28
Jun
13

Ex-Mars Volta frontmen find new sounds

Former Mars Volta frontmen Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Cedric Bixler Zavala

Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala were the masterminds behind The Mars Volta. The band broke up in January and two have formed new groups: Bosnian Rainbow and Zavalaz.

The Mars Volta broke up in January. And considering the last few albums, it’s probably for the best.

For a while, nothing beat the psychedelic, Spanish-tinged prog-rock. In high school, I couldn’t get enough of De-Loused in the Comatorium or Frances the Mute. I remember driving right past my house on a summer night, Volta blasting through my ’88 Acura speakers, not allowing myself to go home until I got through the few acts of Cassandra Gemini.

Led by the high-pitched Cedric Bixler Zavala and guitar virtuoso Omar Rodriguez Lopez, The Mars Volta split earlier this year when Omar wanted to tour and spend all of his time on a new band, Bosnian Rainbows.

Cedric and Omar have gone their separate ways for now, and Omar brings his incredible musicianship and absolute shredding to more low key, dark and beautiful music. Combined with the vocal talents of Terri Gender Bender, ex-Mars Volta drummer Deantoni Parks and keyboardist Nicci Kasper, they create a sound described as ethereal, yet direct.

The closest music that fits the description is Bat for Lashes, another band that features lush synthesizers, female vocals and layer after layer of atmospheric soundscape.

Cedric has gone his own way too, starting up a new band that couldn’t sound more different. He’s brought along the former Mars Volta bassist Juan Alderete to create a more groove-worthy, classic rock sound.

Ironically, both bands recently toured San Francisco within a week of each other. Zavalaz played Cafe Du Nord on June 21st and Bosnian Rainbows headlined a show at the Great American Music Hall last night, June 28.

I was lucky enough to catch Bosnian Rainbows live last night at the Great American Music Hall, for the second time in a handful of months (the first at The New Parish in Oakland). Lopez’s rapid-fire fingers and deep guitar grooves make him a performer that cannot be missed.

In Bosnian Rainbows, he plays the role of teammate and band member much more than band leader, likely because of the collaborative nature he has mentioned about this group. Omar was basically director of Mars Volta, which tended to mean dictator. The shredding takes a back seat, but is still prominent, and Lopez even lends his voice to a few tracks, something he never did live with the Volta.

Zavalaz, at least on the surface, is the weaker of the two. Cedric is talented, and his omnipresent whines and wild lyrics that thread in and out of Spanish and English lend better to a concept band like The Mars Volta than a straight rock outfit like Zavalaz. I’m eager to see the direction this band goes and whether the sum of the Volta parts is, or is not, greater than the whole.

Stream the entire Bosnian Rainbows on Bandcamp and stay tuned for recordings and more tour dates from Zavalaz.

12
Apr
13

See if winter is coming with five minimalist weather apps for iPhone

It’s hard to think of anything more exciting than weather—OK, there’s probably a few things: paperclips, the Pythagorean theorem, the Dewey decimal system…

The onset of global warming has made weather far more unpredictable and far less boring, so finding instant, accurate information has become more important.

Luckily, app developers have taken to re-imagining how we get the weather through some innovative iPhone apps that are slick, simple and cool (pun intended). To date, there are 4,772 total apps filed under “weather.” Here are five beautiful, minimalist weather apps that embrace good design and user interface. An honorable mention goes to Weathercube (free), for its kitschy, Rubik’s Cube-style UI, and Dark Sky ($3.99) wins the practicality award for its critical, human-speak notifications (“rain in one min,” e.g.).

Good Weather

Good Weather

Far more than temperature and precipitation levels at your current location, Good Weather features fun mini games that change based on the weather. A simple, no-frills interface features thick, rounded icons front and center that come alive with a swipe to the right. Make sure you check out the unique default locations (think: winter is coming). Price: Free.

Solar

Solar

The best part about Solar is the soothing color palate and clean, sans serif text. Slide your finger down and you’ll get a three-day forecast. Swipe right and you’ll switch locations. Drag your finger up (do this slowly) and you’ll get a sliding weather prediction for the next 24 hours. Watch as the colors, temperature and descriptions change. Price: Free.

Climate Clock

Climate Clock

Watch the time tick by as a minimalist, analog clock takes over your iPhone screen. Overlaid on a time of day and temperature-based gradient, Climate Clock has weather icons around the face instead of numbers, so you’ll know when you need to bring a jacket (always, if you’re in San Francisco). Price: $.99

Weather Dial

Weather Dial

Formerly WTHR, this deadly simple and “more beautiful” weather dial has only one main button: refresh. Stunning icons describe your local climate in plain English like “It’s Clear & 63°” and the app switches between light and dark themes for day and night. While the simplicity and attention to detail are gold here, the dial doesn’t support multiple locations like the rest of these apps. Price: $.99.

UltraWeather

Ultraweather

Ultraweather ditches the pastel colors and instead opts for a stream of outdoor Instagram photos with large temperature and weather icons nicely placed on top. Tag your shots with #cloudyuw or #sunnyuw and they’ll automatically appear in the background. The one downfall is there doesn’t appear to be much censoring, so plenty of unrelated pictures pop up. Price: Free.

Do you have a favorite weather app so minimalist and magnificent that it could land in the museum of modern art? Let me know in the comments!

And if you’re itching to take a stab at designing the weather, check out Weather Analytics for streamlined access to good weather data. Just don’t forget to bring your umbrella.

04
Apr
13

Automate your home for under a grand

Nest's thermostat is a whole lot smarter, and sexier, than its clunky gray predecessor.

Nest’s thermostat is a whole lot smarter, and sexier, than its clunky gray predecessor.

The idea of “smart” technology seems a bit silly. If stupid is the opposite of smart, then what is stupid technology? Why would anyone seek to create technology that isn’t smart?

The pervasiveness of “smart” technology comes from devices like the one I’m typing this on — a phone. But it’s far more than just a phone; in fact, the phone is simply one of the many, many things I can do with this multitouch bundle of sensors, brushed aluminum and high resolution screen.

For innovation around devices with a seemingly singular function, look no further than the gradual evolution of the technology inside our homes.

Belkin's WeMo Switch provides simple automation for any electronics plugged in to it.

Belkin’s WeMo Switch provides simple automation for any electronics plugged in to it.

It started with a fridge that became a water cooler, then an ice machine too. Now, we have no-fuss, instant coffeemakers that require no filter and no beans, just a little plastic pod. Our TVs are “smart” now, mostly because they can connect to the Internet and do more than just show television.

With Nest, the pace of innovation in the home has been taken to a whole new level. What Nest has done to the thermostat, that clunky gray rectangle on the hallway wall, is akin to what Apple did with the portable music player and then the cell phone. Before the iPhone, there were touch screens and Internet connectivity on a cell phone, but nothing that resonated. Nothing that truly caught on. Nothing that sparked a revolution in mobile technology.

Temperature control doesn’t seem very appealing at first pass. But with the looming threat of global warming and “being green” equivalent to “being cool,” the brains behind the iPod decided to tackle just that. No screwing around with a bunch of hard-to-press buttons and a tiny digital screen. Instead, turn the bright blue Nest thermostat like you were adjusting the volume on an iPod or the temperature in your car.

For not much more than the cost of a smartphone, Nest can track energy consumption in a home and start saving you money by learning behaviors and turning on only when needed. You can preheat your place before arrival and never worry about turning off the air.

There’s even an app, Nest Leaf, that acts as a remote control for your thermostat from anywhere in the world. The gas and electric bill should no longer be a shock with up to the minute tracking and month to month energy usage comparisons.

With such a smart device, the next generation of intelligent, learning in-home gadgets will likely be ushered in over the next 10 years.

It’s not hard to imagine the lights turning off automatically when we leave, with an app to program the living room lamp to stay on at night during vacation.

In fact, for 50 bucks, you can do just that. Belkin’s WeMo line includes an outlet and motion detector, which can even be used together to power electronics off and on remotely. Anything plugged into a WeMo switch can even be scheduled to activate, so you can always leave the lights on when you go away.

The Lockitron enables wireless control over you existing door locks.

The Lockitron enables wireless control over you existing door locks.

Worried you forgot to lock the door? Try Lockitron. With options as low as $295, you can set your door to lock automatically behind you and unlock as soon as you’re near. If the kids forgot their keys or you need to let the neighbor in to feed the cats, this simple to set up hardware and software combination will do the trick. That is, if you haven’t already automated your pet feeding too.

Cars have already integrated a lot of this technology, from auto locking, remote control ignition, and even a built-in personal assistant, a la Siri or something similar. It’s not hard to imagine a day when the home is smart enough to make our lives simpler, more enjoyable and more effective.

But new cars are manufactured every year and that’s hardly the case with front doors or kitchen appliances. The trick is finding an affordable way to upgrade an existing system. Between Nest, WeMo, and Locktron, you can automate your house now for less than a grand.

13
Mar
13

Pull into SOMA’s Garaje

A six dollar meal at Garaje  during happy hour: canned Hamm's and skirt steak tacos

A six dollar meal at Garaje during happy hour: canned Hamm’s and skirt steak tacos

With nearly a dozen craft beers on tap, house made sangria and pop-up Mexican-American food like two for $5 tacos and a $6 burger that’ll fill for days, open-less-than-a-month San Francisco restaurant Garaje (that’s garage in Spanish!), will become a staple in your SOMA diet in no time (Not to be confused with a staple in your stomach).

It’s got everything a little Spanish (or Jewish, in my case!) boy could want: it’s cheap, quick, fresh, delicious and hits the spot.

The space has been converted into a great new hangout and the food is actually, shockingly, affordable — we’re talking one dollar sign on Yelp.

Make the 10-15 minute walk from the ballpark and you’ll find yourself in an industrial lounge meets mom and pop taco shop with a dash of sports bar and classic car aesthetics. Think: a few flat screens (nothing too invasive), Edison filaments hanging from the ceiling and a couple marquees as menus. The rustic light fixtures are easy to miss, but the ruby red Corvette-looking thing in the back is not. It’s Garaje’s custom tap system, which, made out of an old Coldpspot fridge, got its custom paint job in an actual body shop. There are neon bar signs, but not your typical Budweiser anywhere in sight: instead you’ll see paraphernalia like the giant, backlit Ducati sign the owners convinced a broke college kid to sell to them for $200.

The tacos could’ve used a little more salsa, but were otherwise satisfying with well-marinated steak strips hanging out inside a corn taco shell that tastes nothing like those crappy store-bought ones mom used to heat up in the oven on taco night.

The burger was large and took charge — the combination of two good-sized tender, juicy patties and classic cheddar gives the ole Double Double a run for its money.

Co-owner Arturo Aguilar

Co-owner Alfredo Arturo Aguilar (he just goes by Arturo, obvi) forged the menu at Garaje from only the finest and freshest, locally-sourced ingredients — like Acme buns and La Palma tortillas (for the tortillas, he had to talk to a tío, who, along with most of the family-run business, doesn’t use email). Aguilar is so serious about fresh that he would rather disappoint for being out of an item than serve anything sub-par.

If you haven’t figured it out already, Garaje is themed like an old service garage. When Aguilar and his business partner took over the space in October last year, it was well beyond pick-me-up status. Think giant bags of MSG upstairs, a stray cat, and whatever was left of a fish tank and some crappy wooden ceiling fans — basically your run of the mill out-of-service neighborhood Chinese restaurant. They thought the place looked like an old service garage, so they went with it.

The space has been converted into a great new hangout and the food is actually, shockingly, affordable — we’re talking one dollar sign on Yelp. Come for happy hour and you can snag $2 tacos and a $2 can of Hamm’s beer (the stuff “born in sky blue waters” for those keeping track). A craft beer like a Green Flash IPA or the generously proportioned fish tacos will require a few more dollar bills (this place is cash only!), but it will be worth it. And make sure you ask about the Crazy Dave special. You’ll definitely want to mess with that.

Unlike your mechanic’s garage, with those rundown couch cushions, stale coffee, and cockroaches; this place will more than comfortably accommodate small to large parties and there’s an upstairs lounge-to-be awaiting some finishing touches. And if you’re low on juice, the tables along the west wall have iPhone 5 charging cables — which couldn’t have come in more handy when I waltzed in last week with a measly nine percent battery life.

Oh, and that house-made sangria? I’m calling it Arturo’s 90-Day Sangria. And while I won’t give away what took him three months to perfect, I will say it involves the following flavors concocted into a sorbet of sorts, which gets blended into a Spanish table wine on tap: hibiscus, cranberry, lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit. ‘Nuff said.

27
Feb
13

Control your technology, sans the remote

Myo

Gesture-driven computing, on your arm this year.

I get excited about two kinds of gadgets:

1. The kind that let us do more than we already can

2. Devices that take our daily interactions to the next level

I’m betting on MYO, a gesture-driven armband, to do both. And it’s coming out, albiet in a limited release (25,000), this year.

MYO promises to let us play our music with a snap, quite literally. A demo video shows the armband being used to play videogames, drive drones, annotate presentations, and rewind a video. It’s essentially a remote control, without the remote.

The developers of this innovative new concept, Thalmic Labs, are calling it effortless interaction. Backed with $1.1 million in seed funding, Thalmic consists of three canuks who graduated from Canada’s University of Waterloo and lifted off through Silicon Valley’s prestigious startup incubator, Y Combinator.

It’s essentially a remote control, without the remote.

Most of the devices we hear about today are just new ways of doing the same thing: a watch to check our messages or a screen of varying size that lets us use apps and connect to the Internet. It’s refreshing to hear about the occasional and potentially game-changing technology. The most exciting part about MYO is the price point. At a tenth the cost of Google Glasses, you can take your tech hands-free later this year for only $150.

14
Feb
13

Today in tech: nerd dating, new apps and free iPads

  1. Finally find out if there’s anything after the credits without wasting time – Anything After is the app for that: ow.ly/hIgSe
  2. Kleverbeast Brings App Creation To The Masses For $29/Month tcrn.ch/VXePix by @jordanrcrook via @TechCrunch. That’s democratization.
  3. This is very cool: Transfer Files From Your Phone to Computer With a ‘Bump’ on.mash.to/ZdqYq4 via @mashable. #tech #apps
  4. Reading: LinkedIn Feels Generous, Hands Out Free iPad minis To All Employees on @mactrast mctr.st/12FpH7E. Gah! Jealous!
17
Jan
13

A social sharing app that won’t sell you out

A new iPhone app, Digisocial, lets your share your voice with your photos.

A new iPhone app, Digisocial, lets your share your voice with your photos.

Just-launched iPhone app Digisocial adds a new wrinkle to social photo sharing: audio.

Take Instagram’s photo sharing and social network, add Soundcloud’s audio streaming capabilities and you’ve got Digisocial, which made its international debut in the Apple App Store January 16.

It’s not quite video, but it’s more than photo. In fact, they even coined a term for what exactly it is you’ll be sharing when you download the app: voicephotos. With apps like Snapchat gaining popularity in the social photo sharing community and Facebook adding phone calls through its Messenger application, the heat is on.

So how does it work?

Digisocial allows you to snap or upload an image on your smartphone, then record some sound to pair with it. You could sign or laugh, cry or scream. So far, there seem to be a lot of cute kittens paired with both fake and real meowing.

Tap share, and you can blast your voicephoto into the socialverse via the usual Twitter and Facebook integration. And, to alleviate privacy concerns from the get-go, you can choose to share to the public, friends or only yourself.

“We wanted to provide an alternative, that from a technical and functional perspective was just as advanced, but they [users] don’t have to worry about being treated like a product,” said Marco Mereu, VP of Communications for Digisocial.

Do I own my content?

Mereu summarized the app’s concept succinctly: “It’s a digital, ad-free audio image sharing app,” he told me over the phone midway through a busy launch day.

Mereu explained that Digisocial wants to carve its own path in the social sharing world by never sharing user information, providing it to third parties or selling user content. “Your content belongs to you,” he confirmed. See for yourself: digisocial.com has links to the privacy policy and terms and conditions.

The focus on privacy comes at a time when users and the media are just getting over Instagram’s terms and conditions kerfuffle.

What about down the line? They’re going to have to make money somehow

The East Coast startup is self-funded, so monetization is not an immediate priority, according to Mereu.

Instead, they’re concentrating on the user experience. That means an emphasis on fun, simple and engaging ways to share and connect.

Down the road, Mereu said, they’re thinking about layering enhanced functionalities like more storage, ways to share, features, or games.

Whatever happens, Digisocial says it will remain free and honor your privacy at all costs.

Who will use it?

So far, there are more cats and scantily clad women than anything.

However, the audio does add a very personal addition to what people are already sharing online. Plus, you can post audio comments.

It’s easy to see creative uses for the app, many of which have yet to be dreamed up.

For starters, I could see models, who have already established significant followings on Instagram, using the audio as another way to interact with fans.

Photographers and photojournalists could tell the story behind their images.

News organizations like NPR could use Digisocial as another platform for sharing the news. The push to record audio feature could be used to capture natural sound, breaking news, or even a full-fledged radio report. There is no limit to the length of audio that can be recorded, but there is no ability to upload an existing audio track — at least, not yet.

Check out my first post here and give the app a whirl yourself.

06
Jan
13

New No. 1: Macklemore accomplishes range, quality and success with debut album

Image

Ten thousand hours later, it looks like hip-hop artist Macklemore has found his success.

The smooth-spoken Seattle wordsmith debuted his first full-length in October at No. 1 on iTunes and No. 2 on Billboard in the US.

His album, The Heist, made in conjunction with longtime producer Ryan Lewis, is a medley of sunny sounds contrasted by sobering lyrics that border on profound before going back to the simple sensibilities of, say, thrift shopping.

The video for the platinum single “Thrift Shop”, featuring vintage fur coats and a Delorian, has racked up more than 44 million views on YouTube.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis create a sound that brings up immediate similarities to notable white hip-hop acts Atmosphere and Brother Ali. The collection of 15 tracks lean in all directions: some toward pop and R&B, others toward rap and introspective rock. There is clear influence from underground spoken-word king Saul Williams, who Macklemore cites as influence in a chat with Interview Magazine.

The style of music has been labeled socially conscious hip-hop: lyrics struggle through recovery and trying to make it, but take a break on easier listening like “Gold.”

Wide-ranging in accessibility, The Heist blends everything that is popular in music right now: Drake fans will appreciate the chorus in “Neon Cathedral”, while Rhianna listeners could be easily drawn to the upbeat “Can’t Hold Us.”

Everything else is expert MCing layered with incredible array of musicianship, from horns to banjo to lots of meaningful piano.

Get it while it’s white hot—you won’t regret it.

21
Dec
12

Behind the scenes at Ustream: curating 24/7 live video

  1. UStream has been putting the power of a satellite truck in people’s pockets since its inception in 2005 and now established presence as the leader in live streaming on the Internet. At a #HacksHackers meetup at UStream HQ, the curtains were drawn back for journalists and coders to check out the content and technology behind the company that owns the world record for most video ingested
  2. This is what @ustream content monitors watch to keep track of potentially objectionable streams #HacksHackers http://pic.twitter.com/2v1Ss7vP
  3. plugintodan
    @burtherman @ustream‘s content monitoring is like looking at the matrix, where the man behind the screen is the architect. #HacksHackers
  4. Content monitoring was the most intriguing—and outlandish—subject of the evening. Senior Content Manager Andrew Warner delighted with his hilarious presentation about UStream’s approach to be-headings, live violence, unexpected porn, and how to avoid turning into Chatroulette.
  5. “There’s gonna be a guy masturbating and going no man that was a performance.” Banning art on @Ustream. #HacksHackers http://pic.twitter.com/xusiLx0a
  6. plugintodan
    It all gets back to context. At some point it becomes about sex when you’re shaking your ass at the screen. Inside @UStream at #HacksHackers
  7. In terms of content, UStream takes an old fashioned approach: real, live human beings. The business model leads with content curation for live events, partnering with news outlets and even Pay Per View events.
  8. Cybil
    RT @Ustream: We love humans here at @Ustream! Algorithms are cool, too. Just not as cool as humans. #HacksHackers
12
Dec
12

Google Maps for iOS is back…sort of

Find my full review of the new Google Maps app over at Gadget Beats, the latest in tech news and reviews.

Google Maps, sorely missed from the latest iOS upgrade, is back in the App Store, but quickly unable to be downloaded potentially due to overwhelmed servers.

Mac Rumors broke the news with a direct link for the download, as it does not appear to be available when searching the store.

The mapping service is back with a redesigned interface and, drum roll please…voice-activated turn by turn directions!

Oh, and a personal favorite of mine, public transit directions have returned and are slicker than ever. Traffic, satellite view and an external link to the Google Earth app are also included in the new version.

It’s more of a lookalike to the built-in maps app for iPhones running iOS 6 than it is Google’s last iOS iteration or even it’s current mobile web app available at maps.google.com.

Within 30 minutes from this news breaking, the app is already unavailable, at least temporarily. Users are getting the error message “the item you tried to buy is no longer available.” No word as to why exactly it’s no longer downloading or why it wasn’t searchable right away.

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about.dan

Dan Ucko

Dan Ucko

Plugging in so you don't have to

Design-driven creative storyteller passionate about making a difference through communication and technology.

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