Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bright College Days

I once fell asleep in a class of four students.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pass the Goose, Bruce

In our favorite walking park south of Denver, the village authorities have commenced hunting coyotes, purportedly nuisance coyotes who have threatened people and taken pets. At the same time, most of the large geese that frequent the park's two ponds are now absent, at least temporarily, and their droppings have been swept from the park's sidewalks and trails. Clearly, somebody has made a decision that the park is for people first.

When the geese were much more plentiful -- i.e., until a few days ago -- I often wondered whether they might look tasty upon someone's dinner table. Impoverished people in the city might benefit from a free poultry meal, and others might find an occasional game bird appetizing. But Canada geese are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918. Poaching them remains a crime.

We think of other cultures as exotic for the animals that are and are not consumed. In India, cattle are untouched; in Middle Eastern cultures, it's swine. As a non-hunter, I still wonder how strange it must look to hungry people of the planet that we have geese aplenty in our midst and choose to leave them to the coyotes.

Salman Rushdie Agrees With Me

He thinks the horse came through the wall, too:

'Slumdog' no hit with Rushdie

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Tarnished Palace

In this age of superlatives, a work of art that is merely good instead of great can seem like a near failure. Like a bronze medalist in a track meet or honorable mention at a bake-off, City Hall (1996) both elates and disappoints. It redeems itself in its treatment of grand, human themes, from loss of innocence to lost potential, in a political fable which, I speculate, might also represent the filmmaker's intent to illuminate the still-baffling story of a contemporary American politician.

Al Pacino, as Mayor John Pappas of New York, carries the film. His oratory soars to astounding heights when addressing a deeply skeptical African-American congregation, mourning a child of the community caught in the crossfire of a notorious shooting. Pappas decries the violence that has taken root in his city and implores the parishioners, in rising, climactic tones, to join him in civic participation "until this city...your city...our city...his a palace again!"

This superlative scene is supported by several understated, well-acted and directed moments. Immediately after the memorial service, Pappas reflects silently in the mayor's car, as John Cusack's young Deputy Mayor Calhoun waits for the proper moment to break in with the day's agenda. Finally, Pappas quietly says, "Terrible thing to lose a child." That's the moment; they share a sigh and proceed anew. In another quotable scene, Mayor Pappas reflects on the comprehensive responsibility of the office: "If a sparrow dies in Central Park, I feel it."

Would that the rest of City Hall lived up to Pacino's performance. John Cusack, likable in the portrayal of an unlikely, Louisiana-raised political transplant to New York, can't quite locate a southern accent with confidence. His character's credibility is burdened by an inept subplot -- or is it the main plot? -- in which the Deputy Mayor of New York City practically assumes the role of an action figure, chasing gangsters by boat one night and traveling by train upstate on another occasion -- all the way to Buffalo, round trip! -- to track down a lead. (At a minimum, one would think his absence from his office duties might be noticed.) Danny Aiello's affable Brooklyn politician, under the thumb of Tony Franciosa's menacing mobster, is more sharply defined, and Bridget Fonda animates the plot by getting in Cusack's face and under his skin. Still, as with Michael Douglas in Wall Street or Martin Sheen in The West Wing, we can't wait for Pacino to return to the screen.

Ultimately, City Hall is a morality tale as well as a portrait of New York City as a tarnished but beloved metropolis. Without Pacino's Mayor Pappas as anchor and focus, however, it would just be an extended, long-winded episode of Law and Order -- without the crisp editing and snappy titles.

With Pacino in the lead, it assumes the status of parable -- and perhaps even a political explication. For years I have wondered about former New York Governor Mario Cuomo's decision not to run for President, following his rise to national prominence occasioned by his brilliant 1984 convention speech. A gifted orator of his era, perhaps the last progressive Democrat to inspire the liberal-to-moderate populace in the way that Barack Obama has in this current era, Cuomo was derided by critics as the "Hamlet of Albany" for waffling on the decision to run, ultimately withdrawing from contention. Is City Hall wholly fictional in its origins, or could it be a cloaked tale of a promising national political career, derailed through events and associations never revealed?

As Calhoun laments in a closing scene with Pappas, after the fictional mayor's political downfall becomes inevitable: "The things you could have done."

Monday, February 16, 2009

YA: Yea or Nay?

I've checked out a slew of young adult (YA) novels from the library for the first time since my mom took us to the bookmobile stop during summer vacations.

Hopefully this is not as weird as it sounds. I want to see if my writing impulses translate readily into a particular genre, age level, and subject matter -- even though my written output to date has primarily consisted of Excel spreadsheets and grocery lists. Taking inspiration from the best cross-generational writers, such as Carl Hiaasen and Neil Gaiman, I want to find a cadre of sharp, creative voices to emulate.

I plan to keep my reading list realistic rather than fantastical, steering clear altogether of the astoundingly prevalent dragons-and-swords subgenre. Squishy romances and teen emo won't work for me either: big surprise! Adventure, mystery, sports, and humor -- as well as nonfiction -- are the more appealing categories.

Has the fantasy of writing The Great American Novel morphed into the yen to strike it rich with the next Harry Potter series? Is there gold in them thar hills?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Feb. 14th Can Only Mean One Thing...

Pitchers and catchers -- and goalies -- report!!!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Domination (a.k.a. Risk): Research Findings

Last month, I wrote about Domination, a free, open source implementation of the classic Risk board game of world conquest. For the past few weeks, I've played Domination against several automated opponents at a time on various game maps, and by now I've optimized my strategy so that I almost always win.

Considering that I routinely lost when playing Risk against the neighborhood kids when growing up, this is quite a turnaround! If I ever meet them again for a titanic reunion battle, we'll see whether my new strategy holds up -- or whether it's too much attuned to the A.I. program in Domination. I suspect the latter.

Our youthful strategies featured a general preference for capturing and defending continents, which earns you extra armies, as early as possible in the game; and double-defending all occupied territories, whether crucially located or not. We eventually came up with three basic rules for success:

1. Always move forward each turn.
2. Always attack your strongest opponent.
3. Michael is always dangerous.

While Rule 3 likely remains valid -- knowing Michael as I do -- my new strategy calls the other two rules into question. Moreover, the new strategy is cards-based, not continents-based. For those unfamiliar with the game, Risk cards are earned throughout the game and can be traded for escalating numbers of reinforcement armies as the game progresses. Crucially, if you eliminate a weaker opponent, you capture his or her Risk cards. It turns out that this is key to victory, especially if you can eliminate an opponent later in the game when Risk cards can be traded for dozens of armies. Thus, the new strategy:

1. Pile most of your armies on only one or two remote outposts at the start of the game, the better to survive early onslaughts. Don't worry if opponents capture your more thinly defended territories.

2. Early in the game, only attack and advance far enough to earn your one Risk card per turn. Forget about capturing a lot of territories or a continent; it usually spreads you too thin.

3. Later, whenever possible, use your one or two highly armed territories, plus new reinforcement armies that you get from trading in Risk cards, to launch an attack that eliminates a weak opponent in order to capture his or her Risk cards. Repeat.

Having developed this winning strategy, I'm happy to offer it to you for your gaming success. I ask only one thing: whatever you do, don't tell Michael!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Aziza Mustafa Zadeh: Jazz and Tiramisu

Have you ever happened across a performer at a quick glance and been captivated instantly with his or her musical art? Such occurred with me about fifteen years ago, when I heard jazz artist Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, an Azerbaijani singer and pianist, for the first time on a Deutsche Welle cable program. Luckily that show was repeated, and I was able to catch her name. I've enthusiastically followed her music and career ever since.

Daughter of Vagif Mustafa Zadeh, a Soviet-era jazz musician who performed at personal hazard behind the Iron Curtain, Aziza also learned from her mother Eliza, an opera singer. Her etherial tonalities are an exotic blend (to the Western ear) of "mugam" scales, evoking a vaguely Arabic or Islamic sensibility, and American jazz riffs and chord progressions. Her tranquil instrumentals featuring this "double jazz", in her father's parlance, are entrancing mood pieces that could serve as the national soundtrack for her homeland, while her faster compositions display her technical virtuosity.

Aziza's incredible, classically trained vocals incorporate influences from mugam to opera to scat-singing jazz improvisation. It is the range and breadth of her vocal talents -- a haunting melody in one phrase, percussive clicks in another, leading to an operatic, high note climax -- that captivate the listener and distinguish her music from garden-variety Eurojazz.

Her most accessible work for fans of American jazz standards is Jazziza, an album of recognizable jazz songs arranged with her own ethnic stylings, sensibility, and wit. Her humorous take on Dave Brubeck's classic, "Take Five", presents her full-throated, operatic voice at a feverish pace, mixing in syncopated scat-singing, articulate "pips" at the top of her range, and, in the album version, tight harmonies (with herself!) and musical puns -- such as the surprise drop-in of the opening tones to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at a propitious moment.

Based in Germany, Aziza performs mainly in European cities. My beloved spousal unit and I, along with good friends living in Europe, had the high privilege of seeing her concert nearly ten years ago, in Schwetzingen Castle near Heidelberg. Shy in her stage conversation with the audience, her concert presented the full measure of her musical talents. The encore, she explained, was a bit of "dessert"; she altered the lyrics of her very fast, very brief scat song called "Moment" to include the musical refrain, "Tiramisu, tiramisu, tiramisu!"

It's my fervent hope that aficionados of world music and jazz on this side of the Atlantic will have the same opportunity to see her perform live, either solo or perhaps as the featured guest of a symphony orchestra. It will change your concept of what is possible musically. To North American musical directors and impresarios: may I respectfully recommend that you offer Aziza Mustafa Zadeh some tiramisu at the earliest opportunity.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

NHL Tongue-Twisters

So, you want to be an NHL announcer? Say these tongue-twisters, five times fast!

1. Sergei Gonchar shrugs at shoulder surgery.
2. Tkachuk cross-checks Chris Chelios.
3. Flyers freely fear flawless Fleury.
4. Olczyk cites Sharks' sharp skates.
5. Numminen earns more manna than the mininum.
6. Laracque's knuckles rake Roenick's locks.
7. Only Owen Nolan owns Khabibulin.
8. Gretzky jeers Jean-Sebastien Giguerre.
9. Stasny sits: shameless slashing.
10. Red Wings' Zetterberg gets $73 million.

(That last one isn't much of a tongue-twister, but I still can't say it without choking up.)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Wait's Second Law: $800 is the New $500

There's no greater buzz-kill for the new college graduate than having to spend part of your first adult paycheck on a vacuum cleaner. It's the first tangible sign that post-collegiate life is not all beer and roses. But at least it's only $100, unless you succumb to some highly alluring infomercial (in which case, I maintain, you didn't learn very much during college).

Before long, however, you learn the real truth. It's known as Wait's Law, and it's a universal law of economics: Everything in adult life costs $500. Plumbing repair? $500. Dishwasher gives out? $500. Replaster the kitchen ceiling when it caves in? $500. Your 10-year old buggy's right front CV joint clatters? $500. Attend your high school reunion? $500 for the plane ticket, overnight stay, drinks, guilty phone calls home, and dry cleaning afterward. Anniversary dinner and a show -- in New York or Chicago? Well, we don't want to sit in the back row, do we? Not after that reunion! $500. Doctor bills for two lab tests and a prescription? $500. Somehow, some way, "Baby needs new shoes" will translate into a $500 outlay. Iron law. Guaranteed.

Wait's Law was originally formulated in the 1980's and held throughout much of the 1990's. Since the turn of the millennium or so, however, there's been a disturbing trend documented in the scientific literature. Exceptions to Wait's Law have been increasingly reported, with the statistical bias clearly on the upside.

Our beloved 1992 Camry, a.k.a. The Silver Zloty, is indicative of this recent challenge to Wait's Law. Just one month after $800 in engine work, it then needed $800 in exhaust system repairs. The mechanic further recommends a replacement of the engine mounts. $800. (This last one will have to wait: thereby illustrating a second meaning of Wait's Law.)

We live farther from our respective hometowns now. Two round-trip tickets to either home for the holidays? $800. Hard drive crash? You can't really justify sinking more money into old technology, can you? New computer. $800. That plumbing repair back in 1999? Did you really expect it to hold for ten years? $800.

Evidently the world has changed. How can we reconcile these new data points with Wait's Law? Easy. Wait's Second Law: $800 is the new $500. Problem solved; universe explained. Alles in Ordnung.

Ask me about Wait's Third Law after the bank bailout is done.

Confidential to "Boom Boom Von Doom"

The flat-track roller derby craze that began around 2002 is chronicled by reporter Paul Wachter in today's New York Times Magazine.

He wrote a pretty good article. Still, he didn't capture the full extent of gonzo exuberance that you and your fellow Mad Rollin' Dolls displayed at your "bout" in 2005, the first I'd ever seen. I hadn't laughed so hard in years -- and I daresay, neither had your grandmother, nor my beloved spousal unit, nor the rest of your traveling fan club.

Though you're now retired from the Quad Squad, no doubt collecting a hefty pension while waiting for that phone call from the Roller Derby Hall of Fame, I say thanks to you once again for being such a colorful crazy-person. You continue to entertain us all. "'Boom Boom' is in the room!"


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