Mark Roberts, Klingons and muted mauve

This week, we meet Mark Roberts. Mark is a photographer, musician, and a teacher of Web design and multimedia at Youngstown State. And unlike the famed British streaker who shares his name, our Mark runs with his clothes on.

And he runs much better.

Mark chronicles all his activities -- writing, video, music, running -- in various sections of his Web site. But it is his blog Errata that brings us here today.

I'm interviewing Mark as part of the Great Interview Experiment, put in action by Neil Kramer, purveyor of the funny blog Citizen of the Month. Neil's premise is that everyone is someone. And even those bloggers who only get a couple comments (and most of them from their wife) have a story and deserve some attention. So each blogger that signs up to be interviewed, then interviews the next person on the list. If you blog and haven't gotten involved, head over and sign up.

Mark's blog deals mostly with photography,where's he tackled everything from his disappointment with the new book
Along These Rivers, which contains a couple of his photos, and Pantone's shocking selection of "blue iris" as the color of the year. He's got a dry sense of humor that comes across well in print.

I've truly enjoyed thi
s opportunity to interview and write about him, especially since it has since led to a challenge from our Mark Roberts to the one on the other side of the pond.

"If I were as flabby and out of shape as him, I'd be embarrassed to be seen with my clothes on," Mark said. "I hereby challenge the other Mark Roberts to a 10K. He can run naked if he wants. I'll kick his butt!"

Q: How would you describe your photography work?
I look for shapes, textures and light, both in nature and in architecture. I prefer nature photography, but obviously can't get out into the wilderness as often as I would like. I also feel strongly that a photograph should speak for itself. When I go to photo exhibits, I deliberately don't read any accompanying test or captions with the photos. You'd be amazed how many award-winning photographs just don't hold up without external material to support them.

Q: Who is your favorite photographer?
Galen Rowell. For his photographs, themselves, for his adventurousness and athleticism and his environmentalist outlook.

Q: What is the biggest controversy in photography right now?
Hmm. That probably depends on which photographic circles you travel in. For those who grew up with film, it's probably anxiety over the trustworthiness of photographs now that it's so easy to modify them with software tools like Photoshop.

My view is that this is a ridiculous thing to worry about. Before photography was invented, humans looked at man-made images, knowing they could be total fabrications, born only of the artist's imagination. Then came photography and the notion that mechanically generated image could be an objective representation of "truth." Now comes digital imagery and we're back to the first condition. Big deal. The era of the objective, trustworthy image lasted less than 200 years, an eyeblink in the history of the human race. We survived quite well before this notion came into being and we'll survive just fine now that it's gone again.

Q: All right, so it's your choice and your choice alone. What should be the color of the year?

Muted Mauve. I once helped a friend build a recording studio in Rochester, NY. We painted the control room a color called Muted Mauve. I suggested it must be 20 dB quieter than standard Mauve.

Q: Tell me how you cam to be involved in Along These Rivers? And what's your concern about how the book is be
ing marketed?
A: I stopped in the Silver Eye Gallery here in Pittsburgh one day last summer and noticed a flyer they had there. They were asking for black and white photos book to be published for Pittsburgh's 250th birthday. It looked like a credible project, so I submitted two photos and had both accepted.

As it turned out, the publishers were a group of local poets who seem to have viewed it as a little club project for themselves that they were able to get someone else to pay for. They haven't done any promotion of the book and as far as I can tell, they don't intend to. They got someone else to pay for printing a book of their poems and that's all they really wanted. The photographers were treated as mere window dressing service to pad the page count and add some visuals.

Q: Is there a good art scene in
It's a bit weird and fragmented and quite parochial. Difficult to break into, as my experience with the Along These Rivers proved. I'v
e only lived here for 5 years so I don't have the connections available to someone who grew up here.

Q: When did you start your blog? And why?

Which blog? My first blog was about running and was called Junque Miles. It was done just as part of my runner's Web site. I have a photoblog called PESO (Picture Every So Often) which I started to show off photographs that don't fit into any of the themes of any of the galleries on my Web site.

I started Errata partly as a way to quickly throw spontaneous ideas online and partly as a way of learning to work with PHP and MySQL (I teach multimedia and Web Design at Youngstown State University). You see, blogging software is just a semi-automated way of generating Web pages for people who don't know how to write H
TML. If you know how to code Web sites, you don't really need blogging software, although it certainly speeds up the manual process of writing pages, generating the RSS feed and keeping track of an archive! I do all that stuff manually for my PSEO photoblog, and I can tell you it's a lot of work just to create one new entry with nothing more than a single photograph in it!

On the other hand, take the Klingon Sudoku entry (see photo to left) in my Errata blog: From when I thought of the idea to it's being finished and online was an interval of no more than 15 minutes. The vast majority of my writing goes on my Web site in normal pages, but the blog rules when it comes to spontaneous inspiration!

Q: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?
A combination of Peter Gabriel and the Moody Blues, sung by Richard Butler (the Psychadelic Furs).

Q: How do you approach songwriting, and how does that differ from your approach to photography?
Photography is quite the opposite of songwriting and it's quite the opposite of most art forms in this regard: With songwriting (or painting or writing), you start with a blank slate and add whatever you want to it, limited only by your imagination. With photography you start with the world and decide what to leave out. You have to isolate parts of it -- "crop" out extraneous elements -- until you are left
with just a small part of it in your viewfinder.

Q: Who is your favorite musical artist?

It's the Beatles. A common answer but a true one. Every time I think I like someone else better I go back to the Beatles and discover new nuances, ideas and things I hadn't noticed before.

Q: This is the Distractions blog, so before I let you go, I need to ask you for your Playlist.

Books -- Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron, I Am America (and So Can You) by Stephen Colbert, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman. Music -- All kinds of stuff by Jonathan Coulton. Drink -- Black Mocha Stout from the Highland Brewing Company of Ashville, N.C.

Q: And watching?

Nothing. Haven't been to a movie in a couple of months and we don't have a television.

Thanks Mark. Best of luck in all your endeavors.


Playlist 13 -- Call it Friend-o

For almost 20 years now, my wife and I have dutifully watched the Oscars together, as we will do tomorrow night. Used to be that we had seen most, or at least many, of the films nominated. But over the last few years -- with two kids in the house -- that hasn't been the case. But this year we have two horses in the race -- Juno and No Country for Old Men.

No Country for Old Men.
The Coen Brothers latest effort lived up to my high expectations. I was thrilled with how faithful they stayed to Cormac McCarthy's novel. The movie, like the wonderful book, is a slow-paced violent study on good and evil, and how life and growing older can be so damn tiring. The desolate backgrounds, shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, are almost another character. It's similar to Deakins' work in Fargo. And great performances by the whole cast, particularly Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem.

Weeds, the Second Season.
There are two ways to describe this show.
And fun as hell.
For those unfamiliar with the Showtime series, Nancy (Mary Louise-Parker) is a widowed suburban mom, taking care of her two sons and her brother-in-law. She turns to selling pot to make a living. The show is often dark. Sometimes shocking -- very shocking. And there aren't many likable characters in the town of Agrestic. However, you find yourself rooting for Nancy as she navigates her way through the complex life she's built for herself, all the while trying to grow her business.

Under the Banner of Heaven. By Jon Krakauer.

In his 2003 book, Krakeur weaves together the history of the Mormon Church with the story of the Lafferty murders -- when two brothers stabbed and killed their sister-in-law and baby niece because they were told to in a divine revelation. It's a fascinating story and Krakauer tells it extremely well, particularly as he details the growth of the Latter Day Saints from Joseph Smith's visions to the established and growing mainstream religion it is today. But the book focuses more on the fundamentalist sects that grew out of the Mormon Church after it, somewhat reluctantly, according to Krakauer, denounced polygamy. Some may see Krakauer's account as a challenge to the Mormon faith. I, however, see it more as a rebuke of fundamentalism in general.

Escape from Dragon House and Venus on Earth. Dengue Fever.
As far as band stories go, this one is pretty good. Musician goes to Cambodia with a friend. Friend is bitten by a mosquito and contacts Dengue fever. Musician discovers Cambodian psychadelic rock. Musician comes back to America starts band that plays similar music and finds a lead singer from Cambodia. And she sings in Khmer. The result is a mix of myriad sounds - swirling organ, garage rock guitar, spy movie grooves -- that is captivating. And it doesn't matter that you (unless you speak Khmer) can't understand 90 percent of the lyrics. Venus on Earth, released just last month, does have the English-language Tiger Phone Card. It's the best place to start if you're interested in exploring this unique band.

Other tunes I've been digging this past week ...
-- We're Gonna Groove, Led Zeppelin, Coda. Often blasted as Zep's weakest album, this collection of leftover material has some real gems, including this song.
-- The Hardest Part, Ryan Adams, Jacksonville City Nights. One of many standouts from Adams' supposedly country album.
-- Bodysnatchers, Radiohead, In Rainbows.
-- Right Hand on My Heart, Whigs, Mission Control.
-- Little Boxes, Malvina Reynolds. The Weeds theme song is played by a different artist on each show. Check out the show's official site, or simply click here, to find all the great music on the show.


Playlist 12 -- Bumblers, Books, Bees and Buzzes

Hope everyone had a great Valentine's Day and that you're enjoying a long holiday weekend. My Playlist this past week included a humorous novel, music (both old and new, some Philly-related), and a fruit beer. As usual, feel free to chime in. Let me know what you're watching, reading, listening to, or even drinking ...

An Arsonists Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke.
Do you ever feel like a bumbler like I do? Well, have no fear. There is no bigger bumbler than Sam Pulsifer, the main character in Clarke's fourth book. At age 18, Pulsifer "accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, and in the process killed two people." He later leaves prison, goes to college, gets married and moves to the burbs, not far from the site of accidentally arson. Sam's simple life -- home in Camelot, job as a packaging scientist -- gets turned upside down as his past comes back to haunt him. In his bumbling ways, he never told his wife and kids about the fire. And, for some reason, he told them his parents were dead. (They're not). The unraveling of Sam's life coincides with a new string of fires being set to other famous writers' homes. The book pokes fun at literature, academia, white collar criminals, and more. Go get this book and read it if you want a laugh-out-loud funny page-turner.

We Brave Bee Stings and All. Thao.
Thao is playing in a crowded field now. Quirky, folksy acoustic guitar/piano-driven female songwriters, thanks to Feist, are the rage now, particularly those with the low-key, smokey voices. But Thao Nguyen stands out because of her clever songwriting and smart arrangements. And the tunes are just so darn catchy, even when the subject matter is grim.

My Buzz Comes Back. Slo-Mo.
Amore. The Hooters.
Back in the early 80s, Philly's "it" band the Hooters sold more than 100,000 copies of Amore. Major label attention and national radio play followed, but the band never quite matched this independent release. The band had some success, mostly as songwriters for others -- Joan Osbourne (yep, Eric Bazilian wrote What If God Was One of Us -- not Dr. Evil) and Cyndi Lauper. They're back with a new CD, but I was focused this past week on their first album, grooving to Hanging on a Heartbeat, All You Zombies, Fighting on the Same Side, etc. Almost 25 years later, Amore still rocks with its infectious ska and new wave grooves.

A lesser-known Philly gem is steel guitarist extraordinaire Mike Brenner. He's been a hired hand, playing with ton of bands -- those with Philly ties (Marah) and those without (Magnolia Electric Co.). The premise of Slo-Mo is to match Brenner's steel guitar with rapper Mic Wrecka rhymes. Believe it or not, it works. Not all of it, mind you. Some comes off as novely, but surprisingly, much of the CD clicks. Even those who dismiss hip hop as a music form (I'm one of them) will find joy in songs like Shackamaxon, 3Way, Why Rent?, Levitation, Cuidado and, of course, My Buzz Comes Back.

Apricot Wheat Beer.
Yes, I was skeptical. The apricot smell is strong, but the fruity taste is slight and not overpowering. The beer is one of many made by the Sea Dog Brewing Company in Maine. Overall, it's a nice mellow taste. Not sure it'll get in the rotation, but was a pleasant alternative. The Beeradvocate, however, does not agree with me, giving this beer a mediocre C score.

Some songs I've been digging this past week ...
-- Colours, Loudon Wainwright III. From Hell to Obscurity (Blackmail compilation). Loudon Wainwright singing about the various shades of dog poop while Richard Thompson wails on guitar. How do you beat that?
-- Bamboozled by Love. Frank Zappa. You Can't Do That on Stage, Vol. 3. The version on Tinsletown Rebellion is much better, but this live cut features Frank soloing over Yes' Owner of a Lonely Heart riff.
-- On and On and On. Wilco. Sky Blue Sky. This is now my favorite song from the most compelling CD of last year.

And leaving you on a light note. No date for Valentine's Day? Well, at least you didn't get one of these cards.


Getting a Read on Presidential Candidates

And then there were three ....

Mitt Romney's surprisingly early announcement that he was bowing out last week left John McCain as the Republican candidate for president. Mike Huckabee didn't get the memo. I think it's because he's waiting for the Lord himself to deliver the message.

That leaves McCain, Obama and Clinton.

The good news for me is that I'd be happy with any of the choices. As a lifelong Democrat, I'd obviously rather see one of the latter two. But I have a ton of respect for McCain. And, hey, he actually sent me a signed photo with a birthday wish, part of my wife's 40th birthday present.

By now, you know where all the candidates stand on the issues. But where do they stand on literature. I'm talking books. Basically, what do they read? Well, last summer AP asked all the candidates to name the last book of fiction they read. There were still more than a dozen back then. (Where did you go Mike Gravel?)

These are the books named by the remaining three candidates. Can you match the book to the candidate?

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Yes, well all know this is not fiction, but apparently the candidate doesn't know it).
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Good luck. If you want to cheat, or check out your guesses, then click to the posting on PhiloBiblos from last year. It lists all the then-candidates and their choices. No surprise that the most-mentioned author on the list is John Grisham. And it wasn't a surprise to me that Dennis Kucinich is the most avid reader of the bunch.

Thanks for all the fish, and the book recommendations
Speaking of Grisham, his Playing for Pizza is one of the several books that have been recommended to me over the last couple weeks. One of the neat things about this blog it has led to several conversations -- online and offline -- about books. As you can tell from the books I've read over the last year or so, I'm wide open to trying anything out. Thanks to GepDawg for suggesting Under the Banner of Heaven. I've put a hold on it at the library. Meanwhile, it's back to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, who just happens to support Barak Obama.

On the same Michael Chabon fan site, I found this very exciting news. The Coen Brothers are considering writing the adaptation to Chabon's last book The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Wow, Yiddish was one of my favorite books read last year as was No Country for Old Men, the Coens' last movie. (See the whole Distractions Favorite Books (Read) in 07 list).

Ever wonder who those top 10 reviewers on Amazon are? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Grady Harp, who has reviewed more than 3,500 books, movies and CDs for the giant online seller. In fact, he probably reviewed two books while you were reading this (way too) long blog post.

You might not have read 3,500 books, but you surely know some of the classic first lines of famous books. Or do you? Test your literary knowledge at this site.

What I'm thankful for ...
OK, so why the big focus on politics AND books this week? Because this is a huge week in the Distractions' household. If you've followed my blog at all, you know my wife's young adult novel As If Being 12¾ Isn't Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President! hits the stores officially today (if you're reading this on Tuesday, Feb. 12). Check out her Web site or her blog Wild About Words, which has been active in advance of the launch date.

Here's a description of the book from the School Library Journal.

Vanessa Rothrock is much like any girl her age. She studies hard for spelling bees, loves her best friend, hates P.E., frets about her flat chest, and has a crush on the most popular boy in school. In other ways, she is very unusual. Vanessa has a bodyguard and fan mail. And her mom has little time for her because she is the governor of Florida, running for president. Likewise, this book is much like others for this audience. It is written in friendly first person and teaches nice lessons about growing up. When Vanessa and the candidate receive death threats, the girl's concern for her mother's safety is tender and adds an exciting mystery and climax to an already compelling story. Readers learn about the political process and motivations of people who work in this milieu despite the considerable risks and sacrifices. Information is woven seamlessly into the narrative. Vanessa's mother runs on a Democratic ticket, and the book is clear about the issues that motivate her, particularly gun control.Amelia Jenkins, Juneau Public Library.

So this week I'm thankful for all the success that I know my wife is going to have with this book and the rest of her career. She has the talent. And she works really hard. She deserves all the success she gets.

So buy the book, be a Grady Harp and write a (positive) review.


Playlist 11 -- Picture This!

Those who may recall Playlist 8, when I mentioned Alison Bechdel's Fun House, know that I'm not a huge fan of the graphic novel format. I don't have anything against the medium. I've just never read them. Heck, I didn't even read many comic books as a kid. But, by pure coincidence, I found three that I had heard about at my local library a couple of weeks back. I breezed through all of them in a few days -- and they each wowed the heck out of me.

Jame's Sturm's America: God, Gold and Golems by James Sturm.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi.
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by
Marjane Satrapi.

Let's start with Sturm's novel, broken into three distinct scenes -- a tent revival meeting in the early 1800s, a mining town in the late 19th century and a barnstorming Jewish baseball team in the 1920s. I can't really comment on the artwork other than to say that it changes slightly, and appropriately, with each story. These vignettes are charged with emotion. Sturm's text and drawings capture the faith and agony of the couple who show up in Kentucky with a dreadful secret. And you can sense the desparation and greed in the drawings of the mining town's hard-scrabble men. The best piece, though, is the third one, which follows the Stars of David, an all-Jewish baseball team that eventually aligns itself with a huckster and promoter.

While Sturm turns his eyes on American's history, Satrapi chronicles her life growing up in a Westernized, intellectual family in a turbulent Iran. First, it's the revolution, then the war with Iraq. The young Satrapi is sassy and pushed by her parents, and grandmother, to speak the truth. When they fear for her future, Satrapi's parents send her out of the country. The second book recounts her struggles to find herself and to live up to her family's expectations, before she finally returns to Iran. Both Perspepolis books capture the fear, confusion and frustration of living under a Fundamentalist regime. Not just a great graphic novel, but a great memoir.

These wonderful books have sparked my interest in graphic novels. And, as luck would have it, The USA Today column Pop Candy offers this list of the 25 Essential Graphic Novels. Persepolis makes the list (as did Fun House). Has anyone read any graphic novels on the Pop Candy list? Or any other ones you'd recommend?

Angels of Destruction and Can't Take it With You EP. Marah.
Been listening to a lot of loud music in the past couple weeks, starting with this new one from Marah, along with the band's 2007 EP. I think my favorite Philly band is struggling a little right now. These songs aren't bad. In fact, there are some good ones -- Hard Up, Coughing Up Blood and Wilderness. But Marah hasn't put together a consistent effort since 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. And Angels fails to rank with their other best efforts Kids in Philly and Let Cut the Crap and Hook up Later Tonight. Still, it's worth the few bucks it'll cost you to download it at eMusic.

Recently Pop Headwound reported that the band was going through some personnel changes on the eve of their European tour. There's no evidence of canceled gigs on their Web site, so the shows must be going on, albeit with a couple new members. Maybe, this is a good sign. Upheaval has led to the band's best work in the past.

In the Future. Black Mountain.
My favorite album of 2008 so far. This album is heavy. I've heard critics call it "stoner rock." but don't believe it. Yes, Black Mountain's songs evoke Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Blue Oyster Cult and even a little Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And they sing of witches and tyrants (and slog on with their nearly 17-minute epic Bright Lights). But this is not one long metalfest. This is a band with diverse influences and skills. Just listen to Angels (eMusic calls it reminscent of Neil Young), Evil Ways and Queens Will Play. A little bit retro? Hell yes. But it sure is a lot of fun.

Some other tunes I've been digging this past week ...
-- Do You Realize? The Flaming Lips. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Wayne Coyne is a wise, wise man.
-- Gemini Cusp and Thermal Treasure. Polvo. Today's Active Lifestyle. I'm still not sure what "math rock" means, but these guys do it really well.
-- Heavy Metal Drummer. Wilco. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Overheard this on my wife's computer (she was tuned to WXPN) and it brought a smile to my face.


Petty Thoughts on Super Bowl XLII

Back after a short hiatus from blogging. In fact, I've spent little time on the Web at all. This means I missed opportunities last week to comment on all the Super (Bowl and Tuesday) hype. In advance of the big game, I had planned to blog on Tom Petty's decision to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show.

I've been a fan of Tom and the Heartbreakers for many years now. I always love Petty's songwriting and the band's tightness. One of my favorite concert memories is seeing the band back up Bob Dylan in the mid-80s. But I most admired how Tom could maintain mainstream rock success while not being a pawn to corporate America.

You can see why his decision to play the Super Bowl concerned me. Also, let's face it, the Super Bowl halftime has produced some awful drek. Maybe this list or this list will refresh your memory.

I thought the band's performance was solid, though not great. The song selection was predictable -- I Won't Back Down, Running Down a Dream were obvious choices. I'm sure the NFL suggested them. I found it ironic that a show billed as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers included three songs from Petty's first solo album (Free Falling was the other tune).

Still, my initial thought was: Nice job, Tom. I saw nothing problematic with the performance. The Heartbreakers didn't blow me away, but they were a nice diversion from watching two evil franchises playing the game. I didn't like the now-cliche group of mostly young bouncy women running to the stage at the start of the set, but overall, it was not an embarrassing performance. And that's what I feared.

I was shocked when I searched the Web this morning to find Petty embroiled in a very Ashlee Simpson-like controversy. Apparently, there are some people who think Tom was lip-syncing and that the band's four-song set was recorded earlier in the week.

Come on.


Look, I don't have the time, or desire, to watch the performance again. But I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. Tom wouldn't be the first to lip-sync, though. While Janet Jackson's lip-synch isn't shocking, there are rumors that Paul McCartney and ZZ Top both mailed it in, too. If Tom and the boys did the same, I'd be mighty disappointed.

In case you missed the performances, you can catch them, along with commentary on Stereogum. Let me know whether you think he's lip-syncing. The blog also shares that Tom Petty's age was the sixth most requested search on Google the next morning.

So with little interest in seeing either team win, the only other thing to watch out for was the funny ads. But where were they? Maybe I missed something, but I didn't see one commercial that generated the next day "did you see that" water cooler conversation. There was nothing like these classics. Agree? Disagree?

I liked the eTrade ad with the baby on the Web cam, though it was a little creepy, however not as creepy as some of the ads on this disturbing, yet also hilarious, list.

What I'm thankful for ...
This week, I'm most thankful for family and friends. And for the end of the NFL season. It was a very disappointing one for us Philadelphia Eagles fans. My attention can now go to the off-season -- free agency and the draft.

And while on the E-A-G-L-E-S, I'm thankful for the fan who posted an open letter on Donovan McNabb's blog explaining how he (as well as me and most Eagles fans) appreciate McNabb's commitment and that we're not a bunch of louts booing him and pushing him out of town. McNabb, in his usual classy way, responded to the blog post.

Now, Mr. Reid, go out and get us some playmakers!