Monday, February 06, 2017

Super Bowl LI party recipes

For anyone who saw my various posts on my party and wanted to know what I made:

This salsa is delicious and ridiculously easy to make and I can't believe I don't make it more often. It's smoky from the roasted tomatoes and the chipotle peppers give it a kick.

Guacamole (4 avocados, 1 red onion, 2 Roma tomatoes, 2 seeded jalapeƱos, 3 cloves minced garlic, 2-3 tablespoons cilantro, juice of 3 limes, salt to taste)
I doubled my usual recipe since we had 6 people. We ate all of it.

Chipotle bacon pimento cheese (from Sarah Sprague)
This pimento cheese is another recipe that I should make more often. It's also simple and delicious and great for a party or a picnic. I'll use the leftovers to make grilled cheese sandwiches.

BBQ Beef sandwiches from a Betty Crocker recipe
I wanted to do BBQ beef sandwiches. My father found this recipe online and I liked it because it had peach preserves for that Georgia touch. I browned the beef before I braised it, so it would have a little texture. I think mine had a little too much onion, and if I made it again I'd cook it in a Dutch oven in the oven rather than in the crock pot. 

Baja potato salad from The Border Cookbook
I've had The Border Cookbook for many years and it's always a great source of Southwest Tex-Mex recipes. I wanted to make a potato salad that would complement the sandwiches but with a little kick. The rice vinegar in this potato salad was just what I was looking for. I went for about two tablespoons of mild, minced pickled jalapeƱos so my version probably had less heat than the authors intended. But the tang of the vinegar worked really well. I'll make this one again. 



S’mores cookies from Betty Crocker
This recipe is one difficulty level higher than Rice Krispie squares but no less of a crowd pleaser.

Friday, February 03, 2017

A review of my new MacBook Pro

I saw David Pogue’s review of his new MacBook Pro and had a couple of thoughts about my own recent purchase. Also, I had at least one person ask me for a review of the Touch Bar after I’d had a chance to use the laptop for a while. So here we go.

This is my third MacBook Pro. I had a late-2007 15” model and a mid-2012 13”. I loved both of them and I’ve become a big fan of macOS so I had no desire to get a Windows 10 laptop. I was willing to trade off the lack of compatible USB ports and the loss of a MagSafe power adapter in order to have a computer that didn’t show me the macOS “pinwheel” anytime I launched another application or opened a tab in Safari. So I bought a 13” version with the Touch Bar, 8 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of SSD space. Since I use iTunes Match to store all of my music in the cloud, I moved my 140 GB of music to a portable drive at home and just copied my Photos database from my old laptop.

Things I love:

The TouchID power button that logs you in with a fingerprint is so convenient that I wish I could do it on every computer I use. Also, I don’t have to type my master password in 1Password anymore, so I’m using it more on my laptop now than I used to. It can also be used to pay for purchases with Apple Pay, but I haven’t done that yet on the computer.

The Touch Bar is still a little gimmicky for me, but I’m starting to appreciate it more and more. I added a Lock button to the standard row of keys (accessible when you tap the < next to the omnipresent brightness, volume, and Siri controls), so I can lock the laptop with two taps. I like the ability to tap and drag to change the volume or the screen brightness. Other things, like having tap access to your Safari browser tabs, are less useful features. You can’t see enough detail on the tabs in the TouchBar to be able to switch between them. I haven’t used the auto-complete feature that much yet. I do like having access to emoji on the Mac now. I’m sure there was a way to type them on my previous laptop but the Touch Bar suggests emoji replacements the same way as on iOS, so it’s much easier now.

The speakers aren’t quite positioned where the holes in the top case would make you believe they are, but the sound is loud anyway. I almost always listen to music with headphones or external speakers anyway, but the audio is excellent. 

It’s ridiculously light and thin. My previous MBP weighed about 4.5 lbs. This one is supposed to weigh 3.5 lbs but it feels much lighter, and it’s half the thickness of my previous laptop. I hardly notice it’s in my backpack.

The Retina screen is gorgeous. When I have to connect to my office network and use a Citrix remote session, it’s noticeably less sharp than the native macOS apps. My photos have never looked better.

I like the larger touch pad and I don’t have the accidental cursor problems Pogue describes, even with “Tap to Click” turned on. I do have some issues with click and drag, so I need to tweak the settings. But the touchpad is fine and I don’t know why anyone would deface their laptop by taping a piece of paper over part of the top case.

Things I don’t love:

The keyboard is a little too lightweight and click-y for me. I loved the keyboard on the 2007-era MBP, and moving to the “chicklet” keys on the 2012 MBP took a little getting used to. I’m adapting to this keyboard, though. If I can type on an iPhone or iPad, I can get used to typing on this. It is a fast keyboard, and find myself making fewer mistakes with it. This review is the most I’ve typed on this laptop to date, though.

Things that are fine:

The USB-C ports are great as long as you have compatible cables or adapters. The day I ordered the MacBook I ordered three short USB-A to USB-C cable adapters and two USB-A to USB-C adapter plugs. I also ordered a spare Apple 61W charger and a USB-C to HDMI adapter for my 21” monitor on my desk at home. I had factored the expense of these adapters into my purchase price, and I spent about $130, the bulk of which was the spare AC adapter ($70). Thanks to the flexibility of USB-C, I could have bought an off-brand backup charger for the office, but I didn’t want to take my chances connecting my brand-new laptop to a knock-off charger, even at a lower voltage. But it’s a possibility if you want to do that. 

I don’t miss the SD card slot from my old laptop, as I hardly use my standalone digital camera any more. I might need to get a USB-C to Ethernet adapter at some point, considering that my main job is computer networking. But most of my work is with Wi-Fi, and I can’t remember the last time I had to connect my old laptop to my router at home, let alone a switch at my office.

I also didn’t buy a USB-C to Lightning cable. I connect my phone to my MacBook about once a year. With iCloud and Apple Music and iTunes Match, I only need to connect my phone if I need to back it up through iTunes or recover from a fatal problem. I can use one of my adapters in that case.

 I haven’t had a chance to test the overall battery life. Most of the time, my laptop is connected to AC power, either at home or at the office. I ran it down to 40% or so the other day over a couple of hours. It charges faster than any Mac I’ve ever owned, so I don’t see how the battery life is going to be an issue for me. I also don’t live off this laptop the way I do my phone, where I obsess over battery life. 



Overall, I’m extremely happy with my new MacBook Pro. It’s lighter and faster than my previous one, with an improved display and a Touch Bar that I think will be a great addition as more third-party applications support it. I’m going on a short trip for work at the end of the month and I look forward to seeing how I get along with it on the road.

Monday, June 27, 2016

How I shared photos from my old camera on our vacation

On my recent vacation to England and Scotland, I had a photo problem. Yes, I took too many. But also, how would I share online photos that I took with my old point-and-shoot camera? On previous vacations, I took pictures with that camera and shared them when I got home. But it’s 2016 and wi-fi is everywhere, so why wait? I would be able to upload pictures that I took with my iPhone, but I didn’t want to rely on just a phone for pictures of Scotland’s green hills and valleys. I had a few options:

1) take my laptop and upload photos the old-fashioned way. But I didn’t want to shlep my laptop on this trip just for pictures.

2) buy a new camera with wi-fi capability. I looked at a couple of cameras on Amazon, but I don’t use a point-and-shoot camera often enough to make a new one worth the expense.

3) buy a wi-fi-enabled memory card. I thought about this too, but I have four 4 GB memory cards for my camera and I don’t need another one, for a camera I don’t use often.

What I settled on was option 4: use my wi-fi travel router to copy pictures from my camera’s memory card to my phone and upload them that way. I purchased a Hootoo Tripmate Elite travel router/backup battery in 2015 for the few times a year that I need a wi-fi extender for bad hotel wi-fi. It can turn a wired network into a wireless one or extend the range of an existing wireless network. It can also provide a private wireless network without Internet access. And it has two USB ports for charging, one of which doubles as a USB storage input. It doesn’t have a SD card reader slot, so I bought a $7 USB SD card reader on Amazon. The router automatically mounts the SD card reader as a storage location on the wireless network. The documentation on Hootoo's website suggests you can use the router to back up photos and videos from your phone to the USB storage, but I did the opposite. I have 128 GB of storage on my phone, so the phone would be my backup "drive."

At the end of each day of our vacation, I took the memory card out of my camera and inserted it into the card reader, then the card reader into the travel router. I turned on the router and joined my phone to the router’s private network. Then I used Hootoo’s router management app on my iPhone to browse the files on my memory card and copy the pictures to my phone. The app is a little confusing to use: it’s not clear that “Local Device” means your phone when you’re choosing a destination to copy. I get the feeling engineers designed the user interface without user input. But I was able to copy my photos from the camera card to the phone, then reconnect my phone to the hotel or B&B wi-fi so that I could upload them to Facebook and iCloud. This way, I could share my photos while we were traveling and I had the benefit of cloud backup. Even if I’d lost my camera or my phone, I’d have backups of all of my photos. 

One extra benefit of using this method to back up my photos is that with Apple’s confusing iCloud photo backup system, I can never be sure if the photos on my laptop’s Photos application are backed up into the same place as my photos on my phone. But the photos on my phone always wind up in iCloud and in Photos on my Mac and I don’t worry that I’ve lost anything. I should always copy the photos off my camera this way. Or Apple could simplify their photo management options. I won’t hold my breath on that one.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony with the Columbia (MD) Orchestra

It's a few days later and I'm still thinking about the Columbia Orchestra performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" on Saturday night. It's my favorite Mahler symphony and one that I don't get to hear in concert that often. It calls for a massive orchestra with offstage musicians and a chorus, and it's tremendously difficult to play and conduct. I know one of the musicians in the orchestra well (my brother) and I’ve met a few others, so I feel a bit of a personal connection to the group. Also, I know the piece inside and out, so I was attuned to every entrance, every phrase and cymbal crash. (I had a good view of the cymbal player.) It felt like a bit of a high-wire act for everyone involved. 

It was a phenomenal performance. Music Director Jason Love conducted without a score, something I dream of (but also have nightmares about). Everyone involved played beautifully. The soloists were fantastic and the chorus sang with emotion. There were a few missed notes and a couple of places where the strings rushed a bit and things threatened to pull apart just a little, but it all held together. The music had drama and excitement and the massive crescendos and climaxes were thrilling. Love's grasp of this music was clear not just from his conducting, which was precise and energetic, but also from his "behind the music" mini-lecture before the performance. He discussed the themes of the piece and illustrated them by having the orchestra play brief excerpts. Even for an experienced Mahlerian like me, it was a valuable refresher and pointed out a few things I hadn’t noticed before.
 
From the opening tremolo to the glorious E flat major chords at the end, I was engaged with the music in a way that was totally different from when I've heard this piece performed by professionals like the New York Philharmonic. Maybe it was my relationship to the orchestra, or maybe it was the high-wire feeling, or maybe it was just that I was sitting closer to the orchestra than I’ve ever sat for this piece, but it was a most exciting performance that I won't soon forget. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

Augustin Hadelich wows audiences, Manfred Honeck shines with the New York Philharmonic


I should have known it would be a great night with the New York Philharmonic. They usually play well for Manfred Honeck (music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) and it was a stellar program of Johann Strauss, Mozart, and Brahms. The orchestra gave a spirited reading of the overture to Die Fledermaus, full of the melodies and dances that make the opera so popular. Then violinist Augustin Hadelich joined them for Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 and captivated the audience for a half hour. Hadelich's cadenzas were particularly impressive for being his own compositions and yet well suited to the concerto. I have rarely had the pleasure of hearing an artist at the beginning of his career with such control and artistry. I also enjoyed the enthusiasm of the basses and celli in the “Turkish” section of the last movement. The audience applause at the end of the concerto called for an encore. Mr. Hadelich delivered, with Paganini's Caprice No. 5 which he played with what seemed like incredible ease. His fingers flew up and down the fingerboard so fast that I could have sworn I saw wisps of smoke. I am certain that if he wanted to keep playing all night, we'd all still be there listening. 

Brahms' symphony no. 4 was the second half of the concert. Honeck led the orchestra through a dark, energetic and dramatic performance. The strings and winds sang in the second movement, and the third movement was lively and almost raucous. The passacaglia in the fourth movement brought the work to a stormy conclusion and the audience brought Honeck back out for several ovations. It was a truly impressive evening and a great end to my subscription for the season. Next up: Concerts in the Parks!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I spent my whole weekend playing Carmen with the New York Opera Exchange. We played a show on Friday, two shows on Saturday, and a closing matinee on Sunday. We played in a church social hall with no central air conditioning and a too-cramped pit for the orchestra. It was ridiculously hot and on Saturday my back hurt and on Sunday my fingers were so sweaty it was hard to play. And yet I had the time of my life. I’ve had some amazing musical experiences in New York and this one is high on the list (along with playing Mozart’s The Magic Flute in February 2014). I am incredibly lucky to get to play music like this in this city. There are times when I wonder why I’m doing this, when I’m shlepping my viola through a crowded subway car on my way to another rehearsal. I will think of weekends like this one the next time I think about saying no and sitting at home watching TV.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A few quick thoughts on The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies

 
We need shorthand for this movie. BOFA? Five Armies?

The Star Wars trailer looks gorgeous in 3D. 

I'm a little sad. That's the last time I'll see a Tolkien book as a movie, unless someone convinces the Tolkien family to sell the rights to The Silmarillion to someone other than Peter Jackson.

It's nonstop action, except for a few scenes that move the plot along. But what action! I was never bored. It all makes sense, mostly. Most of the fighting is shot close up, so sometimes it’s hard to tell who's an elf, a dwarf, or an orc. That's my only complaint. I was smiling with giddiness, on the edge of my seat (because they keep changing things, I didn't know who might live or die), or near tears for most of the film.

Once again, the music cues are great. There's a really fantastic cue near the end. And the visual effects have never been better. 

Spoilers follow...














There's some effort to make more of a story about Thorin's madness but it's not really there. There’s not enough time dedicated to it to make it effective. Lee Pace has more to do as Thranduil here but he's still kind of an asshole. Or maybe I just think Lee Pace is an asshole because I watched a full season of Halt and Catch Fire.

I could have used more Dain. Billy Connolly was a great choice. More talk about military strategy than I expected. It was fun to see Galadriel and Elrond and even Saruman fighting again. Christopher Lee is in his 90s. I’m sure he didn’t do any stunts, but it was fun just seeing him up there on the screen. And fighting Gandalf! (He's fighting with them, not against them, though that would be cool to watch.) 

I still can't tell who half the dwarves were. Dwalin, Fili, and Kili have the most to do here. And Balin as Bilbo's friend. But the rest are just there. I think I know which one was Ori, and Bombur was the fat one. But the others are just faces. To be fair, I don’t think half the dwarves had lines in the book.

What was the resolution with Tauriel? She loses Kili. Does she go back to Mirkwood? Is she still captain of the guard? 



Also, I don't know if I like Legolas leaving for the North to look for Aragorn. How does he wind up in Rivendell to represent the woodland elves in the Fellowship? Does his dad send a raven? Does Thranduil have another heir to his throne?