November 25, 2017

Darling Christmas Gifts -- Everything Under $20, Perfect for Secret Santa!

 Secret Santa Gifts under $20Last week I was searching for inexpensive Christmas gifts on Amazon.com, like I've done every year for the past decade. There are a lot of little gifts I need to get every holiday season, token presents in many cases, or cute, funny gifts for Secret Santa or White Elephant exchanges, but also relatively affordable gifts for cousins and uncles and aunts and friends and coworkers and neighbors. Plus stocking stuffers for my immediate family, my mother, father, brothers, sisters-in-law, niece and nephew . . . and I don't forget my dog and cats!

 I started wishing there was a site that combed Amazon.com for me, pulling out adorable, humorous, clever, cool presents all in my cheapo gift-giving range.

This year, I decided to make that site myself!

So here it is, my Secret Santa site, perfect for little gifts for all your loved ones and not-so-loved ones, everyone you need to get a gift for this Christmas season! Best of all, every gift on the site was under $20 on Amazon.com when I added it!

Good shopping, happy holidays, and Merry Christmas to you all!

 Secret Santa Gifts under $20

New Camera -- a Nikon 1 J5!


Droid Turbo 2I'd really been hitting the limits of what my Droid Turbo 2 camera phone could handle, with its lack of physical zoom and limited setting adjustments. It certainly had served me well, and it's great that it's always in my pocket, but I've been selling more and more pictures on Getty Images, and it was time to jump up to the next level camera.

Of course I'd been researching digital cameras casually for months, even years, but my parents agreed to subsidize a camera with me for my birthday this year, and really diving into the churning depths of the different options for digital cameras got me caught in a maelstrom of a learning vortex indeed.

There are so many different kinds of digital cameras. The big, hardcore, professional DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) cameras are enticing, but extremely expensive, and too big for my needs. I wanted something I could take with me everywhere, particularly walking the dog, without resenting its weight or bulk. Preferably under $450.

So then there are point-and-shoot cameras, also known as standard compact cameras, zoom compact cameras, adventure cameras, and mirrorless system cameras. I knew I wanted to aim higher than point-and-shoot, which isn't much different than a smartphone's camera, and I don't need the rugged and/or waterproof body of an adventure camera.

The super-zoom compact cameras were interesting, though. Some offer up to 60x optical zoom, with automatic lenses that retract completely, giving the cameras a very slim and portable profile. Those were a possibility.

I learned about the current limits of resolution, and how the size of the sensor chip in the digital camera makes a big difference in image quality, and the relative merits of interchangeable lenses vs. fixed lenses, and a little bit about aperture f-stops and exposure ISO and flashes and hot shoes and manual and semi-manual and automatic modes and RAW vs. JPG file types and shutter speeds and types of zooms and viewfinders and mirrors and shutters and white balance and bokeh and all the other terms I needed to know before making this decision.
 Fujifilm X100F
First I fell in love with the Fujifilm X100F. It has gorgeous retro styling, and amazing reviews, and the sample pictures I saw online are just fantastic.

However, it has a fixed lens, no optical zoom, and most damning, it's difficult to find new online for less than $1,000, although refurbished ones exist in the $700-$800 range. That was too rich for my blood, so I had to move on.

PANASONIC LUMIX DC-ZS70SThen I zeroed in on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50S. It's a super-zoom compact point-and-shoot, but it has terrific features, 30x optical zoom, and a very slim profile, perfect for a pocket. The styling is nicely retro, too, not unlike the Fujifilm X100F. It has a digital viewfinder, which is pretty cool. It's also very affordable, often listed for around $350.

However, I kept thinking that I might want to get a camera with interchangeable lenses, so it could grow with me as I learned more about photography, scaling with my skills and experience.

 Nikon 1 J5So when I found the Nikon 1 J5, it seemed to push all my buttons. It has the lovely retro styling I love, the option to exchange lenses (it comes with a 10-30 mm lens standard, with 3.5 - 5.6 aperture f-stop settings, equivalent to a 3x optical zoom, with medium aperture settings, which are a little too basic for distance or bokeh special effects or portraiture, but decent for normal street, home, and nature photos), a good mirrorless sensor chip size, and a relatively slim profile. It's actually a tiny little camera, but the lenses bulk it up considerably. It also has the flash, movie settings, wi-fi, and most of the professional settings of the big DSLR cameras. The reviews were superb across the board. And it listed for less than $350 on many sites.

For a couple of weeks, I bounced back and forth between the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50 and the Nikon 1 J5. Panasonic's 30x optical zoom and the fact that it would fit in my pocket were huge pluses. Nikon seemed like a more serious step up into photography and would grow with me. Nikon's sensor was supposedly a bit better. Panasonic had a touch LCD screen and a viewfinder, while Nikon had no viewfinder, although its touch LCD screen flipped up for selfies and angled shots. They both had 20-ish megapixels.

I guess eventually the slightly cheaper price, the slightly better styling, and the interchangeable lenses tipped me in favor of the Nikon. The Nikon name didn't hurt either.

 Citysqwirl Instagram
While I'm still very much a beginner with this Nikon, I love it so far. It takes lovely crisp pictures, and even the 3x zoom gets me in much closer. Next I want their chunky 30-110 mm lens for much greater optical zoom, and the little 18.5mm f/1.8 lens to allow more creative focus techniques. The controls are nice and responsive, it's very light, although I hated the neck strap and got a wrist strap instead. I'm really looking forward to learning all it can do!

If you want to check out some of my images on Getty, my portfolio is here, although now it's a mixture of pictures I took with the Nikon and those I took with my Droid Turbo 2.

You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram to see my daily pictures.

Happy photography to you all!

October 24, 2017

The Graduate

Henry graduated his beginner dog training course at PetSmart!

He loved the class, the three other students, and the instructor, who always had her pockets filled with treats. He loves PetSmart anyway, as it's one of the few stores he's allowed to enter with me, and he has good associations with choosing his own toys and treats from the shelves. The store is a 5-minute walk away, and he used to pull the whole time we're heading in that direction (we just learned Don't Pull). Sometimes I wish they weren't so much more expensive than Amazon . . . but they are. Often I find a 40-50% markup on most items.

But dog training class was a great deal. $116 for 6 weeks of classes, one hour a week. We went every Sunday at 3PM, and the three other families with their dogs made it through all 6 classes, too.

The instructor was upbeat and positive, calling negative dog behaviors "silly," and appearing to really be enjoying herself throughout.

Over the six weeks, Henry learned:


  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Come
  • Down (Lie down)
  • Leave It
  • Watch Me (Calm down and look into my eyes)
  • Drop
  • Paw (Shake)
  • Don't Pull
  • Yes (Approval of an action, apart from "Good boy!" which is used more for affection)


We worked at home on each week's lesson, but it was easy to incorporate the training into daily routine. Sit before going outside. Sit before greeting people. Watch Me when too excited. Sit, Down, and Paw before a treat. Stay and Come took more work, but Henry was thrilled to be doing these activities, and really responded to the boundaries and commands.

Leave It turned out to be one of the most useful things we learned. It's a command of pulling focus, which can be used with squirrels and other dogs and garbage on the street, when before he would obsess detrimentally.

For the final class, each dog was tested on his training. (Although graduation was guaranteed regardless.) Henry followed all the commands correctly -- except Down, which he doesn't like to do on cold floors, and the polished concrete of PetSmart definitely qualifies as cold. He's pretty bald on his underside, so I get that one. He's got Down down on a carpet, grass, or warm sidewalk.

So we got a diploma and this picture, which I love. The mortarboard hat and tassel are adorable, of course, but I'm constantly tickled by the look of yearning toward the future captured in Henry's expression. The instructor was holding a treat, but still that hopeful expectancy and promise in his eyes makes me feel uplifted and inspired every time I see it in the picture, which is hanging on the hutch of my writing desk.

Congratulations, Henry. You're a great canine citizen. The future is yours.

Yes!

Good boy.

May 01, 2017

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

The President thinks that Andrew Jackson, who died in 1845, could have used his superior negotiation skills to avoid the Civil War, which started in 1861.

It figures El Douche would choose an authoritarian, lying, populist, racist, querulous, controversial, patronage-political, violent, genocidal, slave-owning Presidential role model. 

Says #45, "He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart."

More info on President Jackson's Indian genocide here

More info on President Andrew Jackson's shifting reputation here.

Transcript of President Donald Trump's interview here

November 18, 2016

Cabinet of Horrors


It seems as though Donald Trump is picking the worst possible people for his Presidential Cabinet. It's like an open call for the most evil human pieces of garbage in America.

November 07, 2016

Please Vote for Hillary Clinton

Hello, American Voter:

I realize that if you're visiting my page, chances are that you're already a supporter of hers, but since this election is so close and so important, I thought I’d write this to ask if you would please consider voting for Hillary Clinton for President tomorrow.

If you're decided to vote for her opponent, or are leaning toward voting for him, I'm sure you have good personal reasons, but I strongly and honestly believe Hillary is the better candidate. She’s greatly experienced, tested, and vetted in the government and abroad, and I admire her policies on education, healthcare, immigration, civil rights, gun violence control, women’s health, foreign policy, the environment, and the economy. I believe that the attacks against her have turned up nothing of importance other than the willingness of the opposition to lie to defame her and her strength in the face of false attacks. She’s pro-science and rationality, although she has an integral set of moral values, a strong religious background, and uplifting belief in kindness, humanity, and our interconnectivity. Hillary cares about all of us.

 Meanwhile, her opponent is deeply inexperienced and has said horrifyingly insulting things about his fellow humans, especially women and minorities. His plans are half-baked at best, self-serving at worst, and dangerous for our country’s future at home and on the world stage. He’s angry, belligerent, racist, rude, mean, greedy, and thin-skinned, which are not qualities we need in a leader. He lies and bullies without a second thought. All of the issues on which I agree with Hillary listed above, he professes to support the opposite position, entirely to our detriment. He champions policies that discriminate based on sexual orientation, race, sex, and religion. He even insulted the Pope!

I fully understand that it’s incredibly difficult to change anyone’s mind once it is made up. But I hope you will take a moment to wonder if Hillary Clinton might be much better for our planet, as I firmly believe. I doubt my recommendation will have any influence, but it seemed important to try.

Thank you for reading.

October 09, 2016

Review: Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me by Bernard Sumner

Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me by Bernard Sumner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As Bernard Sumner is the singer and lyricist of one of my top three lifetime favorite bands, New Order, I was particularly predisposed to enjoy his autobiography.

It was cool learning about the fundamentals of his life, and I was never bored, but his writing has the same clear, direct, opaque quality as his lyrics. He's always talking right to us, but he's a master of using simple language to mask and obfuscate his particulars, even if we know basically what he's talking about. So we follow through his rather sweet, sad, and rascally childhood in Salford, a borough of Manchester, with painful but handled family pain, his mild rebellions and growth in music, the formation and implosion of Joy Division, the rebuilding into New Order and global hits, the Hacienda and the dissolution of his contentious partnership with Peter Hook, and continuing touring and recording with New Order. It's all rendered sketchily, point to point, and emotions are expressed, but I don't know if it's his stiff upper lip or just the tonal evenness of his fundamental personality, but it's all quite factual and dispassionate, elided, skirted, and hinted at in coy ways, while still not shying away from actual events.

For instance, there are drugs and partying and late late nights and club life and overdosing and out of control abuse he describes offhandedly while barely copping to being involved with any of it at all, even as he admits that substances took him to very dark places. It's all so strangely disassociated.

The same goes for his fights with Peter Hook. They were friends and musical partners since grade school. Really, they're the kernel of the whole band, with Stephen Morris and Ian Curtis joining later, and then Gillian Gilbert being hired after Ian's death. So it's amazing how little Bernard actually focuses on Hooky. Their relationship is mentioned but never described. We have no idea how it functions, which grows increasingly odd as the cipher of a partnership strains and comes apart because of Hook's supposed jealousy. This is Bernard's take, of course, but it almost feels like Hook was never significant at all. It's true of so many of the relationships here; they're present but unfelt. The emotions are hidden elsewhere. In the music.

Quite bizarre, really, how he manages to tell us everything while still saying so little. Really, if you've listened to New Order's lyrics, you already know exactly how this dichotomy works. Yes, the lyrics are meaningful, yes, they stick with me and I sing bits in appropriate moments that suit the happenstances of my own life, but sometimes the words are detached and weightless, too. I wouldn't say empty, even as that's how they sound. I'd say sublimated.

But then, of course, the songs have all that gorgeous music, the antagonistic but precise layering of melodies, the pull and push of the guitar and synths and bass, which emotionally and visually develop the words, explaining them sometimes, commenting, emphasizing, or sometimes just building castles and cathedrals and other sonic landscapes around the lyrics.

Maybe that's what's missing from this book. The music. Bernard tells us his about his love for music, and he repeats that it's everything to him, but he can't explain it. He's a kind of savant. He lives the music and expresses it and that's enough for him.

Meanwhile, the included pictures reminded me how much I based decades of attraction on his beautiful youthful appearance. He was my idol. Thank you, Bernard.

September 25, 2016

Hillary Clinton Memes

I'm an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Presidential election.

Horrified by the lying, racist asshole running against her, I didn't know what to do to help, so I've been making these little meme posters and spreading them around. I realize they're not brilliant slogans or anything, and the designs are pretty basic, but they reflect how I honestly feel about Hillary Clinton. I want her to be President of the United States. I think she's smart and strong, progressive and caring, and will be terrific for this country.

Her opponent is a terrible human being.

I'll be adding more memes to this collection as I make them.

Please share.

Thanks!

Hillary Clinton for President 2016: Integrity

Hillary Clinton for President 2016: Like and Trust

Hillary Clinton for President 2016: Be Proud

Hillary Clinton for President 2016: Good Choice

Hillary Clinton for President 2016: Champion




September 24, 2016

Review: The Steel Remains

The Steel Remains The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Decent fantasy adventure with a gay, swordfighting hero. Character descriptions are lacking, but the evocation of the physical world, the motion and action and settings, is excellently done, particularly the plentiful violent fights.

The dialogue, especially the cursing, seems anachronistic and awkward, as does the attitudes toward homosexuality, perhaps without more cultural basis for this universe. But then the whole system is confusing, with various races and cultures and planes of existence not described clearly so that it seems a bit of a haphazard mishmash. Most of the big action in this world has happened already -- a war between races has recently ended -- and so this is just a minor flare-up for grizzled late-life veterans. The adventure isn't a big deal.

Ringil, the hero, is likable and sexy enough, and he carries us through. Another protagonist, an alien female warrior turned diplomat, is more sketchily defined, although she has her moments of interest. A third, a dragonslaying chieftain, doesn't have much to do.

The biggest problem with the book is that the villains aren't very scary or effective and so the climax fizzles. The baddies didn't have much of an agenda anyway and it's a letdown.

There are one or two pretty hot sex scenes.


July 19, 2016

At What Does Henry Stare?

In certain old wives' tales, it was said that you could see ghosts and spirits if you peer through the space between a dog's perked ears.

July 12, 2016

Review: The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second volume in the Kingkiller Chronicle continues the arcanist Kvothe's fascinating journey to his destiny. Again, it's a wonderful fantasy novel, full of surprise, magic, adventure, excitement, and characters to care about.

And again, the accretion of Kvothe's influences and education is the real thrill. Few shortcuts are taken by Rothfuss as he details all the information Kvothe takes in. For all the adventure, it's ultimately an academic quest he's on, and one that's never less than fully engrossing.

The genre influences of the story are equally as compelling. There's academic life like Harry Potter and The Magicians. There's an unreliable but hilarious and lovable narrator like in Gary Jenning's awesome Aztec (and somewhat lesser The Journeyer). There are basic quests abroad that remind of Dungeons and Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Elric of Melnibone, and even Adventure Time, among many others. Ultimately, though, the style and storyline create an entirely entertaining narrative that transcends its amalgamations.

I particularly enjoyed the digressions of place in this book -- across the seas to a new city, with a new set of social mores to decode, and into the realm of the fey, for some fun sexual training with a goddess.

It's all a delight to read. And the biggest sorrow when it's over is that the final book in the trilogy hasn't been completed yet, and is apparently a few years late! Hurry, Patrick! We want more Kvothe! Don't leave us hanging.


Review: The Name of the Wind


The Name of the WindThe Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a terrific fantasy novel. After a somewhat pokey opening frame, we get into the history and childhood -- the influences -- of the hero Kvothe hiding in plain sight as an innkeeper in a small town. What I love most about this book is its sense of being unhurried. Rothfuss takes his time, drawing us into lovingly delineated and described worlds, letting us live there, showing how Kvothe gathers his experiences step by step, building the man he becomes.

Kvothe is a fascinating and funny individual, vastly and multidimensionally talented but subject to a brashness and temper that often gets him into trouble. Nothing is entirely easy, and even though he's given more gifts than most, he's also dealt some truly difficult blows by fate.

I love a training narrative. We follow Kvothe as he learns on the mean streets far from his wandering clan, pulls himself to his next goal, and starts his perilous magical, practical, and musical education at an academy. It's all rendered in meticulous detail, showing us all the fun parts of learning, and all the frustrations, too. I was spellbound.

The language only helps. Lovely metaphors abound, and Rothfuss's writing is as good in a thoughtful moment as it is at an exciting fever pitch.

It's one of those long, sprawling bildungsroman in which you keep checking how much is left of the book because you don't want it to end.

Thankfully, the next book, The Wise Man's Fear, is available!


July 10, 2016

My Favorite Fork

This is a picture of my favorite fork.  

After many years of dedicated, intensive usage, it's got a crack in its handle now, but that hasn't lessened my fondness. I'm always happy to see it in the sink, drying rack cup, or utensil drawer, and I hum a little multi-toned purr of pleasure when it is the fork I will be using for my meal.

I do not know where it came from. Perhaps from a thrift store in Denver or San Francisco? Those were two places where I bought used utensils. It's also possible that it was left behind in a home and I adopted it. I don't think I stole it from anyone or inherited it from my grandmother like so many other kitchen supplies. I simply must admit that I don't remember its provenance. It feels as though it has always been with me, but I know it's only in my adulthood that it's been mine, perhaps for the past 15 or 20 years.

It has perfect balance and weight for my hand and the tines are just long enough and not too wide and it has no tinny taste. Most importantly, the wooden handle doesn't dent my fingers like some full metal flatware. The handle has a silky yet firm grip to it, and the line where the wood and the metal meet feels entirely seamless, which is also crucial because it makes me believe that no food or gunge gets stuck in the connector, although nowadays I worry a little about the crack. 

The subtle scrollwork design -- almost fleur de lis but not quite -- is delicate and minimal and reads on my fingers' sides as a touch of slight texture, increasing the security of the grip.

I love the way it feels in my fingers so much that years ago I inspected the fork carefully and found these words imprinted into the back:


INTERPUR
STAINLESS STEEL
JAPAN

It's Japanese! A little research online and I discovered that the pattern was from the 1950s and was quite popular. I haven't matched up this exact fork to any existing patterns -- the ones I've found in similar styles had wider or more rounded tines -- so I'm still unsure if the handle is real rosewood or synthetic. (The way it's cracking makes me suspect synthetic.)  

The research led me to eBay, of course, where I bought a vintage, used set that mostly matches. I love the set, even though it has wider forks and cake forks, and some of the tablespoons arrived with their edges chewed up from a violent dishwasher. They all still feel good in my fingers.

What's your favorite utensil?

July 03, 2016

The High Bridge

As I was writing about Highbridge Park yesterday, I realized that I'd never been to the new pedestrian walkway on the refurbished High Bridge, even though it had been open for months. So during my mid-afternoon walk with Henry, I took a left on Amsterdam Avenue and steered him downtown.

It's not the nicest walk from my block to 172nd St, passing a couple off-ramps onto the Harlem River Drive, crossing the US1/Trans-Manhattan Expressway/I-95 overpass as it ducks under the Bridge Apartments, and strolling by some sketchy blocks of liquor stores and auto parts and dodgy bodegas. I was the only blanco for blocks, and while that doesn't bother me -- I'm certainly used to it -- it's always a little notable. I've always found it best not to stand out on the streets of NYC.

Henry doesn't really help with remaining inconspicuous as would be my preferred mode. He's much more friendly and social than I am, saying hi to everyone we walk by. So far it hasn't gotten us into trouble, but I'm still guarded about interacting with strangers on the street and probably that won't stop anytime soon.

Anyway, we got to the Highbridge Play Center, where there's an enormous public pool. We skirted that, and walked across the lawns of the park alongside the pool and through a couple of birthday parties and exercise classes to the steep stairs down the cliff that led to the High Bridge. There was a good sized crowd navigating the steps with us, neighborhood kids with their parents and tourists and downtown folk on an uptown excursion.

The pedestrian walkway is quite attractive, with red brick across the bridge. The view is both industrial and pastoral, with the park along the Manhattan side, and the transportation hubs and Metro North railway on the Bronx side. Facing south, the skyscrapers of downtown jut into the haze, while uptown the river snakes around a bend, crossing back across the tip of Manhattan toward the Hudson. The tall fence of wire netting along either side isn't particularly aesthetically pleasing, but preventing jumpers must be a priority, I suppose.

Henry and I walked across the bridge, stopping just over the river on the Bronx side, and back again, and then headed back up the stairs, around the pool filled with buff Dominicans and excited children, and along the rough streets of uptown, heading toward home again.




July 02, 2016

Highbridge Park

highbridge park
Across the street from my apartment building is Highbridge Park.

Officially, Highbridge Park, named after the High Bridge, an old pedestrian aqueduct that is the oldest bridge in the city, begins at 155th St. and continues all the way up to Dyckman St. in Inwood.

Where I live, it's not much of a park, really. It's a cliff between my street and the Harlem River Drive far below, winding along the Harlem River between Manhattan and the Bronx. A single path traverses the park, which is occasionally used by joggers and cyclists and park rangers and more often used by drug users and dealers and teenagers escaping prying eyes.

Unless you lean over the rock wall along the upper edge of the park, the path below is invisible from the sidewalk and hidden from the highway, too. It has very few exits back to the street, and most of those have been closed by the city, or there are police barriers blocking the steps. So it's too isolated to feel safe down there. I've only walked the cliff path a few times, as the feeling of being trapped is overpowering.

It's pretty clean, though, and well-tended with beautiful flowers and lush greenery. Ignore the empty drug bags scattered around, and the ubiquitous blue cigarillo wrappers.

About 10 blocks downtown, the park widens into a recreation center, and a little further down than that, a large public pool. About 10 blocks uptown is a busy playground and basketball courts that are always packed with hardcore players and semi-pros and their fans, with blaring music, hookahs, and a general party atmosphere. The low path along the cliff surfaces toward the street just past the courts, and winds through a well-manicured park where people picnic and have birthday parties, and just up past that is a terrific, big dog run where I take Henry in the evenings to romp with his doggie friends.

Since I've gotten Henry, I've become very well acquainted with the whole stretch of the park uptown from my apartment, as I walk at least six blocks of it five times daily, and walk the full 11 blocks to the dog run at least three times a week.

I have a great fondness for the old-fashioned rock wall that separates the top of the park's cliff from the sidewalk and the street. It's the same style as the rock walls surrounding Central Park and various other city parks, and feels classic New York to me.

Along with the beautiful and varied trees, plants, and flowers, I've seen quite a lot of interesting wildlife in the area, too, including skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, large families of raccoons, possums, and of course lots of mice and rats and colonies of cats, as well as birds beyond my abilities to recognize.

This week I saw a bright yellow snail on the rock wall eating lichen the same color as its shell. Manhattan may be paved from top to bottom, but life finds a way. I'm expecting to see a coyote any day now, or maybe a fox. Updates as they occur.