Monday, March 30, 2009

My Spring Gift Registry

If you're saving your money this season, here are ten gift items that you definitely do not need to get me, from Crate & Barrel:

1. Olive Spoon
2. Yellow Melamine Reamer
3. Non-Stick Egg Poacher
4. Marble Wine Stopper
5. Bellini Jam
6. Silicone Trivet
7. Daffodil Vase
8. Bodum Mousse Electric Frother
9. Pineapple Slicer
10. Mini Tomato in a Bag

Here are ten more, from Williams-Sonoma:

1. Vintage Bunny Band Dessert Plates
2. Persian Lime Hand Lotion
3. Color-Changing Egg Timer
4. Monkey-Head Flexible Spatula
5. Lemon Bird Juicer
6. Pop-Up Sponges
7. Emile Henry Salt Pig
8. Cranberry Daiquiri Rimming Sugar
9. Book: Kids Parties
10. Pink 9-Speed Handheld Mixer

Lastly, ten from Restoration Hardware:

1. Ribbed Metal Soap & Lotion Dispenser
2. Vintage Glass Shower Curtain Rings
3. Astrology Paperweight
4. Sculptured Men Bookends
5. Cast Iron Digging Dog Sculpture
6. Cast Iron Frog Prince Sculpture
7. Potted Horsetail Plant
8. Marshmallow Roaster
9. Laser Putter
10. "Great Lines from Great Movies" Knowledge Cards

I trust this clears up any misunderstandings left over from last season.

Review: The 'Watchmen' Experience

My beloved spousal unit, a fan of imaginative science fiction and graphic novels in books and cinema, wanted to see Watchmen, the film adaptation of the highly touted, darkly graphic, flawed-superhero series created by D.C. Comics innovator Alan Moore, before the movie closed. I suggested we catch it today, a Sunday afternoon in late March.

Timing was everything. We needed a location and starting time that would allow us to return home in time to catch the last two games of the NCAA hockey regionals, which we've been enjoying on ESPN2 and ESPNU. Having seen Boston University skate past Denver skillfully and energetically during the regular season, we were hardly surprised that BU became a leading contender to make it into the Frozen Four. (As it turned out, they defeated New Hampshire later in the day to qualify.)

More surprising during the tournament was that Notre Dame was eliminated by spirited upstart Bemidji State, a 5,000-student campus in the Iron Range of Minnesota, in the first round. In fact, Bemidji State made it all the way to the Frozen Four, to be held in Washington, D.C., becoming the lowest tournament seed (#16) ever to qualify for college hockey's ultimate prize. We were equally impressed with Miami (OH) and Vermont, the other Frozen Four semifinalists, and also congratulate a plucky, well-conditioned Air Force squad for giving Vermont a two-overtime run for its money in the regional finals. Both New Hampshire and Minnesota-Duluth scored thrilling, last-second victories in the regionals as well. It's been an amazing tournament that's kept us on the edge of our seats and rejuvenated my interest in the college game.

Also interesting was watching part of yesterday afternoon's games at the ESPN Zone restaurant in downtown Denver, located on the 16th Street pedestrian mall. My beloved spousal unit's birthday had been earlier in the week, on Thursday, but due to the snowstorm that hit Colorado's Front Range we didn't get out that day. But on Saturday, at her request -- she's an avid sports fan; lucky me! -- we took the light rail into the city and walked along the mall a few blocks to the sports bar and restaurant.

ESPN Zone is a theme/destination eatery, analogous to a Hard Rock Cafe for music lovers. The entire experience is organized around the multiple sports events on numerous television screens around the interior, including one enormous screen with the featured broadcast in the main room. We knew that the college basketball would claim the large screen -- indeed, we saw Connecticut advance to the Final Four while we were there -- but neither of us had to strain to see side screens showing the college hockey. We enjoyed parts of two games on the ice, along with our cheese fries appetizer, entrees and drinks. We could have done without the pushy, grinning waiter, however; what is it with these fools who think they have to bother you every five minutes to see if everything is okay? Particularly irritating was that, in the middle of our meal, he came up and asked us three times if we were saving room for dessert. Hey pal, we didn't answer in the affirmative the first two times; would you kindly take a hint? Overall, however, the experience was a treat and a rare indulgence -- although I'd happily relinquish a few of the television screens for control of the big screen's remote!

So anyway, having decided on a theater and time -- we were happy to see that the first Watchmen showing of the day at the Landmark Theater in nearby Greenwood Village, CO was parenthesized in the newspaper listings, indicating a discount show -- we parked and approached the theater. It's one of those new, upscale movie complexes, eponymously named after the adjacent luxury condo development in the south suburbs of Denver. I suppose this kind of mixed-use development makes good economic sense, if the condo units can be sold, although a more utilitarian example of the New Urbanism would feature some more affordable housing units, as well as closer proximity to the light rail or major bus lines.

As it turns out, we didn't have to shop for a condo to experience The Landmark's stratospheric economic aspirations. "Would you like the V.I.P. seating?" said the box office manager. He explained that, for three dollars more per person, we could sit in special seats and have the privilege of being served food and drinks -- at least for the next five minutes until the previews started. No thanks, we indicated. "Okay. That's eighteen dollars." I handed over my credit card, but also asked about the early show discount that we'd seen advertised in the Sunday paper. "This is the discount show. It's normally twelve dollars." Oh. "Thanks, guys. Theater Three, on your left. You can enjoy the complimentary popcorn and drinks, right over there."

So that's the new business model, I thought. Sell a six dollar ticket for nine dollars, and give the illusion of offering free snacks. Oh well; at least we're not paying New York or L.A. prices. We helped ourselves to sodas and popcorn, admittedly a nice touch, and wandered in. Inside Theater Three, we found our non-V.I.P. stadium seats, perfectly comfortable ones, and watched the previews. We noticed a waiter serving -- you guessed it -- soda and popcorn to the only couple in the V.I.P. seats. And charging for it. And collecting a tip. I hope they enjoyed their seats and treats, for I think we came out at least $15-20 ahead on that deal. (And, unless their popcorn was flavored with premium cognac, ours was just as good.)

My favorite preview was actually a well-produced import beer commercial featuring Italian bicyclists in a road race who sabotage their tandem bike so that they can sit roadside at a cafe and enjoy their upscale ales while the other bikers pass by. It's come to this, I thought again; I'm compliantly attentive to the advertising that we've paid eighteen dollars to see at the early discount show! At any rate, later on I appreciated the cleanliness of the rest room that I had to visit midway through the movie, once my free soda asserted itself. Note: I'm not being sarcastic here; I really do appreciate well-designed, well-maintained sanitary facilities. At the ESPN Zone, in fact, you don't have to miss any of the action being shown on the main screen while visiting the men's room -- I can't tell you why, exactly, but perhaps you can guess -- nor do you, I'm reliably informed, in the ladies' room, although the ergonomics of that are more difficult for me to imagine. Still, what more could an obsessed sports fan of either gender ask for?

Upon leaving the theater, the warm spring breeze and sunshine enticed us to take a walk around our favorite local park, and despite the warning signs, we encountered no coyotes along the nearly dry, paved walking trails. It's amazing how Denver winter weather can dominate the national weather report -- we'd received about 10-12" of snow on Thursday, in blizzard conditions -- and then the snow was all but gone three days later. We came home in time to see most of the BU-UNH hockey game, followed by the day's second game, Bemidji State's decisive win over Cornell, accompanied by Sunday dinner, my beloved spousal unit's delicious chicken curry over brown rice, and raspberry pie for dessert. All in all, a wonderful way to wrap up a delightful weekend.

What's that? The Watchmen movie? Thanks; I almost forgot. Way too violent. Sorry, kids.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Have Wait's Laws Been Refuted?

We have previously introduced and discussed Wait's Law and Wait's Second Law in this space. Namely:

(1) Everything in adult life costs $500.
(2) $800 is the new $500.

Today, however, a striking challenge to Wait's Law and Second Law arose, shaking my confidence in an orderly universe. Specifically, the Silver Zloty's car battery required replacement. Even opting for the Sears Die-Hard with the longer warranty, the invoice came to only $131 including tax, a far cry from the theoretically incontrovertible parameters previously set forth.

As with Rutherford's gold foil experiment, we cannot merely discard observations that seem inconsistent with existing theory. We investigate further.

Reviewing: it's true that today's charges fell short of the mark, and that the damage to the household treasury was, if not minimal, moderate. It's also true that this modest expenditure was voluntary, in part, as the battery had recharged itself adequately during the drive to the store since its earlier failure during the day. Does this fact account for the apparent exception?

(Aside: Is there a better unclaimed name for a rock band than The Cold Cranking Amps? Answer: No.)

Then it happened. The service technician uttered those magic words: "Mr. Wait, can I show you something?"

He points out the loose engine mounts. Price to replace: $800. The guy at Sears spotted them, for Pete's sake. Clearly Wait's Laws hold; confidence in their universality is restored once again. Naturally, I declined to have the work done this time, as before. Who has $800 just lying around?

Which leads us immediately to Wait's Third Law:

(3) If you think Wait's First and Second Laws don't apply: buddy, just you wait!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Who's Leading This Away Team, Anyway?

Word from NASA is that the astronauts now orbiting the earth have had to maneuver the International Space Station to avoid a piece of space junk.

This is the second time in recent weeks that astronauts have avoided a disastrous collision with a small object. Earlier, three astronauts were ordered into the Soyuz escape capsule as a precaution when a flying object passed within close range.

Makes me wonder - did they forget to pack their phasers?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Coyotes Silenced, For the Moment

The New York Times has picked up on the ongoing controversy over coyote-culling in the adjacent Denver suburb of Greenwood Village, Colorado:

After Coyote Attacks, a Denver Suburb Turns to a Gun-Wielding Trapper

For what it's worth, we haven't heard coyotes howling at night in a couple of weeks, even though the designated hunter has supposedly destroyed only one animal in the area.

Update: March 20, 2009 - The State of Colorado's Department of Wildlife has now posted Coyote Warning signs on the walking trail around the Greenwood Village park. How to act if confronted with one; don't let your dog interact with it; etc.

Pass the Hat...and the Plate

My favorite rock-cabaret chanteuse, Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls, has conducted a reportedly successful economic experiment on her recent tour swings through the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Touring in support of her new solo CD, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, Palmer enlisted The Danger Ensemble, an Australian theatrical art performance company, and featured string instrumentalists Zoe Keating and Lyndon Chester as accompanists.

One problem: the tour economics for a live performer, with travel, room & board, tour bus rental, equipment managers, etc., did not allow for salaries for the supporting cast. A veteran of street performing, Palmer's solution was to have The Danger Ensemble pass the hat (or rather, two burlesque boots) around the willing audiences. Supported generously during her modestly priced shows, The Danger Ensemble performers made more money through voluntary donations than they would have on salary.

Palmer and her traveling team have also solicited donations-in-kind: food, lodging, even driving errands such as last-minute deliveries of boxes of newly minted CDs and band merchandise ("merch") to tour stops, in exchange for tickets, merch, and time with the performers. Her advance teams of fan volunteers distribute promotional posters and flyers, and a semi-organized group called The Brigade arranges amateur performance artists, such as living statues and costumed models, to greet concertgoers outside the clubs. Friends and fans appear as extras in her music videos.

Palmer, a prolific blogger and interview subject, has written openly about the business aspects of her occupation in a time of chaotic transition in the music industry. She believes voluntary patronage of artists of all types will become the new business model for working musicians, and she cautions new singers and bands that the rock band fantasy of simply showing up for a gig, getting paid, and leaving without fostering a close, continuing connection to the fans is no longer possible.

Fortunately, the Internet bolsters that connection. Palmer's close, caring, and technology-enabled relationship with her fans -- an intentional decision from the early days of The Dresden Dolls -- has yielded her the goodwill, social capital, and email lists that allow her to go to her audience repeatedly for voluntary, tangible support. Will it last? Is artist patronage, not by foundations but by average fans, a sustainable business model?

In "Christopher Lydon", an early Dresden Dolls song, Palmer's girl protagonist torches for the mellifluous NPR interview host, who ignores her on-air declaration of love for him. Jilted, she sings, "Thank you for everything, but I'm not listening anymore/Nor do I plan to contribute to NPR!" If Palmer's right about the new role of patronage at all levels of the music industry, there's a lesson in that lyric for all working musicians.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pi Day? Bah, Humbug!

Everyone's all excited about Pi Day (3.14) this year. They're overlooking several key facts:

1. To be more precise, Pi Day would have been 3.14.1593. We missed it by 416 years.

2. As a real number, Pi on the timeline would last not a whole day, not even a second or a microsecond. It would be over the instant that it began.

3. Like most of its celebrants, Pi is irrational.

4. Pi tastes better if you add e to it.

Personally, I'm saving up for Golden Ratio Day. See you on January 6, 1803.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Comrades! Pay Attention!

When the experimental cellist Zoe Keating posted on Twitter that she'd contributed her music to the second module of a downloadable freeware adventure game, I had to check it out.

Turns out it's the funniest effort in the old adventure-gaming genre that I've seen in decades, since the old Infocom games like Leisure Suit Larry and Zork were produced and popularized. Soviet-Unterzoegersdorf, from the Austrian art-technology company Monochrom, has me in stitches -- and I'm not even out of Sector 1!

Soviet 1960's retro-kitsch has always been good for a cheap laugh, from Kommissar!, the 1966 Selchow & Righter board game; to The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, also in 1966; to the Beatles' 1968 hit "Back in the USSR". Why present three-dimensional characters or nuanced cultural analysis when a hack stereotype will do? Who needs Arkady Renko -- let's make fun of the Russkies!

Like "Back in the USSR", Monochrom's game works as parody on several levels. It simultaneously mocks, through mimicry:

1. The heroic slogans, stilted language, stiff attire, and physical decay associated with postwar Soviet culture, depicted in a latter day microcosm of the fallen empire;

2. The kitschy, cartoonish humor in multiple media -- including cartoons -- produced by Western humorists parodying these quirks and foibles of Soviet communist culture;

3. The clumsy attempts to incorporate graphics during the early evolution of gaming, between the peak popularity of Infocom's intriguing, text-only mazes in the 1980's and this millenium's multiplayer contests and obsession with lethal firepower.

At the player's direction, Party Secretary Gomulka marches stiffly, with all the precision and blockheadedness of a Terry Gilliam cutout animation, accompanied by old Soviet inspirational tunes being broadcast over the loudspeaker from a seriously dysfunctional LP record player, around the decrepit Red October Yard in front of the Central Administrative Office for Inner Party Processes -- basically an old barn -- picking up trash and telephoning the Supreme Soviet for instructions.

The small touches, like the noticeable warp in the audio track during the playing of "The Internationale" during the opening titles, make Soviet-Unterzoegersdorf a multidimensional parody laced with knowing jokes. Knowing that Zoe Keating's stirring cello awaits me in Sector 2 -- if I can only figure out where in Soviet-Unterzoegersdorf to secure the nation's last living chicken, at the stern direction of the Supreme Soviet -- is motivation enough to complete Sector 1. Along with the fact that I cannot wait to offer my services to the glorious fatherland, of course.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Video Game, In Paperback

Stormbreaker, the Young Adult (YA) spy novel by Anthony Horowitz, fills an airport bookstore's urgent need to stock something to sell to action-loving teens -- and former teens -- who have left their Game Boys at home.

Borrowing heavily from BritSpy genre giants Ian Fleming (James Bond), John LeCarre (George Smiley), and Patrick McGoohan (himself - I mean, John Drake), Stormbreaker introduces 14-year old schoolboy Alex Rider as a reluctant hero whose covert-ops uncle has been killed in action and who is recruited by MI6 to take his uncle's place. He faces prototypical dangers -- the evil mastermind! the mumble-jawed monster man! the security forces on ATVs! the machine guns! the electric fence! the poisonous jellyfish! the plot to destroy the world! Fortunately, Alex has been ruthlessly trained by the MI6 team and tactically equipped by the always-important spy-gadgets supplier, Smithers. I'll never look at zit cream the same way again.

As fast-paced, two-dimensional, and values-free as a second-generation video game, Stormbreaker runs Alex through his harsh basic training and then drops him into an existentialist scenario that only a plot maven could love. There's no way out for Alex but forward through the ordeal; no possible alternative exists but to work at massive personal risk for bland, exploitative spymasters who need him desperately, yet who could care less about his personal survival. This is a bleak vision of teen as imperiled pawn, a joyless executor of the impossible mission that the adults have determined for him.

Good elements of the novel do exist: the taut pacing and animating plot, suitable for alumni of the Hardy Boys series; the economical writing; the Introduction to Existentialism course. It's not that Stormbreaker isn't well-written; rather, it's that there's a dry humorlessness without relief or redemption as the plot moves forward. There's no tubby, loyal friend Chet or other oddball sidekick to color in the human spaces. Even David Brin's Postman, a loner if there ever was one, forms alliances along the way; in contrast, Alex Rider is truly on his own as he fulfills his assigned destiny. In the end, Alex's increasingly bleak life is spared -- if only for the sequel -- when one of his murderous antagonists improbably shoots the other one. Talk about killer endings.

Alex Rider is John Drake without the worldliness; George Smiley without the moral nuance; James Bond without the girls. Now a major motion picture, says the book's cover. I think I'll wait for the Game Boy edition.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Eight is Great!

Ever notice what a happy number eight is? It's a snowman! It's an octopus! It's a steal of a deal at only $12,888!

Okay, I'll concede that three's pretty nifty. It's a triangle, a waltz, a religion, a win in tic-tac-toe. Three strikes and you're out; three outs in an inning. Three is Harmon Killebrew's old number, not to mention the number of some guy named Babe.

Five is a tough guy. Nobody who's anybody writes a five without a severe, slicing slash on the top. Five is V for Victory; it's the black bishop on the chessboard. Five is Dave Brubeck cool; five is Joe Dimaggio cool. If Zorro wore a baseball uniform, he'd wear number five.

Six is lazy, a real beast when she gets with her friends. Four's just a square. Seven thinks she's magnificent, magic even, although she's almost past her prime. It's so much friendlier with two, said Pooh.

But eight's the holly jolly one. Eight's a wonderful time to get up in the morning, if you're so lucky, and there's still plenty of time for a walk on a warm evening at eight. Eight lights up all the LCDs on the calculator display; it's full, replete, filled to the rim with Brim. Flip it, rotate it, stand it on it's head; eight's still eight. Eight is its own palindrome. Eight is enough.

Like a newborn, eight's infinitely wonderful when asleep. You get to play in Little League for the first time when you're eight.

The ninth gets all the glory, but the game's all but decided by the bottom of the eighth. Eight's Yaz and Yogi. Who doesn't love Yogi?

This blog post has been brought to you by the number eight.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Extraordinary Renderings

It took me two or three decades of sentient existence before my rationalist ego would allow that the arts and humanities have a legitimate place in the world, equal to that of science, math, and business, my home fields. Again recently, I was reminded of the gratifying qualities of art -- some of it -- and by extension, the capability that lies in trained and untrained minds alike to perceive; and through perception, to grasp a meaning, an intent, an emotion or deep sensibility from essentially lifeless, skillfully created objects.

The Colorado Springs Fine Art Center has on display two oils by John Singer Sargent, whose works I've always found astonishing for the brilliant illumination in his portraiture. Having now seen a number of Sargents in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and elsewhere, my amateur's unschooled eye is invariably drawn to the exultant exaltation of his subjects -- forgive the purple prose -- largely through a combination of impressionism and illumination, creating a realistic effect. Sargent may captivate the easily impressed, middlebrow museum wanderer like me more than he gains favor from the cognoscenti, but I will always appreciate accessible works that the common person with eyes open can comprehend and assimilate.

While the colors and forms of a classic impressionist or a modern O'Keefe are alluring, I'm often more surprised and delighted to scan a museum wall and come across a sharp depiction of daily life: an architectural sketch, perhaps a cityscape; commerce in the marketplace; an urban panorama, realistically captured; ordinary people humorously or compellingly engaged in the moment. One type of comedy originates from the surprise you get from the sudden apprehension of one of your familiar, ignoble friends in a noble venue -- in this case, a frame -- usually reserved for the high or exalted. Like Belushi and Ackroyd chowing down in a five-star restaurant, art subjects that don't behave like grown-ups provide an unexpected delight.

Which brings us to Sargent's Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer or Young Lady in White, in Colorado Springs. Is there a hint of Mona Lisa mischief infused in the subject's deadpan smile? Is Miss Elsie Palmer in fact a common person putting on a costume for a lark, having just changed from her colorful bloomers? Is her ability to hold still for the artist a charade, the portrait's luminescence a betrayal of her luminescent personality? Is she perhaps, just maybe, in on the joke?

See, that's what happens when you expose ordinary hacks like me to art. Fifty-five visits to forty-five museums over thirty-five years, and we presume to think we see something in it.


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