I’ve been frustrated with photo labs lately. I’ve had so many color photos ruined by sloppy processing or digitally muddled by mediocre machine scans. It’s driven me toward shooting B&W almost exclusively since the processing is less demanding. Almost all the competent labs in the Boston area have gone out of business, leaving only Dorian Color to trust for critical work–but they don’t do scanning! And what’s the use of film processing without pro-quality scanning in this day and age? (I do own a very nice film scanner, but scanning is hard and quite time-consuming.)
The Interwebs enthusiastically suggested that I try Richard Photo Lab in Hollywood, California. So I flew to Los Angeles for DaleX’s wedding and took a bunch of pictures. I went home to Boston with the film, put it in an envelope… and mailed it back to California. (So much for thinking ahead.)
The first scans came back yesterday. Here’s an unmodified image straight from the RPL scans. This is Kodak Portra 160 film on my Leica. The skin tones and exposure are basically perfect right out of the box. In some ways this is easier than shooting digitally. I’m happy to say that RPL is my new lab of choice! I think there is more color in my future.
A Prairie Home Companion
Live HD Cinecast
4 February 2010
I blame Rhode
for this one. I am not a regular Prairie Home Companion listener.
Nor, having just lost $15 and three hours of my life seeing
Avatar the night before, was I delighted by the idea of
shelling out $20 to watch a private television broadcast at my
neighborhood movie theatre. But with a little persuasion, I decided
I could afford another chance to get in touch with the culture of
my Minnesota heritage—the great pillars of which are snow,
fishing, Lutheran churches, funny vowel sounds, and Garrison
We arrived early and were treated to an amusing pre-recorded
video tour of St. Paul. Keillor, whose unmistakable baritone lends
a certain gravitas to his off-handed comedy, walked around the city
rambling about life (winter is “nature trying to kill
us”), architecture (accusing a new government building of
having the grandeur of a “filing cabinet”), the
life-size statue of F. Scott Fitzgerald on the sidewalk (“we
didn’t put him on a pedestal”), and just who The
Tornadoes are (the Anoka Tornadoes). And so on.
The show was fabulous. The writing is first-rate. The
musicianship is superb. Watching it on screen for the first time,
it becomes evident that the PHC crew runs a tight ship: performers
appear and disappear without delay, microphones silently come and
go as needed, and musicians perform dozens of numbers right on cue.
The production is star-studded but laid back and unpretentious. The
musical guests were excellent. It was a treat to see Heather Masse
on stage—I remember her from her Pickin’ Tuesday days.
The highlight of the show was probably Keillor’s monologue,
The News from Lake Wobegon. I had naively assumed from its
meandering but focused narrative and unhalting pace that this
segment was carefully scripted. It is not. Keillor’s prowess
as a storyteller is unmatched by anyone.
For the Regal Fenway 13 theater, the technical requirements of
hosting this broadcast were evidently too challenging. The entire
pre-show program was presented with badly unsynchronized sound,
which they remedied by completely shutting down the projection
halfway through the opening number of the program. The audio was
glitchy throughout. Needless to say, I will not be seeing future
cinecasts at this venue.
Will I see A Prairie Home Companion live again, if I get the
24 January 2010
The premise: a French band reinterprets New Wave and punk rock
songs as laid-back bossa nova tunes. Imagine lush, [sometimes]
quiet remakes of classic Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, Dead
Kennedys, and Joy Division
material. Yes, it’s weird, but it works. It works even better live.
As the concept is not entirely unique, Nouvelle Vague owes a
large part of its success to solid musicianship. The breathy,
seductive vocals, stunning outfits, and sometimes over-the-top
stage presence of vocalists Helena Noguerra and Karina Zeviani were
the carefully-crafted centerpieces of the performance. The guitar,
keyboards, and bass were right on, but in some ways drummer Spencer
Cohen stealthily stole the show, charging precisely through very
complex rhythms with a relaxed bearing and goofy grin that effused
Opening act Clare and The Reasons was a delightful discovery.
Her voice is great. Her husband plays guitar, violin, pennywhistle,
kazoo, and the saw. Their song about Pluto was funny. They closed
their part of the show on a high note by summoning a guest tuba
player to supply the bouncy bass line for their hilarious cover
(with violin and clarinet) of Genesis’ “That’s
For my running program, this has been a year of firsts: In
January, I bought my first MP3 player since 1999 and started
running with music. Music! But music doesn’t make you faster.
My inner engineer decided that more data was needed. A few months
ago, Garmin released the FR60, the first product that correlates
foot-pod accelerometer and heart rate data in an agreeable-looking
digital watch. I know several people who are fans of the similar
Nike+ system, and I’ve often wondered about these foot
pods—are they at all accurate? Garmin’s literature
promised “98% accuracy,” which is good enough for me,
so I bought one.
Turns out, Garmin lies. My first run with the watch was a huge
letdown: the instantaneous pace readout, the main feature that led
me to purchase the product, was indicating more than 1 minute
slower (per mile) than I believed I was running based on
old-fashioned estimation. That would represent an error of more
than 12%. To check my sanity, I borrowed a fancier watch that uses
GPS, not accelerometer data, to calculate speed. I did a quick
jog/walk with both products and correlated the data shown here: GPS
speed (Forerunner 305) in blue, foot-pod speed (FR60) in red. Sure
enough, my speed estimates were more accurate than the watch
readout! But I was surprised to see the correlation improve
dramatically during walking.
While Garmin makes no effort to call out its necessity, the FR60
offers a calibration procedure to improve the foot-pod accuracy.
Will calibration improve running-speed accuracy at the expense of
walking? We’ll find out in part two.
Last week I bought a Silca Super Pista
bicycle pump. I felt the $20 premium it commands over other
well-regarded floor pumps was justifiable—the steel cylinder,
the polished beech handle, the “Made in Italy” label,
and its reputation for being a repairable hand-me-down kind of
product sold me. How disappointed I was!
Out of the box, I discovered two problems. First, the rising
handle and drooping pressure reading told me that air was leaking
backwards through the pump seal. I disassembled the one-way valve
and discovered a loose shred of plastic which prevented the valve
from seating. So I fixed it. Once I got the pump working, the
hybrid Schrader/Presta chuck proved to be too tight: I destroyed
two tubes trying to remove it. (There goes another $12.) So I
loosened up the chuck’s rubber washer and greased
it—two things the manual says nothing about—and now it
The quality of the closure cap also leaves much to be desired.
This plastic part is attached to the tube with an ill-fitting
self-tapping screw, and was probably the source of the debris which
jammed the one-way valve. On a positive note, I liked the
low-impact packaging (a printed mesh bag).
In summary, the Silca Super Pista can be made into a nice pump,
but due to poor manufacturing practices and cost reduction
attempts, it is no longer the kind of quality tool you’ll
pass on to your kids. Don’t buy it.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston)
February 19, 2009
The breadth and diversity of cultural experiences available here
in Boston is amazing. So perhaps it should not surprise me that I
could walk four minutes beyond my front door to find myself
transported to another
world in the sumptuously-appointed Tapestry Room of the
Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, listening to a hauntingly
anachronistic yet infectiously lively performance of… circus
music. (But surprise me it does!)
One must clarify what we mean by circus music. “What makes
it circus music,” writes bandleader, accordionist, and former
clown Peter Bufano in the concert program, “is that I wrote
it for the circus.” What he means is that their music has
nothing in common with Thunder and Blazes
or Wurlitzer band organs. It is a study of circus music from
multifarious regions and traditions. Middle eastern grooves give
way to strains of jazz. Klezmer becomes Turkish. The waltzes are
dark and creepy but swinging—minor-key reminders of the
festive and more intimate circuses of the past.
Bufano’s expressive accordion pairs nicely with the
complementary timbre of Käthe Louise Hostetter’s
five-string fiddle. Michael Dobson’s drumming is subtle
but complex and peppered with occasional novelty sounds. Michael
Milnarik holds things together on the tuba while Sammy Lett lets
loose with sweet staccato sax solos. Sublime.
Cirkestra, like the circus, is meant to be enjoyed live, but
their records are pretty impressive too. Check them
Winters as cold and snowy as this one cry out for a long and thought-provoking winter book.
I finished re-reading Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale the other day, and only
today’s 40-degree heat wave has managed to break the contemplative spell in which it left me.
The book may be a paean to New York, a morality tale, or a treatise on beauty and justice, but it’s also a window—a window
through which we can see not just the struggles of another time, but the way in which humanity
struggles against everything which it cannot know or control in blind pursuit of ideals, principles, happiness, and survival.
Living as I do in an engineer’s world of specificity and detail, it is humbling to
consider the city on such a scale. But Helprin’s gift is to make it seem
magical and effortless, like the passing of the seasons.
Photo: Self-portrait at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, 2008.
Orpheum Theatre (Boston)
30 January 2009
After a lukewarm but warmly-received opening by the Swedish
indie-folk group Lonely Dear, amidst a constant shuffle of activity
to and from the bathroom (blame the $10 cups of Harpoon IPA!),
Andrew Bird appeared alone on stage wearing a dark suit. He played
a few notes on the violin, or perhaps even a whole tune—I
don’t remember—but he earned his second round of
applause when he leaned down to untie his shoes. Those bright red
socks must be the source of his musical powers.
Boston was stop number two on the Noble Beast tour. Some of the
numbers were a little rough around the edges, with several false
starts, tuning problems, and frequent on-stage appearances by a
tracksuit-clad guitar tech. Bird, ever the perfectionist,
apologized if it seemed that the band was “playing stickball
in a sandlot,” but nobody minded at all. The show simply
The concert climaxed at the first encore, when Bird re-appeared
alone to pluck, bow, and wail his way through a complex and
version of “Why?” The muse had clearly possessed
him: his violin exuded virtuosity and his pipes became inexplicably
calibrated to deliver a maximum of raw emotion. The audience was on
their feet and the air was electric—boisterous men stood
mostly silent, languid women swayed, and a few girls near the front
of the house interjected screams like they were on the brink of
ripping their clothes off.
Verdict: see it if