Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

More about breaking and entering

In case you are thinking of getting a combination lock that can't be picked, think again. I just learned how to crack the combination to the typical combination padlock you buy at the hardware store. I bought one to test and had my wife remove the package and hide the instructions from me. It took about five minutes to decifer the combination. It could have taken longer, maybe a half hour, but I got lucky.

Like lock-picking, the method I used is widely available on the Internet.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Picking a lock for real

I learned how to pick locks over the weekend. Yesterday I had to use that skill. It was a sad day.

I visited a friend now home from a stay in a rehab facility following surgery. We sat in his house and chatted. The doorbell rang.

A distraut woman was at the door. She was frantic. She checks in on my friend's neighbor, an elderly lady who lives alone, once every couple of weeks. The lady was not answering the door or the phone and hadn't for several days. She asked about a ladder to look in the garage to see if the lady's car was there.

My recuperating friend was not able to participate. I took his ladder next door and saw that the car was indeed in the garage. The woman had already called 911, but no one had responded. The woman did not have a key. The doors were locked.

I went to my friend's workshop and found a small screwdriver and a heavy-duty paper clip. I picked the lock to the neighbor's front door, went in, and found the elderly lady dead on the floor next to her bed. The younger woman freaked out. I told her to call 911 with an update. A deputy sheriff was there within five minutes.

Now everybody involved thinks it was some kind of weird irony or fate that I learned to pick a lock two days before I needed to pick a lock to find a dead body. Except me, that is. I believe in coincidence over weird irony and fate.

I told the deputy how I got into the house, just so he'd know. He wrote it all down. He said there was no problem because the situation called for extraordinary measures. She might have still been alive.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Locks and Security

I'm doing research for a writing project. I remember stuff from my youth about how to pick locks but did not recall the details.

A google search turned up numerous sites that explain how to do it. Picking common pin tumbler lock is a very simple procedure using two homemade tools.

Out of curiosity I made those tools from some scrap brass in the workshop.

Sunday I picked the padlock on my workshop door. All my power tools are in there.

Yesterday I picked the deadbolt lock on my studio where I keep all my figures and my musical instruments. It's the same kind of lock that's on all the doors on my house.

Each time it took less than a minute to get the lock open. Criminentlies!

And how to do it is available to anyone with internet access. They even show you how to make the tools with a bobby pin and the pocket clip from a ballpoint pen. Wait until you read about "bumping" a lock to open it. That's really scary.

On one site a locksmith advises that people spend the extra money (about $150) for locks that cannot be so easily picked. Tomorrow, I'm going to see about getting deadbolt locks from this maker, one of the ones the locksmith recommends.

I think until then I'll sleep on a chair in the studio with a shotgun in my lap.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Define yourself. Take the vent test...

Ventriloquists are a diverse bunch, a motley crew. We typically have only one thing in common, the ability to make inanimate objects seem to talk. But our differences define us as ventriloquists.

What we lack, however, are pejorative names. Ways to look down upon one another by how we refer to our differences. Putdowns. Nicknames.

Other professions have that. They get to call their own members names associated with their specialites. Pill pushers. Bone crackers. Shrinks. Empty suits. Numbers crunchers. Pipe jockeys. Ambulance chasers. All in fun, of course.

Consider our differences as ventriloquists:

The kinds of ventriloquial figures we use:
  1. hard figures
  2. soft puppets
  3. latex and vinyl figures

The characters those figures represent:

  1. people
  2. animals
  3. inanimate objects (jalapenos, e.g.)

The content of our shows:

  1. family comedy
  2. adult comedy
  3. gospel
  4. message (drug use, safety, reading, etc.)

The audiences we target:

  1. children
  2. family gatherings
  3. church-goers
  4. night club patrons


  1. comedy club
  2. private party
  3. church
  4. corporate
  5. schools, libraries

(None of these lists is meant to be comprehensive.)

Now choose one element from each list that best defines how you practice ventriloquism. Then choose from these lists the corresponding putdown to arrive at the way you can be insulted by members of your profession who make different choices.

The kinds of ventriloquial figures we use:
  1. blockhead
  2. rag doll
  3. rubber ducky

The characters those figures represent:

  1. store dummy
  2. fuzzy bunny
  3. talking carrot

The content of our shows:

  1. goody-goody two shoes
  2. dirtbag
  3. bible thumper
  4. boring lecturer

The audiences we target:

  1. rug rats
  2. homebodies
  3. the holier than one 'nother
  4. drunks


  1. dive
  2. backyard
  3. tent meeting
  4. office orgy
  5. day care

Based on all the above, I am a dirtbag vent who uses blockhead store dummies to entertain drunks in dives.

Who are you?

Is Ventriloquism a part of Magic?

This question was asked recently on one of the ventriloquism discussion groups. Many members answered yes. Their position was based on the element of illusion that the art forms have in common. I suggested not and explained why. However, having taken a position, most folks find it necessary to defend that position even in the face of logical and reasonable arguments to the contrary. It stops being about the issue and becomes about being right. Human nature. Right or wrong, here is a synopsis of why I took an opposing view. So, decide for yourself and be right. Or not.

Ventriloquism and magic are like singing and acting. They are separate entertainment art forms that have some elements in common such that they blend well when practiced together in a coordinated presentation.

Ventriloquism and magic have in common the element of illusion, the latter involving mystery and secret, the former not.

Singing and acting have in common the use of voice to convey a story, the former involving melodic and harmonic components, the latter not.

But is a good actor automatically a good singer? Anyone who saw Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys knows better. And is a good singer automatically a good actor? Anyone who saw Keely Smith in Thunder Road knows better.

So is ventriloquism magic? I think not. Nobody knows how Houdini made the elephant disappear, but virtually everyone knows how Bergen made Charlie speak.

Ventriloquism is more like juggling than magic. The audience readily sees how it is done but most cannot do it themselves. The element of message (comedy, typically) vs the element of surprise (Where did that elephant go?) is what entertains.

When you pull the dummy out of the case and he begins speaking, no one in the audience gasps and says, "Holy cow, that wooden object is actually talking! How does he do that?" Anecdotal testimony to the contrary notwithstanding.

But...a quote often comes up whenever musicians try to define music or a musical genre:

"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

...which suggests that we cannot adequately describe some things to those who have not experienced those things. Thus you cannot use words to explain that which defies description, particularly to the satisfaction of all the experts.

(When asked to define jazz, Louis Armstrong said something like, "If you have to ask, don't mess with it.")