Sonic Arboretum at the ICA

This was amazing. Without question the coolest thing at the ICA. See it before it closes!

Sonic Arboretum
Ian Schneller (speakers) & Andrew Bird (music)
ICA Boston
February 4–May 10, 2015

May 6, 2015 May 6, 2015 reviews by Scott 1 Comment

by Jonathan Franzen
A great book about a guy from Minnesota.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson
I am the last person in the world to read (and thoroughly enjoy) this novel.

The Circle
by Dave Eggers
Predictable, creepy, and fun. A book of our times. Like it on Facebook!

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
by Jon Gertner
Definitive proof that I was born a generation too late to achieve greatness.

December 24, 2013 December 24, 2013 reviews by Scott No Comments

Garrison Keillor is not a conventional author, so in hindsight it shouldn’t be surprising that after a very conventional introduction, Mr. Keillor calmly stepped in front of the podium, glanced toward the ceiling, and began humming a hymn with the tacit assumption that all present should sing along in four-part harmony. (The audience obliged.) So began the event billed as “Garrison Keillor reads from and discusses O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound.”

The other circumstance which shouldn’t be surprising is that Mr. Keillor did not read from anything. A man who can recall Shakespeare and Frost with the same ease as his own verse, mingling them effortlessly with his richly detailed tales, has no need for such a crutch.

Fortunately, there was discussion.

Freddie’s question was my favorite: “Do you ever get writer’s block?” Keillor stood next to us and responded without hesitation: No. People who get writer’s block are the kind of people who want to have written something, not those who want to write. “Dentists don’t get dental block… or at least, if they do, they don’t tell anyone about it.”

December 3, 2013 December 3, 2013 reviews by Scott 1 Comment

RPL Test Photo

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.

October 10, 2012 October 10, 2012 reviews by Scott 1 Comment

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 Keillor.

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 chance? Absolutely.

February 6, 2010 February 6, 2010 reviews by Scott No Comments

Nouvelle Vague
Somerville Theatre
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 understated simplicity.

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 All.”

Verdict: awesome!

January 29, 2010 January 29, 2010 reviews by Scott No Comments

Run speed

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.

November 15, 2009 November 15, 2009 reviews by Scott 10 Comments

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 works fine.

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.

August 19, 2009 August 19, 2009 reviews by Scott No Comments