Thursday, August 7, 2008

The National Stadium in Beijing - more than meets the eye, I think. Based on this review I'm not so sure.

Architecture reviews should not be allowed on the sports page.

It's taken me three days to decipher the review by Nicolai Ouroussoff of the new National Stadium, affectionately known as "The Bird's Nest", in Beijing. I'm still not sure if "an intoxicating beauty that lingers in the imagination" is anything more than a flowery placeholder, but I'll do my best to break down the extraordinary use of language employed by Mr. Ouroussoff.

Here we go:

Given the astounding expectations piled upon the National Stadium, I’m surprised it hasn’t collapsed under the strain.

It's a structural engineering metaphor! Hooray!

Its elliptical latticework shell, which has earned it the nickname the Bird’s Nest, has an intoxicating beauty that lingers in the imagination. Its allure is only likely to deepen once the enormous crowds disperse and the Olympic Games fade into memory.

Really? He had to go with "intoxicating beauty"? This might be the most gag-inducing 2 word phrase in the English language. And equally stupid. "Don't let me drive home, man, this road is too beautiful." Dumb. You can do better than that, Nicolai.

Herzog and de Meuron (the architects) have carved out psychological space for the individual, and rethought the relationship between the solitary human and the crowd, the everyday and the heroic.

That's a little better. Now I can attack language. What is psychological space? Is it:
  • a. something a stupid person has a lot of
  • b. a bogus selling point for NYC real estate brokers, as in "sure it's a little tight, but there's plenty of psychological space."
  • c. a placeholder phrase for architecture reviewers at a loss for descriptive phrases that actually mean something
Viewed from a distance, the contrast between its bent steel columns and its bulging elliptical form gives the stadium a surreal, moody appearance, as if it were straining to contain the forces that are pushing and pulling it this way and that. Philosophically, it suggests the tensions just beneath the surface of a society in constant turmoil.
...From close up, the tilting beams suggest rather a dark and enchanted forest in a fairy tale.

So if I stand far away, I feel a sense of societal turmoil. But if I get closer, I'm suddenly Little Red Riding Hood?

The crisscrossing columns create a Piranesian world of dark corners and odd leftover spaces
Make up your mind? How can the crisscrossing columns mean all of those things? And what the hell does Piranesian mean?

Piranesian - relating to Italian architect Giovanni Piranesi, whose sketches led to the etchings of Rome and its ruins contributed to the revival of neoclassicism.

Well that clears things up. Especially for most readers of the Sports section. I mean, what sports fan doesn't know the name Giovanni Piranesi? He's like the Tiger Woods of Italian Neoclassicism for goodness sake. Come on.

Clearly, Mr. Ouroussoff is in touch with his audience.

The feverish play of light and shadows is reminiscent of the set for a German Expressionist film.

Oh yeah. I mean, how can you not look at the National Stadium in Beijing and immediately think of Paul Leni's 1923 classic Das Wachsfigurenkabinett or Emil Jannings in his his signature role as the demoted hotel doorman in Der Letzte Mann? The association is obvious to most sports fans. It has to be.

By creating a hierarchy of intimate spaces, Herzog and de Meuron allow for unexpected moments of privacy and solitude.

Well, Mr. Ouroussoff, you've done about everything you can to be as pretentious as possible. All that's missing is the word "zeitgeist".

Herzog and de Meuron’s achievement is undeniable. Rather than offering us a reflection of China’s contemporary zeitgeist, they set out to create a sphere of resistance, and to gently redirect society’s course.

Ah, There you go.

The National Stadium reaffirms architecture’s civilizing role in a nation that, despite its outward confidence, is struggling to forge a new identity out of a maelstrom of inner conflict.

Translation -- it's a pretty cool stadium. Check it out.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Wednesday Wordplay, on Thursday

On Wednesday, the New York Times accidentally printed an old crossword puzzle. On Thursday (today), it printed the new Wednesday puzzle alongside the new Thursday. That's right. One paper, two puzzles. It's a crossword nerd paradise.

In honor of this momentous occasion, I shall live blog my solving of the side-by-side puzzles.

It's a special Thursday edition of Wednesday Wordplay. Stop reading now if you haven't done the puzzles yet and plan to.

Ok. I'm going for pure stream of consciousness here, so bear with me. Or don't, I don't care. Hey, be happy I'm blogging something again the way the summer's been going.

I start with the Wednesday puzzle, which has a pattern of circles throughout that kind of looks like a staircase. I start at 9-across (Frank in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). That's ZAPPA, and then 9 down (Cubic ______) is ZIRCONIA. Both of those words start with Z and end with A. Both words are in circles. I thought 1 across (Coors Product) might be Beer, but it's also circled, so I'll go with ZIMA. Don't hear much about Zima anymore. 4-down (Ingrediente en paella) starts with A, and ends with Z - ARROZ. Gracias, Senora Collella.

Let's try to get all the circles. 23 across (Keebler cracker brand) I'll come back to, but it must end in A. 24 down (Flagstaff's place) is ARIZONA. 39 across (This puzzles theme) crosses Arizona at the Z, and starts with A and ends with Z, so it's "A-TO-Z-TO-A". That works. 39 down (The Rock) ALCATRAZ. Thank you Sean Connery. 68 across (Ball's Comic partner) "arnaz."

70 across (Animated film hit of 1998) ANTZ. Never saw that one.

Off to a good start. Let's get rolling.

A recital player is a SOLOIST. 1 down (Goes this way before going that) is zigs or zags. But it means 17 across (lovers of fine fare)starts with G. I don't know yet.
Rough up - MAUL. NYC Theater area - Bway. What's more - AND. Sammy Davis, Jr's "___ Can" starting with Y, must be YES I.

All the way to 41 across now (One of eight Eng. kings) is EDS. Because Eng. is abbreviated in the clue, the answer is abbreviated too. There were eight Edwards, or Eds here. Let's get the crossers - 31 down (Cubs, but not Bears for short) think Chicago, think baseball vs. football and you get NLERS, short for national leaguers, a crossword puzzle favorite. 32 down (When said 3 times, "et cetera") that's YADDA, as in "yadda yadda yadda." And 33 down (Ol' Blue Eyes classic). MY WAY, but only if 41 across is EDW. One of eight. So it is EDW.

60 down Let's leave IT AT that. 54 down lady of Spain is a DAMA. 49 down Of course, senor! SI SI senor. Boy Spanish class is coming in handy. Begins slowly - EASES IN.

Yes! Lovers of fine fare - GOURMANDS. That will open things up. So that's MIES van der Rohe, a military official is a BRASS HAT, and 6 down (deteriorated) is WENT TO POT. Incidentally, the Keebler cracker is a ZESTA. 44 across (Famous Amos) TORI. She has nothing to do with cookies.

40 down (Getty or Rockefeller) is OIL BARON. Madison Ave trade is ADBIZ. That's the last of the theme clues. Harsh quality - STRIDENCE. Sacramento Arena - ARCO. Secluded area - GLEN. Mother of England's Charles II and James II - Henrietta. English history classes paying off as well.

Back up to the top right corner. This puzzle is harder than I thought it would be at the beginning. 12 across (producers' fears) is pans, so it's producers as in movies and pans as in bad reviews. Apple instant messaging program is ICHAT. River flowing in and out of Lake geneva is the RHONE, Madden and How - INCENSE. Nothing to do with John. 22 down (Three R's org) is NRA. Nothing to do with guns, that's the National Recovery Administration, one of FDR's programs. FDR's successor was Truman, who's last secretary of state (10 Down) was ACHESON.
Still with me? I'm almost done with the first puzzle...1 Down must be zigs, because you zig before you zag and the clue is goes this way before that. So Zigs, I'm going with it. So ITAR Tass news agency, not ATAR. I think that's right. Top is done.

Sci-fi sidekick, maybe - BOT? NYC Country Club? - THE UN. That's cute. "What a kidder!" - OH YOU. Free Pass, of sorts - BYE.

54 across (redlines) is DEMOTES. 9 empty squares to go. Stiller's comedy partner is Anne MEARA. 6 to go. Richard Strauss must have been born in MUNICH because that's what fits. Down to 3. 62 Across (Be _____ and...) 5 letters A_ _ _ R

A Dear! It's done! But wait, flip the page over...and there's a whole other puzzle for me to do...on the Subway home. I'll let you know how it goes.

One more time though - the A to Z to A theme: ZIMARROZESTARIZONADBIZEENAntZ and ARNAZARTACLATOZTOAINOCRIZAPPA (Alcatraz and Zirconia are the backwards ones) .

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Story of the Week - June 30-July 4

A day early, cause of that holiday thing.

A couple of my favorite July 4 facts:
  1. George M. Cohan, the man who wrote the song "Born on the Fourth of July", was born on July 3, 1878.
  2. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, political rivals and the country's 2nd and 3rd presidents, both died on the same day - July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
  3. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution declaring "these United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States." But it says July 4th on the Declaration, so we go with that.
On to story of the week, which I call:

FARC: Funniest name of an extremist left-wing insurgent terrorist group ever!

FARC , the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is widely recognized as a terrorist cell, or a group of gangster thugs perhaps, have had a stranglehold on the legitimate Colombian government for decades and control most of the region's lucrative and criminal cocaine production. FARC is the reason the U.S. sends billions of dollars in aid to Colombia in the name of drug prevention.

FARC has hundreds of people held hostage deep in the Colombian jungle. And this week, they have 15 fewer, thanks to a stunningly awesome rescue by the Colombian army and US forces there.

Two things strike me about the hostage rescue: 1. the way it happened is a deliciously good story. and 2. the fact that there have been American hostages in Colombia for years, and we hardly ever hear about them.

So first, the rescue. Here's how it happened. Government agents spent months working their way into FARC ranks. They gained the trust of the rebels, got themselves promoted to levels where they could learn the inner workings of the organization, and put themselves in positions of power.

Then the agents proposed a plan to move 15 hostages from three different locations deep in the jungle to one rendezvous point 90 miles away, telling their FARC friends that an international mission was coming to visit the hostages.

More government agents posing as FARC rebels met the 60 or so real FARC rebels and the 15 hostages at the rendezvous point via helicopter. The helicopter crew handcuffed the hostages and took them aboard, along with two of the 60 guards. The helicopter took off. When it was safely off the ground, the government agents knocked out the 2 FARC guards, cuffed them, then uncuffed the hostages and told them they were free.

It was a beautifully simple, perfectly executed bait-and-switch that could be a James Bond plot if it hasn't been already. As a result, FARC was humiliated and significantly weakened by the Colombian Government, which has been battling the terrorist group seemingly forever. Also, 3 of the hostages were American, and had spend nearly 5 years in FARC prison camps.

That's right, five years. I bet you hadn't heard about that.

It's my understanding that during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81, when over 50 Americans were held hostage at the embassy in Tehran, ABC created a nightly news cast devoted to all developments in the effort to bring them home. Today, it's called Nightline.
Every night, Ted Koppel gave Americans a daily reminder that there were Americans in captivity abroad. That crisis lasted 444 days.

These guys in Colombia were there for 5 years! How has there been no outrage? Or at least, some news on the situation, some effort to get them back? It doesn't make sense. And worst of all, there are more of them, still being held deep in the Colombian jungle, by a group of terrorists.

I don't know if we can expect more daring rescues any time soon, but we should be working on it, especially if we're supposed to be fighting a "global war on terror." Not all terrorists speak Arabic. Some of them speak Spanish and grow cocaine.

And have a silly acronym. FARC!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Where Have I Been?

I know, I've been MIA, thanks to the 10 of you that noticed.

I'll make it up to you, with my 10 favorite news stories of the last 2 weeks, in no particular order.

Harmony in Unity
I'm glad Hillary and Barack made nice, but the way they did it makes me want to throw up. And I want to throw up right on the town of Unity, NH. Unity, NH, a town so united, the town's democrats cast exactly the same number of votes for Obama as they did for Clinton. Doesn't sound like unity to me. And to the democrats - stop giving the media the easy way out when it comes to punnery and wordplay. Make 'em work for it.

Gas Prices Hurting Brothels

This is my favorite "gas prices hurting business" story of all time. Brothels in Nevada are experiencing a roughly 25% decline in business because of high gas prices. See, 75% of brothel clients are long-haul truckers who have to spend double what they spent a year ago on gas, leaving less money, presumably, for, um, other things.

But the brothels aren't taking this lying down. One brothel is offering $50 gas cards to clients who spend $300, and $100 cards for those who spend $500.
Another, the Moonlite BunnyRanch (the one made famous by HBO's Cathouse: The Series...don't act like you don't know...) is offering to provide double the services for the first 100 people who spend their economic stimulus checks at the brothel.
The BunnyRanch calls its promotion "Double Your Stimulus."

Man Leaves Jail Naked, Gets Arrested Again
In a related story, well, the headline pretty much covers it. Guy gets let out of jail, doesn't like the clothes he was given. So he takes off said clothes, starts to walk home naked. Witnesses call police, who arrest the man and take him to jail.

Mets win Subway Series
Here's a fun stat - Jose Reyes has scored a run in each of the last 13 Mets wins.
Actual conversation from the 7 train after Sunday's 3-1 Mets victory:
10 year old kid: Yankees Rule! Mets Stink!
Much older passenger: Scoreboard!
10 year old kid: Yankees won two out of three
Much Older passenger: no, they split--
10 Year old kid: --if you don't count the game on Friday, which was really from May.
Other passenger: But the Mets swept at Yankee Stadium
10 Year old kid: yeah they did but Yankees won 2 out of three at Shea.
Other passenger: So the Mets won the Subway series 4 out of 6.
10 year old kid: Yankees Rule! Mets Stink!

Tiger's Big Day
It took 19 extra holes, but Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open. A day later he announced he was having season-ending knee surgery. That means he won the U.S. Open with a broken leg. And that's just crazy.

Employee Who Updated Russert's Wikipedia Page Fired
When Tim Russert died, the first place I saw the news (after hearing rumors fly for about an hour) was Wikipedia. The page simply said "Tim Russert (May 7, 1950 - June 13, 2008) Of course, it was 3:30 on June 13, 2008 when I saw it, and the mainstream news media had yet to break the news. It's possible Russert's family didn't know before that was posted. I thought there had to be a b-movie plot in there somewhere - "a man changes his ways after wikipedia says he's going to die the next day." Turns out - a junior-level employee at a company that provides web services to NBC posted to Wikipedia, thinking the news was already public knowledge. Oops.
I'll take "things that can get you fired very quickly for $200, Alex..."

Hardee Har Har
Two notable passings - one melancholy mash-up headline.
Wilbur Hardee, founder of Hardee's restaurants, died June 20, at the age of 89. Of course, West of the Rockies, he was known as Wilbur Carl's Jr.

Hardee opened his first burger stand in 1960. There are now nearly 2,000 Hardee's restaurants nationwide.

And comedian and wordsmith George Carlin died last week. I saw this particularly negative obituary of him in a Nova Scotia newspaper by Peter Duffy, an article I'm sure Carlin would have had a good chuckle at, and clearly said something like "this guy doesn't get it," and turned his words against him. Here's my favorite paragraph:

He was probably best known for his Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television routine. Two of these words involved bodily functions; two were slang names for parts of the female anatomy; one was an Anglo-Saxon word for the sex act and the remaining two were insults involving derivatives of it.

Let me help you, Mr Duffy:
Two of these words involved bodily functions - shit and piss
two were slang names for parts of the female anatomy - tits and cunt
one was an Anglo-Saxon word for the sex act - fuck
and the remaining two were insults involving derivatives of it - motherfucker, and...well, the 7th word is "cocksucker," which isn't a derivative of "fuck", so he's wrong. Which makes his indignation even funnier.

The right to arm bears?
Makes about as much sense as the Supreme Court decision that will put more handguns on the streets of Washington, D.C. and other crime-ridden areas. The court says individuals have the right to defend themselves with assault rifles and such. I think they're misreading the sentence:

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

I'm all in favor of the Constitution, but can't we agree that some of the language is obsolete? BrookLyn GaL and I had a discussion about the 3rd amendment:

"No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law."

This was drafted because American colonists were forced to house British soldiers during the French and Indian War, and pretty much doesn't apply to today's army at all. It's pretty obsolete, but doesn't really garner much discussion. We decided it can stay in the Constitution, because what if the country went under martial law or something and the army forced you to let a soldier crash on your couch and then required you to feed him/her? That would be terribly inconvenient.

Dog loses $10 Million
a year ago, Leona Helmsley died and left $12 million, the largest portion of her inheritance, to her dog Trouble (instead of to her family or her charitable fund or countless other worthier causes). A judge reduced the amount to $2 million last week, saying that is enough money to fund the highest, most luxurious level of care for 10 years - double the dog's life expectancy. The judge said the other $10 million should go to charity. Trouble currently lives in Florida with the General Manager of the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel. He estimates the annual care costs at $190,000, including his own $60,000 guardian fee and $100,000 for round-the-clock security.

Martha Stewart Visa Denied
Because of her criminal history and subsequent jail time, lifestyle guru Martha Stewart was barred entrance the United Kingdom. The government says they don't want redecorating the Houses of Parliament or recklessly improving the quality of British cuisine.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Story of the Week - June 9-13

Happy Birthday Dad.

Wither Reality?

Maybe, just maybe, the reality TV craze is ending. Or at least receding.

On Monday night, New episodes of reality TV shows got lower ratings than reruns of scripted shows on other networks.

ABC finished 4th among the major networks. A two hour episode of The Bachelorette took in less than 7 million viewers. The Mole followed up with just 4 million.
Meanwhile, reruns of House and Bones on Fox doubled up ABC. So did a rerun of CBS' CSI: Miami. I know it's just one night, so I can't call it a trend. But these numbers are encouraging.

I'm not saying that reality tv is disappearing. Just that it's slowly exiting the network TV stage. In 2000-01, just as the reality craze was taking hold, networks collectively aired 7 reality shows. This included Fox's COPS and America's Most Wanted, arguably two of the original reality tv series, and definitely the most persistent. The list also included the second installment of Survivor which was then making weekly headlines (remember Richard Hatch, the naked guy who won the first one?), and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which isn't a reality show so much as a game show, but Millionaire proved that networks could stop trying to fill each time slot with something different, as it aired the Regis Philbin quizzer 3, sometimes 4 or even 5 days a week.

By 2004-05, the craze was in full swing. Networks offered 31 reality shows that year, from standbys like Survivor, American Idol, and The Amazing Race, to more forgettable programs like My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, Life of Luxury, and Renovate My Family. And of course, COPS and America's Most Wanted. You could say the network tv landscape was oversaturated with cheaply made, poorly planned reality garbage. And you'd be (with a few exceptions) right.

In 2007-08, before the writer's strike, only 17 reality shows hit the networks, and a similar amount is planned for '08-'09. 17 is still a lot, but here's the thing: many are really game shows (Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader, Deal or No Deal, Don't Forget the Lyrics), not reality shows. And even more striking is the fact of the 17 planned for '08-'09, only one (Opportunity Knocks) is new. And that one's borrowed from Britain. And of course 2 of them are COPS and America's Most Wanted.

Sidebar: why are COPS and America's Most Wanted still on, and are they really making new episodes? And is anybody watching? Really?

The bulk of reality TV has been relegated to Cable. Chances are, you have one vice or another (mine is Top Chef) you stalk on Bravo, VH1, MTV, or the Learning Channel (or Discovery, or Food Network, etc.) The genre has been diced up into subgenres like competition and celeb reality and others. And I'm convinced the channel selection would contract significantly if people suddenly stopped watching reality TV altogether.

But network TV is and should be held to a higher standard. Bigger budgets, yes, but also higher quality shows with more of a chance at becoming part of the greater public conversation. The reality shows that have stuck on network tv are the ones that have become fixtures in American pop culture (American Idol, Dancing With the Stars) are just plain better than most other offerings (The Amazing Race, Survivor) or for some reason still pull big ratings (The Bachelor, Extreme Makeover Home Edition). We want quality on network TV, keep the crap on cable (and we want R-rated quality on HBO and Showtime)

Reality raised the bar for Sitcoms and Dramas, and those shows are living up to the challenge with quality offerings. Quality enough that a rerun of a good drama is more popular than a new episode of a piece of crap reality show. Cable knows this. The premiere of the second season of the drama Army Wives just became Lifetime's highest rated show ever. And more and more cable shows are ending up with emmy nominations.

Some say we're living in the golden age of television right now. I have to agree, except I miss The West Wing. Because we have so many choices as consumers, producers can't just throw crap at us all the time. So half the reality junk food has gone away, leaving room for a well-balanced meal on Network TV.

Now if only Fox would cancel COPS.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Wednesday Wordplay - more Scrabulous fun!

One game of Scrabble. 42 words needing to be put to good use. Um, sort of.

A Wavey is a wild North American goose, the only zoic word of the bunch.

Two words start with Q - Quags (short for quagmires - giggity) and Qi. Qi is a vital life force, so it doesn't need a "U". Just like Qatar, a country in the middle east, but you can't use it in Scrabble. Its currency, the Riyal, is good.

If you go see an ex, a former Jo, or an old flame, if you will, don't count on sex. That's wrong, and it could get you into a heap of trouble.

Grandma knits sweaters and says "Pin your jeans when they get too long." Er...what else?

The vet gave the dog a clip, which caused her to wag her tail. Then he retied the bow on her head, and freed her.

Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do...demos an aural exercise.

Too silly? a strange tact? Nah, I rode it this far, I feel haled to finish what I started.

Gob? Es de tab? ah, na...

All done. Woo!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Story of the Week - June 2-6

It's the Stupid Economy, Stupid

Facts: The U.S Economy lost 49,000 jobs in May, and has lost 324,000 year to date.
The Unemployment rate rose from 5.0% in april to 5.5% in May, the biggest monthly increase since 1986.

What Barack Obama wants:
Change that will provide working families with a middle-class tax cut, affordable health care and college, and an energy plan that will create up to five million good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced.

What John McCain says Barack Obama wants:
The wrong change for our country - an economic agenda based upon the policies of the past that advocate higher taxes, bigger government, government-run health care and greater isolationism.

What John McCain wants:
immediate tax relief (aka tax cuts), enacting a HOME plan to help those facing foreclosure, lowering health care costs, investing in innovation, moving toward energy independence and opening foreign markets to our goods.

What Barack Obama says John McCain wants:
to spend billions of dollars on tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy CEOs and continue failed Bush economic policies for another 4 years.

What Hillary Clinton wants: still not entirely sure.

What I want:

I want the "change" wars to stop. Senators, you are overusing the word.

I want to stop hearing about tax cuts until the U.S has paid off its gazillion dollars in debt. Taxes pay for stuff we need. Like roads. And running water. And wars.

I want old Jews to stop thinking Barack Obama is a muslim. He's not. This isn't an issue that's up for debate.

I want all those women who voted for Hillary and shouted "Denver!" at her rally Tuesday to realize that a John McCain presidency means no chance at universal health care.

I want issues like abortion, gay marriage, and whether or not a candidate wears a flag pin to go away.

I want people who can cause the price of oil to rise by $11 a barrel to be a little more careful about what they say:

Israeli's deputy Prime Minister, Shaul Mofaz, said "an attack on Iran is unavoidable." This spooked the oil market and caused the price to skyrocket.

Hey! Shaul! Shut up. There was no need for you to say that. If Iran develops a viable nuclear weapon, Israel is going to at least try to blow it up (and chances are they'll succeed). Just ask Iraq or Syria what happened to their nuclear programs. And, Mr. Mofaz, if an attack on Iran is unavoidable, then you can't avoid it by talking about it. Keep your mouth shut. Gas is expensive enough.

I want Barack Obama to beat John McCain in November.