Friday, March 31, 2006

soundtrack for a stormy evening

Our weather inspired me to search for mellow songs that matched my mood and share them with you. Unfortunately, many of the tracks I initially had in mind aren’t widely available, but after some searching I think I found a few that you’ll like. Some of the artists are old favorites; others are brand new discovers.

All of the songs are free and legal to download, but if there is something you like, take a little time to visit the artist's site. These all come from wonderful albums available on iTunes and most are sold through Amazon as well.

Note: You should see an icon next to each mp3 file. Clicking it lets you play the file while you read. If you do not see any play icons, hit reload. To download a track, choose "Save Target As" from your contextual menu when selecting the song link.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

my 100th post

This is my 100th post, and to commemorate I thought I would spruce up the place a little (I’ve added 5 new banners into the rotation) and recap what I have covered so far.

(at least) one cool thing has been wide-ranging in topics discussed. I’ve reviewed:

San Francisco restaurants: Tres Agaves, Ame, Ti Couz, Deep Sushi
Weeping Camel, Winged Migration, Mostly Martha, Infernal Affairs, Mad Hot Ballroom, Curse of the Were Rabbit, Grain in Ear
Picasa, TrueCrypt, Neat Image, Skype, Yahoo! Widgets
Assorted consumer products: Downey ball, slippers, Gillette Fusion, woven dental floss, thorlo socks, Epson scanner, The Complete New Yorker
Peninsula restaurants: Uncle Frank’s BBQ, La Bodeguita del Medio, Fiesta del Mar, Sakae Sushi, Shabuway, Tamarine, Gochi, Kaygetsu, Pizza Antica, Pancho Villa, Old Port Lobster Shack

I’ve also mentioned:

Movie directors: Ang Lee, Wong Kar Wai, Hayao Miyazaki
Websites: Shiny Shiny, Flickr, KeepVid
Music artists:
Lou Rawls, Johnny Hartman, Anton Kuerti
Beverages: Moet & Chandon, pomegranate juice, Italian wine, Turley Zin, sake
Ikea, web resources, local resources, desk chairs, Lemon Twist
Ways to discover new music: Hype Machine, Motel de Moka, KCRW, Songs Illinois, Pete Tong

Additionally, I’ve written about destinations:

Las Vegas: Bartolotta, Nobu
Santa Barbara: Inn of the Spanish Garden, Maravilla
The coast:
Pescadero, Año Nuevo

Finally, in a move I am happiest about, I have introduced guest authors to write about their own cool things. One of the reasons I started my blog was to share what I enjoy and to have my friends share what they like.

To that end, I would really appreciate it if you left a comment suggesting how you would like (at least) one cool thing to evolve over the next 100 posts. What should I concentrate on? What type of information do you find most useful? And don't be shy about adding your favorites too!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Launchcast v. Pandora

The web has transformed radio. Existing stations like KCRW in Santa Monica and XFM in Dublin can now transmit globally. Internet-only stations like Digitally Imported for electronica and soma fm for some local flavor can format more tightly than would ever be commercially viable on terrestrial radio. And, software like Shoutcast (free) and Live365 (small fee) makes it simple to broadcast on your own. However, the most revolutionary change has been the creation of services like Launchcast and Pandora that build custom play lists tailored to your musical preferences.

Start-up Pandora is the newest and slickest offering. I used it briefly this past summer when it was in beta and thought their library was too small and their recommendation system too quirky, but glowing reviews in the blogsphere and from Warren prompted me to take a more thorough look.

Getting started with Pandora couldn’t be any easier. Just go to the main page and enter an artist or song that exemplifies the type of music you want to hear. Pandora then creates a station that will play songs that are musically similar to the one you selected. Programming is done based on analysis of song structure, not genre or other classification system.

Let’s say you are in the mood for something mellow like Sarah McLachlan. Tell that to Pandora and it will create a Sarah station by searching for other songs that feature “mellow rock instrumentation, folk influences, [and] major key tonality.” You can further adjust what the Sarah station broadcasts by explicitly adding artists or giving tracks you don’t like the thumbs down (literally). Listen to my Sarah station

Pandora’s Flash-based UI is as simple and intuitive as it is gorgeous. For every track played, it displays cover art and an option to explain why the song was selected. Pandora also offers links to iTunes and Amazon, and a handy bookmark-able URL with a sample of the song.

Pandora let’s you maintain 100 stations, and it works better when you create many stations rather than try to combine diverse styles and artists in one. Their approach is unique and it has its strengths and weaknesses.

For my first station I wanted to create something cutting edge so I typed in Caged Baby and it started playing their track “Hello There.” Because they also have “prominent use of synth,” two older Human League and Severed Heads songs were in the first four suggestions. There is no way to tell Pandora that I only want new stuff.

Conversely, I wanted to create an 80’s station that sounds like Yaz. Pandora made all the right initial selections (Erasure, Depeche Mode, New Order, Dead or Alive) but it also offered newer bands like The Magnetic Fields. I tried to give it more hints by adding artists like Ultravox, and then I ended up in pop hell with David Hasselhoff and Rick Springfield. I couldn’t hit the “I don’t like this” link fast enough. Listen to my 80’s synth station

If you pick a type of music where the line separating genius from cheesy is fine, Pandora selections will seem more random. Apparently that line is quite fine for synth pop and electronica but much bolder for acoustic, folk and jazz.

My experience creating a jazz station illustrated a different characteristic of Pandora. Initially I told it I liked a vocalist (Johnny Hartman) and everything was vocal. Then I added a tenor saxophonist (Ben Webster) and I was treated to a string of instrumental tracks. I added more vocalists (Ella, Sarah, Mel) and more well-known trumpeters and saxophonists, but Pandora still does not do a good job of mixing things up. Things could be worse - as I type this I have been treated to a block of songs from Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Kenny Burrell and Stan Getz. But, it would be nice to mix a vocal back in. Listen to my jazz station

Pandora is free and its 128Kpbs stream is high enough quality for almost all listening situations. They do not have a classical offering, and, you can only skip a certain number of songs each hour, but these are the only significant limitations on this interesting service. Listen to my stations or, better yet, create your own. It’s fun, and it will only get better as their medium-sized library expands. Keep it simple, though. For best results, start with a song and Pandora will help you discover more tracks like that song. If you are interested in hearing something different, start a new station.

Yahoo! Launchcast has been around for six years and I have been using it for the past two, ever since Scott prompted me to try it. Unlike Pandora, Launchcast offers hundreds of pre-programmed radio stations to choose from, and it takes a very different approach to personalization.

With Launchcast, you create one station and if your tastes cross genres you can filter your station to only play certain types of music. For example, I have rated electronic, alternative, indie and jazz artists. My station can format a mix of these or I can use “moods” to filter based on genre to play only jazz.

Launchcast’s recommendation approach is different as well. It relies on user ratings for songs and artists and collaborative filtering to decide what to play. For example, if I tell Launchcast I like Death Cab for Cutie, American Analog Set and David Wilcox, it will see which other bands people who like these artists also enjoy. It works very well as they have more than 6 billion user ratings to draw on.

It is not hard to get started with Launchcast but nothing is as simple as Pandora. Log in with a Yahoo! id and a wizard guides you through initial ratings. The more you rate the better its suggestions are but, fortunately, assigning a rating is very easy. You can specify preferences for how much new (unrated by you) music is played, and Launchcast lets you add “influencers” – people whose music tastes you like. Scott is one of my influencers.

If you use a Yahoo! co-branded dsl (SBC, ATT, etc), Launchcast Plus is bundled for free with your internet service. Plus is the version I have been using, and its significant advantages are no commercials and an unlimited number of songs skips (great for finding new music). If you don’t use a Yahoo-flavor dsl, you can experiment with the free version and subscribe to Launchcast Plus for a few dollars a month if you like it. To get a sense of Launchcast, listen to my station.

So which is best? It depends. I was very impressed with Pandora for jazz as it made some wonderful suggestions, but I’ve done better with Launchcast for new and indie music, areas where Launchcast’s library appears much larger. My advice, try them both while we wait for an ideal service that uses collaborative filtering to sort good music from bad and computer song-structure analysis to help define the mood.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dave’s Gourmet Heirloom Tomato Sauce

Dave’s Gourmet Heirloom Tomato SauceDave makes memorable sauces. I know I’ll never forget my first taste of Dave’s Insanity Sauce, and neither will the friends who witnessed the damage the 8 or 10 drops I added to a slice of Windy City Pizza did to me.

In the decade since my lips burned, my arms flapped and my crew laughed hysterically, Dave has built his reputation for hot sauce and has expanded his business. Recently he introduced a new line of organic gourmet pasta sauces, and on a visit to Andronico’s I was able to taste a few.

I settled on the Golden Heirloom Pasta Sauce made from organic yellow and golden heirloom tomatoes, and for dinner this evening, I enjoyed it with some angel hair pasta. Its color is striking and its flavor is light, sweet and quite fresh. And, it is certainly the best pre-made sauce I have tried.

Monday, March 27, 2006

the wayback machine

Do you ever feel nostalgic for the old days of the World Wide Web? Do you miss your Netscape or Excite homepage? Would you like to reminisce about a company that is no longer? With the Wayback Machine you can satisfy these desires by revisiting web pages of long ago.

The Wayback Machine is an internet archive with more than 55 billion cached web pages. The archive was started in 1996 by Brewster Kahle, so they have no pages older than 1996, but it grown steadily since then. Currently, they have more than 1 petabyte of stored data. You can read more about the hardware they use for crawling and storing here.

To use the Wayback Machine to view old pages, enter the URL of the site you are looking for. The search engine then returns a listing of all of the pages it spidered by date. Select pages you are interested in to view their cached copy. Most often graphics are missing, but in many cases the links on the cached page redirect to a cache of the destination.

Wayback does not have keyword search, and their spiders still struggle with JavaScript and Flash, but they have organized some of the most searched data into collections. The Web Pioneers group is interesting as it showcases early Yahoo! and Amazon.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

oatmeal raisin cookies

oatmeal raisin cookiesOatmeal raisin might be my favorite cookie, but it is hard to find a good one. A crisp outer edge and a soft center is ideal, but often they are too dry and hard. And, they never seem to have enough raisins.

Growing up, my mom made great chocolate chip cookies and wonderful Christmas cookies using her Aunt’s recipes. But, when it came to oatmeal raisin, it was my dad that did the baking. After much experimentation, the recipe he settled on is the one right on the Quaker box.

1/2 pound (2 sticks) margarine or butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups Quaker® Oats
1 cup raisins

1. Heat oven to 350°F. In large bowl, beat margarine and sugars until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add combined flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; mix well. Add oats and raisins; mix well
2. Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets
3. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheets; remove to wire rack. Cool completely. Store tightly covered

I like adding more cinnamon and vanilla for flavor and 1/4 cup less oats for a slightly thinner cookie. Also, in my oven with convection, cooking time is 9 minutes when baking 2 sheets at a time. The picture above is from last night's batch. Thanks to Lisette for doing the beating.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


Paul’s note: Scott is a father of two adorable girls and an expert on games and puzzles. Recently, he re-introduced me to Set and agreed to share his thoughts on this great game with all of us. This is Scott’s first contribution to (at least) one cool thing. Scott writes:

setWhen looking for gifts for our daughters this last Christmas, Paul inquired as to game ideas. At the time, our oldest, Alia, had recently shown an interest in one of my all-time favorite mind-card games, Set.

The game features 81 cards with symbols of 3 variations across four dimensions (hence 3^4, or 81 cards), the dimensions being color, number, shape and shading. The goal is to find a "set", which is defined as any three cards that are all the same or all different within each dimension.

a set sharing color, shape and shadingThe simplest example is shown on the left. This shows three cards that all share the same color, shape and shading, but vary in number. The example below left shows three that vary in every dimension.

a set varying in every dimensionThis game became a favorite for a time amongst our adult friends, as it seemed to bring out their competitive spirits and was easy to pick up. Then, one day Alia showed interest and surprisingly was able to spot most combinations pretty quickly as well.

It is a great game to expand the budding pattern-matching abilities of the young mind. Even little Carina likes to sort them by colors or shapes while big sister plays with Dad. So give Set a try.

Can you find the 2 other sets in the first picture above? The website has daily Set games, alternate styles of play, and directions for ordering. Happy matching! Oh, the game Paul eventually did pick up for the girls, Gobblet Jr., is a great one too.

Set can be found at neighborhood toy stores like Adventure Toys & Teacher Supply
173 Main Street, Los Altos, CA,(650)941-6043.

Friday, March 24, 2006

POM pomegranate juice

I’m not always kind to my body. There are occasional nights of drinking, occasional nights of heavy eating, and nights like tonight when I do both. That’s when POM Pomegranate Juice is especially appreciated. It is extremely high in antioxidants and studies suggest that one of its many health benefits is reduction of arterial plaque.

You may have noticed the curvaceous bottles containing pure pomegranate juice. It takes 5 pomegranates to make 16 ounces. POM grows all of their own fruit, but because pomegranate season is short their juice is made from concentrate. The result is a dense and perhaps too rich taste that is best enjoyed when mixed with sparkling water or ginger ale. A 2-1 ratio of mixer to POM is my favorite blend.

POM offers varieties with mango, cherry, blueberry or tangerine added in, but I prefer to enjoy the benefits of the pomegranate in its highest concentration. POM has also introduced a line of teas supplemented with polyphenol antioxidants, and I’ll report back once I sample the new flavors.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

thorlo socks

I’ve often said that if I am ever obscenely wealthy, one of my eccentricities will be to never wear the same pair of socks twice. There is something about the new sock feel that puts an extra spring in your step. The added fuzziness and cushioning cradles the foot in a way that a second wearing fails to replicate. Well, Thorlo socks retain that new sock feel even after dozen of washings. They are the finest athletic socks on the market and well worth the premium price they command.

I have quite a few pairs of Thorlo’s in golf and tennis flavors in both crew and mini-crew height. Thorlos are available for men and women and are sized to fit your foot. They also offer many levels of padding, from thinner socks for walking to the thickest for hiking and basketball. The placement of extra support varies by the requirements of the sport. The best part about Thorlo is how they make your feet feel, but an added bonus is that they are indestructible. A traditional athletic sock degrades rather quickly but I’ve yet to wear out a Thorlo.

I love Thorlos. They are great on the course or court, just walking around or, as I enjoyed them today, working around the house. You can find them at almost any sports or camping store, and you can order online. I’m confident you will be hooked after your first pair.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Nike CPR Hybrid

As I have gotten older I have turned to technology to improve my golf game. Three years ago I replaced my 2-iron with a 5-wood. Two years ago I switched to a 400cc driver. And, at the end of last year I surprised myself by benching my 3-iron in a favor a rescue club. It was a hard decision for a traditionalist, but it was a change that has had much more impact on my game than the driver or 2-iron moves. For the golfers among my readers, it is a club choice I advise you to consider, especially since the best rescue club went on sale today at the Golf Warehouse.

3-irons are great from the fairway, but unless you are Tiger, good luck hitting them from a heavy lie in the rough. Rescue clubs, on the other hand, are wonderful from the difficult spots I seem to encounter more often with age. Rescues come in lofts equivalent to 2 and 3-irons, but they are shorter in shaft length for more control and have lower centers of gravity for higher trajectories. They also have much more perimeter weighting than irons, generating better distance on off-center strikes, and a sole that will glide through thick grass rather than grab or twist.

I play the Nike CPR hybrid in the 21-degree loft (pictured) and I have found that the CPR is great from 195-210. My frequent playing companions use the 18-degree model as a 2-iron replacement and knock down pins at 200-225. It helps that they are both scratch golfers, but they work magic with theirs, hitting high cuts and low draws with ease. Next to the wedge it is the most versatile club in our bags.

Sonartec and Mizuno also make popular rescue clubs, but we like the lively yet solid feel of the Nike heads. They are well-matched with UST shafts that let you step on it when you have to, although the Nike shaft is well-suited for slower swing speeds. At $90 on sale ($80 for the Nike shaft), it is a heck of a club and a tremendous bargain.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

the dining room at the ritz-carlton

Paul’s note: Ron Siegel (bio) is a culinary superstar. He has worked with Michael Mina and Thomas Keller, revitalized Masa’s with his move there in 2001 and now runs The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, the restaurant my friend Elaine just chose for her birthday celebration. I am delighted that she agreed to share her experience with us all. Elaine’s article is the first guest contribution to (at least) one cool thing. Elaine writes:

3 years ago at Masa’s, Chef Ron Siegel produced one of the finest meals I’ve ever experienced, and I had been anxious to have dinner at The Dining Room at the Ritz since he took over the kitchen in June 2004. The opportunity finally came up when I celebrated my birthday there with Don.

The Dining Room’s décor is muted and plush, with silk-draped extravagance on the furniture, walls and windows, but lightened up with a few modern touches amidst the artwork and simple floral arrangements. But on to the food…

Of course, we decided before we arrived that the 9-course Chef’s Tasting Menu was the way to go, despite the attractiveness of the esoteric Salt & Pepper and tantalizingly carnivorous American Kobe Beef tasting menus.

Spiny Lobster carpaccioWe started with a series of 3 amuse bouches, compliments of the chef. The chilled asparagus soup with maple cap mushroom powder created an intense flavor explosion in my mouth; the uni panna cotta with a delicate topping of abalone, prawns and avocado, with a hint of vanilla, was luxuriously creamy; and the sweet Nantucket bay scallops on cauliflower puree with a port reduction were just how scallops should be.

As we dove into the tasting menu, I was excited that we were to have a different presentation of each course (over 20 different preparations by the end of the meal… remarkable). For the soup course, the lobster consommé with sliced octopus and baby shiitake was richly flavored, but we both preferred the chilled salsify veloute with miyagi oyster, osetra caviar, leeks and crème fraiche.

Skipping ahead to some favorites, Don’s Spiny Lobster carpaccio (above right) was one of those eye-opening food adventures, when you’re presented with a dish that is unlike anything you’ve seen or tasted before. These colorless, translucent, delicately pounded lobster slices (almost an invisible film against the white plate) were topped with segments of kara kara, a more-sweet-than-tart citrus, kara kara puree, pink peppercorns and shaved black truffle. Perfect against the ethereal, slightly gelatinous texture, and subtle flavor, of the lobster. My blue fin sashimi slices were delicious, but simply couldn’t stand up to the other flavors of the evening.

lobster tail with caviarThe lobster course preparations (a tender claw in a braised oxtail reduction; a tail with caviar, truffle filaments, caramelized salsify and Swiss chard (left)) were flavorful and very rich. My pan-seared turbot with truffle and spring vegetables was light and well balanced; Don’s spot prawn ravioli was overpowered by the coconut lemongrass sauce.

Of course the foie gras deserves mention. I was lucky to receive the seared presentation served atop a round crouton sitting in a small pool of Fuji apple reduction with black pepper and spiced pickled huckleberry (below left). Yum. Don had the generously sized chilled terrine, served with accompaniments including quince jam, pinot gris gelèe, and machè microgreens.

For the meat course, the lamb was served between a sweetbread medallion on top and a base of pureed salsify, maitake mushrooms and melted onions amidst a thyme infused lamb reduction. This was the third time we encountered salsify during the meal, and I have a newfound appreciation for the versatility and delicate flavor of this root vegetable.

seared foie gras  with Fuji apple reductionDon had a beef filet topped with a dollop-sized piece of delicately fried bone marrow (which stole the show), served with candy cap mushrooms, swiss chard, red onion marmalade, poached potatoes, and bordelaise sauce. We were becoming almost too full to enjoy it!

Dessert came in the form of lychee sorbet with apple juice gelèe, and a coconut panna cotta in pineapple soup, and then an onslaught of a chocolate brownie hazelnut duo birthday dessert and 10 petit fours including mini cannelès, homemade marshmallows, chocolate truffles and black currant jellies. We were even given a little take-home gift of 2 caramels packaged in a cute little box.

A word about wine and service: I asked our server, Joseph, to pace me through about 3-4 glasses of wine throughout the meal, and he did an outstanding job. The Chateauneuf du Pape had lots of earthy tones to go with the game and meat; the Peay Rousanne/Marsanne was absolutely delicious with abundant floral and vanilla flavors; and the muscato d’Asti, a light, effervescent dessert wine, was a perfect finish to the meal. The service at the Dining Room was impeccable: friendly, unpretentious, knowledgeable and subtle, from the offer of champagne off their custom cart at the beginning of the meal to the post-meal debrief about the food.

The Dining Room has my highest recommendation for a special, or simply very nice, meal. The 3- and 6-course dinners, at $68 and $89 per person, are deals for the experience. Our many thanks to Vicky and Gary, who executed an elaborate plan to treat us to this amazing dinner.

The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton: 600 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA
(415) 773-6198

Monday, March 20, 2006

ice cream

Maybe it’s my contrarian nature (or maybe it is because I had Fenton’s yesterday), but I thought what better way to mark the start of Spring than by writing about ice cream. Weather be damned.

I used to think that the best ice cream came from small shops in New England like Four Seas, but I wasn’t giving the Bay Area enough credit. We have at least 3 neighborhood ice cream stores that rival the nation’s finest. Each is unique and worth a visit to sample its specialties.

The closest to me is also the most youthful in the group as Rick’s Rather Rich Ice Cream opened in 1958. Their gourmet ice cream is made onsite, and its base is every bit as rich as its name implies. Rick’s flavors change often, but they usually have 30 or so options. Their banana is excellent, and the seasonal cinnamon and pumpkin are not to be missed.

Started in 1953, Mitchell’s Ice Cream is a few years older and, with a 16% butterfat base, even richer than Rick’s. Mitchell’s also features an outstanding banana ice cream and, for Fall, pumpkin. But, they specialize in more exotic tropical flavors like buko (baby coconut), guava, langka (jackfruit), macapuno (sweet coconut) and ube (purple yam). My favorite is mango. At Mitchell’s there is always a line and they have no indoor seating, so plan accordingly.

At 111 years old, Fenton’s Creamery is the grandfather of the group. A traditional ice cream parlor, Fenton’s is known for gigantic servings and outstanding sundaes. A single scoop is closer to a pint, and a small hot fudge sundae could easily feed three. But incredible value isn’t the only reason that Fenton’s has long lines day and night, their high-quality and classic flavors are wonderful. Fenton’s also serves a soda fountain menu, although I can’t imagine being hungry enough to have a sandwich and one of their frozen treats.

Rick’s Ice Cream: 3946 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto, CA (650) 493-6553
Mitchell’s Ice Cream: 688 San Jose Ave, San Francisco, CA (415) 648-2300
Fenton’s Creamery: 4226 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, CA (510) 658-7000

Bonus link: Watch the newest Got Milk? ads. I like Landing Party


Today is the first day for Spring and the weather must be lovely somewhere in the world. The days are getting longer, the temperatures will eventually be getting warmer, and more nama sakes are arriving at True Sake.

images via flickr, click on a picture to jump to the photograph's home page

Sunday, March 19, 2006

grain in ear

This afternoon I saw Grain in Ear, a new film from director Zhang Lu and a feature presentation of the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. Zhang Lu is from mainland China and is of Sino-Korean decent, an ethnicity he shares with his protagonist, Cui Shunji (actress Liu Lianji). Cui is an impoverished single mother who sells kimchi from a three-wheeled pedal cart. She and her son live in a small 2-room shack with outdoor plumbing, and they have four friendly prostitutes and a chicken as next door neighbors.

The majority of the film is shot with a stationary camera. Characters move in and out of the frames, but intra-scene the camera neither pans nor shifts focus. The shots are exceedingly minimal with just the few, necessary details required to advance the story. Dialog is sparse as well, but this adds to the tragic poetry and power of the story of Cui’s abusive relationships with the men around her.

The stark Grain in Ear has been well received on the film festival circuit winning smaller prizes in Cannes and Pusan and the grand prize at Pesaro. It will be released in Korea this Friday, and hopefully its critical sucess will allow it wider distribution in the US.

The 24th San Francisco Asian American Film Festival began last Thursday and it continues through Sunday the 26th. On the program are 120 films shown at venues in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

saving and transcoding web video

Yesterday I included a link to a South Park episode on YouTube. YouTube uses a Flash-based player video and previously there was no easy way to save your own copy of the stream. Thanks to KeepVid, a new web-based application, now you can.

KeepVid is quite simple to use. Go to KeepVid’s website, enter the URL of the web page with the content you want to save, and KeepVid does the rest. It works with YouTube, iFilm and about 50 other sites that don't offer a download capability.

For iFilm, the videos are in .mov format and can be played easily on your computer. For YouTube, videos are encoded using Flash video format (.flv). Flash was designed for streaming, so desktop players don’t recognize these files. To view .flv video, I recommend installing VLC media player, a cross-platform, cross media application. There are a few rough edges, but it will play in full screen model. Versions are available for the Mac, Windows and Linux. Even better, VLC can transcode (convert) flv to other formats, although the controls for this are designed for advanced users.

The most common reason for transcoding video is for portable devices like the video iPod. For PC users, a fast and simple way to accomplish this task is to use Videora iPod Converter. It doesn’t have the world’s most intuitive UI, but it had no trouble converting South Park Episode 912 to mp4 format. It also handles the more common formats like wmv, avi and mpeg-2.

Videora is Windows only, so Mac users may want to try iSquint. It supports many formats and has been getting great user reviews. It is also free.

Applications mentioned: KeepVid website, VLC media player, Videora iPod Converter for Windows, iSquint for Mac

Bonus link 1: A detailed guide for DVD to iPod conversion using Windows. Wired Magazine also published a similar recipe.
Bonus link 2:
Handbrake Lite, the only software Mac users need to accomplish the same DVD to iPod task

Friday, March 17, 2006

South Park episode 912

R Kelly tries to talk Tom Cruise out of Stan's closetSeason 10 of South Park begins Wednesday night, and to prepare for the premiere Comedy Central has been re-airing the Season 9 episodes. The re-runs were supposed to culminate with Episode 912, Trapped in the Closet but viewers were treated to the best of Chef instead. What happened to Trapped in the Closet?

Episode 912 lampoons Scientology, its story of Xenu, and Tom Cruise who is hiding in the closet in the above picture. For fans of the show that got its start with a short film where South Park Jesus battles Santa Claus (The Spirit of Christmas), the only surprise is that it has taken 9 years to devote a full episode to the religion of the stars. In between, the show has offended almost every other religious group (episode list),

Scientologists in Hollywood aren’t laughing though. Chef decided to leave the show, and Tom Cruise, the "star" of the parody, managed to block the re-run after an unsuccessful attempt to prevent its initial broadcast. He threatened to sit out the publicity tour for Paramount’s Mission Impossible 3 if Comedy Central didn’t pull episode 912. Paramount and Comedy Central are both Viacom companies.

Fortunately, in the age of the internet, it is easy to see what the controversy is all about. Watch Trapped in the Closet without commercials courtesy of YouTube. It is quite funny but it is not a classic like Chinpokomon, Chickenlover or Starvin’ Marvin. There is just not enough Cartman. His best line is: Don’t you know the first law of physics? Anything that’s fun costs at least 8 dollars.

3/19 update: E news reports on the controversy

7/12 update: Now that MI:3 has flopped and Episode 912 has received an Emmy nomination,
the ban has been lifted. "Trapped in the Closet" will re-air on Comedy Central July 19.

Bonus link 1: Watch the original TV pilot Cartman Gets and Anal Probe. It is the only episode to be animated without computer effects.
Bonus link 2:
Order the complete 7th season on DVD. It will be released on Tuesday.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

After a 15-hour outage, it seems that my blog host is (temporarily?) back online. I apologize for any inconvenience the interuption of coolness has created, and I hope that you have a wonderful St. Patrick's Day. The stunning photo is of the ruins of Rathkieran Church in County Kilkenny, Ireland (photo credit Joe Cashin via flickr)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

incredible optical illusion

Incredibly, the squares marked A and B are the same shade of grey. I've reviewed the proof, I've read the explanation, and I am still amazed. The illusion was created by MIT Professor of Vision Science Edward Adelson. You can view more of his mind-warping creations here.

Bonus link: Pixie, from Nattyware. It is a tiny free program that gives you the hex, RGB, HTML, CMYK and HSV values of any color. It is a handy utility for web design and for verifying that A and B are the same shade of grey.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

more design stores

Based on the number of emails I received, last week’s list of design resources proved to be one of my more popular posts. This week I thought I would add a few new ones. Next to each store is the item I liked best from their website.

CB2: Crate and Barrel has had a more modern, online-only sister store for several years now. Who knew? They have 2 retail locations (both in Chicago), and they have just mailed a catalog. Prices are reasonable and I imagine that the quality is comparable to C&B. The item I selected is the scaffold bookshelf. At $499 I think this is a great bargain. Click the picture to view the product page.

2modern: 2modern is online company that carries Blu Dot, Moxbox and several dozen other young designers. They sell high-quality furniture, lighting and accessories at reasonable prices. 2modern is similar to Design Within Reach, but they have many more decorative items like these stylish $60 pillows.

Atys Design: Atys is on Union Street and they stock smaller contemporary items from designers like Richard Sapper. Atys is a bit hard to find as it is back off the street, but it is a great stop for gift shopping. Pictured is the Carl Mertens waiter's corkscrew. It is beautifully machined and it is my choice for opening a bottle of wine.

architectural elements: ae is a new shop on Valencia. It is very modern and somewhat expensive. Its website has pictures of many catalog items, but there are a number of things in the store not on their website. It is a fun place to stop in next time you are in the Mission.

Atys: 2149 Union St # B, San Francisco, CA (415) 441-9220
Architectural Elements: 573 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA (415) 252-8370

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

budget office chairs

situations leather managers chair from staplesOne of my duties at the new company is to buy furniture on a very tight budget. I like bargains, but finding a good office chair is an essential and often expensive proposition. If money were no object I would select the Freedom chair or the Leap chair. As much as I like Herman-Miller, I feel the Aeron is over-rated although the Celle chair does look interesting.

Alas, conserving money is the object, so I have been looking at Office Depot, Ikea and used furniture stores like Desk Depot and Repot Depot. After sampling scores of chairs, I found 2 that met my comfort and aesthetic standards: one new and one used.

The new chair (top right) comes from Staples, and at $89.94 delivered it is an incredible bargain. The fabric is a thin but soft leather and it is quite adjustable. The seat pad is cushy and the lower back support is excellent. I have sat in chairs many times the price that could not match its comfort and, amazingly, it comes with a 3-year warranty on the fabric and a 10-year warranty on the mechanism. This is the chair my partners and I selected for our office.

sitag task chairThe used chair (left) is made by Sitag and it is available from Better Source Liquidators in San Mateo. It is also $89, but it was once closer to $1000. Sitag products are not cheap or easy to find.

This chair has adjustable back height, arm height and arm angle, and it comes in a hip shade of orange. It would have been our conference room chair if my partners were a little less stodgy, but one of the 5 remaining can be yours for your home office. The 6th is now in my home office as I am taking a break from my stylish but stiff Eames aluminum group desk chair.

Monday, March 13, 2006

philippine brand dried mangos

100g Philippine Brand Dried Mango packageDried mangos may be the tastiest of all of the dried fruits, and Philippine Brand makes the best ones. I had a craving this evening so I headed out to Ranch 99 to buy some. They are usually available at Asian grocery stores in 100 gram bags, and Costco carries the 850 gram packages.

If you have tried them before, you will remember how sweet and addictive Philippine Brand Dried Mangos are. If you haven't tried them yet, you are in for a treat.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Skype is well established with more than 75 million registered users, 3-10 million of whom are online at any one time, so a review of the software certainly seems overdue. I could have tried it in 2003 when 12 days after launch they hit the 160,000 download mark. I could have installed it in 2004 when a friend’s company invested in Skype. Or, I could have investigated the Skype hype in 2005 when another friend’s company purchased Skype for $2.6 billion. But, I didn’t. As much as I like to pretend to be on the cutting edge of technology, it was only on Friday that I placed my first Skype call.

Not having any overseas friends, I lacked a compelling reason to explore internet telephony. I haven’t gotten any more popular, but I do have partners I would like to conference call, and one of those partners is a world traveler. Skype meets my budgetary requirements as it is completely free and it quality is quite remarkable.

Skype is cross-platform (Mac, PC, Linux, Pocket PC) and it is very easy to set up. Just run the installer, create a Skype login and plug in a headset. For laptop users, the last step is very simple: put the microphone mini-plug in the line-in jack and the speaker mini-plug in the line-out or headphone jack. Those with desktops might have to open an access door in the front or find the connections in the back.

Alternately, you can also take the approach I followed and add a USB headset. This creates a second audio device to assign to certain applications. With my current set-up, all audio is played through my speakers (or headphones when I plug them in). The ringing sound of an incoming Skype call also goes through the main audio system, but when I establish a Skype connection my headset handles the audio for the call while all other sounds continue to route through my soundcard and speakers.

Skype lets you call computer-to-computer for free and the application is self-configuring. I experienced no glitches or complexities running the installer on my home PC. When talking, it is full duplex (parties can talk at the same time) and it supports conference calls of at least 5 people. To place a call, add the Skpye name of the party you want to reach to your phone book and click the green button, the same one you use to accept a call. Should you need them, Skype's help materials are excellent.

Skype is testing a new free feature for video calls, and for a small fee you can take advantage of premium services. They offer: SkypeOut, the ability to call any land or cell phone number with Skype for a per minute charge; SkypeIn, your own phone number that can be called from any traditional phone; and, voice mail, currently free with the purchase of a SkypeIn number. Like all smart telco’s, they also sell ringtones but they haven’t cut any deals with major labels yet.

I haven’t tried the premium services but I can’t encourage you strongly enough to download Skype if you want to save on your long distance or conference call bills. Suggest that friends, family and colleagues do the same, or buy some SkypeOut minutes, and have fun talking while saving money.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

some bloke called pete tong

For millions of radio listeners in the UK and millions more around the world tuning in via the internet, the weekend officially starts at 18:00GMT Friday when Pete Tong hits the airwaves on BBC Radio 1. I’ve been listening to the on-demand webcasts most weeks for the past 5 years: ten years fewer than he has been hosting the Essential Selection. In doing so Pete Tong has become the world’s most influential DJ.

Tong, then a part-time DJ, began his professional career in 1979 as a music journalist, but his eye for spotting the next big thing earned him a job in A&R for London Records. While keeping up with his DJ hobby, his career advanced at London; first when he was tapped to head A&R and then when he founded the influential FFRF Records. But, his big break came in 1991 when he secured the Friday night spot on BBC Radio 1.

The music he played then was likely Chicago house and early techno with a little rare groove mixed in, but Tong’s ability to stay ahead of shifts in dance music, blend styles and spot quality has kept him at the top of his profession. He plays gigs weekly around the world at the most fashionable clubs and he maintains a popular summer residency at Pacha in Ibiza, but his real genius is the weekly Essential Selection.

There are dance DJs with better technical skills (James Zabiela and Sasha come to mind) and DJs that might be more famous internationally (Tiesto and Oakenfold perhaps), but no one programs new music better or has Tong's power to break artists. In the world of progressive, house and electro, a play by Pete Tong means everything. And, a pick as the essential new tune guarantees UK chart success.

The format of the 3-hour show is somewhat diverse. Occasionally there are soon-to-be hits from alternative and hip-hop alongside dance tracks, there are a few interviews with Pete’s DJ friends, and it always ends with a 30-minute mix. But, he plays the most up-front (English term for new) tunes on the air. Most everything is weeks to months away from an official release or even promotional distribution, a result that can be frustrating when I hear a song I have to have.

I could try to describe his show more or list his current favorite tracks, but the best way to appreciate Pete Tong is to listen to his music, especially the first 90 mintes of yesterday's amazing Essential Selection. If you like club music (or if you have an open mind) give it a try. And, when you have finished with the Essential Selection check out Pete's new Tongcast (a 30-minute podcast released this Thursday). Better yet, sample tonight’s just-completed live DJ set from Lush in Northern Ireland. A live Essential Mix is rare and Tongy was in top form. But hurry, the on-demand audio is only available for 7 days before being replaced by the new week's shows.

Listen again to the 3/10 Essential Selection on BBC Radio 1 and view the tracklist

Listen again to the 3/12 Essential Mix live from Lush. Pete plays the second hour
Tongcast 7 from iTunes

Friday, March 10, 2006

old port lobster shack

naked lobster roll at old port lobster shackMy friend James D. is a man of discerning taste and carefully chosen words, and his approval is hard to obtain. So, when I received an email from him this afternoon touting the lobster rolls at Old Port Lobster Shack (OPLS), it was clear where I would be having dinner this evening.

OPLS opened recently in a small strip mall off Veterans Blvd in Redwood City. For those familiar with the area, it is directly across the street from the Bay Area Bank building. Its décor is nautical and casual, and you order at the main counter. The relaxed atmosphere and menu items like a classic hot dog and the grilled cheese sandwich should make it a perfect place to satisfy kids while the adults indulge.

When Lisette and I arrived at OPLS it was 8:45. As it turns out, they close at 8p, but the amazingly friendly staff took our order anyway. We had a tough decision to make as OPLS offers both the classic lobster salad roll (with mayonnaise, lemon juice, chives, salt and pepper) and the naked lobster roll. To most accurately assess the quality of the lobster, we went naked.

Naked consists of a fresh, medium sized New England style bun, lightly toasted. A generous amount of large lobster chunks are added to the roll, and both drawn butter and mayo are served on the side. This lets you add just the right amount of your favorite fat to compliment the succulent lobster, and the result is fantastic. Their lobster approaches New England-coast-in-summer flavor.

The roll comes with chips and cole slaw that is quite authentic. And, to accompany the meal they offer a delightful choice of drinks. I tried Capt’n Eli’s Root Beer from Portland, Maine, but a number of other unique sodas caught my eye. The Capt’n came through for me with its wonderfully rooty flavor and a nice little kick on the finish.

It is rare that I am this enthusiastic about a place after only one visit, and I can’t wait to go back to sample more of their menu. I’m confident their “chowdah” is going to be a star, I have high hopes for the fish and chips, and I really want to try their bread pudding. But, mostly I just want more lobster roll.

When deciding whether to buy something do you sometimes look at the dollar amount and translate it into other units, like “it’s 20 CDs” or “it’s a trip to the French Laundry”? From now on my new price metric will be lobster rolls at the Old Port Lobster Shack .

Bonus link: The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli

Old Port Lobster Shack: 851 Veterans Blvd, Redwood City, CA (650) 366-2400
Monday – Saturday 11-3 / Tuesday – Saturday 5-8

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Yahoo! Widgets

Today I’ve been playing with Yahoo! Widgets. Version 3.0 is an update of Konfabulator, which Yahoo! purchased last summer, and I have concluded that it is a very useful program. Yahoo! Widgets are small applications that perform specific tasks, e.g. track system resources, display time and date, and retrieve information like stock quotes. What makes them cool is that they are always on and integrated in a framework that controls their UI in unique ways. For each widget you can set opacity and decide when it should be displayed.

Apple users are accustomed to these features as widgets were first available for the Mac, but Konfabulator was early in bringing this coolness to the PC. When I tried it a year ago I thought it was more flash than substance, but now I find that it is a productivity booster for my home machine.

I have 3 widgets set to always display: a CPU meter, a Yahoo! mail checker that alerts me to new messages and a trash basket. The last isn’t useful but it does look cool. I also have 4 more widgets set to appear whenever I press F8. It is these that are the most helpful.

When I worked for a company larger than my present 5-person startup I had Outlook running and connected to Exchange constantly. As a result, my calendar, contacts, notes and email were always 1 click away. Now that I am using more web services, I miss that convenience. But, with Yahoo! Widgets once I press F8, a calendar, my schedule and contacts instantly appear and everything else temporarily fades into the background. Having fast access to a calendar is reason alone to download the program, but I’ve also added a widget that checks the weather forecast. A picture of my “konposed” desktop is above right.

Installation and operation of Yahoo! Widgets is very easy, and there are thousand of widgets to choose from, including some slick ones that monitor wi-fi connections, track battery usage, get news and control iTunes. Others display pictures, show movie schedules, check traffic or launch searches. Still others provide calculators, play games, access web radio or generate maps. As the API is open, the only limits are in the imaginations of the developers. For laptops, my favorites are the mini series.

Yahoo! Widgets works on both Apple and Microsoft systems. Microsoft has their own widget engine and some widgets available now for use with Live! and Apple has released the dashboard.

an awesome table lamp

While reviewing my contemporary design resources, I stumbled upon this amazing series of table lamps. There are five in all and each is a variation on tape size, color or state of rewind. The cassettes are in their cases, and neon is used as the light source.

The cassette table lamps were designed by Transparent House, a local firm but, sadly, there is no information yet on price or availability. I added my name to their mailing list; when I find out more I will post an update. (via apartment therapy LA)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

contemporary design resources

One of the topics I thought I would blog more about is design. To make up for my lack of posts in this area I decided to share some of my favorite resources for home accessories and furnishings. These are places I browse for inspiration and shop for gifts and for me. I hope you find these lists helpful.

7 design-focused blogs
MoCo Loco
cool hunting
apartment therapy
better living through design

8 stylish San Francisco stores
EQ3: 540 9th St, San Francisco, CA (415) 552-2626
Limn: 290 Townsend St, San Francisco, CA (415) 543-5466
Knoll: 317 Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA (415) 837-2100
Vitra: 557 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA(415) 296-0711
Propeller: 555 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA (415) 701-7767
Ligne Roset: 162 King St, San Francisco, CA (415) 777-1030
Zinc Details: 1905 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA (415) 776-2100
Design Within Reach: 455 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA (415) 837-3940
(and other Bay Area locations)

9 interesting online shops
unica home
Design Public
Room & Board
shop composition

and one bonus: 2modern has both an online store and a good blog

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

x-men 3: the last stand

x-men 3: the last stand is 2 ½ months away, but a 2 minute 28 second action-packed trailer debuted last night. You can download it in 480p, 720p and 1080p HD formats. As the resolution of 1080p is 1900x1080, the 720p version is recommended for most systems.

Bonus link: more HD content for XP / Window Media 10 users and a great source for 1080p clips for Apple users

Epic 2015

Via Techcrunch, a great site for tracking web 2.0 developments, comes a pointer to Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson’s excellent Flash animation: Epic 2015.

Created in late 2004 and then updated in 2005, Epic 2015 it is a “history” of the web that includes the launch of Amazon in 1994, the creation of Google in 1998, their merger into Googlezon in 2008, and the news wars of 2010. It is about 8 minutes long, expertly produced and quite thought provoking. News, what is it and how we receive it, seems to be changing even faster that Robin and Matt predict.

Watch Epic 2015.

a day in the life of natalie portman

Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell, the genius creators of Lazy Sunday, were at it again Saturday night. The lyrics are not exactly safe for work but they as funny as the premise: Natalie Portman as a gansta rapper. NBC and DevilDucky host the SNL short film.

Bonus link 1: Andy Samberg’s dudes website
Bonus link 2: urban dictionary, useful for "yak" and "yay"

Monday, March 06, 2006

Hayao Miyazaki

Academy award winner Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest living directors and the force behind Studio Ghibli, the premier animation production company in Japan.

Miyazaki has been making brilliant films since the early 1980s, but only his most recent movies have had theatrical releases in the US. I saw both Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle in the theater, but over the past several months I have been catching up with his older films with this DVD box set from Hong Kong. (My thanks to Stephen for the long-term loan!)

Miyazaki’s creations are beautifully animated and scored, and they often feature strong, young female characters, magical creatures and fanciful flying machines. Miyazaki is master storyteller, and he weaves environmentalism, Shintoism and pacifism themes into the fabric of his films. They are perfect for children (and feature a mythology complex enough to challenge adults), but as I have been watching the original Japanese with subtitles (not so good for kids) I was unaware that there were dubbed versions as well.

Disney, in partnership with Studio Ghibli, has been producing DVDs for the US market that contain both the original Japanese language soundtracks and newly dubbed English soundtracks. After several delays, the final three in the Miyazaki catalog will be released tomorrow:

Howl's Moving CastleHowl’s Moving Castle (2004) (dvd: 3/7/2006) (trailer) (directed by Miyazaki)
Whisper of the Heart (1995) (dvd: 3/7/2006) (written by Miyazaki)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) (dvd: 3/7/2006)

The previous DVDs with dual soundtracks are:

Whisper of the HeartSpirited Away (2001) (Disney) (dvd: 4/15/2003) (trailer)*
Princess Mononoke (1997) (dvd: 12/19/2000) (Miramax)*
Porco Rosso (1992) (dvd: 2/22/2005) (Disney)
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) (dvd: 4/15/2003) (Disney)
Castle in the Sky (1986) (dvd: 4/15/2003) (Disney)*
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1985) (dvd: 2/22/2005) (Disney)*

All of the movies are written and directed by Miyazaki (except where noted) and they are wonderful. Although they are not directly comparable, the quality of Miyazaki's work equals Disney at its finest. An * marks my favorites, an assessment The Cartoon Network evidently agrees as they will air these four Miyazaki classics over the next month:

My Neighbor Totoro (2-Disc Set)Spirited Away - March 18
Princess Mononoke - March 25
Castle in the Sky - April 1
Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind - April 8

Set your Tivo’s and fill up your Netflix queues as these are all highly recommended. And, don't be surpirised when you hear a few famous voices. Phil Hartman, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Keaton, Anna Paquin and many others play characters on the Disney DVDs.

Bonus link 1: an excellent fan site with a synopsis, script, reviews and FAQs for each Studio Ghibli film
Bonus link 2: a trailer for Tales from Earthsea, Miyazaki’s newest project