted.

So I gave up and ran a 75-ohm coaxial cable from the VCR’s output into the matching Antenna/Cable In port on the television. That worked great, but I also needed to connect the outside aerial to that same TV input, since my old VCR can’t understand modern broadcast HDTV signals. Using a cheap splitter in reverse to connect both sources into the television yielded a picture, but with terrific interference. A cheap hardware coax A/B isolation switch solved that problem, with me punching one button to connect to the VCR and another to connect to the antenna.

1993 VHS EP/SLP recording playback

As one would expect, the image from the old videotape was extremely soft. After all, when upscaling a VHS tape, the TV is taking an input with an effective resolution of 333 x 480 pixels at best and scaling that up to 3840 x 2160 pixels. In this case things were even worse since the source tape was recorded in the worst-quality mode. So I was impressed by how well the TV plays back marginal legacy sources, and my morning workout videos look better than ever.

Actually using the thing

The webOS 3.5 Smart TV software for selecting content and services is pretty handy and easy to use with the included Magic Remote. The remote is gyroscopic, so you just wave it around to move the cursor, and it supports voice commands. You select sources, from Live TV to a connected device to online streaming services, by pressing a button and picking a blade icon from a scrolling set at the bottom of the screen. There is a promotional video that illustrates the interface.

LG Magic Remote

The remote offers only partial control of the audio receiver and doesn’t control the Blu-Ray player or Apple TV, so if you have a surround sound receiver and other devices, you will either need to use multiple remotes or try using an expensive universal and programmable Harmony remote from Logitech or the like; more on that later.

A button on the remote lets you quickly navigate commonly used settings with the cursor, and of course you can also dive into the setup menus to burrow deeply into various obscure settings. I had to do that to deal with a picture and sound synchronization issue with the Apple TV 4K. My old audio receiver is needed for surround sound, but it lacks any HDMI ports. So I had to feed the Apple TV’s HDMI output to the TV and then send the audio from the TV to the receiver via digital optical cable. That pathway delayed the audio output, so I had to manually adjust a delay setting in the TV menu system, using trial-and-error, to get the picture and sound to synchronize. I was certainly glad the set included the ability to fix this sort of problem.

Our first movie on the new television

The first movie Wendy and I watched on the new television was not a modern 4K HDR movie. Instead, we continued to draw from long lists of movies each of us has compiled, alternating between each others’ lists for our movie nights. This time it was time to pull something from my list. Her list had yielded The Hurt Locker last time, which was pretty violent and intense. So I retaliated by picking the violent but very dated and oddly paced Rollerball, a 1975 Norman Jewison science fiction dystopia that fascinated me in my youth. It certainly wasn’t in 4K or HDR or the like, but I was still surprised on how good it looked on the new television.

We streamed a HD version from iTunes that probably originated from the movie’s Blu-Ray reissue. The picture was so sharp and clear that it looked more like what I associate with television soap operas than the grainy and fuzzy film transfer I recalled from watching it on old broadcast TV and on VHS or DVD. I was startled to see for the first time the wood grain on the ramps in the arena, and the closeups of the garish eye make-up on the females in the movie were disturbingly clear.

1975’s Rollerball

Given my experience with old sources, I’m confident that new movies shot in HDR and wide color gamut will be truly stunning on this set, while 4K resolution won’t really matter much when you sit back to watch, but it is there if you want to get ridiculously close.

Additional upgrades to come

My 2007 Logitech Harmony 880 Remote is outdated

If I tried to use all of the remotes for the various devices in our system, I’d have five of them splayed out on the side table. But since 2007 I’ve used a Logitech Harmony 880 programmable remote control to simplify things. With my old system, I could control almost everything, except the Amazon Fire TV Stick, with the Harmony remote. One button would turn on the television, receiver, and any other needed device and set both the television and the receiver to the appropriate inputs.

Faced with the new television having to serve as the HDMI hub, I pulled out my old MacBook Air laptop and legacy Harmony software to adjust the programming on the Harmony remote, which was updated by plugging it into the laptop with a USB cable. A lot of tweaking got most things to function, but there are still glitches with the audio source and muting when switching functions.

My 2003 Panasonic audio receiver is also outdated

That and the lack of HDMI support in my old audio receiver prompted me to order a newer Harmony Companion remote control and a new Sony audio receiver. I’ll set those up and then report on them in a later post.

The bottom line

If you already have a big LCD HDTV, upgrading to an OLED television like this with HDR and a wider color gamut might be worthwhile, but don’t waste your money on a 4K LCD television that lacks those extra features. And, as always, be aware that upgrading one component in a system of devices may lead you to upgrade additional ones as well.

That’s it for now; I have a new receiver and universal remote to unpack and set up!

Posted in HDTV, movie, technology | Leave a comment

Exploring Oxley Nature Center and its History

October 29,2017

This autumn has been unusually warm, so the fall colors are coming very late, and Wendy and I have not been on the trails as much as we had hoped. We walked the Lookout Lake loop at Osage Hills some weeks back, then the short loop at the north end of Table Mound up at Elk City Lake. This weekend we made some loops at the Mary K. Oxley Nature Center in Tulsa, winding our way along 2.6 miles of the many short trails in the north central part of Tulsa’s 2,832 acre Mohawk Park.

I had fun trying out the new online version of Google Earth that works in the Google Chrome browser. Here’s a spinning 3D view of our trek you can view in Google Chrome.

My acquaintance with the Oxley Nature Center began years ago, when my friend Carrie Fleharty took me to its Redbud Valley area, located five miles to the east of Mohawk Park. The Tulsa Audubon Society has a nice online history of it. In 2009, I took my first walk at the main area of the Oxley Nature Center in Mohawk Park, and over the years I have walked most, but not all, of the many little trail segments at the main area in Mohawk Park and the nearby North Woods area.

My walks in the main area at Oxley Nature Center

The trail segments live up to their billing. On this visit, Wendy spotted the Blue Heron Trail Loop on the map and wanted to backtrack a ways to take it, in hopes of seeing one. We had gotten very close to one in Tulsa’s Centennial Park back in September.

Blue Heron in Tulsa’s Centennial Park

Sure enough, we saw two herons as we walked along Lake Sherry on the Blue Heron Trail. One was close enough for a telephoto 20x zoom shot or two.

Blue Heron on Lake Sherry

We saw plenty of squirrels and birds along our walk, and a possum crossed our path along the Flowline Trail. Two groups of deer flanked us on the Flowline Trail as we reached the Whitetail Trail. It was a nice outing, marred only by the steady booms from the Tulsa Gun Club a mile to the east. I see the club is closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, something to bear in mind for more peaceful walks, although there will still be the occasional roar of jets taking off from the nearby airport. The airport noise is what eventually drove the Nature Center’s namesake, Mary K. Oxley, and her husband to leave their nearby property and move to Florida.

Amy Marcoux, Oxley Nature Center Naturalist

Thinking of Lake Sherry and Bob’s Trail and the rest, I began to wonder who they were named after. A little online research led me to a series of articles that Amy Marcoux, the center’s naturalist, wrote a decade ago in the park newsletter, which was only recently discontinued. Thankfully the Audobon Society has an online archive I could peruse.

The March/April 2006 newsletter told the history of Redbud Valley Nature Preserve.  It was the first Nature Conservancy project in the state, with the group purchasing the land for $80,000 in 1969 on the condition that the debt be paid off with locally raised funds. By March 1973 the debt was repaid, in part due to a lengthy campaign by the Tulsa Tribune newspaper. Oxley Nature Center took over management in 1990, and in 1992 the City of Tulsa purchased additional acreage. It is a hidden treasure well worth your time. Here’s May 2012 album of my visit there with Betty Henderson, and here’s a November 2013 album of a visit with Wendy.

But now let’s take a look at the history of Mohawk Park and the Nature Center itself.

The Town of Mohawk

The newsletters from May 2006 through February 2007 provided background on the early history of the park, and I edited those into a single Mohawk Park Early History file. It revealed that there was a town called Mohawk that began north of Bird Creek in May 1906 to serve the Halsell ranch.

W.E. Halsell

William Eclectious Halsell, a young Texan married to a Texas girl of Cherokee descent, came to the area in 1880 and established his right, as an intermarried Cherokee, to use the Cherokee range. He was a mover and shaker over in Vinita and went on to operate the largest ranch in the Tulsa area, extending from the Creek line north almost to Bartlesville and from the Osage line almost to the Verdigris. His Mashed O brand was known throughout the southwest. He sold the Bird Creek Ranch to his son, Ewing, in 1899. The town of Mohawk had a post office from 1906 to 1915, but then was no more. A feedlot was established on the ranch land north of the creek in the 1930s, and the ranch operated until 1970.

Park Origins

In 1920 Tulsa built Spavinaw Lake, 60 miles northeast of the city, with a pipeline carrying the water to the Mohawk pumping station. The park land was originally acquired between 1922 and 1928 to accommodate a 500 acre reservoir, which is now Lake Yahola. The Bird Creek bottoms was considered a swamp. When Will Doolittle, who was the first parks department superintendent, first saw Mohawk Park in 1926, it was under three feet of water.

The park originally just sported the reservoir and a polo field, but the Tulsa Gun Club was established in 1926 and the city officially acquired all of the area land in 1927 for less than $300,000. A bond issue provided park equipment and started development of what is now the Tulsa Zoo. My father remembers going to Mohawk Park Zoo about 85 years ago when he was a young boy living in Dewey.

Overflow water from the Mohawk Reservoir was diverted to Flat Rock Creek, Coal Creek, and other low water areas. Outlets into Bird Creek were dammed at the north end, creating 10 miles of lagoons, and a two-mile levee along Bird Creek was built at the park’s northwest boundary.

The Fish Hatchery

The park became a game refuge, with stocking of bass, crappie, and perch in the lagoons. In 1931 the water department built 12 ponds that evolved into a fish hatchery, with 14 more ponds built in 1933 by the FERA and CWA depression-era programs in association with highway construction. 14 more ponds were added in 1934-35, bringing the hatchery area to 10 acres. By 1935 the system reached 33 acres, raising half a million bass, crappie, bream, and sunfish fingerlings each year. The hatchery operated until the late 1950s, but serious flooding from Bird Creek and other problems led to its demise.

Today, the Blue Heron Trail circumnavigates one of the old fish hatchery ponds, and the Woodpecker Trail goes through the old hatchery area. Concrete drain boxes from the old hatchery are still visible today, with rubble from drain boxes, culture pools, and walkways still visible near the present day Teaching Shelter.

Mohawk park in the 1930s also sported a seven mile bridle trail and two polo fields. The Riding and Hunt Club counted Tulsa’s Waite Phillips, William G. Skelly, T.K. Simmons, C.W. Flint, and others among its members. The park also became the home of Mohawk Golf Course in 1934, which was originally 18 holes and later doubled to 36. In 1934 a 70-acre Bird and Wildflower sanctuary was established in what is now the 804-acre Oxley Nature Center.

Mohawk Park in 2017

CCC Projects

CCC Lake

The largest urban CCC project in Oklahoma began in October 1934 at Mohawk Park, with about 200 men living in the camp and others walking to work. They dug out by hand a large drainage area to form the 70-acre Recreation Lake, now called Lake Sherry in honor of Dick Sherry, who helped found the Oxley Nature Center. Two reinforced concrete footbridges were built across Coal Creek; one remains at the south boundary of the Oxley area. By the time the camp disbanded in October 1937, they had also built shelters, tables, and other structures and cleared bike, bridle, and nature trails.

CCC Canoe House

Oxley Nature Center’s Origins

Philip Nelson presented a plan for a nature center to the city parks department in 1972, and part of a 1972 bond issue was allocated for it. But Nelson moved away, and the project went dormant.

In 1974 the Tulsa Audubon Society and its president, Dick Sherry, worked to get the nature center idea off the ground. But it lacked sufficient and available funding from the bond issue, so the non-profit Mohawk Nature Center Development, Inc. was established in 1975 to raise funds for a master plan created by the National Audubon Society. The group then raised funds for a shelter, trail system, and more.

John T. Oxley

John Thurman Oxley and his wife, Mary, contributed $200,000 in 1977. John was born in Bromide, OK in 1909.  As a young man, John had a second job in a photography studio owned by Mary K. Yetter’s father. John and Mary dated, often renting horses at Mohawk Park to ride the Roosevelt Bridle Trail. They married in 1935. John eventually graduated from the law school at the University of Tulsa and began a long career in the oil industry. He and Mary later lived at 36th Street North and Memorial with several barns and corrals for their many horses. He became a polo enthusiast, playing at the fields in Mohawk Park. He was the playing captain of eight national teams and led the first American team to win England’s Gold Cup.

Bob Jennings at Redbud Valley in 1981

With the Oxley donation, the improvements began, and the Tulsa Junior League offered to start a volunteer program. Robert G. Jennings was hired as the park’s first naturalist in 1977 and directed the center for 25 years. Bob’s Trail and B.J.’s pond by the visitor center are named for him. But in his first years there, the center still lacked a visitor building.

In 1979 the Mabee Foundation offered a challenge grant. That, with another major gift from John and Mary Oxley, funded the construction of the Oxley-Yetter Interpretive Building. It opened in 1981 with a classroom, wildlife viewing area, hands-on exhibits, restrooms, drinking fountain, gift shop, offices, and work areas. As each part of the project was finished, the non-profit turned it over to the City of Tulsa.  Once the physical improvements were in place, the Mohawk Nature Development Inc. changed into the Mary K. Oxley Nature Center Association, Inc.

Bob Jennings at his retirement party

In 1992 the Nora Warren Memorial Bridge across Coal Creek was built by the Friends of Oxley group to provide easier access to Blackbird Marsh, which has a 600 foot boardwalk. An observation tower between the marsh and Lake Sherry was built by the Friends of Oxley in 2001.

Bob Jennings retired as the center’s director in 2002, receiving a tree section at his retirement party called “Bob’s Stump” in recognition of the “From the Stump” column he wrote in the center’s newsletter. He passed away in 2004. The Interpretative Building was remodeled in 2007 and 2008.

I’m grateful to all of these people, and many more, who created the Oxley Nature Center in Mohawk Park. It, along with Redbud Valley and the North Woods unit, are wonderful oases in north Tulsa.

Posted in day hike, photos, travel | Leave a comment

My 10th came 8 years after my 9th

September 9, 2017

I’ve finally replacing the 2009 desktop computer in my home office, which was my 9th home computer system since 1980. The old thing still has plenty of life in it, but it can’t run Windows 10, and I’m ready to move on. I had extended the life of my old system by replacing its spinning hard drives with speedy solid state drives. But my old system is not compatible with Windows 10: I tried dual-booting with that new operating system years ago when Microsoft was giving it away for free, but my system always freezes up a few minutes into using it. I presume some driver in the system is not compatible with my old hardware.

A 150 year-old system?

2009: Velocity Micro Vector Z35

Eight years is a long time for a computer nerd to keep a system. Some claim that would make my home desktop equivalent to a 150-year-old person. But I figure the solid state drives were like giving a granny bionic limbs; they kept her going quite well!

With that boost in 2014, the Velocity Micro Z35 I bought in 2009 has lasted longer than any of my other nine desktops since I began using computers 37 years ago. The previous record holder was a 1993 machine by Gateway 2000, which held out until 2000…naturally! I have often bought higher-end desktop machines so they would last longer, and back in 2009 I invested about $1,800 in what was then a high-end system.

A $225 Chromebook versus a $2,600 Surface Book

My portable options

I recently spent $2,600 of my own money on a top-of-the-line Microsoft Surface Book, thinking I would want that for work. But I’ve found that I can happily use my district-supplied $225 Chromebook at meetings and for presentations. I simply don’t use the pen or touchscreen of the far more powerful Surface Book, love how easy it is to carry around the small Chromebook, and prefer to use multi-monitor desktop systems in my work offices. So I considered using my additional $150 purchase of a Surface Dock and video adapters to hook my Surface Book to the desktop monitors and keyboard in my home office instead of buying a new desktop CPU. But I decided to keep the Surface Book ready at hand at work, trusting that it will eventually prove useful when I’m working away from the office. At home my mobile needs are fully met by my iPad Air 2, which has even superceded my sixth Kindle, a Voyage, as my e-reader of choice.

Costly or cheap? CHEAP!

My new Dell XPS 8910

My tremendous overinvestment in the Surface Back left me in no mood to buy a top-end home desktop computer. So my new system is a fairly cheap one that is a generation behind the current leading edge: I took advantage of an online deal to get a Dell XPS 8910 for only $600.

It has a decent microprocessor, plenty of RAM (although I’m still going to double it to 16 GB), and a decent but not spiffy graphics card; I’m not a gamer. I’ll scavenge my existing solid state and optical drives to replace its spinning hard drive, but I am going to build up from a clone of its fresh install of Windows 10 Pro. A detailed comparison of my old and new desktops is at the end of this post for my fellow nerds.

Moving from Windows 7 to 10

I was prompted to finally switch because I’m now using Windows 10 at work. Almost all of the school district’s computers still run Windows 7. With Microsoft ending security updates for Windows 7 in 2020, any new machines we buy really need to be Windows 10. Like corporations, schools are loathe to update operating systems since that inevitably incurs additional training and support needs, plus there may not be updated drivers for our many old peripherals.

So I decided to be a guinea pig and move to Windows 10 in my work office, noting the incompatibilities I encountered. The good news is that I’ve seen no problems with any of our usual services and have found that, with perseverance, I can print to various older devices around the building…no thanks to the simplified (meaning dumbed-down) printer setup in Windows 10. I actually hedged my bet by having my work systems dual-boot to Windows 7, but I find I never use the latter.

Spinning vs. solid state

For me, solid state beats hard drives

I also pushed the district to buy new systems with solid state drives. I was impressed by how the solid state drive in my 2010 MacBook Air made that system really fly. So in 2014 I upgraded my desktop computer’s storage to solid state. That dramatically improved boot time and extended the usable life of the system by several years.

During my last year in the classroom, the old computer at my teacher desk truly foundered, taking forever to boot up and often lagging in playing videos and more. I know the old and slow spinning hard drive in it was the culprit, burdened with the usual Windows cruft from years of installing different programs. So I’m determined that we shift to solid state drives in the district. Our increasing reliance on Google cloud services and its new Drive File Stream reduces my concern over the limited capacity of the solid state drives we can afford.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

I’ve come to like Windows 10, although I make little use of its improved start menu, built-in apps, or Cortana features. Windows 7 certainly doesn’t seem antiquated. So why switch? It really isn’t confusing to use Windows 7 at home and Windows 10 at work.

Well, my old system still has an old processor and graphics card. So I can tell the difference in its responsiveness compared to my newer machines at work, especially if I’m rendering video or other processor-intensive tasks. And the build-up of Windows cruft in my home system from many years of playing around with programs is immense.

The simply dreadful Outlook Web App

But perhaps the strongest motivation is that the upgrade would allow me to use the Windows 10 mail app to access my school email. You see, our district still uses the ancient Exchange Server 2010 for Outlook. That means we’re stuck with the simply dreadful light version of the Outlook Web App on a Chromebook or a Windows 7 computer since the full version of the old Outlook Web App is no longer compatible with modern web browsers.

I am pushing Tech Services to finally address this issue, either by upgrading our Exchange Server or finding a way for us to use Outlook in Office 365. But I’ve waited years for them to fix this, and I’m simply done. Years of having far better access to email and my appointments on a phone or tablet than on my home desktop machine have taken their toll.

Ultrawide vs. multiple monitors

Dell Ultrawide Monitor

Since I saved a bundle on the desktop upgrade, I decided to try using an ultrawide monitor. I’ve used two monitors at home for years: currently I have a 24″ ViewSonic that is 1920×1080 pixels in a 16:9 aspect ratio and an old Dell that is 1280×1024 pixels in a 4:3 ratio. And at work I’m spoiled with two big 16:9 monitors. I love having different apps on each screen, which greatly improves my productivity.

But I was intrigued by the ultrawide LG monitor that TechMoan, my favorite YouTube guy (should I admit that Miranda is my favorite YT gal?), recently demonstrated.

So I decided to buy a used 34″ Dell UltraSharp U3417W with 3440×1440 pixels in a 21:9 ratio for $589. It reportedly has great color calibration out of the box, and it will be interesting to see if I like having one huge wide curving screen. I hope its Dell Easy Arrange layout controls are useful, but I will of course have the use of Windows 10’s Snap Assist.


10/6/2017 UPDATE:

I’ve had some time to use the new computer and monitor, and both have worked out great. The monitor is beautiful, and I like how Dell’s Display Manager lets me divide the screen into areas and simply drag windows to them, which then snap to fit. I like the continuity of working in Windows 10 both at home and at work.

I love how the new system is almost silent, making it practical to set it on the credenza beside my desk. That keeps it off the floor and hopefully will reduce the dust that accumulates inside it.

I haven’t really tested the increased processing power of the new system; that will probably have to await some future video editing.

IMG_8073 (Edited).JPG

My iPad Air 2, Dell UltraSharp U3417W, Kindle Voyage, Dell XPS 8910, Asus Chromebook Flip, and MacBook Air

Comparing my 9th and 10th Home Desktop Computers

2009 System 2017 System
Brand Velocity Micro Dell
Model Vector Z35 XPS 8910
CPU Cost $1,796 $600 (plus $76 RAM upgrade; replacing hard drive)
Microprocessor Intel i7-920 with four 2.66 GHz cores (2.93 GHz max), 8 MB Cache; 4.8 GT/s bus; 130 watts Intel i7-6700 with four 3.4 GHz cores (4 GHz max), 8MB Cache; 8 GT/s bus; 65 watts
RAM 8 GB DDR3 SDRAM 2133 MHz SDRAM 8 GB (2x4GB) DDR 2133 MHz SDRAM (doubling to 16 GB with $76 second set of RAM cards)
Motherboard MSI MS-7522 (X58 Pro-E) ?
Graphics Card AMD ATI Radeon HD 3450; 512 MB NVIDIA GeForce GT 730; 2GB DDR3 memory
Primary Storage Two 1 TB 7200 rpm Raid 1 SATA HDD replaced in 2014 with a Crucial M550 1 terabyte SATA solid state drive (SSD) with 500 GB USB 3 external SSD Will replace its 1 TB 7200 rpm SATA HDD with same solid state drives
Optical Drive Original 20x DVD+/-RW Dual Layer Burner with LightScribe Labeling replaced in 2015 with Asus 24x DVD-RWB1ST 8x DVD burner
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium (Service Pack 1) Windows 10 Pro
WiFi none 802.11a/b/g/n/ac
Bluetooth 4.0 dongle 4.2 built-in

 

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So, do you miss it?

September 2, 2017

So, do you miss teaching?

That is the question I am asked repeatedly now that I’ve concluded 28 years of teaching physics at Bartlesville High School. I’m still at the school several times each week supporting the rollout of student Chromebooks and the Canvas learning management system, but the only classes I have taught since May have been computer lab training sessions for teachers. So I get that question from district employees, former students and their parents, and other folks I encounter in the community.

My standard response has been, “I’ve been too busy to even think about it.” My new role leading districtwide technology and communications has indeed kept me scrambling: I was working 60 hours each week throughout August. But on Labor Day weekend, a couple of weeks after the intense start of the new school year, I finally have some time for contemplation.

No, I don’t miss teaching.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved teaching physics. I landed my dream job back in 1989 and had a rewarding career in the classroom. But there are several reasons I am content with my transition to administration.

One is that my interests and reach had long extended beyond the walls of the classroom. I’ve held demanding side jobs in the district for decades and earned my master’s degree in administration back in 1999. Teaching physics was always job one, but I had many others. The bars below my career timeline visually summarize my other long-term commitments.

My career timeline

Another reason I was happy to leave the classroom was that I had met a challenging goal. I told my evaluators back in May 2016 that my teaching goal for my last year was simple: End strong. I was determined that I would not let the huge demands of the transition year hurt my students. I gave everything my all, working 60 to 80 hours a week for months, and it paid off. In July 2017 I found out I had hit a career high with 25 of my students earning passing scores on either the Physics 1 or Physics C: Mechanics exam, beating my 2006 record of 20 passing scores.

A powerful emotional support was a moment of closure a student surprised me with back in May. It put me in the right frame of mind for a new phase of my career.

When I began teaching in 1989, I made the word problems more interesting by making them about the treacherous adventures of Fluffy the Physics Feline. I tortured her mercilessly with lawnmower chases, frozen pond pulls, and more. The kids liked it so much that they gave me a real Fluffy at the end of the year. She sat on an intercom in the room and it eventually became customary for her to be catnapped by kids each year.

When she moved with me to our new lab in 2003, she got her own locking glass cabinet, but clever kids still managed to steal her annually. She has been skiing, to Europe multiple times, been the star of videos, the subject of ransom notes, returned at prom, etc. Two years ago she never came back, and even the town newspaper and magazine carried word of her disappearance. She finally reappeared at the start of the next school year.

Fluffy

Dear old Fluffy was catnapped again during my final school year of teaching, with funny photos on Instagram of her adventures about town and silly notes slid under the classroom door. And then she returned, only to soon disappear again for the remainder of the school year. As classes wound down, I couldn’t help wondering if she would ever return.

At the Class of 2017’s commencement in May, I led the faculty onto the field one last time in my long-standing role as teacher line leader. After the graduating seniors filed by, we took our seats. I knew this was the last graduating class where many students would be my own. Talented students sang and spoke to the crowd on a beautiful Oklahoma evening.

And then in the middle of her speech, Sr. Class President and physics student Shay Stayton surprised me by pulling Fluffy out from behind the podium. She said it was finally time for Fluffy, wearing a glittery mortar board, to graduate. I laughed and grinned at the time, but I’ll confess my eyes can tear up at the memory. It was the perfect ending to my teaching career. Thank you, Shay.

So in June I was ready to clean out and pack up. I took cartloads of paper and rubbish to the dumpster:

To the dumpster!

Over a quarter century of lesson plans

I also tossed over a quarter century of lesson plans. I gave my able successor the physics curriculum I sell, Wendy helped me copy and organize hard copies of all of the quizzes and tests, and I organized a file drawer filled with AP exam packets and resources. So the new physics teacher has access to everything from my classes to use, edit, or discard as he wills. I trust him to make the courses his own.

Some of the items I took to the ESC

I hauled additional items, including Newton, Einstein, and of course Fluffy, to my new office at the Education Service Center.

I see that the median job tenure in the USA is just over four years and that the baby boomers of the generation ahead of mine held an average of a dozen jobs when between the ages of 18 and 48. I only had four jobs during that 30-year stretch. After three temporary jobs during and after my bachelors degree, my first permanent job lasted almost three decades. So I was ready for the change.

The ESC is a far quieter place than the high school. We are very lean, and every administrator has to wear multiple hats to keep the district running in this era of abominable state funding. So there is very little socializing or relaxation; everyone is busy, busy, busy. But I am happily drawn out to the schools on various missions; I’ve already been to all nine sites in the first two weeks of school. Everywhere I go I see teachers, secretaries, custodians, administrators, and other employees putting kids first, fulfilling the district mission: educating and enriching lives.

No, I don’t miss teaching. Everything I do supports it. My wife and I talk about her classes and my challenges every evening. Teaching children remains job one. I am proud to be a Bruin.

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A Grand Adventure, Conclusion: Santa Fe

TRIP DATES: June 16-22, 2017 | SLIDESHOW | PHOTO ALBUM

Santa Fe Plaza with the Hendersons

Day 8 of our Grand Adventure was our final day with the Hendersons, who would be heading back homeward.

Palace of the Governors

Wendy was tired and slept in while I took Betty and John to Tia Sophia’s near the historic plaza for breakfast. Then we walked over to the plaza so that they could peruse the wares on offer by the Native American vendors along the veranda of the Palace of the Governors. On their first pass they did not purchase anything, but later returned for John to purchase a lovely bracelet for Betty.

We walked around the plaza area, seeing the public rooms of the historic La Fonda hotel. Santa Fe bought the property in 1925 and leased it to the Harvey company. For a major expansion, Mary Colter did the interior design and decorating. La Fonda is still operating today and was the most successful of all of the Harvey hotels.

Betty, John, and I also peeked into the Cathedral, being careful not to interrupt a funeral that was underway, and walked through Cathedral Park, which featured a series of large full-scale reproduction canvases of paintings by Goya. The originals are housed in The Prado in Madrid. My favorite art critic, the late Robert Hughes, adored Goya’s work, which I find challenging to love.

All too soon it was time for the Hendersons to head home. Wendy and I stayed at the Hotel Santa Fe, which was adjacent to the Santa Fe Motel & Inn where we have previously stayed in their casitas. The next time we are in Santa Fe we will likely return to Casita 22 at the Santa Fe Motel & Inn, enjoying its privacy and little patio. Downsides to our latest lodging included taking the elevator up and down to the third floor, the lack of an in-room coffee maker for Wendy, an annoying locking mini-bar/fridge, and outrageously priced breakfast options. But the facility was clean and nice, and couldn’t help that each night some idiot on a very loud motorcycle kept zooming along the downtown streets, disturbing the peace.


Museum of International Folk Art

One day during our stay in Santa Fe, Wendy and I visited the Museum of International Folk Art, gaining free admission via the NARM badge on our Woolaroc museum pass; we are both members of that fine institution near Bartlesville.

We skipped the Girard Wing, which we’d toured back in 2014. We focused on a tramp art exhibition displaying art formed from small pieces of wood, often discarded cigar boxes and shipping crates, whittled into layers of geometric shapes having the outside edges of each layer notch carved. This art form was popular from the 1870s to the 1940s.

They had wooden and metal wall pieces, intricately whittled chains and more, works of shells and peach seeds with little rhinestones, and various larger pieces of furniture. I was impressed by Charles Steijen’s crown of thorns frame with photographs of actresses from the London stage, carved in Rhode Island in the 1890s.

Celebration by Freeland Tanner

I watched parts of an interview with Freeland Tanner, who carved the intricate Celebration and Sabrina’s Gift in 2006.

Another temporary exhibit had flamenco costumes. Wendy and I had enjoyed the shows in Santa Fe by Entreflamenco in 2014 and 2015, so we recognized photos of Antonio Granjero and Estefania Ramirez. But what caught my eye was the energetic painting Vicente Romera at El Farol by Roland van Loon and the brooding photo on the cover of the old record album Antonio and his Spanish Dancers. Was it a young Antonio Banderas? Nope, it was Antonio Ruiz Soler, half of a dance duo which gained fame from 1928 to 1953.

Outside on Milner Plaza we revisited the Doris and Arnold Roland Sculpture Garden. Wendy liked Acceptance by Retha Walden Gambaro, who sculpted it as a self-portrait when she was 80. A year later, she sculpted Courage. Gambaro said she considered the “daily observation of spirituality in art forms” during her childhood in Arizona and Oklahoma to be her greatest education. She was born in 1917, with the doctor arriving by horseback, in a one-room cabin in Oklahoma, where Creek Indians had been “resettled” from the southeastern United States in the late 19th century. Her father eventually settled in Phoenix.

Standing Strong, with my Feet Rooted to Mother Earth by Kathy Whitman-Elk Woman

Wendy also photographed Standing Strong, with my Feet Rooted to Mother Earth by Kathy Whitman-Elk Woman. Whitman said of the materials in that work, “I used steel, stone and recycled materials.  I chose these because they represent us as Native women. The steel is tough, strong, resilient; the stone consists of all living beings from Mother Earth; and, the recycled materials are about resourcefulness and taking care of Mother Earth.”

Wendy put me on to a shot of Craig Dan Goseyun’s immense Apache Mountain Spirit Dancer sculpture, which dominates the plaza and is a favorite sculpture of mine. The dancer seemed to be looking out toward the moon visible in the clear blue sky.

Apache Mountain Spirit Dancer and moon


Hike at Hyde Memorial Park Above Santa Fe

During our stay we drove east up into the Sangre de Cristo mountains above Santa Fe for a hike. We’d hiked on the Aspen Vista trail back in 2015, and on the way to the trailhead had passed Hyde Memorial State Park. So I examined its online trail map and decided we might try a short trek up to a waterfall and back.

Hyde Park Trail Track

The weather was fairly warm in Santa Fe during our stay, and Wendy was leery of hiking in the heat. I figured it would be cooler up in the mountains, but it turned out it wasn’t that much cooler. Our hotel was about 7,200 feet above sea level, and our hike began at 8,386 feet and climbed fairly steadily to 8,880 feet.

Hyde Park was New Mexico’s first state park. It was named for Benjamin Talbot Babbitt Hyde, whose family donated 350 acres to the state for the park in 1934. He was the grandson of the Babbitt of Babbitt’s soap. He and his brother financed Richard Wetherill‘s excavation of Pueblo Bonito. The park has a picnic area, campground, skating pond, and sledding area. The latter two features were not functional in the summer heat, for some reason.

There were already several cars at the Hyde Park Lodge trailhead when we pulled in at 9:15 a.m. after a breakfast downtown at Tia Sophia’s. Most of the hikers headed for the West Circle Trail, which is more difficult, gaining 1,000 feet of elevation over the course of a mile. Our hike would only gain about 500 feet, but up at that altitude, that was enough for us Bartians; we live around 700 feet above sea level.

Hyde Park Trail

There was a nice map at the trailhead and the trail climbed immediately up the hillside and kept on doing so. A trio of young ladies were on the trail as well, reaching the waterfall ahead of us.  We passed shelters built into the hillside below us, eventually reaching the waterfall trail fork.

That trail climbed more steeply and was quite rocky in places as it wound its way up the mountain along a small mountain stream. We passed a rocky extrusion of pink granite, which allowed the sky to open up a bit amidst the forest. Insects swarmed around the water in the trail here and there.

We finally reached the waterfall, which was a thin flow down a rocky bluff.

Thin waterfall

Both of us were tired and hot and ready to turn back. We retraced our steps, now heading almost always downhill. When we made a pit stop at a toilet below the trail fork, I noticed flowers growing along the banked terraces and was glad to see bees buzzing about them. I’d imagine that on this hike Wendy found a few rocks to add to her collection in our hotel room.

Busy bee

So we managed to get a few short hikes in our vacation despite the heat. I’m eagerly looking forward to autumn, hoping that my new job will allow me to devote more time to hiking on the weekends when my favorite season arrives.


Home via Amarillo

After five nights in Santa Fe, we headed back along I-40 to home. Back in Amarillo, we made our usual stop for burgers at Blue Sky before spending the night. The next morning, we gave Calico County another try. Thankfully our breakfast there was much better than the dinner we’d endured earlier in the trip.

This time we did not stop in Groom, Texas for a break from driving, but I was glad to see the silly leaning water tower near there featured in a tile mosaic at a Texas rest stop.

66 tile mosaic near Amarillo

We again visited my parents in Oklahoma City and spent a night in my hometown before finally returning to Bartlesville, 14 days after setting out on our adventure. I doubt we’ll take any vacations that long for years to come, given my new administrative calendar. But we hope to take some shorter trips, both on our own and with the Hendersons, in the future. Life was meant for good friends and great adventures!

SLIDESHOW | PHOTO ALBUM

A Grand Adventure, Day 7: El Morro & the Ice Cave

Collection of all photos from this summer vacation

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