Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It's Orchestra Season Again!

Tonight I resumed playing with the Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra--my musical pals since the beginning of 2007. Each year, from September to June, we gather on Tuesday nights at the middle school and rehearse for two hours each week, preparing for our three concerts per session.

Tonight we played a Mozart Double Piano Concerto that featured one of the most out-of-tune pianos I've ever heard. It made the great composer sound like the entertainment in a honky tonk bar despite fine playing by Tom. We also went through a piece this same fine piano player composed that will be a treat for anyone attending the upcoming concert on Sunday, October 23.

We tackled another Mozart piece, Symphony No. 31, which, unlike the Double Piano Concerto, I had never laid eyes on before. I was gratified at the amount of notes I was able to play on the first time through, sightreading. Part of the reward of playing in a community orchestra, besides the beauty and the camaraderie, is seeing yourself grow and improve over time.

Josh, our beloved and very hard working conductor, recommended playing chamber music to improve your sensitivity to other players, and I couldn't agree more. I belong to the Chamber Musicians of Northern California, which puts on three weekend workshops a year for players with at least some experience playing. I've attended about a dozen so far. The next workshop is the weekend of October 15-16, but you should join the group and apply now if you're interested.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Glen Campbell's Farewell

I saw Glen Campbell on TV last week talking about his Alzheimer's Disease. He still seemed like himself, but apparently he is starting to forget a lot of things. He's 75, and has released what he calls his final CD, Ghost on the Canvas, which is due out today. I'm sure I'll have to get it and listen to it (and write another blog post about it).

For me, Glen is the man who sang the hauntingly beautiful Wichita Lineman, one of my favorite songs ever. The Jimmy Webb ballad spent a month atop the charts in 1968. Glen also is famous for Gentle On My Mind from the year before and a few other great songs. He had his TV show, which I didn't watch, although I believe my grandparents enjoyed it. He had great looking hair.

I recently found out more about his time with the Wrecking Crew, a group of studio musicians in L.A. He played guitar on a good number of songs that you've heard, such as Fun, Fun, Fun by the Beach Boys and Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man by the Byrds, for example.

Glen has lived large, with four marriages, great success, a few scandals, and now, he's saying farewell graciously, cared for lovingly by his longtime fourth wife and his family.

Thanks for the music, Glen (especially Wichita Lineman).

Monday, August 29, 2011

Electric Car Sightings Update

Well, electric cars are starting to make it onto the roads, but it's still a trickle. As I drive my two hours a day around the central San Francisco Bay Area I am seeing a Nissan LEAF at least a couple of times a week (see photo). I've seen one Chevrolet Volt in the last month.

Last week, I saw two of the $100K + Tesla Roadsters on the same day -- one in the morning and one in the evening -- both with custom plates. I wrote down the first one: NIL CO2. Cute, huh? I also saw a gas-powered car with a bumper sticker that said, "My next car won't have one of these"--and there was an arrow pointing down to its exhaust pipe. The sticker had a Tesla logo on it. That car may turn out to be a Tesla Model S--due next year.

The fact is, it is going to take a while before you see a lot of electric cars on the road. The batteries are still expensive and the quantities of cars that the manufacturers can turn out and deliver is very limited. And, folks want a car that does everything, and electric vehicles still have limitations--mainly range issues.

Meanwhile, Costco is in the news for saying they plan to shut down their electric charging stations. I've heard a lot about this from a surprising number of people. From what I can tell, the stations need to be upgraded and Costco is balking at the cost--because they, rightfully or not, don't believe that there is much call for electric car charging at their locations.

I say, without knowing all the facts, that it is probably a good short-term business decision to shut them down. But, it's a terrible public relations move, and puts the company at the back, rather than at the front, of the wave of the future. I think that public charging availability is part of what will extend the functionality and acceptability of electric cars.

Also newsworthy: The Nissan LEAF all-electric car will have greater availability with its 2012 models. About 4,000 LEAFs have been delivered so far in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Texas, Washington (state) and Tennessee (Nissan is based there). Now, Nissan is expanding into Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Also, the new 2012 LEAF will come with a quick charging port (480 volts) and a cold weather package, which includes a battery warmer, heated seats and a heated steering wheel.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Acura RL - Honda Goodness--Multiplied

What to make of the Acura RL? A modern descendant of the original Acura Legend, it takes all the goodness of Honda cars--sturdy, reliable, efficient--and stretches them out to luxury proportions and is loaded with every feature you'd ever want.

The pluses are many--from the handsome, tasteful styling (although it is looking a little dated now) to the gorgeous sweep of wood across the dash. The road feel is taut, the steering is communicative and the car drives smaller than it actually is.

Where it loses steam is against the Lexus LS models, which offer V8's (even though you don't really need one) and are just a tweak bigger. The Acura's 3.7-liter V6 offers an even 300 horsepower and an average of 20 mpg (although I got 18.7 in my testing). No problem with that.

Somehow, even though the Acura Legend came first, Toyota has gotten folks to equate Lexus with "top drawer" while the Acura is "very nice." I personally prefer the Acura, but then again, if I were buying an Acura I'd more likely want the TSX wagon or even the TSX sedan with the manual six speed. And I'd probably take a long look at Audis and BMWs too while I was shopping.

But for a luxury car that's big not not too big and luxurious without being ostentatious, it's hard to beat the RL. It's not as popular as some, but you can think of it as a well-kept secret.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

20Q Game Versus Me--I win Once

Sitting on my friend Chris' desk at work was a shiny little blue object that looked like a fat Duncan Imperial yoyo. I picked it up and read "20Q" on it. It's a game, it turns out.

The 20Q is an electric (and solitary) version of the old 20 Questions parlor game. In that scenario, the collective wisdom of the group ferrets out the object you're thinking of and tries to guess the answer. You win if you can fool them. And it's a good way for people to enjoy time together.

The device I played with is a handheld version of something that also exists as a website. The website is not a repository of facts, but an actual interactive artificial intelligence creation that can learn and use the questions to narrow down to find the answer. The handheld device carries only a fraction of the intelligence of the website and can't learn in the same way, but it's still pretty amazing for a toy that sells on Amazon for less than 7 bucks.

I tried it twice yesterday with a simple object (an elephant) and a more obscure one (an IUD birth control device). As I expected, it guessed the elephant with no problem (the first question is the animal/vegetable/mineral/other one). However, it didn't get the IUD, even after it took an extra five questions--apparently the method.

The device "talks" to you, saying things in the middle of the questions like, "I'm keeping an eye on you," and "If you're quiet you can hear me thinking." It is not happy when you beat it, but gloats when it wins. Of course, it always asks you if you want to play again, and if it loses, it says "I believe in second chances," almost begging you to let it redeem itself.

I tried thinking of the word "tattoo" today and it got that one. So it's 20Q 2, Testdrivinglife 1 at this point.

Interestingly, I tried the elephant and IUD 20-question run again today and it asked some different questions. So this little toy has more brains than you might think. I'm about ready to try it again--it seems like one of those addictive, time-filling little gadgets that the world is so filled with today.

Friday, August 26, 2011

New Toyota Camry Arrives

The Toyota Camry isn't a car that one gets wildly excited about. After all, it's been the best selling car in the U.S. in 13 of the last 14 years and more than nine million have gone to happy owners since its debut in 1983. But they've just announced the brand new 2012 model.

The thing is, the Camry is ubiquitous and everpresent. I always seem to be behind one on the bridge on the way to work. They come in neutral colors. And this new one, while contemporary, breaks no new ground. It actually seems more simple and conservative than the previous model, which flaunted some unusual body detailing, especially around the wheels and at the tail.

Of course, I'll have to test one in person and see the car in three dimensions. Something tells me that this essentially all-American car, built in Georgetown, Kentucky for a quarter of a century, will rack up another best-selling year.

Besides, the new Camry is set to be the pace car for next year's Daytona 500! How all-American is that?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reading the Newspaper -- on Paper!

Yesterday, I found myself at lunch without my book and, to entertain myself, bought a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle--right off the rack. It costs $1 now, but I remember when it was a quarter. Actually, when it was 15 cents. But enought about that, grandpa.

Reading the newspaper is a forgotten pleasure. No matter how much I get news from the Internet, there isn't really anything quite like the feeling you get when you open the fold and spread out several stories at once. Photos lead your eye around--big ads scream for attention, and somewhere in there, a story begins.

You can click your way around the online version, but it doesn't show as much acreage at a glance. Actually, a good example of the difference is the way you buy a book from versus browsing at Barnes and Noble. Think about it. Despite the fact that you're much more likely to actually find the specific item you're looking for at Amazon (if they don't have it, they know someone who does), the experience of scanning the shelves--wandering around into unfamiliar areas of the store, meeting someone who also is interested in your books, chatting with the help desk. It's not the same.

You can't help but feel nostalgic reading the paper. You know that newspapers like we have today will surely be completely gone before long. I still remember reading the paper at an Adeline's donut shop in San Francisco with a cup of non-Starbucks coffee and a glazed old fashioned before heading for work. That was back when the paper was wide, and the second section had Herb Caen on the left. I often started there first. Now, I realize that Herb used to wax nostalgic about old San Francisco--from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Now I can reminisce about reading him!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

6th Generation iPod Nano is Irresistable

My friend David told me about a new iPod Nano--so I wandered into the Apple store last night to look. It's amazing. The new unit is much smaller than before but more fully featured than earlier models, and sits between the tiny shuffle and the Touch (and Classic) above it.

Before I bought my iPod Touch I owned a green 3rd generation Nano with the old fashioned click wheel. This new one has a touch screen, just large enough to show you a CD cover. It displays four icons at a time--the test one I played with in the store had 15 total. Just slide your finger to the right to expose another batch of four, touch them to open the app, and slide left to go back to home. Easy.

You can get 8 and 16 gig units for $149 and $179 respectively. Clip it on your shirt or even more cool--snap it into a watchband and wear it on your wrist. Shades of Dick Tracy! Pick from one of several bright colors, but the screen, being essentially the entire front of the little unit, is what defines it.

It's Apple--always simple, elegant and irresistable.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Airstream Trailers - American Way of Travel

I just saw my second Airstream trailer in two days. What remarkable and beautiful modules they are. I found out that these silver bullets are made of aluminum stretched over a frame, making them lightweight and aerodynamic.

They still look the same because, like the old VW Beetle, they are only changed for improvements, not for style. There are, today, five models available, from the smaller Sport to the flagship Classic. You can choose from several interior themes, which include drapes, carpeting, upholstery, floor surfaces, and more.

The company was founded by Wally Byam in 1931. You can read all about it on the Airstream website, as well as find out where the nearest dealer is (mine is 46 miles away). There is lots of cool merchandise available too (get your hat!).

I am guessing that once you own one of these, it becomes an entire lifestyle, and from the photos, it looks like a comfortable way to travel.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sidewalk Chalk Art Cheers Me Up

By 8 p.m. it's already a pretty long day for me. I'm up at 5:30 a.m. and have a full day of work surrounded by two one-hour commutes. Then, today, my bank, normally so perfect, managed to send me a replacement debit card with the same number on it as the one I lost--utterly useless.

As I walked my trusty Boston Terrier, Max along, I was grumbling about incompetence and feeling cranky--until I came upon a little tableaux of some children's sidewalk chalk drawings. One, a happy, hairy person, was so appealing that I not only smiled--losing my sour mood--but took a photo.

It's great when you can improve your mood thanks to some small act by someone else. It worked for me this time. I even let Max spend more time sniffing things, so he benefitted as well.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Booklamp Helps You Find the Books You Love

Have you ever used to find music you like? It's great for helping you discover performers and recordings that are similar to what you enjoy. I've got many "stations" set up that track on a performer--or even a single song and have learned of many new artists that sound a lot like ones I already know and love.

Well, it turns out you can do that with books too! My wife told me about, which is the public face of the Book Genome Project, operated by Novel Projects, Inc.. This company was founded in 2003 to start the initial development around the Book Genome Project. which identifies, tracks, measures and studies the features that make up a book using today's massive computational power. The project is managed and developed by a team based out of Boise, Idaho, but has input from many other places.

The whole idea of a genome project is to discover the "StoryDNA" of books based on their content--not on popularity--and analyze and detect what's in there. If Pandora has more than 400 ways to analyze a song (major/minor key, presence of harmony, fast/slow, string accompanyment, etc.) the Booklamp people do the same kind of thing. Fundamentally, a story is made up of many components, but a good portion of it has to do with setting and content, which StoryDNA tracks.

You type in a favorite author or book and it will give you recommendations based on its research and its continually growing database. The project is non-profit and costs nothing for you to use. Like Pandora, the more you use it the more benefit the project receives as well. If you really want to help them, put them in touch with publishers--that's a major source of their information.

As a test, I put in A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin, a popular book in the Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. The major ingredients it found were Medieval weapons and armor, Military campaigns, features of the body (?), Nature/Fields/Hills, and Horses. It processed my request and found a list of similar books, including other George R.R. Martin books first and them titles by Lynn Flewelling (Hidden Warrior) and others. I recently read A Clash of Kings, so if I wanted to set up a Fall reading list I'd be set.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mike Stadler and Mary Gibbons Do It Again

You know you like a band when you seek them out and go see them again. That's what I did last night, when I heard Mike Stadler and Mary Gibbons play at the Frog and Fiddle in Alameda, California. Along with Chuck Ervin on upright bass and Jon Mitguard on pedal steel and dobro, they put out a smooth, clean, finely honed country western blend of bluegrass, folk and Texas swing that satisfies.

My friend Bruce and I got there just when it was starting out and heard a long first set from a table right in front. It was my first visit to the Frog and Fiddle, and I found it was a compact, friendly space with Guinness posters and guitars on the walls, a well-stocked bar on the right and intimate table seating in the rest of the place. I visited the surprisingly spacious (and pleasingly clean) restroom before I left and can tell that the place is well maintained.

I didn't write down the numerous tracks the band played, but Mike and Mary are both fine solo singers and a strong duet. Jon sang a few himself while working the beautiful pedal steel and occasionally, his dobro. Chuck kept up a strong pulse and even leaned in for four-part harmony on one number. Mike likes to switch between his acoustic and electric guitars and sometimes puts his mandolin on his broad shoulders for a more bluegrass-style song.

I was once again pleased to hear three songs by a favorite of mine--Hal Ketchum. Mike took the lead on two while Mary led on Past the Point of Rescue--one of Hal's most popular tunes.

Putting the talent up front is a nice draw to pull folks in from the street, but the club is also lining up regular music performances, so Alameda is becoming a real place to go for live entertainment.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Starting at the age of six, I moved every year or two during my childhood. I was in a different community--and school system--in first, fifth, sixth, eighth and 12th grade--and in the gaps, I had the normal shift from elementary to middle school and middle to high school. Not too stable--but I did OK for the most part.

As a young adult in San Francisco, I moved a lot too. The difference there was, though, that I normally retained my college schedule or my job, so even though I slept somewhere else, I still showed up at the same place in the morning.

Sometimes, I've relocated within the same company, so my desk or cubicle changed. This happened three times at one eight-year job. At one job, the whole department moved to a new building next door, and at another company, we relocated down the hall so we could lease a smaller space.

All this leads to the fact that today I move my workspace from one end of my company's building to the other. Because I have the exact same job and activities, it may seem like a small matter, but I'm actually changing neighborhoods, too. Picture the company's building as the United States: I'm moving from Chicago to California.

More importantly, though, is that I'm moving from the city to the suburbs, so think of inner Chicago to, say, Mill Valley, in Marin County. While my current spot has noise, traffic and constant interaction with people, the new one will be quiet--most of the time. It's adjacent to the group meeting room, so occasionally it'll be busy. It's like living next door to the little league field, which is quiet unless there's a practice or a game.

I'm happy to get more space and a little more serenity in which to contemplate the important matters of my job, but I worry that it'll be a little quiet in the new digs. However, my new neighborhood will include five other people, all of whom I already know and like, so it should be just fine.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cars: Annual Model Change, RIP

When I was growing up, the cars changed every year. Even if it was a new grille and taillights, you could tell one year from the next. This was all part of the marketing scheme known, somewhat cynically, as "planned obsolescence." What this meant was, if your neighbor drove up in the new model, your car would look old and you'd go out and buy a new one. I thought it was great fun to see the new models and to find them in traffic. I still do.

Harley Earl of General Motors is credited with coming up with the annual model change, but it was a successful way of competing with Ford. Henry Ford saw no purpose in change for change's sake, and the Model T sputtered along from 1908 to 1927 essentially the same.

Volkswagen is another example of staying the design course. Ironically, the Beetle may have looked the same, but every year there was some update, including a larger displacement engine, larger windows or new features. The "New Beetle," introduced in 1998, is finally being replaced this fall with a new 2012 model. In its long run, the New Beetle had only one modest mid-cycle update, and looked essentially the same.

The annual model change was in its heyday in the 1950's and 1960's, when post-war prosperity kept the money flowing and aspiration was in the air. Compare the popular 1949 Chevy with the 1959 (see above) and you'll see the result of new models in 1949, 1951, 1953, 1955, 1958, and 1959, with noticeable styling changes on each of the off years.

Two things happened to kill the annual model change. In the 1960's it was still going on, but models proliferated. Where in the 1950's there was one "Chevy" that came in different trim designations and configurations, the 1960's brought about segmentation into large, midsize and compact sedans, for example. There was only so much money to go around. In the 1970's attention turned to meeting U.S. Government smog and crash standards,and there was no money for frivolous changes.

Compare the old Chevys with the 2008 Malibu. This seventh-generation design will run through the 2012s with virtually no change at all, and be replaced with a new 2013 model. That's the way things are done today. But with a range of cars, SUVs, crossovers, minivans, and so on, Chevrolet will have plenty to talk about.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why I Love Trader Joe's

I just got back from a quick shopping trip to Trader Joe's. We go there frequently, for items such as dried unsalted almonds and $4.99 La Ferme Julien French wine--the bottle with the goat on it. But tonight was an example of the way to do customer service right.

First of all, we found parking near the door. It was an hour before closing, but still, having a decent lot helps. We saw a cute face on a sign selling something (fruit?) on the way in that made us smile. There are lots of great signs at Trader Joe's.

Once inside, there's always a little room to stretch out and a check out a special before tackling the fruit and nuts section. Nice looking bananas meant grabbing a few, and some organic strawberries. We got the almonds we came for.

I exclaimed over a tempting display of cream soda and then turned the corner to find a package marked "Peanut Butter Goodies." These are peanut butter cookies with chocolate and nuts--and the box teases with photos of four phases of assembly. As we admired it, a friendly employee, in his casual TJ T-shirt, shorts and sandals, came up and offered us a sample. "Sure," we said, and he cut open a box and offers us one. YUM! Sold--we took a box.

We found a nice supply of the lemon kitchen soap we like and grabbed one, then got some lemonade for drinking--two kinds--and found the goat wine, neatly set out and ready to grab.

We went towards the registers and were invited right away into a checkout line. The nice young man asked us what we were doing tonight and we told him--and had a pleasant conversation about Buffalo Bill's Brewery--the place we'd had dinner. We discussed favorite beers they make there. TJ sells them in bottles--another future sale made.

I like the store--the old photos on the wall showing views of the famous corner on which TJ stands today. I like the public domain illustrations they use on their shopping bags. I like the music they play there. The last I heard as I left was the Tremeloes.

That's customer service. I assume I'll be back again and again. I always leave feeling better and completely satisfied with my purchases. What more could a business want than that?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Nissan Juke is No Joke

The Nissan Juke is an unusual looking car--tall, big wheels, oddly shaped high-mounted headlights, rounded window line... But who cares? Aimed at the Urban Sport Compact Crossover set (read: youth), it drives tautly, gives a broad view of the road (ahead at least) and is comfortable for four for hours on the freeway for when you leave the urban scene.

The interior shares the feeling of adventure, with a central tunnel and door armrests in a metallic sparkly plastic that evokes a motorcycle. The instrument panel looks like billet, for a custom accent.

I was lucky to get my tester with a manual six-speed, adding to the feeling of sportiness. Shifts were crisp and gave more feeling of control than you get with an automatic--even the manual paddle shift type. A surprising 188 horsepower comes from a turbocharged 1.6-liter inline four, so you can move along fast--and quickly. I earned just under 26 miles per gallon (on Premium).

A dash-mounted button lets you control the Normal, Sport or Eco setting, so you can decide how environmentally responsible you feel like being from moment to moment. You also get a screen in the same panel that shows you your torque or your G Forces. During acceleration or cornering the centered square in the latter moves significantly--but hey, why aren't you watching the road?

It being a hatchback, the Juke lets you drop the back seats and stuff in plenty of gear, making it a perfect "only" car. And with prices starting under $20,000 it's definitely within reach.

The Juke is the baby of Nissan's line of six SUV/crossovers, and is directly related to the all-electric LEAF and the whimsical Cube. What a family.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Charge Your Electric Car--at Walgreens

One of the things owners of electric cars deal with is finding a place to charge up if they're away from home. Although these cars are designed to fill up with a nightly feed in your garage, sometimes you want to extend your range by charging while you're out and about. (Nissan Leaf pictured.)

I just read in the August 1, 2011 issue of Automotive News that Walgreens plans to install about 800 charging stations outside their stores in New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington by the end of 2011. About 60 are already up and running in Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.

About half of the chargers are being provided by 350Green. According to their spokesperson, in an article in the New York Times, Walgreens would charge $3 to $4 for a 90-minute charge.

This is the wave of the future. Soon, you'll be able to plug in when you go to the mall, the movie theatre, and a downtown parking garage. Having a charger available will be an advantage for a business, and more and more of them will install them.

I didn't even think about the "green" in Walgreens until this minute.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Beatles Live On Forever in their Music

What did you do today? It was Sunday here--and I spent the afternoon on an outdoor stage playing Beatles songs. We even played some songs the Beatles played before they were well known--in Hamburg and Liverpool. The audience enjoyed it and we certainly did too.

Yes, we're men and women in our middle years, who remember the band when they were young and active. But what could be better than getting to do what you always wanted to do--like your heros?

When I was a teenager I listened to the Beatles on the radio and on records. I saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show. When I was 14 I got my first guitar and started playing their songs in my room on my own. I wanted to be in a band but never quite got it together to do it. But now, I have.

What does it mean to perform like your idol? My son dunks the basketball in our driveway and I'm sure he's thinking about Michael Jordan and, especially his favorite--Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. Same thing.

Today, as I sang "I'm Down" and "Things We Said Today," I'm playing bass and singing--just like Paul McCartney. It's not easy, you know, to do them both, but Paul did. I also sang and played "Think for Yourself"--a George song, I Should Have Known Better--a John Song, and "Matchbox"--a Ringo song. It doesn't get much better than that.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Stay Away Joes Bring Folks to 1400 Bar & Grill

Most people would, after a long work week and an evening of birthday gift shopping, drop into that comfy living room chair and doze off. Not me! I went to see the Stay Away Joes at the newly opened 1400 Bar & Grill in Alameda (California) last night. The music started at 9:30 pm and wound up just at midnight.

The Stay Away Joes are a rockabilly trio featuring strong musical performances and a tight, together sound. Front and center is Diamond Mike the bassist and lead singer, playing the upright like a man possessed, driving the vigorous beat of the surf and early rock and roll sound. Besides playing all the great rockabilly standards, these guys have some originals too, and you can't tell the difference--all are top quality.

Lightnin' Mike plays mean guitar riffs throughout and can solo with the best of them. I've heard this kind of picking on albums, but rarely seen it in person. He keeps a lower profile than the other two guys while he's playing, but what comes out of his instrument is incredible.

Then there's El Gringo McNair. This guy plays a "cocktail" style drum kit, and he's always smiling and moving. Just watching him makes you want to get up and dance. He seems to have the perfect rhythm for whatever the guys are dishing out. The group somehow ends up sounding like more than three guys.

All three members sing, but Diamond Mike is the vocal leader, and he's got a real old-fashioned mike on his stand that lends that early-days-of-rock look--like the mike Elvis sings into on the stamp that came out years ago.

The 1400 Bar & Grill sits on a corner in a building that's stood for a century. The two partners, Mike Cooper and Yanni Placourakis, have updated the restaurant, including installing heavy duty carpet over the former tile floor that adds intimacy and cuts the echo that plagued the spot under its former management. The walls have a variety of interesting decor, from a revolving Schiltz beer sphere to an old Grateful Dead Avalon ballroom poster from next week in what appears to be 1967.

The 1400 serves a full menu featuring "Handfulls" -- burgers, sandwiches, tacos, etc., as well as appetizers, soups, salads, main dishes, and sides (try some Mac & Cheese). There are six beers on tap--and even wine on tap, something I have never ordered. I enjoyed two pints of Guinness early in the evening, stopping early so I could drive home, happy and safe.

For scheduling events or for entertainment bookings, please contact Hiro at

The photo of the band above is from another Alameda venue, but you get the picture. Squint and you're in 1962, livin' it up.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Del Shannon - Stranger in Town

Del Shannon is best known for his number one 1961 hit, Runaway, but one of my favorites is "Searchin" from a few years later. The early rock singer, who, sadly, committed suicide in 1990 after suffering from depression, also recorded other songs, notably one I heard yesterday, "Stranger in Town."

It's always a surprise when the radio (in this case, SiriusXM) digs up one I've never heard before, but this song is one of them.

I've heard it said, and seen the bumper sticker, that says "Real Musicians Have Day Jobs." I'm not sure what that means exactly, but I think that those of us who can play music in our spare time for fun and otherwise live normal lives may be better off than stars who burn bright but die young. For every Elton John there's an Amy Winehouse.

Del, we'll never forget you (and Channel 6 on SiriuxXM will make sure of that)!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Google Body Exposes Everything

I just found out about a great site for studying the human body--Google Body. You may remember textbooks in biology class that showed what we look like under our skin, but this site is interactive.

Similar to the car-configuration sites from the auto manufacturers, you select the item (in this case, a generic looking man or woman), and then you can turn them, resize them, and finally--skin them! See layers of muscle, bone, the circulatory system, nerves, the brain stem. You can see each of these in its own layers or as one big show depending on which slider you select.

The only thing is, you can't view it in Internet Explorer--you need to use Google Chrome or Firefox or something else.

It's always felt strange to me that all that complex material was invisible inside me--and that it works so automatically, and so far, pretty reliably. Lucky they don't show an old, worn out body--a real person -- with the quantities of fat that are inside most of us, too. These are ideal specimens here.

Check it out!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

New Ford Focus Has European Style

The Ford Focus was a nice step forward when it debuted in 2000 here in the U.S. It was based on a European design, and although it was built in North America, it was taut and fun to drive. But despite some restyling, it was never the real European model, and as time went on, the folks across the pond got a better car while we got a restyled version of the old car here.

Well, that's over. The 2012 Focus is a new animal. The SE sedan I drove had a solid, strong feel on the road, was surprisingly roomy, and had more lines and curves on it and in it than anything I've seen since the smaller Fiesta I drove recently. Finally, the Focus has become the world car it was meant to be.

You can get the Euro-style five-door hatchback, but many Americans will likely opt for the sedan. It fits in as the second step in a four-sedan Ford lineup, anchored by the Fiesta. Above it are the midsize Fusion and the now fullsize Taurus.

The SE model I tested had a five speed manual transmission, adding to the fun. Most cars sold in the U.S. will be automatics, but these transmissions are much better than they used to be for efficiency and performance. I'll take the stick, though, if it's available.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Blue Blog

It all started last night driving home, when I saw the baby blue old Chevy pickup with no roof and beautiful billet interior details, lowered to car height. Then, a minute later, a nice Navy Blue Mazda3--one of my favorite current "regular" cars. I began thinking about blue.

My wife's car is blue too--Liquid Blue Metallic--and that paint cost plenty when we special ordered it five years ago. My dad's 1964 Corvette was that shade too. I have a blue Plymouth van whose paint is peeling on the roof--it's less blue than when new.

What about music? Well, there are the blues themselves--the simple three-chord structure used by musicians for years. I don't know how long. I do know about B.B. King and Lucille, his guitar. There are the Moody Blues, who aren't really a blues band, and more obscure, the Blues Magoos. Blues Image is responsible for the early 1970's hit Ride Captain Ride. Try forgetting that once you've been reminded of its existence.

Joni Mitchell recorded an early lp called Blue. I have it on my iPod. The Beatles aren't a blues band but John Lennon wrote and recorded Yer Blues on the White Album and George's For You Blue has a real traditional, acoustic sound. The list goes on--how about the Blues Project? Blues Traveler? Fats Domino singing "Blue Monday?" Van Morrison wailing Blue Money? Love is Blue?

Hey, what about bluegrass?

What else? I'm always happy to see the big blue roof of an iHop. I love their Harvest Grain 'n' Nut pancakes, with scrambled eggs and bacon. Just had them last night. More healthful are blueberries, known for their antioxidant properties (I always think of rust prevention when I hear that word).

There are blue states -- with a majority of Democratic voters. If blue is good or bad in this case depends on your political bent.

My favorite blue is the color of the sky, which changes all the time. They sold a VW New Beetle years ago that was that color.

Am I feeling blue today? No.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Love those Surprise Car Discoveries

Yesterday, as I parked my car in a major downtown parking garage, I looked over and saw a small minivan. I thought it was a Mazda5 at first, until I noticed the Mercedes-Benz badge on its tail.

It was a B200--a car that Mercedes sells in many other places, including Canada--but not in the United States. This one had British Columbia license plates and was presumably down here for a vacation.

There are many cars that manufacturers, for one reason or another, don't sell in the States. I saw a tiny Ford Fiesta a few years ago that I'd never seen before and actually followed it for several blocks until it parked and I was able to check it out. It had Mexican plates. This wasn't the Fiesta that's now sold here.

The Mercedes-Benz B class will probably appear in the U.S. before long, as part of the company's efforts to market cars that are more fuel efficient. Despite having more efficient 6-cylinder engines and some Diesels, the company will have to meet higher fuel economy standards in coming years. The four-cylinder B class seems like a fine product--it's just a question of whether the company can make money on it and also whether it wants to possibly dilute its image with the public. BMW has been very careful with its 1 Series sedans to avoid making it seem too "cheap." You can't get one with a four-cylinder engine, for example, which would seem like a natural.

I'm always on the lookout for unusual cars--old, brand new, or "not sold here." Seen a Pontiac Firefly lately?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

City Sunday

I got up early today--a Sunday--to take my son into the City for an orientation session for his new job--as a model at the flagship Northern California store of Abercrombie & Fitch. Yes, it's exciting--for us as parents to have a son who has a job (number of hours uncertain) and also that is in a field he is interested in.

While he sat with his A&F folks, his mother and I had a fine brunch of delicately prepared omelets and giant bowl lattes at Cafe de la Presse, and then wandered about in the foggy morning air before the stores opened. Haven't done that for a while. My wife and I remarked on the buildings that seem to have different tenants every time we're there. Then there are the corners that got demolished and replaced 10 years ago--or 30. But it stills feels like home, even when you're surrounded by visitors from all over the world.

Sights and sounds of San Francisco. Tourists lined up to ride on the open top bus tours--or the cable car. Homeless people twitching and fidgeting while they ask for spare change. Another street construction project. Amazingly over-the-top chandeliers and artwork at the gateway to Chinatown. This little kitty in a restaurant window:

I sense another step in my family maturing as we share a morning together. Before long (we all hope) our baby will be on his own, moving in a direction that matters to him. Then, as empty nesters, we may move back into the City (if we can afford it).

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Frequent Flyers, OneFishTwoFish Rock the Bistro

I was feeling restless last night, so I decided to swing by The Bistro in downtown Hayward (California) for some musical entertainment. I've been there before--it's an intimate, yet roomy venue in the corner of a century-old building, with a long bar along the left side and room outside for talkers (and smokers) to hang out.

The Frequent Flyers opened with a rousing set. Mike Meagher provided a thumping, mobile bass bottom for the other three, which included Dave Peterson on guitar, Matt Albarico on drums, and some sweet saxophone and vocals from Dale (including a soulful rendering of "Ain't No Sunshine." Dave's guitar work was complex, and sensitively rendered--you could hear every note. Matt, who apparently had not played with this group before, put down the solid time you need--and to these ears, didn't miss a beat.

While the songs varied, what I came away remembering was a set-ending rendition of the Beatles' Tomorrow Never Knows. As guitarist Peterson told me after, they used the "good skeleton" of the song and made it their own. Nice.

After a break, OneFishTwofFish came up and started their set. This had a very different feel, particularly because they were just a duo--John Ojeda on guitar and Pat Fleming on drums. Based on the name on the drumhead, the kit was Fleming's that both bands used, and he really worked his way around it. With no bassist, the sound seemed a little thin, but the incredible tone and dexterity of Ojeda's work (and vocals) kept the audience's interest (it was a full house by then) and with no help with the rhythm, Fleming really showed his chops. To my ears, the selections flowed together, but it was a satisfying set.

The Bistro is a great place to hear live music every day. Kevin the bartender was a whirlwind, serving the entire house on his own. I enjoyed two pints of Deschutes Hop in the Dark. There is always a variety of beer to choose from. Today--August 6, 2011, The Bistro will have its 14th Annual IPA Festival (featuring the Giant Garage Spiders!!), so if you're in the vicinity it should be well worth showing up.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Obama Turns 50

Yesterday, President Obama celebrated his 50th birthday. While that's certainly a milestone, one can reasonably wonder what that means to someone who has achieved what he has. He's the president of the United States! The question "what do you want to be when you grow up" has been answered for him.

I believe that for most of us, however, turning 50 is a bittersweet milestone. It's an accomplishment to survive half a century, to be sure, but for me, it was also a time to realize that if there were things I wanted to do, I'd better get started NOW. So I did. I took up the bass guitar, which led to the upright bass, and now I've got lots of music to enjoy--just what I wanted at 14 and tried to do at 18. Yeah, it took me a while.

Right now our leader is very focused on doing his job and getting re-elected. At the end of his second term he'll be a mere 55, and if a Republican manages to unseat him next year, he'll be a 51-year-old guy with an amazing resume and a range of options. He could do the "retire to the ranch" thing that his predecessor has done--put out a book, cut brush, go speak occasionally for big bucks. Or, he could take the Bill Clinton model and go out and get involved. Or, like Jimmy Carter, work for peace and help people around the world for decades after his relatively brief government service.

It will be interesting to see how Obama handles a midlife crisis. He may be having one right now, for all we know. He's "cool" so he'd never let on. Much has been made of his hair turning gray in office, but I think it's not even the stress (president of the U.S. - yeah!) but the fact that it's typical to start graying at this age and also that there may have been just a touch of Grecian Formula on the campaign trail--although it seems like it wouldn't have hurt him then to show a little gray. We'll probably never know (and it really doesn't matter).

Happy Birthday, Mr. President, and good luck with the next five years -- and whatever comes after.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

An Olive Oil Tasting Puts Me on Cloud Nine

Yesterday, thanks to a colleague, I did something I'd never done before--I attended an olive oil tasting. There were only three samples, but all were excellent.

The olive oil came from Cloud9 Orchard, a small family farm in Monterey County, California. The olive trees are grown without pesticides and the climate in that part of the world is perfect for olives--call it Mediterranean--or Californian. That's what makes parts of the state so ideal for viniculture as well.

Cloud9 offers three varieties of Extra Virgin olive oil: Spanish, Italian and French. They were different, but I found myself liking the spicy flavor of the Spanish best, and brought home a slender, squared-off bottle. I see more salads in my future.

The Italian and French oils recently won Silver Medals at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition. According to Elizabeth, a member of the Cloud9 family who offered the tasting, the Spanish oil wasn't officially entered this year but really impressed the judges--so maybe it'll earn its own medal next year!

At the tasting, I dipped a small piece of french bread into the oil and popped it into my mouth. I chewed carefully, trying to savor the flavor. Realizing that the bread itself was very tasty, I tried small samples in teeny paper cups to isolate the flavor. As in a wine tasting, I sniffed the container first, then sampled the small amount therein.

My level of expertise is very low in olive oils, so all I can say is that all three tasted good and were also all different from each other. That's because they use different kinds of olives to make the oil. I picked up a sheet containing around 40 olive oil tasting terms, which I will study to prepare for my next tasting.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Nicknames Past and Present

When I was in the 10th grade, there were four guys with the same first name as me in Mrs. Bissell's English class. My solution to distinguish myself? I took the nickname Omar.

Why, you may ask, did I choose that name? Well, it sounded cool and had a completely different sound from my own name. And--Omar Sharif was a popular actor at the time. Oh--and I was 15.

The funny thing is, the name stuck through that school year, and not only was I called that in that English class, but it even made it into the school yearbook. I still have a couple of friends from that time (long ago) that remember the name.

Well, today I have run into the same issue, with two of us at work with the same first name. It's not really a serious problem, but we are getting each other's emails and it is confusing when people are referring to one or the other of us in conversations. This time, I have been given a nickname--Segundo (second). Of course, the guy who has my name, having preceded me at the company, gets to be called Primo (first).

Who knows if this will stick, but it's kind of fun to do this. I can't think of any negative connotations. The problem is, the email system is still using our given names, so confusion will continue to reign in that venue.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fiat 500 Brings Cuteness into the Present

I've waited for a while for a chance to drive the tiny Fiat 500. With Fiat's control of Chrysler, the popular European brand is back in the U.S. for the first time since the early 1990's. After a week with a new 500C (convertible), I'm very happy to say it was worth the wait.

The original 500's were popular in Europe from the 1950's until 1975. Like the VW Beetle and the Mini, small cars were the only kind that most people could afford. Now, all three models are enjoying new life in modern configurations.

Like the MINI, today's car dwarfs the old one, and its 1.4-liter, 101-horsepower engine is much more powerful than the .5 and .6 liter originals. But it's a different world now, and the American road is full of SUVs and "midsize" sedans.

Tooling around in the 500 is lots of fun, especially with the five-speed manual transmission. The little engine (for which premium fuel is recommended) feels peppy off the line, and acceleration up to freeway speeds is fairly robust. I drove for a couple of hours on the freeway and it was quiet in the cabin and felt stable despite the short wheelbase.

Fuel economy is rated at 30 City, 38 Highway--good numbers for anything that's not a hybrid.

The interior is awash in circles for everything from the gauges to the vents to the speakers to the headrests. The big black ball shift knob has an inscribed shift pattern. The feeling is retro but not slavishly so. The original car was pretty basic but this one has lots of style.

People asked me for rides to check it out. Yesterday's rider, Rafi, noted that the styling may be better than the MINI's because it is less cartoonish while still being charming. I think he has a good point.

The 500C offers a convertible top that is essentially a giant cloth sunroof. You can open and close it at up to 50 miles per hour and let the light, sound and scents of the world in.

Prices start at about $15,500 for the basic hatchback but my convertible, in the lower level model, was about $21,500. There are some cheaper small cars but none are as much fun to drive or own.

500's old and new recently appeared in Cars 2. That, along with advertising and press reports, will help get the Fiat brand back into people's consciousness again.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Hot Tuna - Steady as She Goes

Hot Tuna, besides sounding just like the word for "wedding" in Hebrew, has always been centered around the musical synergy of it's two primary members--original Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. This new CD, Steady as She Goes, is their first one in two decades, which they explain in the liner notes simply by saying "The time wasn't right yet." I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but this 12-song production is immediately satisfying.

Produced by Larry Campbell, who contributes various support instruments, and recorded at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY, it has both a rustic, ambling accessibility and the burnished perfection of musicians who've honed their craft since the 1960's. With Teresa Williams' high, Grace Slick-like vocal harmonies, you'd almost think you were listening to the Airplane. That would be a good thing.

The band also includes Barry Mitterhoff on a collection of mandolins and Skoota Warner, who pushes everything along nicely with his drumming.

This is a CD that doesn't take several listens to like. I was humming pieces of it after one go-round. I'm especially taken with Jack's long bass solo on track 5, A Little Faster, and Jorma's guitar work is intensely satisfying throughout.

I'm glad I ordered the CD instead of simply downloading the music. The cover shows a variety of old photos of historical tattooed ladies--and if you look closely, they all have Hot Tuna, the album title, or Jack and Jorma's names added to their designs. The colorful front cover is a fresh take on classic Sailor Jerry tattoo images (mermaids, ships, waves and an octopus).