Gibson MB-1 Mandolin Banjo (1922)

Bought this nice vintage instrument today. It’s a 1922 Gibson MB-1 mandolin banjo, manufactured in Kalamazoo, Michigan by the then-Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company. It’s in excellent condition. All of the tuners work and hold tune well. The banjo head is an original calfskin with no tears or other damage other than dirt and wear, with “Joseph Rogers Son PIONEER” stamped on the interior. It’s open back; from the wear around the edges on the back it never had a trapdoor resonator. The brass armrest was in the wrong location so I moved it back to where it should go. It may also be missing a tailpiece cover. It’s missing one bracket hook and hex nut; I ordered replacements today and will restring it (or have it restrung) since I have no idea how old the strings are (certainly not original, though).

Gibson factory order number (FON) is 11628-18, which dates it to 1922 per Joe Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902-1941.

It sounds nice. I don’t really know how to play it yet, but as I mentioned, I was able to tune it and it seems to be staying in tune pretty well.

Here are a few photos:

1922 Gibson MB-1 mandolin banjo
1922 Gibson MB-1 mandolin banjo
Gibson MB-1 back view
Back view
Gibson MB-1 hard case exterior
Hard case exterior
Gibson MB-1 hard case interior
Hard case interior
Gibson MB-1 closeup of banjo head
Closeup of banjo head
Gibson MB-1 tuners
Gibson MB-1 manufacturer's label
Gibson label
Gibson MB-1 showing FON number
FON number embossed on interior
Gibson MB-1 back of tuners
Back of tuners

Life is seldom binary

I think about bell curves. A lot. (Ask my wife.) A quick refresher for anyone who hasn’t taken a statistics class recently:

When data are normally distributed, plotting them on a graph results in an image that is bell-shaped and symmetrical…. In such a distribution of data, the mean, median, and mode are all the same value, and coincide with the peak of the curve.

The normal distribution is also often called the bell curve because of its shape.

However, a normal distribution is more of a theoretical ideal than a common reality in social science.

Ashley Crossman, “What is Normal Distribution“,

A bell curve looks like this:

In a normal distribution of data, slightly over 68 percent of the data points fall within one standard deviation of the mean. Another 27 percent or so fall within two standard deviations, and so on. Not very many data points are beyond two standard deviations, a bit more than two percent on each extreme.

Now, most populations of data aren’t quite this neat. But as Ashley Crossman notes in her ThoughtCo article quoted above, certain types of data do tend to produce a bell curve consistently (assuming a significant enough sample size), including “standardized test scores such as the SAT, ACT, and GRE…, [h]eight, athletic ability, and numerous social and political attitudes of a given population….”

The reason that matters is that many human factors that we tend to think of as binary, including political beliefs, gender, intelligence, sexual orientation, and so on, are actually more like a continuum of data points – probably not a perfectly normal distribution, but something resembling a bell curve.

This means, to me, that each of us is an individual data point on each of these curves. I may be somewhat to the left of the center politically, but I can’t be simply grouped into the “Democratic” or “progressive” binary group. I am genetically male, but I’m not identical in my maleness to every other “male” in that binary group.

It’s simpler, of course, to group people’s abilities and social attitudes into binary bins: liberal or conservative; smart or dumb; gay or straight; religious or non-believer; athletic or couch potato. It’s much more complex to consider where on the spectrum an individual is, and how similar – or different – they are than you in terms of scale. Once I determine that you’re in the other binary camp, it’s easy for me to reject you because you’re just wrong. Harder to do if it turns out we don’t completely agree but we’re closer than it initially seemed.

Many of today’s politicians and much of the most partisan media outlets are depending on us to see the world as a place where each of us is clearly defined as “this” or “that,” with no room for gray area. But the gray area is where compromise happens, where progress happens, where hope happens.

Take some time to think about where you are on the curve. You may be surprised at who’s standing near you.


Riding along memory lane

Or in this case, a rail-trail.

I spent much of this Memorial Day weekend on my bike. The original motivation came from “traveling” back to some of the places I grew up in using Google Street View. As I zipped around various locations in Pontiac and Sylvan Lake, Michigan, I came to the end of Benvenue Street, where there used to be train tracks and then the gate into the playground of my elementary school. The tracks aren’t there anymore, replaced by a section of the Clinton River Trail, a rail-trail that runs from Sylvan Lake to the Oakland-Macomb County line at Dequindre Road.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the captain of the AAA Safety Patrol. In addition to my spiffy orange cross belt, I also proudly wore a silver and blue captain’s badge. Along with my trusty lieutenant, Lenny, we had to check each of the safety patrol posts each morning and afternoon, and if needed, fill in if someone was missing. One of the posts was the Grand Trunk Western railroad track at the end of Benvenue, just southeast of Avondale Avenue in Sylvan Lake.

Even though the tracks went behind my neighborhood in southwest Pontiac as well (they ran along the old city landfill, which was a marvelous place to play growing up – yes, I played in a dump!) and we sometimes saw the occasional hobo who had set up temporary camp in the old landfill (again, hard to imagine but true), where the tracks went once they disappeared out of my sight was never completely clear. More than once I imagined hopping onto a boxcar and seeing where the train might take me, but being of reasonably sound mind, I never actually attempted this.

Flash forward to 2017, and my discovery that the old tracks were now legally accessible. Pulling up, I found a place to start my ride in West Bloomfield Township. The trailhead for the West Bloomfield Trail is at Haggerty Road, just south of Pontiac Trail (though there are only four or five parking spots there – many more are available a few miles east on Arrowhead Road, again just south of Pontiac Trail). I parked in the lot of a restaurant across the street, unloaded my bike from my truck bed, and started up the trail.

The West Bloomfield Trail, like the Clinton River Trail it connects to in Sylvan Lake, is a packed dirt trail with very fine loose gravel over it. This surface is generally very good to ride on; it can be a bit sketchy after a heavy rain, but overall it drains well and is mostly easy to ride on. There’s also very little elevation change along this route, so it’s good for just about any skill level.

Typical stretch of the West Bloomfield Trail.

About 7.3 miles in, the trail crosses Orchard Lake Road for the fourth time and becomes the Clinton River Trail. Following it along the southeast side of Sylvan Lake, I eventually came to the end of Benvenue Street, where I’d guarded the railroad tracks for kindergartners and fourth and fifth graders over forty years ago.

Looking east along the Clinton River Trail, at Benvenue Street in Sylvan Lake, Michigan.

End of Benvenue Street. The sign used to read “Road Ends” (still faintly visible under the red paint). Gate to the old Whitfield School playground in the distance.

The kids would cross the tracks here, then go through the gate to enter the playground of Daniel Whitfield School. The school was demolished over a decade ago and the land has remained vacant ever since. It used to look like this from Orchard Lake Road:

Daniel Whitfield School, circa 1946-47.

I walked up to the gate and stepped through onto the former playground.

The gate.

The former playground. Used to be two baseball diamonds to the right, used by the Little League in the summer. Main building would have been straight ahead, a one-story annex was built in the late 1950s and would have been behind the larger trees in the right of the photo. Looks like someone has been using the field for soccer practice recently. Orchard Lake Road is in the distance.

I didn’t spend much time there. It was many years ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it was fun to finally cruise “along the tracks,” past where I’d spent so much time in my youth. I continued into Pontiac to Beaudette Park, not far from the neighborhood where I grew up, then turned around and started back to West Bloomfield. A nice day, a nice ride, a nice memory.

(On a somewhat related note: When I started in radio in 1982, I first used the name “Tom James” because one popular choice for an airname was to use your middle name and I’m Thomas James Kephart. But “James” was a pretty common choice, obviously, and there was also Tommy James and the Shondells, of course, so I decided to change pretty quickly. In order to come up with something more unique, I chose my elementary school’s name – Whitfield – and became “Tom Whitfield” for the rest of my radio career. Thanks to Daniel Whitfield for the inspiration!)

They’ll make the right decisions.

The right marketing communicates the benefits… by getting the right information into the hands of the right people. It is not dependent on expensive and impressive advertising campaigns or slick PR. If you believe that your customers are intelligent, it’s a matter of finding them and providing them with accurate, in-depth information. They’ll make the right decisions.

– Guy Kawasaki, The Macintosh Way, 1990.

I recently rediscovered a book that inspired me a lot in 1990, shortly after my first child was born. I was the owner and creative director of a small graphic design and marketing studio in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. The only full-time employee was me, though my sister-in-law worked for me part-time while she studied art at Central Michigan University. The whole business had come about because I’d bought a Macintosh Plus computer in 1986 which had gotten me into the then-new field of “desktop publishing.”Somewhere in the midst of my Mac obsession, which included subscribing to two monthly magazines – Macworld and MacUser – I started learning about the crazy people who’d created this marvelous toy: the original Mac team. Among these enlightened souls was a man who had the nearly impossible job of convincing software developers to create programs for a platform that had no user base at the time: Guy Kawasaki, who was Apple’s “Chief Software Evangelist.” After Guy left Apple in 1987, he moved on to help found ACIUS (a software company that produced an elegant Mac database called 4th Dimension), and he also wrote a book called The Macintosh Way, which had the unsubtle subtitle “The Art of Guerilla Management.” In it, Guy described what made Macintosh – and Apple – different and allowed it to succeed despite long odds against it.

Guy explained that “The Macintosh Way of doing business means doing the right thing and doing things right…. It is a way of doing business for people who are foolish or brave enough to try to make a difference in a world of mediocrity.”

The easy choice as a marketer is to do what everyone else has done. Run the same campaigns, or copy what your competitors are doing. In my experience, the best marketing is the type of evangelism that Guy Kawasaki inspired me to do for myself and for my clients over 25 years ago: tell your story to the right people proudly, inspire people to not just buy a product but to share your dream and vision, and create lifelong fans who will, in turn, do much of your marketing for you. It’s not easy and it can be risky, but when done well, marketing evangelism is effective and long-lasting in a way that traditional advertising can never be.


I held off on this post because I wanted to make sure my internet was working correctly. It’s a been almost a week, so I’m going with “yes” at this point.

After about six weeks, seven tech visits and dozens of phone calls and contacts via @comcastcares, I left work early one day last week to meet yet another ACI (Comcast’s contractor in southeastern Michigan) technician at my house. This time, though, he wasn’t there to replace the coax from the pole to my living room for what would have been the fifth time. Instead, he told me there was a Comcast tech – in an Xfinity truck, no less – down the street, working on a pole. The ACI tech had asked him what he was doing and the Comcast guy replied that he was there on a trouble ticket for my house… along with some others.

Turns out squirrels had gotten into things, as they are prone to do, and chewed up quite a bit of coax and other yummy things. This, of course, is what I suspected weeks ago. To have been proven right, and that the problem was never actually in my house at all, was somewhat satisfying, though I’d have preferred that Comcast fix it right away.

After the Comcast tech finished up, all three upstream channels are now well within acceptable power levels, and the speed test looks like this:

2016-07-27 18.09.00
That’s better.

I will say again that every tech that came out to my house was pleasant and professional. The ACI guys, to a man, knew the problem wasn’t between my house and the pole, and griped to their dispatchers when told to replace the coax again. But they never were unpleasant with me or my wife. The whole thing took too long to fix – far too long – but eventually, it’s fixed. Comcast has given me a satisfactory service credit for our troubles. I’m satisfied.

But if Comcast is serious about improving their customer service, as they say on the ads running on television right now, they need to look into how a simple problem like this one caused all that wasted time and effort and frustration. If I wasn’t sure their internet product was superior, I’d have tried AT&T or even satellite. I knew plenty of friends who have. Of course, when you’re basically a monopoly, maybe there’s not much incentive to really improve.

Still not fixed, Comcast.

Here’s an update on the Comcast Xfinity “high speed” internet issue I’ve been having for weeks now. A technician was out last Friday (June 24). I took the day off from work to be at the house. I showed him the maxed out (54 dBmV) upstream power levels and he agreed that was the most likely problem. I also explained that the exterior coax from the pole in my backyard to the house and then into the living room had been replaced within the last month by another tech.

He called a supervisor who brought a meter to test at the pole. They both were convinced the problem was not in the house (not the modem, not the existing coax). The tech called that in and was told to replace the drop on the pole. He argued a bit that that was a waste of time, but in the end they replaced the drop anyway. No change. He then told me the problem would require a “line call” and that he had set that up. It was mid-afternoon at this point, and my understanding was that that would happen yet that day.

In the evening, the upstream power levels and speed test seemed to have improved. Although no one ever came to my house for the “line call,” nor did I get any notification that they had, I thought perhaps it was done somewhere else in the neighborhood, since the readings were better:

Screenshot 2016-06-24 22.45.21
June 24th, about 10:30 p.m.

Screenshot 2016-06-24 22.43.39
This is what the speedtest results should look like, if everything’s working correctly. June 24th, about 10:30 p.m.

Unfortunately, by the next morning I was back to having two of the three upstream channels blasting away at 54 dBmV again and I couldn’t even get a song to stream without interruptions every few seconds. Video is, of course, impossible.

I had been contacted by @comcastcares after my tweet last week, and I told them the tech appointment had been scheduled. That representative said he or she would check with me via Twitter DM after the appointment, which they did. When I told them about the line call, he/she said they would check on it and I gave them my account number. Never heard anything that evening or over the weekend. Tuesday evening (June 28), four days later, another @comcastcares rep contacted me, wanting to set up another tech visit.

comcastcares conversation

I haven’t replied to that yet. I’m afraid they’ll want me to unplug my modem again, or send another tech out to replace the coax or the drop again. I don’t want to take more time off from work, especially when it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with anything in my house, and the original line call apparently was never done.

I want to make clear that everyone I’ve dealt with at Comcast over this issue has been pleasant and professional. I’m not trying to bash the company; in fact (full disclosure) I worked for Comcast for a year back in 2006. I’ve been a Comcast customer for many years. I’m generally very pleased with the service.

But this is ridiculous. At this point, I’ve been paying for “high speed” internet for several weeks that is anything but. And to add insult to injury, I have to watch commercials every night on Fox Sports Detroit  where Comcast brags about how much their customer service has improved.

Here are this morning’s upstream power levels and a speedtest that never completed because it couldn’t finish the second upload (IPv6) test. Also, the speeds are abysmal:

Upstream 6-30 820am
Friday, June 30 at 8:20 a.m. Not acceptable.

Speedtest 6-30 826am
Friday, June 30 at 8:26 a.m. Upload IPv6 froze at 50%, not that it was doing that well before that, either.

I’m going to contact @comcastcares again, both replying to the message from Tuesday and with a new tweet. I’ll update if anything happens.

Hi, Comcast. Please fix this.

UPDATE 2: 6:25 p.m.

Comcast called around 2:00 p.m. Not sure of the time, I was out riding on my bike. When I got back, there was a voicemail. I called and talked to Robert in the Central Division. Robert was very pleasant and professional. He had me disconnect the modem and reconnect the line directly, avoiding the splitter. When the modem rebooted, it immediately reset itself again. Robert could tell, however, that there was a definite signal issue. He set up an appointment for this Friday at noon. So I’ll just have to deal with it going up and down for the next five days. Fortunately, I can use my phone as a hotspot, which works for what I need the computer to do, but my wife and daughter, who watch video a lot, aren’t going to be very happy, I’m afraid.

To be consistent, here are the upstream readings and a successful speed test, done after reconnecting the splitter:

Screenshot 2016-06-19 18.21.47
Pretty much the same problem. Two channels at 54.00 dBmV. Not good.

Screenshot 2016-06-19 18.22.42
A lucky speedtest. 125 Mbps down, 23.7 up. Let’s see how long that lasts.

UPDATE: 1:35 p.m.

Thought I’d check on another potential problem area: the splitter. It was installed along with the new line a month ago, but who knows? Maybe it’s defective. So I eliminated it and connected the line coming directly into the living room into the back of the modem. Only a slight change from the upstream power levels:

Screenshot 2016-06-19 13.06.48

Then tried the speedtest. It started well, then basically gave up on the download part of the test at about 75%:

Screenshot 2016-06-19 13.36.56

ORIGINAL POST (12:45 p.m.)

I’m going to assume this is a problem. In fact, I know it is. I was on chat with a Comcast tech last night. I gave him the tech information which was similar to that shown below, but we went through the “unplug the modem/router” and “hard reset the modem/router” procedures, anyway. Restarting the modem (its the Arris TG1682G provided by Comcast for its Xfinity X1 service) generally helps for a few minutes. Then it often goes into a cycle of resets before settling down and then working reasonably correctly and then not working at all.

The issue is pretty obviously (to me, anyway) outside of the house. Something’s making it necessary for the modem to blast away at top power levels upstream (the 54.00 dBmV shown in the screenshot below), and I’m guessing that’s at the pole or beyond. A tech came out about a month ago and rewired the outside from the pole to the house and then into the house, so that’s all new. There’s one line coming from the pole, it goes into the living room directly, splits once to go to the modem and cable box. Shouldn’t need top power to send upstream, IMHO.

You can see by the Speedtest screenshot that the upstream really isn’t working at all. That was the third attempt to do a test; the first two failed on the upstream test completely. (As an aside, the download speed, while pretty cool compared to just a few years ago, isn’t what I’m supposed to be getting, either.)

Comcast was supposed to call this morning between 9:00 a.m. and noon. No call yet, it’s 12:45 p.m. Thought I’d post this here so everything’s in one place in case another Comcast tech eventually gets in touch with me.

Screenshot 2016-06-19 12.36.03
54.00 dBmV is full power on most cable modems, including this one. Shouldn’t be doing that unless something’s wrong on the line.

Screenshot 2016-06-19 12.07.03
0.28 Mbps is not good.