Thursday, November 24, 2005

Talking turkey about podcasts -- what, where and doing one's own


Last June my wife and I headed to Grass Valley to begin a multi-state vacation. She was anticipating the impending family wedding in Idaho and so was I. Then the thought struck me, out of the blue, as we were making the long climb up from Marysville. My school needs a podcast!

As the miles flew by I realized that with a few simple pieces of equipment the dream could become a reality. Not long afterward my first campus interview was online and listed in Apple Computer's popular iTunes, the free jukebox software. Faster than you can list all the cliches I've used in these first two paragraphs, my free little podcast was ready for the world!

"Little" is the operative word here. My podcast boasts a few dozen listeners while others, like the immensely popular "This Week in Technology" (TWiT) with Leo Laporte, claim hundreds of thousands of listeners. But never mind that. Podcasting is not about reaching a large audience; it's about reaching the right audience. There's one podcast that features avant garde music from Scotland and another, called "Baking with the Bard," that is hosted by a 16-year-old chef. We're talking niche market here. But that's the beauty of podcasting. It's like radio for peculiar people. And we're all peculiar.

If the world of podcasting is fairly new to you, one of the best places to turn is to a new book from Bart G. Farkas, "Secrets of Podcasting: Audio Blogging for the Masses" ($19.99 in paperback from Peachpit Press). "In a nutshell," Farkas writes, "podcasting is a World Wide Web-based form of broadcasting that allows anyone with a computer and/or a digital media device to download and listen to content. Formed by the combination of the words iPod and broadcasting, podcasting involves the creation of 'radio' shows that are not intended to be broadcast over Marconi's invention. Indeed, these podcasts can be downloaded and enjoyed only through access to the World Wide Web." (Farkas does note later on that a few radio stations have now begun airing podcasts.)

Do you have to have an Apple iPod to listen to a podcast? Certainly not. As Farkas points out, the podcasting name is an homage to the leading MP3 player, but you don't really have to have a special music player to listen to a podcast. A computer will do. You can visit Web sites and download podcasts for later playback on your computer.

Farkas notes that podcasting really gained impetus with the development of what is called RSS, or "really simple syndication," a bit of behind-the-scenes code that enables content to be sent out on the Internet for anyone to download. The other big development is iTunes 4.9, released at the end of June, which was the first version of the software to feature a podcast directory. Way back then (five months ago) there were about 4,000 podcasts in the directory. Now there are many times that. Mac or PC users with iTunes can simply click on a podcast to subscribe, and presto! Every time a new show is released, it's automatically downloaded to the subscriber's computer. Free.

You don't even need iTunes. Farkas reviews 15 other podcast "aggregators," some free, some inexpensive, which can be quickly downloaded and installed on a computer to give the user access to the vast podcast universe. There are now dozens of podcast search directories (such as Podcast Alley), and Farkas looks at them, too. He includes interviews with various podcasters, a resource guide, and a simple glossary.

"Secrets of Podcasting" is divided into four chapters: podcasting basics, jumping in (finding podcasts and podcast players), creating a podcast (from script to finished product), and distributing the podcast (with a look at free or low-cost Web site packagers). The book's text is clearly and cleanly presented, and jargon is kept to a minimum -- though you will have to know about "Ogg Vorbis," a type of audio compression format that might one day replace the good old MP3 format. You need to learn this terminology because one day someone will ask a difficult question and you'll need to change the subject.

I should try that in my classroom. When my students ask me a toughy, I can just ask them, "But what about Ogg Vorbis?" My luck, one day I'll have a room full of podcasters. And they'll know!

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

True crime: Local connections to the 1980 UC Davis 'sweetheart murders'


Longtime Paradise resident and retired school teacher Anna Davis told me recently her nephew had just published a book reporting recent developments in the 1980 murders of UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves. Joel Davis grew up in Davis and is a now a Sacramento-based journalist and editor.

"Justice Waits: The UC Davis Sweetheart Murders" ($24.95 in hardcover from Callister Press) is gripping and gutsy reportage about the crimes and the subsequent missteps in the investigation and how Davis himself has become part of the story.

"A mostly forgotten mess," Davis writes. "That was the status of the Riggins-Gonsalves case when I started looking at it in the summer of 2000. Boxes upon boxes of case files gathered dust in Sonoma and Yolo courthouse basements known derisively as 'tombs' or 'dungeons'." Though David and Suellen Hunt, husband and wife, and crime partner Richard Thompson, had all been charged in the case in 1989, the lack of any DNA match led to charges against them being dropped in 1993. (Hunt, the half-brother of serial killer Gerald Gallego, had been arrested in Chico in 1981 for helping Thompson escape San Quentin.)

The parents of the murdered couple faced the prospect of never learning the identity of the killer or killers.

Davis never met Sabrina Gonsalves, and, though he had gone to junior high and high school with Riggins, did not know him well. But Davis was shocked, as were many in the area, when the two 18-year-olds, on a foggy December in 1980, were abducted and murdered. Their bodies, thrown into a ravine in a wooded area between Folsom Boulevard and Highway 50, were discovered after the Riggins family van was spotted nearby, empty of any passengers, on Dec. 22.

In 2000 Davis decided to write the story of the open case and interviewed family members and investigators. He planned to take a year, but the project stretched into five, and in the midst Davis was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

"The Davis of Dec. 20, 1980," he writes, "had a population of 36,640 and was more of an intellectual Mayberry than the hectic, more vibrant, even impersonal, university city of 65,000-plus it has become."

Riggins and Gonsalves were good kids. John's shock of red hair was well known in the community. Sabrina "was the girl you wanted to baby-sit your kids, the girl any boy would be proud to bring home to Mom. ... With her smooth Anglo-Portuguese features, trim athletic build, candy kiss brown eyes and flowing dark brown hair, Sabrina was a looker."

Riggins and Gonsalves that fateful night finished their ushering job for a children's 'Nutcracker' production and then left in Riggins' van to attend a surprise party for one of Gonsalves' sisters. They never arrived.

Gonsalves' body "suffered two deep, savage cuts that severed her jugular, and she died instantly. ... John had been beaten with five blows to the head, and his throat cut, but the knife avoided major arteries. It likely took hours to die in that soggy ravine."

But the case against Hunt and his associates could not be sustained. Astoundingly, a blanket found in Riggins' empty van -- likely a gift for the surprise party -- was never thoroughly examined until 1992 when several "obvious" semen stains were found but there was no match to members of the Hunt group. Pushed by Davis to re-examine the blanket with improved DNA testing, in 2002, "like a delayed sonic boom that took more than 21 years to strike, a DNA 'cold hit' was made on the blanket semen sample after the semen DNA was retyped and compared to DNA from a national database."

The match led to convicted child molester Richard Joseph Hirschfield. He and his brother, Joe, had grown up in Colusa County and lived in Arbuckle after the killings. Richard was arrested on Sept. 25, 2004, and, says Davis, justice waits again in the discovery process (updates are available at

The book is frankly critical of some of the investigators and Davis acknowledges that he has made more than a few people angry with his pursuit of the case. But Davis is convinced that Riggins and Gonsalves, all these years later, deserve the justice that has so far eluded them. The story he tells is harrowing, and the end is not yet in sight.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Former Chicoan produces comprehensive, practical guide to costume design for film


Imagine: "It is 7:30 a.m. on an already hot summer day. I've just pulled into the parking lot of a red brick church, in the San Fernando Valley. ... Today is the big day on the set of 'The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human.' The costume designer is Kristin Burke. That's me. This is the day we shoot the Wedding Scene. ...

"Every principal actor and day player to hit celluloid on this shoot is going to be in this wedding scene, and everyone needs to look great. The greatest-looking of all, though, needs to be Carmen Electra, our leading lady. In the wedding scene, Carmen's character, Jenny Smith, is supposed to be nine months pregnant. Reading the script, I remember thinking, How charming, until the reality of the words 'Maternity Wedding Gown' sunk in. Who makes maternity wedding gowns? I knew that, in the interest of time, money and aesthetics, we would be building this gown."

The whole story is detailed in "Costuming for Film: The Art and the Craft" ($49.95 in oversized paperback from Silman-James Press) by Holly Cole and Kristin Burke. Cole teaches costume design at Ohio University and has worked as a costumer with the Muppets and the Metropolitan Opera. Burke, who spent some growing-up time in Chico, and who now lives in West Los Angeles, has worked as costume designer on dozens of TV shows, music videos and independent film projects, including "The Cooler," starring William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin.

Divided into 11 parts, "Costuming for Film" moves from basic principles of costume design to how costuming integrates into the sometimes heady, sometimes frustrating work of producing a movie: design development; breakdowns (where the costume designer uses the script to create lists of costume elements); prep (getting costumes made in the time allotted and within budget); shooting (including nude scenes and handling conflict); and final wrap (including wardrobe sales and re-shoots).

Two final parts deal with getting one's first job and tips for working in Los Angeles and New York. Appendices provide sample resumes, union guidelines and more, and the book is enhanced with interviews of working designers, dozens of photographs from film productions and a special color section illustrating creative design.

Why put up with this high pressure job? The authors have a ready answer: "It's a gas and a half. ... You cope with all the pressures of this field by getting into the Zen of the work. Most of all, you have to have passion. When faced with the fact that you have to style several hundred extras in short order, you embrace improvisational styling, creating characters in a matter of minutes, out of a stock of costume goodies."

And the money? "Union costume design salary minimums of $1,404 to $2,500 a week, even the lowly costume department production assistant rate, starting at $13.56 an hour, may seem enticing. But it can be startling ... how underpaid you can feel when you're working in this high risk business."

Burke and Cole add that "Film costuming -- whether you are interested in designing, supervising, shopping, working on set or building costumes -- is essentially a freelance job, and as such, getting work is all about who you know

"Still interested? To get into the costume groove, first check your ego at the door. If you want to work in this field, you must be really hungry to do it. The unions are tough to break into and job sources are often a jealously guarded secret. ... To be brutally honest, unless you have film contacts who will vouch for you, the film professionals doing the hiring care more about your stamina than your fabulous portfolio. Even with an MFA or two years of Broadway or fashion-industry experience, on a film, you can still find yourself ironing shirts and sorting dirty socks." An interview with Burke herself toward the end of the book shows her tenacity in getting work on a (horrors!) Roger Corman film; she ended up on nine of them.

For Burke, the costume is more than just window-dressing; it's about creating a character. "My job is to move people," she says. "If I can do that by creating characters visually, then I have done my job."

"Costuming for Film" is a captivating technical guide to reel life. Burke and Cole have done their jobs well.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Legendary Redding fly tier shows his artistry step-by-step in living color


I've caught a cold, but never a trout. That separates me big time from master fly tier and angler Mike Mercer of Redding.

The son of Wes and Sandy Mercer of Chico, Mike has been associated with the Fly Shop in Redding for decades, and today, in addition to fly tying, he arranges international fishing expeditions. I bumped into a fly fisherman the other evening and he used the word "legendary" to describe Mercer's flies. That seemed to confirm the sense I was getting reading Mercer's new book, "Creative Fly Tying" ($39.95 in hardback, spiral bound, from Wild River Press). Mercer writes with humility (he learns most about his flies when the fish don't bite) but his careful work at the vise is evident on every colorful page. The book will open flat for those who want to follow along and try some of Mercer's techniques.

Fly tying is a world unto itself, and a good many fly tiers don't actually fish much. Mercer does, though, and the beautiful step-by-step close-up photographs of how to tie a dozen flies are surrounded by fishing tales of Hat Creek and beyond. The publisher calls Mercer's book one of a series of "technical fly-fishing books written by today's cutting-edge experts," and that description is apt indeed.

The first chapter details the tying of a poxyback green drake mymph, and Mercer acknowledges that he has the reputation as the guy who uses epoxy -- Devcon 5-Minute Epoxy, to be exact -- in part to mimic the shiny features of the nymph. A list of materials is prominently displayed for each fly; for the green drake nymph Mercer uses pheasant tail fibers, copper wire, a turkey tail feather and a gold metal bead.

One key to Mercer's fly tying success is his belief "that fish often respond more specifically to the contrast of varying colors on a fly than they do to the colors themselves"; his color dubbing technique reflects this insight.

Mercer's focus is on how the fish sees the fly; in fact, he includes an introductory section on reading the fish -- and the water. He's convinced that presentation is more important than the choice of fly (a poor fly with just the right wiggles can catch a fish) but more important yet, he says, is "reading the water" -- figuring out where the fish are likely to be.

"Case in point: Probing the deep jade runs and riffle drops of California's McCloud River one crisp autumn day, I was surprised by a lack of bigger fish. This time of year, the resident rainbows always feed aggressively, putting on the feed bag before the cold weather sets in. In addition, huge, lake-run browns have left Shasta Lake and are scattered everywhere, ascending to their natal spawning grounds. Wading to my thighs, I had fished all of my favorite slots, using nymphal imitations of the giant orange caddisflies that were helicoptering clumsily around me. All I caught were a bunch of small fish, though, and I was beginning to lose confidence."

After lunch Mercer tries again, wading out and casually dropping his nymph "into the shallows between the bank and me. Trying to pick (it) up again, I discovered I'd hung the bottom. Berating myself for this annoying lapse of diligence, I waded up to the shallows where it was hung and commenced yanking the rod in different directions. The water explosion was so violent and unexpected it actually frightened me." The "snag" turned out to be a large rainbow trout. But why the shallows? That's where the caddisflies were "as they migrated there to emerge. A classic case of finding the fish by finding the food, despite a total lack of traditional deeper holding water."

Eventually, says Mercer, one's eye becomes trained to "register the slight nuances of hydraulics and streambed -- you unerringly see where the fish will lie. No longer do you search out only those specific water types you understand -- now you see nearly all water as holding promise. You fish with confidence and a delicious sense of anticipation."

Mercer celebrates God's grandeur with every fishing foray, even if his breakfast is "cold Pop-Tarts and Gatorade," and with each of his carefully wrought creations. "Creative Fly Tying" is the work of a master, full of expertise and good humor, from a man in love with his art.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.