Tuesday, October 31, 2006


HBO, creators of my favorite television show The Wire, have teamed with the BBC to produce Rome, an epic series that begins with Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. With a lavish 5-acre set in Italy, thousands of extras, a deep cast of 15 primary actors, and a budget exceeding $100 million, creators Bruno Heller, John Milius and William McDonald bring Rome circa 52 B.C to life and tell a complex story on a truly grand scale.

Rome is filled with intrigue, politics, sex, violence and precisce historical details. It commands your attention from the opening scene, and it is extremely addictive. The acting is especially brilliant, and standouts are: Ray Stevenson as Legionnaire Titus Pullo, a fighter of extreme efficiency and power; Kevin McKidd as Centurion Lucius Vorenus, a man with unflagging faith in and loyalty to the Republic; Polly Walker as the scheming Atia of the Julii; and, the wise beyond his years Max Pirkis as Atia’s son, Gaius Octavian.

The 12 hour-long episodes of Season 1 first aired in 2005 and are available in a lavish 6-dvd set (Amazon). The best of the special features are “All Roads Lead to Rome,” onscreen captions that explain facets of Ancient Roman life, and I suggest you enable this when you watch. Season 2 begins on HBO in January. Much thanks to Bill for introducing me to this fantastic program.

Monday, October 30, 2006


It has been a while since I mentioned The New Yorker. There has been excellent content in recent issues, but little of it has been available online. The newest magazine corrects this problem as John Seabrook’s profile of Will Wright has just been posted at the newyorker.com.

Game Master
Can Will Wright reinvent the video game again?
by John Seabrook
Issue of 2006-11-06, Posted 2006-10-30

In 1989 Will Wright created revolution in the video game industry with SimCity, and he continued to evolve the genre through 2000 with The Sims. Since then he has been working on his next masterpiece: Spore, a game of evolution with a novel online component. Seabrook describes Spore, its designer and its backer (Electronic Arts) with insight and precision. It’s a great read, even for those who lack interest in gaming.

Bonus link 1: Video of Will Wright demo-ing Spore in 2005 and promotional footage of the game from 2006
Bonus link 2: More
Spore details via Wikipedia

Sunday, October 29, 2006

sigalert traffic information

There are few things cooler than avoiding commuter congestion. Previously I have written about 511.org, a real-time traffic information service for the Bay Area but, thanks to Bill, I have found another option: Sigalert.com.

Both 511.org and Sigalert.com get their information from the same sources (Caltrans, the CHP and SpeedInfo), but Sigalert has three interesting features that make it worth checking out. First, it covers Northern and Southern California, a bonus for my friends in the south. Second, it has better UI (assuming you aren’t bothered by the ads). With 511.org you need to click to drill down on the map for critical details. At Siglalert, information appears as you mouse-over – a much faster alternative. Finally, with Sigalert, you can compare alternate routes.

Note: Sigalert also offers a $20/year ad-free service that delivers updates via phone and email, provides greater customization and lets you view cameras. Camera feeds are free at 511.org, and 511 has just introduced its own route finder feature.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

the prestige

Early in The Prestige (trailer, official site), Michael Caine as Cutter, a designer of illusions, explains:

Every great magic trick consists of 3 acts. The first act is called the Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary but, of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called the Turn. The magician makes this ordinary something do something extraordinary.

Now you’re looking for the secret but you won’t find it. That’s why there is a third act called the Prestige. This is the part with the twist and turns; where lives hang in the balance. And, you see something shocking you have never seen before.

This is the approach screenplay writers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have created in honing the plot of the movie. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the director of Batman Begins and Memento, The Prestige is masterpiece of illusion, misdirection and stunning conclusion.

In the Prestige, the story isn’t linear. Rather a series of flashbacks advance the action. The pledge is the emergence of a rivalry between friends and fellow magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). In the turn, the rivalry becomes a war and Scarlett Johansson as Olivia and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla join the battle. And, the prestige? I can’t reveal the details, but it is everything Cutter promises and it is why you must go see this film.

The characters in The Prestige are not likeable or particularly deep. However, the acting is uniformly outstanding, and the magic is a fantastic backdrop for the complex and suspenseful storyline. Ricky Jay and Michael Weber served as consultants.

Bonus link 1: The Secret Life of Harry Houdini
Bonus link 2: the “War of Currents

Friday, October 27, 2006

great pizza in the city

Little Star Pizza has been praised by the Chronicle, the Guardian, the SF Weekly, SF Magazine and 294 Yelp’ers. The have also just opened a second location in the Mission (the first is NOPA), and the guys checked it out last night.

Little Star is justifiably famous for their Chicago-style deep dish pizza. We tried the Little Star (spinach, ricotta, feta, mushrooms, onion and garlic) and the Classic (sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers and onions), and we agree that it rivals the best the Bay Area has to offer (Patxi’s, Zachary’s). A Little Star would not be out of place if they opened in the Windy City. We also ordered 2 thin crust pizzas as an appetizer. I liked the White Pie (olive oil, mozzarella, zucchini, fresh tomatoes and feta) and Hansel gave a NY thumbs up to a cheese and mushroom.

Little Star’s interior is simple but hip, appropriate for the guys or dates. They serve a nice variety of beers (Racer 5 IPA, Boont Amber, Red Seal …), and they have a jukebox with diverse, eclectic selections appealing to fans of both the Streets and Neutral Milk Hotel. Zel was grooving to Q-Tip, Brad was enjoying the Bowie, Scott was pleased with the Death Cab, Mikey Mike dug the Wilco and I was happy to hear some Smiths. Little Star is open Tuesday – Sunday, they are cash only and they do not take reservations.

Little Star (original location): 846 Divisadero St, San Francisco, CA (415) 441-1118
Little Star (new edition): 400 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA (415) 551-7827

Thursday, October 26, 2006

fan ho 100 photographs

Fan Ho is a 70 year old Chinese photographer and director who divides his time between San Jose, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Called the Ansel Adams of Hong Kong, Fan Ho has a brilliant eye for composition and master skills as a printer. His photography has earned him many awards, been featured at many exhibitions and resides in the permanent collection of SFMOMA.

A retrospective of his work entitled “Fan Ho 100 Photographs” (images) is on display in Palo Alto at Modernbook through November 2. Most of the prints are vintage from the 1950s on silver gelatin and they feature people and scenes from Hong Kong. Modernbook has also published Hong Kong Yesterday, a 112 page cloth bound collection of Fan Ho’s gorgeous early work. Stop by the great store and enjoy these wonderful photographs.

Modernbook: 494 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA (650) 327-6325

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

the top 5 recording artists from the 1970s

In the 80’s I had little love for the music of the previous decade. I associated it with corporate rock bands with travel-themed names (Boston, Kansas, Journey, Chicago and Foreigner), concerts where a contact high was unavoidable (The Grateful Dead) and the disco backlash.

I didn’t see the creativity as (talented) holdovers from the 60’s (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney) dominated the airwaves during the decade. And, I liked but never loved the groups followed suit by rocking hard and partying harder: AC/DC, Aerosmith, Van Halen… I did enjoy pop artists like Rod Stewart, Elton John, Billy Joel, and The Carpenters, but you knew that from this post.

In retrospect, the 70’s were a time of tremendous creativity and diversity. There were the singer/songwriters in their prime: Paul Simon, James Taylor, Van Morrison and John Denver to name a few. And, the 70’s also provided fuel for an explosion of R&B, funk and soul: James Brown, Parliament, The Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, Sly and the Family Stone and many, many others.

The 70’s incubated the more avante guard like: David Bowie, Lou Reed/Velvet Underground, Brian Eno/Roxy Music and Nick Drake. And, the end of the decade developed into the most interesting period as bands beginning with “The” in their names (The Cars, The Police, The Talking Heads, and, most influentially, The Clash and The Sex Pistols) were creating punk and new wave. Elvis Costello, Blondie, Kraftwerk, Devo and Joy Division helped out too.

Last week at Guy’s Night Out we were discussing this and we attempted to identify the top 5 artists of the 1970s. The only rule was that the individual or band had to have recorded the bulk of their best known work from 1970 to 1980. Even after many margaritas, no consensus was possible.

There were Who fans, Rush fans and some votes for Skynard, Frampton and Kiss. After all, who doesn’t want to Rock & Roll all night and party every day. I’m sympathetic to arguments for each of these, but in a list sure to generate comments and controversy, here are my Top 5 Artists of the 70s with some suggested purchases, starting with 5 that just missed the cut:

Just outside the top 5

Bruce Springsteen – 5 studio albums 1973-1980 including 1975’s amazing Born to Run. Classic songs such as Blinded By The Light, Rosalita, Thunder Road, Jungleand, Badlands, the River and Born to Run. If only Nebraska had been released earlier, Bruce would have been a lock.

Born To Run (1975, re-issued 2005)

Willie Nelson – a dozen studio albums in the decade, countless hits penned for other artists and classic recordings of his own with Whiskey River, Funny How Time Slips Away, Crazy, Me and Paul and On the Road Again. The more I listed to Willie, the more I like him.

Red Headed Stranger (1975, remastered 2000)
Willie and Family Live (recorded 1978, remastered 2003)

Bee-Gees – 3 brothers, 13 albums before 1980 and 11 US/UK #1 hits: Massachusetts, I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, Jive Talkin’, You Should Be Dancing, How Deep is Your Love, Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever, Too Much Heaven, Tragedy, Love You Inside Out.

Number Ones (remastered 2004)

Queen – 9 studio albums 1973-1980 and big singles with Bohemian Rhapsody, Somebody to Love, We Are the Champions, We Will Rock You, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Fat Bottomed Girls, Another One Bites the Dust and Love of My Life. Was there ever a band with a better lead singer?

Queen – the Platinum Collection (3 CD set, released 2002)

Pink Floyd – 741 weeks on the Billboard Chart with Dark Side of the Moon. Other great albums in the 70’s included Wish You Were Here and The Wall. Hits: Money, Wish You Were Here, Comfortably Numb, Is There Anybody Out There and Another Brick in the Wall. We were too young in the 70’s to appreciate Floyd and we are too sober now; still it hurts to leave them out.

The Wall (1979, remastered 2000)

Now, the Top 5 (unordered)

Led Zeppelin – 9 studio albums 1969-1979 and tracks like You Shook Me, Whole Lotta Love, Immigrant Song, Tangerine, Heartbreaker, Rock and Roll, Black Dog, When the Levee Breaks, Stairway to Heaven and Kashmir make them it impossible to leave them off the list. I don’t love guitar-driven stadium rock (as you might have guessed from the omissions from this list) but Zeppelin is the sound of the 1970s.

Led Zeppelin Remasters (2 CD set, released 2003)

Abba – 7 studio albums and 2 greatest hits compilations 1973-1980. Songs we all know the words to include: Waterloo, I Do, SOS, Mama Mia, Fernando, Dancing Queen, Money, Knowing Me, The Name of the Game, Take a Chance on Me, Chiquita, Gimmie! Gimmie! Gimmie! and The Winner Takes It All. You have to give the Swedes props.

Gold: Greatest Hits (remastered 1993)
Oro: Grandes Exitos (all the hits in Spanish)

The Eagles – 6 studio albums and smash hits with Take It Easy, Witchy Woman, Already Gone, Best of My Love, One of These Nights, Lyin’ Eyes, Take It to the Limit, Life in the Fast Lane, Hotel California, Ole ’55, Heartache Tonight and The Long Run proved that Americans could sell records too.

The Very Best of The Eagles (2 CD set, remastered 2003)

Fleetwood Mac – the best VH1 Behind the Music group ever. Drugs, sex, scandal, 11 studio albums with 2 different lineups, and enduring hits with Over My Head, Rhiannon, Say You Love Me, Landslide, Go Your Own Way, Dreams, Don’t Stop, You Make Loving Fun, Tusk and Sara.

Rumors (1977, remastered 2004)
The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac (2 CD set, released 2003)

Bob Marley 14 albums 1970-1980, countless hits including every track on Legend: Is This Love, No Woman No Cry, Could You Be Loved, Three Little Birds, Buffalo Soldier, Get Up Stand Up, Stir It Up, One Love, People Get Ready, I Shot the Sherriff, Waiting in Vain, Redemption Song, Exodus and Jamming.

Legend (remastered 2002)

Bonus link1: Need some ammunition for your own list? Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums of all time
Bonus link 2: Just watch this video of classic album covers fighting it out. The artist is man vs. magnetand it is incredible. If I can learn more about the animation technique it may become its own cool thing.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

things got really serious when he added stickers

Meet Red Victor 1, the fastest accelerating street-legal car in the world. Based on a 1972 Vauxhall Victor, it rockets 0-60 mph in an astounding 1 second - on normal gas! For comparison purposes, a Ferrari Enzo takes 3.3 seconds, a McLaren reqires 3.4 and a Saleen S7 3.3.

The 9.3 liter, twin-turbo V-8 produces 2200 hp and screams through the quarter mile in 7.8 seconds. And, the best part is that it was all built by one man in his garage. Serious speed has a serious price: about $180,000 in parts, not to mention thousands of hours of Andy Frost’s time, and about 5 mpg at the pump.

An alternate link for the video in case there are problems with the one above.

Monday, October 23, 2006

the iPod

My 80GB model is only a few days old, but the iPod turned 5 today. We thought we would celebrate the big event with a few links:

-The Business Standard has details on the iPod’s dominance. 72% of the US market, 39 million sold in last 12 months, 68 million users overall.
-Wikipedia has a
comprehensive description of the features, specifications and accessories for each model introduced so far.
-YouTube has Steve Job’s original
product announcement on October 23, 2001.

Finally, Wired Magazine has a great article on the design process that created the iPod. Happy Birthday little friend!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

natalie merchant at west 54th

First as the lead signer for 10,000 Maniacs and then as a solo artist, Natalie Merchant created a series of critically acclaimed (and popular) albums.

Browse the collections of music fans in their 20s and 30s and your likely to find 10,000 Maniacs: MTV Unplugged (the band's last release, a live “best of”) and Tigerlily (Natalie’s first release on her own and home to the hits Wonder and Jealousy).

I’ve always been partial to the lush production on Ophelia, Natalie’s second album, but my favorite is the recording she made for David Byrne’s Sessions at West 54th. From 1997 to 1999, Sessions at West 54th aired on PBS and featured artists like Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Daniel Lanois and Keb’ Mo’ playing at Sony’s studios in New York. In November of 1998 it was Natalie’s turn to talk with and play for her friend. The set list was outstanding (and wonderfully surprising) and the performance is exceptional. She sang:

Break Your Heart (from Ophelia)
Peace, Love and Understanding (a cover of the Elvis Costello classic)
Wonder (from Tigerlily)
Gulf of Araby (a cover of a Katell Keinig song)
When They Ring the Golden Bells (from Ophelia)

Susan McKeown joined for the last two tracks.

Picking among these is hard. I wish Sony would relase the full performance to iTunes or issue an EP but, from the concert, only Wonder is available. It is on a Sessions compilation. Perhaps there was reluctance because Wonder and Gulf of Araby are on 1999’s Live in Concert, but I feel the versions are not as good as for West 54th. I was considering the beautiful Golden Bells (my favorite Natlaie song) or the sad Break Your Heart; however, they are superb on Ophelia as well. So, with November approaching, I opted for songs based on message:

The Gulf of Araby (live at West 54th, 11-1998)
Peace, Love and Understanding (live at West 54th, 11-1998)

I hope that you enjoy these very rare tracks. As always, they are available for a limited time.

Bonus link 1: a profile of Katell Keineg in a recent New York Times Magazine
Bonus link 2: For those wishing to catch up with Natalie Merchant, there is a new

I captured the concert direct to hard disk from DSS during a Trio Network rebroadcast and used Sound Forge to remove DC hum and low-level noise. Although I think that the results are good, if someone has a board copy I’d love to have access to it.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


West coast rapper and Pimp My Ride car customizer Xzibit is back with a new album: Full Circle. He is at Slim’s tonight performing, and before the show he was on KMEL promoting.

Xzibit has been involved in a number of feuds with other artists, most intensely with Jermaine Dupri (dis track) and perhaps most publicly with Usher. At the MTV Europe video awards in 2004 X introduced Usher with a joke that seemed to imply that the very popular with the ladies Usher Raymond might be friendly with the men as well. Usher fired back saying, "I can get more girls than you ever will."

Apparently Usher decided to prove it as well by stealing X’s fiance Eishia Brightwell (photo). X discusses the matter in a typically straightforward fashion on Full Circle. The song, not surprisingly, is titled Scandalous B****es.

Scandalous B****es (available for a very limited period)

If you like the song, and what’s not to like about X’s delivery and reference to Gold Digger, buy Full Circle from Amazon. Too $hort and DJ Quik are among X's many friends who make guest appearances.

Friday, October 20, 2006

shawshank in a minute

JibJab, the brilliant creators of This Land, the best thing that happened during the 2004 Presidential Election, and Second Term, the funny and sad follow-up, have something new up their sleeves. Together with director John Landis and 6 independent comedy teams, they launched The Great Sketch Experiment today. There are 6 law enforcement-themed short films in all; Shawshank in a Minute is my favorite. As the title suggests, it recaps The Shawshank Redemption in a 2 ½ minute rap. “Morgan Freeman” gets the best lines, but the writing is uniformly sharp.

Bonus link: more very funny videos from the Famous Last Nerds (the writers and stars of Shawshank in a Minute)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

ok go

is an Swedish rock/punk/alt band that have softened their sound a bit lately. More interestingly, they have been creating great music videos. This one for Here It Goes Again is quite enjoyable, especially when they start “speed skating.” Thanks to Meg for the tip!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

keyboard shortcuts

A post on lifehacker about CTRL+Backspace yesterday inspired me to compile a list of the key sequences in Windows I find most useful. For a long time I have used these universal commands:

CTRL+A – select all
CTRL+C – copy
CTRL+X – cut
CTRL+V – paste
CTRL+Y - redo
CTRL+Z – undo

And, lots of folks also use ALT+TAB to toggle between open windows. But, some recent discoveries include:

Windows Logo key – display the start menu
Windows Logo+D – toggle the desktop
Windows Logo+E – launch file explorer
Windows Logo+F – find files
Windows Logo+L – lock the console
Windows Logo+M – minimize all
Windows Logo+R – open the Run dialog

Finally, there are the tricks that provided the motivation for the post. In MS Word, CTRL+Backspace deletes the entire word to the left of the cursor. CTRL+Delete removes the word to the right.

Miscrosoft provides a much longer of things you can do with your keyboard that you currently do with your mouse. For Mac folks, check out this list from Apple of ways to use the Command and Option keys.

Bonus tip: highlight a file and hit F2 to rename

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

the roomba

Paul’s note: I had dinner last night with Mike, Joy, Elaine and Don. Don told us all about his new Roomba, and he was gracious enough to provide a more complete review. Previously Don has written about HDR photography. Don writes:

Since the time immemorial, people have tried to leverage technology to make their lives simpler. Some inventions intended to help turn out to be counterproductive, but as seen from our quality of life compared to our Cro-Magnon ancestors, many innovations have been improvements. As our modern lives grow increasingly complex, some of the best inventions are the ones that remove some of the less desirable tasks from our ever-growing list of things to-do.

Aside from taking out the garbage, one of my least favorite household chores has been vacuuming the floor. iRobot's Roomba, the popular robotic vacuum cleaner appeared to be a tidy solution for someone like me, and when I saw a factory refurbished Roomba White on sale at Amazon for nearly half the price of a new one, I went ahead and bought one for $159 with free Super Saver shipping.

A few days later, the Roomba arrived and I was able to quickly set it up without looking at the directions. After charging the battery, I pressed the "clean" button and the robot sprung to life with a cheery tune. I have always considered myself too pragmatic to be a pet person. Pets require (and deserve) attention and loving care. While I am not going to argue that buying a Roomba is in any way a substitute for the joy a pet can bring for most people, I have to admit that I felt a certain attachment to the little round robot as it earnestly went about its job for the first time, clunking against the legs of my furniture and emitting a plaintive bleep ("help...me...") when it got stuck on my fireplace molding. One clear benefit of the Roomba White over Fido is instead of shedding hair and tracking mud everywhere, the Roomba did a shockingly good job of sucking up dust, lint and my god am I losing that much hair??

The first time I left the Roomba to run, its dust bin filled to near capacity with debris it picked up off my hardwood living room floor. And this was only a week after our housekeeper Alma had been here and nobody in their right mind would accuse her of not cleaning up the house like a white tornado. Given that the Roomba certainly has a handicap in terms of suction power against Alma's upright Hoover (I'd say its suction is likely not much more powerful than the non-robotic DustBuster, but it is armed with a multitude of brushes for sweeping debris into its bin), I have to think that much of that dust comes from places that just don't get vacuumed all that often.

The Roomba intrepidly explores where most other vacuums rarely go, underneath the bed, into the most remote corners. You can kind of get an idea of how its "artificial intelligence" algorithms instruct it to systematically cover a room by watching it for a few minutes. It wasn't all totally fine and dandy, because, in a strangely pet-like fashion, the Roomba seems strangely attracted to cords or threads and pieces of string which it tries to ingest savagely. If you adopt, ahem, buy yourself one of these machines, make sure to keep these objects safely away. Also be wary if your household alarm system is equipped with internal motion sensors as is my house. The police are probably not above holding your robot for questioning.

The White Roomba is a slightly upgraded model compared to the original Red Roomba, and it knows a couple more tricks than its older sibling. The charger base is equipped with an IR beacon and the White Roomba is supposed to be smart enough to figure out when it is low on batteries and go back to the base and dock itself so that it's fully charged with you are ready for it to clean again. My Roomba so far has only made it back to its base twice, and each time feels like a small milestone and a strange twinge of pride stirs inside of me. Most of the time though it has run out of batteries in an odd corner of the house or under the bed. In all though, the proof of its effectiveness is found in its dust bin after each cleaning campaign. Roomba is a small step towards a more automated future. A future without vacuuming, anyways.

Bonus link: video of what one Roomba really does during the day. It is very entertaining.

Monday, October 16, 2006

software and tweaks for your new computer

I have several friends who just purchased new computers. Since I went through the set-up process not that long ago on my laptop (and since I spent all weekend fiddling with my desktop), I thought that I should share a list of tweaks and essential (free) software. My apologies to my Mac friends as this is Windows-centric.

So, you’ve unboxed that new computer. Obviously you need to plug it in and connect your peripherals (printer, scanner, etc.) but there is much more to making your machine lean and mean.

Step 0: Make sure that your machine is behind a firewall/router and running anti-virus software before connecting to the internet. Then, check for software updates from Microsoft Update and new drivers from your manufacturer’s support site.

Step 1: Uninstall the trialware and special offers your manufacturer likely dumped on your desktop. Additionally, MSN Messenger and Outlook Express are great candidates for removal.

Step 2: Get your Start Menu in order. For me that means enabling Classic view. To do this, right-click on the Start button, select Properties, and pick Classic Start menu on the Start Menu tab.

Bonus tip: While you are on the Start Menu tab, select Customize and check the boxes for Display Administrative Tools, Expand Control Panel and Expand My Documents. Also, unselect Use Personalized Menus

Step 3: Disable autorun on your CD/DVD. Trust me, this will make your life easier. Engadget has the

Step 4: Turn on ClearType, an essential move if you have an LCD and like crisp text. I have

Step 5: Install spyware defenses if they are not already on your machine. I love Lavasoft’s
Ad-Aware, and I have started using MSFT’s Windows Defender now that it is further along in Beta.

Step 6: Consider switching to
Firefox. Previously, I have mentioned at least one good reason why.

Step 7: Improve search. I recommend
Copernic for desktop search, and I can’t live without the Google Toolbar for internet search (IE, Firefox). Review Google’s privacy options carefully, though.

Step 8: Control what applications start with Windows (hint: too many). You can edit the registry directly or use a program like the Startup Inspector in

Step 9: Install TrueCrypt – the securest way to protect your sensitive files. A past post
explains more.

Step 10: Add in essential “productivity” programs like
iTunes, picasa and Skype. Once again, (at least) one cool thing is on the job with the details.

Finally, confirm that everything is working properly. Use ShieldsUP! to test your internet security, dsl reports to test the speed of your interenet connection, and benchmarking software like Sandra 2007 to check that your hardware is performing as expected.

Bonus link: more great freeware
Bonus site: lifehacker for more great tips

Sunday, October 15, 2006

elliott smith

Paul’s note: This is Scott’s fifth contribution to (at least) one cool thing. Previously he has written about television, movies, travel and a game. Today he discusses one of his favorite music artists (and, shockingly, he wasn’t signed to 4AD). Scott writes:

I'm always on the search for new music, but these days my avenues of discovery are few. But four years ago I caught a song near the end of The Royal Tenenbaums. The song was Needle in the Hay by the artist Elliott Smith.

Needle in the Hay (live at KCRW)

Surprisingly, it is not that often that I feel compelled to fast-forward to the end of a movie to find the music credits, but this song really caught my ear, and I had to find out who created it. (The next year the song was New Slang by The Shins from Garden State, a song that will not soon leave my own “stuck in the MP3 player” list).

Steven Paul Smith (official site) was born in 1969 to a slightly-mixed-up family in Nebraska, moved to Texas a year later with his then-divorced mother, and grew up in a life of suburban boredom, strife, alcoholism, and angst. As is often true in life, this unfortunate environment proved to be the crucible for development of a budding songwriter, lyricist, and musician. But it was his move to the Northwest at age 14 to be with his psychiatrist father that opened up avenues emotionally, developmentally, and musically. He quickly found an interest in the philosophical themes of his father's work, and he found inspiration in the active music scene of the area.

The thing that immediately caught me about Smith's songs were their simplicity, their softness, and yet their power. Especially in the first couple of albums, it is just he and his guitar. And yet with just voice and strings, he manages to create albums completely full of unique tunes that rarely fail to satisfy. 1994's Roman Candle (Amazon) has the brilliant No Name #3, but it is his 1995 eponymous release (Amazon) that finds him hitting his groove, with the outstanding Christian Brothers, Clementine, Southern Belle, and the previously mentioned Hay.

This is followed up in 1997 by the bigger-label release Either/Or (Amazon), which might well be considered yet another major step up, with the possible exception of the fact that many more accompanying instruments are added - removing some of the naked simplicity of his songs. Regardless, the tracks Rose Parade, Ballad of Big Nothing, Between the Bars, No Name #5, Cupid's Trick and Alameda are so perfect that I can't argue with the change in production.

Alameda (from the Either/Or demos)
Ballad of Big Nothing (from the Either/Or demos)

As alluring, melodic and catchy as his tunes are, it is his lyrics that get you to want to know more about the artist. I don't give two flips about the bands that can turn an occasional catchy riff into a hit song. But show me an artist that can manage to bare his soul, share some wisdom, and show a flair for poetry, all the while managing to maintain a power of melody, and I want to know more. In the lyrical and emotional category, Elliott Smith does not disappoint.

A survey of some of his lyrics shows the demons that haunt him: depression, alcoholism, anger, alienation, and suicide. Rarely do these themes stray far from his pen, starting at his earliest age (his first song was written at age 16). The haunting and beautiful No Name #3 on his first album is evidently in reference to fights between his mother and stepfather.

we arrived too late
you're a witness, you
you've seen me interrupt
a good old fashioned fight
so, come on night
everyone is gone
home to oblivion
Samples from the second album show he hasn't gotten all the demons out. From Christian Brothers ("nightmares become me") and Clementine:

you drank yourself into slo-mo
made an angel in the snow
anything to pass the time

Or The Biggest Lie:

i'm tired of dancing on a pot of gold flake paint
oh we're so very precious, you and i
and everything that you do makes me want to die
oh i just told the biggest lie
From Either/Or's Alameda:

you walk down alameda
shuffling your deck of trick cards over everyone
like some precious only son
face down, bow to the champion
and Rose Parade:

everyone's interest is stronger than mine
and when they clean the street
i'll be the only shit that's left behind
Future albums continued the lyrical and emotional trend, and continued the trend towards bigger production. Success came, too, including an Academy Award nomination (performance photo) for Good Will Hunting's original song Miss Misery. Throughout it all Smith's fundamentals of soul and song prevailed. His spirit, however, did not.

Perhaps 1998's Independence Day from XO (Amazon) was a presage:

you only live a day
but it's brilliant anyway
i saw you in a perfect place
it's gonna happen soon but not today
so go to sleep and make the change
i'll meet you here tomorrow
independence day
or 2000's Color Bars from Figure 8 (Amazon):

everyone wants me to ride into the sun
but i ain't gonna go down
laying low again, high on the sound
Whether foretold, or self-fulfilled, or just the power of negative thinking, Elliott Smith entered a long dark personal period after 2000's release Figure 8. Friends told of long bouts of alcoholism, drug use, deep depression, and fits of combativeness.

At times, he seemed to be coming out of the spiral, and began writing again - what would eventually become the album From a Basement on a Hill (Amazon). But it was not too much of a shock to his close friends when news was released that he died of a knife wound to his heart in October of 2003. Early autopsy reports pointed at suicide, but the final conclusion will never be definitively known. But his close friends, and his avid fans, know that he was flying a little too close to the sun to not get burned.

Elliott Smith was quoted in 2001 as having said "I don't like the idea of being buried. I would prefer to walk out into the desert and be eaten by birds." I take this as a yearning to not be forgotten, but to live on – however darkly - in the lives of others. His soul may have walked into the unknown, but his impact, his voice, his heart, live on forever.

Bonus link 1: His fantastic May 1997 performance on KCRW. Setlist: division day, angeles, needle in the hay, say yes

Bonus link 2:
Elliott Smith B-Sides, an incredible resource and source for demo versions of most of the music discussed above. Basement II is a must download as are the Either/Or demos.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

my 300th post

I’m not sure what the right increment for retrospectives is, but since I marked my 100th post and my 200th post, here is a reset of posts 201 to 299. This is 300. As always, guests continue to create some of the best content: Arrested Development, Butter and HDR Photography. And, topics covered remain eclectic.

Design: 2 Second Tent, I/O Brush, IDEO, One Bush Street, Z4 Coupe, Bikinis, FlossAction Brush Heads, Raytheon Hawker

Events and Attractions:
San Jose with Orlando, HMB Golf Links, Monet in Normandy, Pickles, USS Hornet, Outdoor Movies, Stanford Golf Course, USS Pampanito, SLAC, Vegas, Hoover Dam

Food and Drink:
Patxi’s Pizza, Lure, Hu-Chiang Dumplings, Liou’s House, Paul Hobbs Cabernet, Blue Agave, NOPA, Smith Woodhouse Port, Range, Chris’s Fish and Chips, Santa Ramen, Incanto, Cocoa Bella, White Tea Snapple, Pizzeria, Pico, Thanh Long, Dr. Bob’s Ice Cream, Chocolate Tasting, The Counter, New at the Lobster Shack, Nihon Whiskey Lounge

Jeff Klein, Summer Sambas, White Nectarines, Elvis Costello, Free iTunes, Silversun Pickups, Riding East, 12-inch Singes from Grad School, Charles Brown, The Crane Wife, Guitar, Retrobyte, Teitur, Tobias Froberg, I Walk the Line, Death Cab for Cutie, Whitney Music Box

Magazines, Movies and Television:
Syriana, The Week Magazine, Aquaman, Top 11 Chappelle Show Sketches, The Onion, SF Magazine, August 28 New Yorker, Superficial Friends, My Animated Day, Studio 60, Fearless, In God We Trust, Lo-Def Productions

Software and Technology and the Web:
Amazing Astronomical Images, Cleartype, Top 10 Lists on Forbes.com, Fuel Cell Buses, Firefox PlayTagger, Google WiFi, The Satorialist, Photsohop Tutorials, Stumbleupon, Scam-baiting, iTunes 7, Wikipedia, Cleaning MP3 Tags, Mentos and Diet Coke, Cleaner-Burning Vehicles, Fat Steve, Dell Deals

I hope you continue to enjoy (at least) one cool thing. I appreciate everyone’s comments, tips, inviations and suggestions.

Bonus link: The Pirate Puzzle

Friday, October 13, 2006

nihon whiskey lounge

Dinner tonight was at the Nihon Whiskey Lounge, an Izakaya-style restaurant that opened last fall. Nihon has been well-reviewed and lingering on my “to try” list for some time, so I was happy when Stuart rounded up the guys and secured the prime Friday reservation.

Nihon is in a bi-level space on the corner of 14th and Folsom. Downstairs is the bar with its 150 whiskeys; upstairs is a mezzanine for dining and a larger room for private events and bottle service. It is small, dark, very stylish and modern but warm. We were seated at a low, round corner table in the mezzanine, and one drawback to Nihon is that it is loud. As a group of guys who were drinking, we able to overcome the ambient noise, but if you are looking for a quiet dining experience, the hard, reflective surfaces at Nihon are unlikely to provide it.

Nihon serves small plates and sushi. We tried most of the menu and the highlights were octopus with oil and jalapeño, the decadent kobe tataki, the tuna carpaccio and the sashimi. We ordered kanpachi, wahloo, toro and salmon, and the pieces were large and very fresh. The other items we tried were good but not exceptional. The dynamite oysters have a spectacular presentation, but the hot sauce and gratin overwhelm the oysters. The kobe stewed in soy sauce, konyaku and coke is very tasty, but kobe is overkill. Short ribs would be a fine replacement. And, the rolls we sampled had many competing flavors. In the 1974 roll, for example, the lemon fought with the asparagus and spicy scallop.

Nihon has much promise. If you order well you can have one of the best Japanese meals in the city. Think of it as a cozier, loungier version of Ozumo with a large whiskey list instead of Ozumo’s extensive sake offerings. If you don’t order so well, the food can be disappointing but the atmosphere and scotch selections still make Nihon a great choice for a fun night with friends. I’m looking forward to my next visit.

Nihon: 1779 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA (415) 552-4400

Thursday, October 12, 2006

whitney music box

From KrazyDad (via Scott) is this great combination of music and visual art. Produced with Flash, the Whitney Music Box and its 17 variations are based on the ideas of John Whitney. The dots travel in a circular patter and strike different notes as they pass the white line. As KrazyDad explains:

when the pattern forms a 3-arm starfish, the chords you are hearing are diminished chords, which consist of minor thirds, an interval in which the notes are 3 chromatic steps apart. The chords you hear always bear this type of relationship to the pattern you are seeing, consisting of intervals which match the arrangement of arms.
I just think it looks cool, and I especially enjoy the stereo and the hand-cranked versions. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

death cab for cutie

I watched Drive Well Sleep Carefully tonight. Drive Well Sleep Carefully (Amazon), is a documentary that follows the band Death Cab for Cutie (myspace) during the final weeks of their 2004 North American tour. The film blends live footage from a dozen shows with scenes from the road and extensive band member interviews. It is entertaining (and it gives me a great reason to write about DCFC), but it could have been much better.

DCFC is a quartet formed in 1997 in Seattle by Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla. They established a unique art/pop sound and, as their fan base grew, they helped make Barsuk Records a major force on the indie scene. I first heard a DCFC song in the spring of 2000, and I have liked them more with each album since.

Justin Mitchell, the filmmaker, caught the right band at the right time. Their newest record (Transatlanticism) was breaking indie sales records, and DCFC was about to sign with Atlantic Records. Ben Gibbard was also enjoying great success with Jimmy Tamborello on a side project, The Postal Service. That album, Give Up (Amazon), was one of the best of 2003 (see my stuck in the cd player list on the main page) and it received much exposure. Unfortunately, neither of these topics was explored during the movie.

They guys in DCFC are nerds (in a good way), and they get along very well. They have thick rimmed glasses and wear short-sleeved shirts with ties. They don’t party very much and are always early for sound check. So, there was unlikely to be much inter-personal drama. Still, a deeper look at the economics of indie labels and internet promotion would have been interesting, as would have details on DCFC negotiations with the majors. Even more life on the road scenes (the tour bus, any extra promotion that they had to do, a meal here or there, some screaming fans, significant others?) would have made DWSC more unique.

DWSC does provide a nice introduction to the band''s music. The sound quality is pristine thanks to the band’s obsession with recording all of their shows to disk using a 16-track RADAR system, and the performances are good if not exploding with energy. You get some insight into the personalities of Ben, Chris, Nick and Jason and a few stories behind the songs, and the bonus material is solid. The highlight of the extras is an acoustic set recorded for Live 105 at the Metreon. They sing The New Year, Title and Registration, and Lightness.

So you can learn more about one of my favorite bands, here is a partial discography together with lots of links to album tracks via Barsuk and live bootlegs on archive.org:

Plans (Atlantic, 2005) (Amazon)
I Will Follow You Into the Dark (live 2006-06-16)
Soul Meets Body (live 2006-02-12)

Transatlanticism (Barsuk, 2003) (
Title and Registration
The Sound of Settling (live 2004-10-17)

The Photo Album (Barsuk, 2001) (
A Movie Script Ending
Styrofoam Plates (live 2003-03-14)
Photobooth (live 2001-06-16)
I Was a Kaleidoscope (live 2002-03-01)

We Have the Facts and We Are Voting Yes (Barsuk, 2000) (
For What Reason
The Employment Pages (live 2004-10-17)
405 (live 2000-07-22)

Something About Airplanes (Barsuk, 1998) (
Champagne from a Paper Cup
Pictures in an Exhibition (live 2000-07-22)

DCFC will be performing at Shoreline for the Bridge School Benefit October 21 and 22. Visit their main site, their old label Barsuk and Epitonic for more download goodness.

Bonus link 1: Here Comes the Rain Again (a Eurythmics cover, live 2001-11-10)
Bonus link 2:
Bad Reputation (a Freedy Johnson cover, live 2004-10-17)
Bonus link 3: Download all of the excellent 2004-10-17 show from Pontiac, MI at

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

i walk the line

A side-effect of Tivo is that it has forced advertisers to create better commercials. As I have mentioned before, one of the best ways to command attention is with interesting music, and no current ad does that better than the new series from Levi’s for their skinny jeans.

There are three versions of “Straight Walk.” In the first, Lily Aldridge walks eyes open and legs ridiculously straight through the offices and streets of Buenos Aires while the airy voice of Megan Wyler (an inexplicably unsigned artist) covers Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” Watch Straight Walk Girl on YouTube.

In the second, the product is the same but the genders are flipped. This time it is Jamie Dornan with the focused walk and gaze and Adem Ilhan of Fridge performing the cover. As with the Girl version, the music is spectacular and unavailable. Watch Straight Walk Boy on YouTube.

For the third variant, the 30-seconds spots are spliced and to form a 60-second commercial. The music is even more powerful as a duet, and it is reminiscent of the slo-core of Low. The ads were created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty and production work was completed by The Mill. Watch the couple version on YouTube.

Adweek has more details on the series.

Monday, October 09, 2006

new items at the lobster shack

Since I first profiled the Old Port Lobster Shack seven months ago I’ve had lunch there at least once a week. Usually I have the naked lobster roll or the crab caesar, but lately the menu has been expanding with specials like sole, red “chowdah” and cioppino. Friday lunch I was able to try the test batch lobster pot pie and today I had bluefish.

The lobster pot pie was delicious and well priced at $12.75. The pasty top was flaky and embossed with a lobster design, a nice touch. The filling was exactly as expected, with peas, carrots and generous amount of lobster meat. And, the bluefish, more common on the east coast but a rare find on the west coast, was an even better value at $9.75. It was pan fried, lightly spiced and served with grilled vegetables.

The Shack has been doing a great business, no doubt helped by great reviews in the Mercury News, the Chronicle and San Francisco Magazine. If you haven’t been in a while, swing on by. Inconsistencies in the kitchen and service present right at the opening have been smoothed out, and they now are serving a Maine classic for dessert: blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream ($5).

The Old Port Lobster Shack: 851 Veterans Blvd, Redwood City, CA (650) 366-2400

Sunday, October 08, 2006

lo-def productions

As embarrassing as this is to admit, I have a few friends who attended the University of California at Berkeley. They will enjoy this brilliant new advertisement for the Sony SXRD line of 1920x1080 displays. For those who attended the school across the bay, it is painful to watch, but even in “lo-def” it is is obvious how many illegal laterals and blocks they were on “The Play.”

The masochists among us may want to review the complete call. It is 6:46 long and highlights John Elway’s amazing drive (starting with a 4th and 17 conversion) and one of the most exciting finishes in sports' history.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

the counter

I had lunch at The Counter this afternoon. The Counter specializes in burgers and just opened on California in Palo Alto. Its original location is in Santa Monica, and its move north has been eagerly anticipated.

The Counter has a 1-page menu with a genius twist – build your own burgers. They give you a sheet of paper, a pencil (no eraser) and lots of choices. Step 1a: pick your patty. Cow, turkey, chicken and veggies are all available. Step 1b: select a size. Increments are in thirds of a pound.

Step 2: choose a cheese. Ten are offered, including Gruyere and goat. Step 3: pick up to four toppings from the list of 18 . I opted for grilled onions, roasted peppers, mixed baby greens and roasted chiles. If my co-worker Bill had been with me, I know he wouldn’t have skipped the grilled pineapple.

Step 4: select a sauce. There are 17 to choose from. And, step 5: pick a bun. For those who have trouble deciding, they do have signature combinations. The full list of options is here.

I really enjoyed my burger but was surprised to find that the turkey was even better. Next trip I want to try the chicken breast and, when you go, don’t miss the sweet potato fries. They are excellent.

The Counter: 369 California Avenue, Palo Alto, CA (650) 321-3900

Friday, October 06, 2006

dell deals

Dell Dimension 5150.  Note the air intake in fromYesterday morning the motherboard on my home computer failed. Today I have been pondering my options: buy a completely new system, try to replace the motherboard with another socket 478 design or upgrade the major components. I’ll likely elect the last option as I am very fussy about these things, but pricing out processors, memory, motherboards and power supplies has helped me realize how a good a deal you can get from Dell Computers when you get a little help from sites like dealnews, slickdeals and techbargains.

Two weeks ago we needed to order a pair of cheap but flexible computers for testing at work, and I decided on Dell Dimension 5150s. The 5150 is a moderately powered machine running a dual-core Pentium D. We didn’t need expensive extras, but we did opt for 1GB of RAM in each. Amazingly, together with crisp 19” LCD displays, the total cost was $590 each including tax and shipping thanks to a handy coupon.

That is a great value. If you were to assemble your own, and you purchased every component for the lowest possible internet price, you would still pay much more. At Newegg, my favorite computer e-tailer, the processor is $90, a motherboard with similar Intel chipset is $70, and memory is $100. Add in $30 for the dvd drive, $50 for the hard drive, $100 for a case and power supply of comparable quality, and $90 for an OEM version of Windows XP. With $225 for a basic 19” monitor, the total plus tax comes to $817, a significant increase in cost.

Dell Dimension 5150 with side panel removed.  Note the 12cm front fan and shroud over the CPU cooler.  Note also the rear of the case and cable managementWith the parts from Newegg, you would have to assemble them yourself and install the OS from scratch. With Dell, they handle the hard work. Cables are routed cleanly, the OS comes with the latest service pack and there isn’t too much bad software to uninstall.

I like quiet machines, and I was impressed with the build quality and case design of the 510. The hard drive Dell selected has a good acoustic signature and the thick steel case features great airflow. The 5150 has only 1 fan, a large, slow turning 12cm fan that pulls air in the front and, using a shroud, pushes it over the fins of a heat pipe design CPU cooler. The result is a low noise design that could become quieter still with a cardboard duct to insure that the power supply has lots of fresh air.

If you need a new machine, the deal is back on the Dimension 5150 (courtesy of dealnews). And, there is an even better bargain on the Dimension 9200. The 9200 has a faster processor (the Intel Core Duo 2 E6300, $100 more at newegg) improved graphics ($50 for the card) and a slightly better LCD display for $679. Shipping is free but tax brings the total to $735.