Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Imelda Marcos mit den 3 Streifen

What does a man do when he is forced to watch the premiere of "Lost"* because it is his wife's birthday? Why, I get the iPhone out and take photos of all of my Adidas shoes. And then post the catalog online for all the world to admire.

A little prologue about this. It all started out innocuously enough. I have always known that Adidas fit my feet well. A few years ago, a friend gave me a pair of Adidas running shoes. The shoes were just slightly too big for me, but economic circumstanced dictated that I wear them anyway. This led to the discovery of something amazing: I had been wearing shoes 1/2 size too small all my adult life! These larger Adidas fit my feet better than any other shoe ever had. So the die was cast. Apart from the odd pair of Keens for the beach, Crocs for looking like a hippie, and dress shoes for not looking like a hippie, I am pretty much exclusively an Adidas guy now. If I find a pair of Adidas in my size that I like, I buy them without even trying them on. That's how confident I am that they will fit. This has only let me down in one situation--when I found that hiking boots should actually fit sort of snugly in order to prevent blisters (60 miles in Yosemite with REALLY bad blisters, more on that sometime). I also went down 1/2 size for my cycling shoes, and that was the right choice.

Seattle, suede
Yukora mid ATS, mesh / leather
Samba, leather and suede
Samba, leather and suede
Cyclone, synthetic cycling
ADI TR, suede
Gazelle II, suede
ADI TR, suede
"Mexico 70" Gazelle, suede
Country 73, leather
"Vacation City" Marrakesh Gazelle II, leather
Gazelle, patent leather
Flavours of the World, France, suede
Classic Skater Vulcan, leather
CAMPUS II (The Original Games), synthetic / suede
Calgary Winter Olympics 1988, synthetic
Anzo Aprese Low, suede

*"Lost" is an improbably popular US television show. I recognized fairly early on that this was a show that was willing to be dishonest with its viewers. Call me cranky, but there you have it. It jumps the shark on every episode, has innumerable soap - opera - style - "everything - you - just - watched - was - part - of - a - dream" devices**, is loaded with inconsistencies, and in general is contrived to keep you coming back to see more schlock next week. For the record, I think the whole thing is some sort of big time/space bending magnet that allows time travel. Also for the record, I don't give a fat flying crap about it. It is the show I hear in the background while I am waiting to get the remote back so that I can watch "The Ultimate Fighter." For those of you who are asked to describe Lost to someone who hasn't watched it, here is my answer: Take equal parts "Bill and Ted," "The Sixth Sense," "Cast Away," "Twister," and "Lord of the Flies." Cut in a bunch of filler, and there you have it. "Twister," by the way, gets in there because of Helen Hunt's magical self-washing white shirt in that movie. Apparently there is a magical salon and laundromat the Survivors visit a few time per day.

**I know these flash-forwards and flashbacks and blah blah and have to do with time travel.*** So technically they aren't using this soap opera device. Even if the writers had this whole thing storyboarded as one big monolith before starting Season 1, I still feel they are being dishonest in the way they roll it out. But that's down to taste, and there's no accounting that.

***I have email evidence that I called this at the start of the second season. I am happy to acknowledge that some sad corner of the Lost community out there knew this before I did. I grudgingly admit that bringing Bill, Ted, and Marty McFly to primetime is kind of cool.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Totally Tubular

I like good music, and I appreciate good sound equipment. Although I don't have an ear sensitive enough or educated enough to hear the difference between types of speaker cables, I can tell the difference between bad stuff and good stuff. I was introduced to "good stuff" by my good friend, whom I will call Friend 1. He took the dive into the hi-fi world with a handmade British CD player and amplifier and $3000 speakers. He has since upgraded significantly. Since becoming attuned to the existence of good equipment and the people who like it, I have discovered that I know a few audiophiles. They are nice people, difficult to distinguish from your average Joe (they are men, so "average Jane" wouldn't fit here). A good way to ferret out an audiophile is to speak effusively about how much you like the sound generated by a Bose system. This is sort of like talking about Velveeta at the Cheese Board in Berkeley. Turns out most of them HATE Bose stuff. One told me that he was stuck at a party where a Bose system was playing loudly and he actually became nauseous after an hour of listening.

Audiophiles come in many flavors. The more ecumenical of them appreciate flavors they do not themselves embrace, but that they recognize as being good. Truly confident ones don't criticize other flavors at all. Rather, they leave it to their equipment to persuade you that their flavor is the best. A few examples of my friends' flavors:

Friend 1: Nice audiophile equipment with mostly solid-state circuitry. Speakers that sort of look like normal speakers. Sound quality for a jazz CD that will make you cry. Probably into his system for about $10k.

Friend 2: Krell Amplifier with no cooling fans, instead milled out of a solid block of aluminum (about 300 lbs). B&W speakers that are curvy works of art. Apparently they (the speakers) leaked a gallon of oil onto the floor after a particularly loud New Years Eve dance party. (Is that cool or what to have speakers that somehow need a bunch of oil in them?) Were taken away and rebuilt by the manufacturer. Don't know how much he is into this system for, but it is certainly mid 5-digits.

Friend 3: Has a massive collection of '80s New Wave vinyl records. These play on a high-end turntable through incredibly heavy 7-foot-tall Magnepan speakers that are only like one inch thick. Some people buy a BMW 335i, but this guys owns a Toyota Matrix and about a BMW 328i worth of audio equipment.

There are other audiophile friends in various stages of craziness, but these ones help illustrate why it is difficult for me to find a reasonably-priced stereo system whose sound is pleasing enough to listen to. I have been spoiled.

So if it isn't obvious from the little projects you see on this blog, I'll say it here explicitly: For one reason or another, I have a real need to be using my hands to build something from time to time. Not every day or even every week. But I need to build a real object sometimes in order to feed a part of my brain that needs that sort of thing. What better thing to build than a stereo? I have relatively vivid memories of my father soldering together a Garrard stereo kit when I was three or four years old. They had to keep the project in a locked room so that I wouldn't break in and work on it myself.

In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in vacuum tube audio equipment.
I won't go much detail here about this. Suffice it to say that 1) Vacuum tubes produce a rich sound--to some tastes it is better than sound from modern solid-state equipment; 2) I have a professional interest in the persistence of old technologies like vacuum tubes; 3) Tube amps can be VERY expensive; and 4) There is a rich selection of low-end DIY tube amp kits out there. Google around about all of this. You do not have enough time before you die to read all of it.

The Project

So I did a little research and bought a K12 tube amp kit from Arizona Hi-Fi. It appears that they are not selling these any more. The closest substitute seems to be the K-8LS kit. Note that this gives only 8 watts per channel. But, as you will find when you google around, people seem to think that although all watts are created equal, "tube watts" are more equal than others. And this kit has been very well reviewed by discerning audiophiles. The kit was easy to assemble. I was able to solder the whole thing together in an hour or two on a Saturday. The box is recycled from a Costco bamboo wood organizer system. I built the circuit board upside-down (I soldered in the components on the back of the board rather than on the front) so that I could make an enclosure with the tubes sticking out into the air as far as possible. I have not actually made the cover yet, but I will get around to it. This is important, as there are a few capacitor leads that carry enough voltage to kill someone. The only hiccup with soldering things on upside-down was the volume pot. The volume knob works in reverse--the 0 is on the far right, and 11 is on the far left. I think knobs work like this in the southern hemisphere, right?

To complement the amp, I got a set of what I like to describe as low-end high-end loudspeakers. They are PSB Alpha B1 bookshelf loudspeakers. Like the amp kit, audiophiles have identified these loudspeakers as having much higher sound quality than their price would suggest.

It took a few days for the tubes and speakers to burn in and for the sound to start to be really crisp. The little system makes a beautiful, warm sound. Even running on iTunes from my laptop, the sound is remarkably clean. The best validation of the system's quality came from Friend 2 above (the one with the megabuck Krell). I invited him into my office to have a listen, and he had me download a great test song, "Eclipse" by Joao Gilberto. I played it for him, and he couldn't get over the sound quality. He had been chasing down a ground hum in his system, so he was especially pleased with the dead silence during quiet parts of the song. Friend 1 suggested that I buy "The Köln Concert" recordings by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and "The Art of the Trio, Vol. III" by Brad Mehldau. On my little system, the Jarrett recordings in particular can make you cry. I have also had good luck working with "Music for 18 Musicians" by the Steve Reich Ensemble playing in the background.

The amp (note the volume--it is at about 3 or 4, not 7 or 8). The tube give off a nice warm glow when the music is playing:

Closeup of circuit board. Note that all the component locations are numbered. Makes for an idiot-proof assembly job:

One of the loudspeakers:
Back of the loudspeaker (Made in Canada!):

Friday, January 09, 2009

iPhone Photography: Add-On Lenses

I bought two lenses for my iPhone in hopes of adding some capability to its camera. They were made for cell phones, but they work just fine with the iPhone with a little work. The lenses attach to the back of the phone with a strong magnet in the lens. The lenses mount to a metal washer that is affixed to the phone with adhesive. The iPhone doesn't have enough flat area for the whole washer, so I clipped mine back with wire snippers. The washer now ends right where the edge of the iPhone starts to fall away. I purchased the lenses expecting to use the zoom one most. But the macroscopic one turns out to be the best and most useful. Here are some photos of the lenses, of the mount on my iPhone, and of some things I shot at with the lenses. The first is a before/after shot of an office with the plain iPhone lens and then the 2X zoom. The next two are macro shots of my keyboard and of the inside of one of my watches. I could not read with my bare eyes the writing on the metal tab holding in the battery, so I took a photo and blew it up on my iPhone.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Somewhere on the autoroute between Paris and Fontainebleau, on Bastille Day, in a car that weighs less than some motorcycles. Every crosswind gust is mortal combat. If you had the chance to find the Vmax of a SMART cabrio, I hope you would do the same.