Friday, April 29, 2011

Rely On Your Ears

by Drew Martin

Rely on your ears is RadioShack's slogan for its Talking Watch (pictured left) geared for the visually impaired. There is no light on it, but when you press a button, a lady's voice (who I have nicknamed Radia) announces the time and this is also true of the stopwatch function.

I recently bought this watch for twenty bucks because I needed a new way to record my mile track times. I did not want to hold a digital stopwatch and I also did not want to spend $100+ dollars for a Garmin. The Talking Watch sounded intriguing, especially because I typically run before sunrise and don't like to look down at a wristwatch. I recently tried to carry my BlackBerry for a trial mile because the app I downloaded showed the splits nicely but it was too awkward to use and it slowed me down.

The Talking Watch is geeky and clunky (it's quite thick), but I love it for timing the mile. When you start the stopwatch, Radia's voice counts off "One second, two seconds, three seconds..." she continues to ten and then counts off every ten seconds, "Twenty seconds, thirty seconds, forty seconds..." when she gets to one minute, she continues to only call out the minutes, "Two minutes, three minutes, four minutes..." At four minutes it is all or nothing and I know I need to bring it in before she says "five minutes." It works for me because I don't have to bother to look down. I can even stop the stopwatch when I cross the finish line and then, when I am ready, press the talking function to hear her read off my final time.

When I went to RadioShack to get a stopwatch, the young sales guy gave me a nice, digital hand-held one but I did not like the split function. When I inquired about the Talking Watch, he shook his head and said "You don't want to buy that."

"Wow," I thought "it must be really bad if he is dissuading me." But I took it out and looked it over and liked it because it was so bizarre, so different than what other runners are using.

When I went to look for an image of it today, the salesman's comment hit home. I read the scathing reviews...people really hate this watch...they're furious about it and rightly so; most people bought it for an elderly, blind parent. Apparently there was an older version that everyone loved, which RadioShack discontinued. Here are just some of the comments:

Too many features. Not user friendly. Stopped working and not even a year old.

Please do not buy this watch for a blind person. It is very bad and unusable.

Have used older flat watch for over 10 years as alarm clock. Liked the rooster crowing. Do not like this version at all - tried to return but over 30 day return limit. Would buy older version if I could find it - ANYWHERE!!

Bought this for my blind 96 year old mother. She has been user the older version for several years and likes it very much. Too many buttons, and I don't think it was really designed for blind people, but lazy people who do not want to look at the watch. Would like to get the older version if available anywhere.

I bought this for my blind mother who had been happily using the previous RadioShack Talking Watch for years until the battery died. The new one has too many features, is very hard to hear...I'm not sure who this was designed for but it wasn't elderly blind people.

I have been buying the old style for my blind mother for years. She cannot handle the buttons on the new one and she cannot understand the voice. Also, the band is uncomfortable. The old watch had a band that could be replaced with an expansion one that is easy for older (mom is 100) people to use. I am returning the watch. You should do research on your products before presenting them to the public.

Old watch was very clear to hear. I bought two (new watches), one for my blind mom and aunt. Both started to get upset because the watches were not clear and not nearly as loud as the old watch. Very disappointing.

My 94 year old mother with low vision had used the former model with ease. This new watch has too many buttons and she keeps pressing the wrong ones. I am constantly having to re-set it as she has low vision and it is too complicated for her to do. She cannot hear the voice clearly unless she puts it quickly up to he ear and even then sometimes it is too late. We had previously taken the watchband off and relaced it with a Velcro band to make it an easy off-on for her but could not do this with this one. It is not user friendly.

Voice is totally inaudible...Please bring old model back.

Purchased this watch for my dad who cannot see nor hear very well. The older watch was perfect. This one does not speak loud enough. Please bring back the other one!!

I have been buying LCD Talking Watches for years from the Radio Shack for my blind mother-in-law. I replace the watch band with an expandable watch band. An elderly blind person has difficulty with the bands that come on the watch. Now this new design you cannot replace the band. Therefore I must take it back. Very poor design. Why the change from the 63-5042 model?

It hurt my finger to push the talking button. The button needs to be on the face and it needs to come with a flexible metal band.

Sounds like there should have been a recall/redesign...or at least, bring back the old model.

The wristband is nearly impossible to use and the sound is a bit muffled, but I mumble too, so I won't part with Radia because of her speech problem. I do like how you can set it up so she calls out the hour on the hour, which I find comforting.

While looking for the Talking Watch image, I also found some cool digital braille watches online (one of them pictured right) but if you misplace it, it would be much harder to find without Radia calling out to you.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

by Drew Martin

I have been doing a series of neighborhood photography projects since the Fall of 2009, trying to understand what comprises a neighborhood; the people and places. I started by taking black and white portraits of my own neighbors who were then invited to a show in my backyard and were asked to take their pictures home with them. It was a hit; the show became a party and lasted into the evening.

Last spring, I did a similar show around friend's gallery in Los Angeles and then in the summer I continued this project in Prague as part of a larger group show. I am not trying to repeat myself; each time I do a new version of the show I think it's the last time but then another intriguing opportunity pops up.

About a month ago I bumped into John Flood of the New York Public Library, who mentioned I could do another show in the Reference Room Gallery of the Hudson Park Branch. In March and April of 2010, the library hosted TogetherAlone, a show of forty ink drawings, many of which I drew in that space during my lunch breaks. A neighborhood photo show seemed like a natural fit for the space since I having been working two blocks away from this Leroy Street branch for over 11 years and have spent thousands of hours taking in the area on my midday walks.

So I pulled out the Ricoh my father gave me when I was a teenager and bought several rolls of black and white Kodak film and started shooting. The camera has a lot to do with the shoot. It has a very short lens so it is not a setup you would bring on safari or to a sporting event. With a shallow depth of field and nice bokeh (the aesthetic quality of the blur), it's a great up-close people camera. What I especially like about it (particularly because of the black and white film I use) is its realism. A lot of subjects, however, don't care for its frankness. That being said, this is an unedited shoot; I am showing every picture I took without any alteration.

I like the element of surprise in film. You may take a picture of someone you may never see again and you are not sure for at least a day whether or not you actually got the picture. I attribute the look of my pictures of people not only to the physical aspects of the camera, lens and film, but to the time it requires to manually advance the film, adjust the light settings and get the perfect focus. People are used to quicker, digital snapshots so the extra few seconds tend to relax them a bit.

I took my time when I shot my neighbors in NJ but for the LA and Prague shows I shot 200 pictures in a couple hours and had them developed the same day for LA and the next day for Prague. That felt too rushed for me and I wanted to enjoy this project more, which having a full month to prepare allowed me to do.

I like talking to John at the library because he is always very patient and insightful. When I explained that I was going to hang all the photos on clotheslines in the reference room, as I had done in all the previous shows, he mentioned (and then sent me) pictures of the library's site, prior to construction, with the tenement houses strewn with clotheslines. And when we started discussing the idea of what a neighborhood is, he brought up Jean Jacobs, who was a big advocate of sensible urban planning and reminded me she was a longtime resident of the West Village. John was quick to point out that the neighborhood of our library is arguably the most famous neighborhood of New York. This reminded me of a coworker I sat next to when I worked as a graphic artist for BMW in Montvale, NJ.

The man was a jazz drummer who often performed in the city. When he found out I was moving to Ridgewood, NJ he said the most curious thing. "Ridgewood has done what the Village had set out to achieve". I did not understand it at the time but now I do. There is a great sense of community in my town, as there is in the West Village, the difference is the West Village also has constant changes to contend with, franchises replacing small shops, an influx of office workers and the domination of Bleecker Street by trendy stores, such as Marc Jacobs' Bookmarc replacing Biography Bookshop.

It is a really interesting (and sad) situation. One can simply work in the area and go to the Dunkin Donuts for morning coffee, Chipolte for lunch and meet up with another transplant coworker at Starbucks after work or one can absorb the neighborhood, get to know the people that have been living there for decades and support the smaller stores. Most office workers do the former. This neighborhood is the best of neighborhoods if that is what you want; and this is really true of every place. A good neighborhood is both a very defined physical space but also a psychological state.

My shoot in Prague left a lot of people scratching their heads. It was part of a show was called Freakshow II, and my idea there was to photograph people who lived and worked around the gallery, where they typically would not venture and whom the artists and gallery owner wouldn't be too keen on reaching out to. It was a neighborhood that I tried to force upon the gallery and the locals, which worked in some regards but also failed. I am glad that I did the show but it really made me realize that the idea of neighborhood is quite different around the world. In many places there is a preference of avoidance and as much privacy as possible; it's easier.

My own concept of neighborhood came from growing up in tight-knit neighborhoods in northern New Jersey where towns meld together, and block parties and neighborhood garage sales still take place. I was also greatly influenced by neighborly shows such as Little House on the Prairie. I love my role as a neighbor. I like giving a hand helping someone with a project and visiting friends on their porches for a glass of wine.

All the pictures here are from this shoot, Under the Hood - New York. A book of the show can be viewed on Blurb...

The show will be up from the beginning of May until the end of June, 2011 at:

New York Public Library - Hudson Park Branch, 66 Leroy Street, New York, NY

Viewing hours:

Monday & Wednesday 10am - 6pm; Tuesday & Thursday 10am-8pm; Friday & Saturday 1pm-5pm

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Triple Rush

by Drew Martin

There is a new reality show on television called Triple Rush. It follows three New York City bicycle messenger companies and emphasizes the harrowing work the riders endure, often escaping death by the skin of their teeth. I don't typically watch television but I find this show fascinating for several reasons.

For starters, when I was a kid I thought the New York bicycle messengers were the coolest guys in the city. New York was definitely a tougher place in the 1980s and the bike messengers seemed to embrace that mad chaos. They broke all the rules, often riding opposite traffic, between streams of cars, relying on whistles gritted between their teeth instead of brakes.

I still think they are a cool, with their stripped-down fixed-gear bikes, purposefully hipster clothes and on-the-move lives.

The main reason I like Triple Rush is that I am friends with the owner of one of the firms, Rob Kotch of Breakaway Courier Systems. I rode with Rob for thousands of miles a few years ago when I commuted with him regularly on bike from our town in northern New Jersey into Manhattan and back. I rode every day for six months and covered six thousand miles in the broiling summer afternoons and the freezing winter mornings. Once we rode together through a severe electrical storm with lightning bolts crackling all around us.

I've stopped riding but Rob is still out there almost every morning. He does it for exercise, camaraderie with other bike commuters and for the sake of alternative transportation but he also rides to be in touch with his messengers and to get a feel for the road conditions each day.

Rob is shown in the first episode giving an eye-opening safety lecture to new hires. It's a Scared Straight approach (his words) but the rookies should be thankful. It's the only messenger company in New York City that has a safety program and Rob's been doing it for 20 years.

The show is interesting to watch because the cameras follow the riders close enough to give a sense of what it is like to ride in the city. Bike cams and quick editing contribute to the effect. In the first episode, there were 1,400 cuts during the 43 minute run time.

The amusement of the first show was watching young guns from places like Lincoln, Nebraska get miserably lost. You feel a dispatcher's pain and frustration when a new messenger overshoots his pickup location by 20 blocks. How is that even possible with a straightforward city grid in midtown? And when the new messenger is on time, something else inevitably goes wrong, like losing the "gold," the delivery manifest.

The term 'triple rush' refers to a pickup that needs to be delivered in 15 minutes or less. For the veteran messengers it's a higher commission, for the rookie, it's an impossible task.

Triple Rush is on the Travel Channel (on my Fios system it's channel 170 and it plays at 10pm on Thursdays).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Literary Aphrodisiacs: Anaïs Nin's Delta of Venus

by Drew Martin

I recently finished reading Anaïs Nin's Delta of Venus. While much of the text can be read as autobiographical, or at least as experiences worthy of Nin's intimate participation, there is one passage, through the character of Elena, that seems like a direct line to a behind-the-scenes Nin.

"People express audacity in various ways," said Elena. "I usually turn back, as you say, and then I go home and write a book which becomes an obsession of the censors."

"That's a misuse of natural forces," said the man.

"But then," said Elena, "I use my book like dynamite, I place it where I want the explosion to take place, and then I blast my way through with it!"

As she said these words an explosion took place somewhere in the mountain where a road was being made, and they laughed at the coincidence.

Before we celebrate Nin for her audacity and carefree spirit within the pages of Delta of Venus, it is important to read the preface and understand what fueled the writing. The preface is comprised of a few of Nin's diary entries from 1940 and 1941, and concludes with a postscript from 1976. She explains.

Here in the erotica I was writing to entertain, under pressure from a client who wanted me to "leave out the poetry."

Nin was not alone in the mission to satisfy this man. A colorful array of writers churned out the stories at a dollar a page.

The homosexuals wrote as if they were women. The timid ones wrote about orgies. The frigid ones about frenzied fulfillments. The most poetic ones indulged in pure bestiality and the purest ones in perversions. We were haunted by the marvelous tales we could not tell...We told a story and the rest of us had to decide whether it was true or false. Or plausible. Was this plausible?

Although Nin embraced the work and brought much of herself to it, the arrangement with this client was taxing.

But one day we reached saturation, I would tell him how he almost made us lose interest in passion by his obsession with the gestures empty of their emotions, and how we reviled him, because he almost caused us to take vows of chastity, because what he wanted us to exclude was our own aphrodisiac - poetry.

She penned a thrashing letter to this invisible force.

"Dear Collector: We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships that change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities...Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine...

That being said, this abstract brawl between the Nin and the client reminds me of television scenes of good guy/bad guy fights, with an ally outside the tumble, unable to shoot down the villain because the two are so intertwined, whirling about. Nin controls the final outcome and pens scenarios and lines that benefit female fantasy more than anything else.

"For the first time, a real woman," he said. "So many have come here, but for the first time here is a real woman, someone I can worship."

I like Nin most when she is playful but I also find her fascinating when she takes something so common as a belt and loads it with meaning.

Pierre was sitting at the edge of the bed and had slipped his pants on and was fastening the buckle of his belt. Elena had slipped on her dress but was still coiled around him as he sat. Then he showed her his belt. She sat up to look at it. It had been a heavy, strong leather belt with a silver buckle but was now so completely worn that it looked about to tear. The tip of it was frayed. The places where the buckle fastened were almost as thin as a piece of cloth.

"My belt is wearing out," Pierre said, "and it makes me sad because I have had it ten years." He studied it contemplatively.

...[three paragraphs of erotica]...

Then suddenly the realization that the belt was so old, that Pierre had always worn it, struck her with a strange, sharp pain. She saw him unfastening it in other places, other rooms, at other hours, for other women.

She was jealous, acutely jealous, with this image repeating itself. She wanted to say, "Throw the belt away. At least do not carry the same one that you wore for them. I will give you another." It was as if his feeling of affection for the belt were a feeling of affection for the past that he could not rid himself of entirely. For her, the belt represented the gestures made in the past. She asked herself if all the caresses had been the same.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


by Drew Martin

A couple of mornings ago I ran to my town's library with The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb in my hand, which I slid into the book drop-off before sunrise.

I read books about running simply because they bolster my will to run and they spice up the marriage of body and mind. That being said, I no longer read any one book on its own: I immerse myself in a couple books at the same time so I can compare and contrast structure and concept. The other book I am (still) reading is Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin.

The Perfect Mile is a well-researched, well-written and spirited retelling of the mid-20th Century obsession of breaking the 4-minute-mile barrier by three talented runners: Roger Bannister from England (who succeeded first), John Landy from Australia (the rival, who bettered Bannister's time) and Wes Santee from the United States (who never dipped under the mark, a fact that plagued him).

The Perfect Mile is a wholesome and inspiring book. Delta of Venus is quite the opposite, in every way. First and foremost, it is a product of Nin's prolific erotica. While the core of The Perfect Mile is about discipline, willpower and improving oneself, Delta of Venus is about seduction, arousal and physical gratification. Consider one of Nin's characters compared to Bascomb's Olympians,

In all but matters of love, Pierre was helpless. He could not nail a nail to a wall, hang up a picture, repair a book, discuss technical matters of any kind. He lived in terror of servants, concierges, plumbers. He could not make a decision, sign a contract of any sort; he did not know what he wanted.

Roger Bannister, by contrast, was not only a superior athlete but was a doctor as well. In fact, most of his training was done in 35 minutes during his lunch break from St. Mary's Hospital in London. Reading both books at the same time creates a stable center of polar opposites: The Perfect Mile is disciplined, Delta of Venus is loose.

Nin wrote a kind of biographical fiction based of her own feelings and experiences and by opening up those around to tell her about their own romps and fantasies. Bascomb relied on extensive interviews and multi-media/multi-sourced documentation of his subjects' feats in order to relay past events.

Delta of Venus, like Little Birds by Nin, is comprised of short stories, which function very much like the sexual encounters they express: there is a kind of foreplay, climax and then a flaccidity in the way they terminate. While Nin suggests that anything and everything can casually happen, Bascomb writes in the realm of nail-biting suspense, which I am typically immune to but found myself on the edge of my seat a couple times.

The 'Perfect Mile' refers to a showdown mile, more commonly known as the 'Miracle Mile', in which Bannister defeats Landy in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. It's 'perfect' because Bannister wins through his patient and even pace, which is the manner how Bascomb unfolds his story and makes us aware that we are still on a journey into the unknown, towards an ever-retreating finish line.

While Nin writes of fleshy love, Bascomb expresses the sublime in running,

...this was the moment he loved most in running, the moment when his spirit fused with the physical act of running.

Nin, however, as a more creative writer, soars even higher at times when she transcends the frolicking,

I felt the dilation of the whole universe.

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's a Zoo Out There!

by Drew Martin

During the mid 1990s, I worked for over half a year at a zoo on the side of a little mountain in Sudetenland (grazing camels from the Ústí nad Labem Zoological Gardens, pictured left). Eventually, I worked in the zoo's offices, where I maintained an international database on the Hartman Zebra and corresponded with zoos around Europe, China and India about animal exchanges for mating purposes, but for my first four months I was trained to work with all the animals, except for the orangutans and the Asian elephants, as they required special care.

My stories of this time could fill volumes but one concept I took away from the experience was that the minimum structure of each exhibit should consider the maximum amount of containment needed. For example, no bars are required to restrain giraffes; they cannot step down more than a two-foot drop so all you need to enclose them is perhaps a perimeter trench and a small stone wall.

This concept can be applied to a wide range of things; playgrounds, infrastructure and even packaging. It certainly applies to art, especially when considering how to house works by artists such as Richard Serra, which I think the Dia Beacon does quite well. (Serra’s Union of the Torus and Sphere at the Dia Beacon, pictured right). Come to think of it, all the artwork at the Dia Beacon has been placed with equal sensitivity...and consider Dia's care of Walter De Maria's The New York Earth Room (created in 1977) at 141 Wooster Street and The Broken Kilometer (1979) at 393 West Broadway in lower Manhattan.

On a humbler note, below is a picture of the indoor space (for winter and heavy rains) for my kids' guinea pigs. I took it this morning after returning from a run in the hills by my house to fetch them some fresh bamboo. This new setup is only couple of days old as I am rebuilding, repointing and painting my 130-year old basement walls and need to move things around to get to the crumbling areas.

Their "cage" uses a corner of the restored walls and a band of bricks, five high, without mortar. It is easy for me to step into and out of for cleaning and feeding and yet they have no way out as they cannot jump high enough, over or even climb up, such a small barrier. On the right side of the space, you will notice a small sculpture for their contemplation and enjoyment.