Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Tivo recorded about 180 hours of Olympics for us, sometimes more than 20 hours in a day. We’re almost done watching the recordings, four days after the closing ceremonies, and we were certainly able to see more Olympics this way than we ever have in the past. I used to hate watching non-live sporting events, but I guess I’ve gotten used to it. It was sometimes frustrating to know the results ahead of time, since I don’t have a Firefox extension that can redact the sports results from news pages.

NBC didn’t do as many sob story retrospectives this year, showing how every athlete has overcome horrendous personal tragedies. That was really the only improvement this year. NBC still skips blocks of points in the middle of matches, provides nonstop repetitive chatter, rarely explains fine points of the rules or scoring, and complains about the judging whenever possible. Watching online would be a far better choice if only the frame rate weren’t so poor (and the screen so small), because then you can watch entire matches without the commentators, check the rules and scoring guidelines, and not wear the print entirely off the Tivo remote’s skip forward button while trying to bypass 8760 commercials and 17 hours of gymnasts sitting around waiting for their scores to be posted. Oh, and maybe see more than 10 minutes of badminton.

If we had the Tivo connected to broadband, there may have been some better ways to record individual sports rather than 4-hour to 8-hour mixed blocks. But when you do have to record a huge block of time as an individual program, Tivo really needs a way to let you delete part of a program. Even a limited functionality of that would be tremendously helpful.

Despite those frustrations, there were many amazing events to watch. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are tremendously fast, but there were some swimming finals where almost the entire field was ahead of world record time for much of the race. The Cuban women’s indoor volleyball team dominated their first match against the US, playing at a very high level. The new gymnastics scoring had gymnasts trying more difficult and impressive routines, which bodes well for the progression of the sport in the future. And I’m always blown away by the diving.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

I can has royaltiez?

Oxford University Press has published a new book by David Crystal on the language of text messaging, cleverly titled Txtng: The Gr8 Db8. The executive summary: Chill, white-haired dudes! Language isn’t being weirded too much.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Aphrodite frittilary

Photos by Michael

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sweet, sweet eucalyptus

A Reuters article about DEET smelling bad to mosquitoes (and the more DEET the better as a repellent) also mentioned that the key neurons in their antennae

also reacted, even more strongly, to compounds known as terpenoids, which help make up the distinctive aromas of eucalyptus, cloves, menthol and camphor.
Time to adjust our garden plans.


Photo by Michael

Monday, August 18, 2008

Curves in architecture

What would you do with 50 kilometers of white polypropylene string?

Closer to home, John Kostick created the ultimate pergola.

Our house is mostly straight lines. But perhaps in the back yard we could someday afford a non-rectilinear shed, also built by John Kostick:

Friday, August 15, 2008

For my father


We fall into place, fall into line,
fall asleep, fall apart. And sometimes,
we just fall.

Nightmares have always been a part of my life,
like migraines or heartache or any other life-defining trait
that nobody else can see. The self,

We lift our spirits, lift our gaze,
lift our burdens, and set them down again.
We create the lives we want, and wonder whether
these are the lives we want, and wonder when
we will fall.

Vertigo too, invisible, inevitable. Always
falling. I seek the edge, prove the nightmares
wrong, prove the vertigo
wrong, prove the edge

Offset words and offset lines,
parallels upon parallels.
Words line up,
and scream,
and fall silent.
The book unread, the story untold.

The story untold is not truth.
Neither is the story fully told.
Truth falls between the extremes,
slipping into consciousness
and into nightmares
and still we are falling.
The truth is falling.
The sky is falling.
The world is falling.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Buying a piano, part 2

The previous post really just talked about my journey in piano shopping, without giving any advice based on what I’ve learned. Here’s some actual advice:

1. Consider a digital piano or keyboard. If you’re happy with a digital, there are tremendous advantages: no expensive tunings every 6 months, no specialized movers, volume control, and many computerized bells and whistles. Literally. You can make it sound like bells and whistles.

2. Try lots of different pianos, both expensive and cheap, both new and old. Figure out what you care about and how picky you are. You may decide you strongly prefer certain types of pianos, or you may find that any piano is fine as long as it works and the case is attractive.

3. Get a copy of The Piano Book by Larry Fine. He includes lots of great explanations and advice, as well as descriptions of many current piano manufacturers.

4. Avoid large piano sales events you see advertised—they’re rip-offs. Realize that most piano stores run like car dealerships, except the pricing is far more variable and you’ll never see the dealer invoice. All the usual cautions about buying a car apply.

5. You can save a lot of money by buying a used piano, and even more by buying from a person rather than a store. Some people have an inflated sense of how much their piano is worth, but spending a bit of time poking around craigslist should give you a good sense of the market. It’s hard to evaluate a used piano’s condition yourself, and if you’re spending a significant amount of money you may want to ask your piano tuner (or piano technician) to take a look at the piano before you buy it. You have a piano tuner, right? No? Ask friends or neighbors for recommendations for a piano tuner. They can also be a good source for finding a used piano. [Edit: I meant the piano tuner can be a good source, but so can friends and neighbors.]

6. The way a piano was cared for and the conditions it was kept in matter far more than its age. Avoid a piano that has spent any significant length of time in a storage facility, or in a church basement, or in a daycare.

7. You do not get what you pay for. Prices, particularly at the low end of the used market, are highly variable. From free to $1000, the prices are essentially random. And no piano is free unless you want to move a 500-pound instrument yourself and learn to tune it yourself.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Buying a piano

In July 1995, my friends bought me a piano. It was an incredible gift, a lovely huge old Hallet & Davis with a light touch and a resonant soundboard. Made right here in Boston about 80 years earlier. It needed various repairs over the years, and those repairs gradually got more serious. Eventually the bass bridge gave up the ghost, and an extensive rebuild didn’t seem like the right choice. The Hallet & Davis took a crane ride two years ago to a friend’s home where numerous children now enjoy it.

I looked at pianos at 9 or 10 different piano stores from Maine to Rhode Island a few years ago, and just never found the right piano. I did learn a fair bit about what I do and don’t like in an upright piano. Yamahas are very popular, but I don’t personally like the way their very stiff action has a noticeable shift partway through a key press. Steinways can be wonderful, but they’re a significant investment. I definitely like a mellow tone, which is more common in European soundboards, and the Schimmel pianos that Boston Organ and Piano had a few years back had a fabulous touch and resonance. Boston Organ and Piano had a few Kemble pianos as well which I liked a lot as well, though the brand is less well known. Several stores had pleasant Petrof pianos, which seem to be the best of the pianos coming out of Eastern Europe. I even found one Kawai that I liked down in Providence, but overall I strongly preferred the European pianos. The headache of dealing with a high-pressure sales pitch was frustrating, though, and I finally decided to just check craigslist periodically, hoping that a used Schimmel would come up. (I nearly bought a Sohmer that way a couple of years ago, until the piano technician who had supposedly tuned it every six months told me that the owners actually hadn’t had it tuned for 10 years.)

Time passed, and last week a used Schimmel appeared on craigslist. I made an appointment to go try it out, and figured in the meantime I should check in with Boston Organ and Piano to see what they were selling for these days, and see if the used one was holding up to how new ones sounded. I didn’t realize that Boston Organ and Piano had collapsed from 5 or 6 stores down to 1 and was no longer a Schimmel dealer (after 4 years of being the biggest Schimmel dealer in the world). I went to a couple of other piano stores, both overpriced and under-prepped. The saleswoman at one seemed to understand instantly what I liked and didn’t like in a piano, but the store’s selection was extremely weak. The other store had a huge selection, but the sales pitch was painful. I found one piano there that I probably would have bought for $8000, but it took an hour to get the price down from an inflated $16,000 to an inflated $15,000. On the other hand, the craigslist Schimmel turned out to be shockingly bright-sounding to my ear. After 7 hours over 2 days looking at pianos, I gave up. No more piano stores. I hate the unpredictably awful salespeople, the guessing game on the prices, the bad lighting and bad acoustics and frequently untuned pianos. And I wasn’t learning anything any longer by going to the stores. One more look through craigslist out of habit, and, wait, there was a lightly-used Kemble purchased new in 2005, built around 2001, in perfect condition and at a reasonable price. A couple of phone calls and a trip to try it out the next afternoon, and I bought a piano!

Kemble has made Yamaha pianos for the European market for quite a while, and they shifted over to using Yamaha parts for their own pianos. Recently Yamaha finished buying Kemble, and people say there is no real difference now in the Yamaha and Kemble piano lines except for the cases and perhaps the voicing. Since I’ve never personally liked Yamahas, I’m surprised that I like Kembles. But I consistently have liked the Kembles I’ve tried, and this one was no exception. (Actually, I may well have tried it out back when it was still in the showroom at Boston Organ and Piano.) And I’m very excited that I’ll have a piano in the house again. We’re moving furniture around to make space for it before it arrives on Saturday morning.

In an amusing coda, I received an e-mail today offering to sell me the $16,000 piano for $8000. Apparently the key to receiving a good price is to say that you’ve bought a different piano, and it’s good to know that my sense that the store’s prices were absurdly high was correct. I’m very happy with the Kemble, though, and I really don’t need two pianos.

Buying a camera

My parents recently asked whether I had any advice in choosing a new digital camera. I’m partial to Canon; I think their color accuracy is generally quite good. For snapshot purposes, I want a camera that’s lightweight to carry, easy to hold, turns on quickly, autofocuses quickly, and has a reasonable battery system. Megapixels are incredibly overrated; I’ve gotten great 8x10 prints from a 3-megapixel shot, and the difference between 7 and 12 megapixels is meaningless in most cases. Some features I like: a physical control of some sort for turning off the flash, a tiltable LCD screen, and a good zoom range for the lens (ignoring digital zoom, which is useless).

I’m hoping some of you might have other advice to offer. What kind of camera do you use? What do you like about it, and what do you wish for in your next camera?

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Lisa and I were delighted yesterday to find a games and puzzles store called Eureka Puzzles. The store is in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, and they have quite an impressive selection. It was difficult to choose only a few new toys.

After a blissful 90 minutes in the store, we had dinner at Rani Indian Bistro a couple of doors down from Eureka. Wow. It’s great to find an Indian restaurant that has some different dishes on the menu in addition to the standard choices. We tried the cardamom-spiced chicken and the salmon with omum seeds, two tandoori-roasted dishes, and both were excellent. And the gajjar ka halwa—a custard-like dessert made of carrots, milk, butter, cardamom, and nutmeg, garnished with chopped pistachios—had me merrily eating carrots. That’s an accomplishment.

Destroyer of worlds

70% of biologists believe that we are currently living through a mass extinction event caused by human actions.

We worry about an asteroid crashing into the planet, causing another mass extinction event. We study the solar system, hoping to discover the next asteroid on a collision course. We wonder whether we are better off trying to destroy an approaching asteroid or simply deflect its course slightly. And we would probably merrily destroy all asteroids if we had that ability, simply so we wouldn’t have to worry about which of them might next threaten our planet. We are, after all, the gods we imagine. We are Shiva.

I’d like to imagine that when humanity is discovered in a million years, some relic of our better natures will shine through. Writing and art, architecture and exploration, the fact that we sought to understand our world and the fact that we sought to improve our world. But it’s hard to imagine any of that outweighing the discovery that humanity was a colliding asteroid, a cause of a mass extinction event.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Wholly irresponsible

Whole Foods sold some ground beef that made some people ill. Very ill. And on August 6, Whole Foods pulled all shipments of that ground beef, but didn’t tell the public what they knew. Apparently Whole Foods didn’t even tell their own stores what they knew. Until August 8, when the Massachusetts Department of Public Health started warning the public not to eat any ground beef that had been purchased from Whole Foods between June 2 and August 6.

The store management at our local Whole Foods deflected all questions to the regional headquarters, which isn’t answering the phone or returning calls. And as of this afternoon, they still aren’t posting notices in the meat department or at the entrances and exits.

A recall like this is no fun. A lot of people will throw away food that isn’t in the recall, a lot of people will avoid the Whole Foods meat cases entirely, a lot of people will have a lot of questions and complaints that have no answers yet. And a lot of people will no longer trust Whole Foods, because Whole Foods doesn’t care enough about the safety of their customers to take simple steps to inform them that, oh, by the way, the ground beef that Whole Foods sold you recently could land you in the hospital, as it’s already done to at least 5 other people.

I think Whole Foods has a choice to make: this can be a learning experience for Whole Foods so they don’t hide information from their customers next time, or this can be a learning experience for a whole lot of Whole Foods customers.

Friday poem

A Man Doesn’t Have Time in his Life
Yehuda Amichai

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A few scattered typos

I read a lot of book reviews in my field (though not closely), and I’ve noticed a boilerplate comment appearing more frequently along the lines of today’s “As a side note, the reader will also encounter a few scattered typos, though infrequent.” Sometimes the reviewer actually lists a typo or two.

I’ve done a lot of proofreading in my life, and in fact spent much of yesterday doing proofreading. I know the joy of finding the elusive typo, as well as the pain of seeing the ones that make it through to print. A few scattered typos are inevitable. They are not reflective of whether the publisher has done a thorough job editing the book, nor whether the author has interesting ideas presented in a thoughtful manner, nor whether the reader will find the book entertaining or informative. Turning book reviews—or worse, book reading—into a game of typo gotcha seems like a dreadful development. Please, if you’re a book reviewer, only mention the typos in a book if they would cause a respectable press to actually recall the book.