Friday, April 26, 2013

Is the Caxirola the New Vuvuzela?

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff
demonstrating the Caxirola
Move over Vuvuzela, Brazil has introduced the Caxirola, a small percussion instrument that will be used at next year's World Cup. Made of recycled plastic, the Caxirola produces a harmonious rattling sound when shaken.

Is the Vuvuzela a Thing of the Past?
As you may recall, the Vuvuzela became a symbol of the 2010 World Cup. It was also controversial when its loud buzzing sound annoyed football fans around the world. The 3-foot plastic horn reportedly put out an ear-aching 127 decibels of sound. And when thousands of them were blown at the same time, players and viewers had trouble hearing the announcements. The sport's governing board, FIFA, even considered banning the Vuvuzela from stadiums after studies suggested it could cause permanent hearing loss. By contrast, the meek Caxirola is said to be soft and pleasant sounding. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tonight, on The Movie of the Week

The ABC Movie of the Week (1969-1976) was a weekly television series featuring made-for-TV movies. The show began with dazzling graphics (1969 style) and with this hard to forget introduction:
"The Move of the Week. Presenting the world premier of an original motion picture produced especially for ABC. Tonight, on The Movie of the Week..."
I remember watching these movies with my mom. They were on a little past my bedtime (8:30 PM), but my mother would make an exception and let me stay up to watch. This television anthology series featured a lot of B movies, but there was some remarkably good stuff too, including Tribes with Jan-Michael Vincent, Go Ask Alice with William Shatner (yes, that William Shatner), How Awful About Allan with Anthony Perkins, and That Certain Summer with Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook, the first TV movie to deal sympathetically with homosexuality. 

Sadly, few of these movies have been re-broadcast. Now, ABC has done something cool! They've put dozens of these movies on Youtube, in full and without commercials. They bring back a lot of memories. The last few days, we've been watching a few of them, including Along Came a Spider with Suzanne Pleshette, and Home for the Holidays with Sally Field, Jessica Walter, Eleanor Parker and Walter Brennan. Even though some of these movies are disappointing, quite a few are still entertaining. 

We forget that in the days of pre-cable television and the internet era, people had few entertainment options. The Movie of the Week was a gem; and although, these movies were low budget and never demanding, the acting was generally first rate and the scripts innovative and tightly written. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Did Alzheimer's Disease Change Agatha Christie's Writing?

The Christie family has always been private about the famed author's health, but an analysis of her later books suggests that she may have been suffering from Alzheimer's disease. 

Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto, analyzed 16 of Christie's novels, written over a span of 50 years by feeding the text into a computer program. The computer then analyzed frequency of different words and phrases. He found that there was a discrete change in Christie's language beginning in her 70s. For example, in Elephants Can Remember, Christie used 20 percent fewer words than in her earlier works. In other words, the vocabulary she employed had shrunk by one-fifth! At the same time, she used more "indefinite" words, such as thing, anything, nothing, and something.  

When Elephants Can Remember (1972) came out, it was panned by the critics for being poorly plotted and full of errors. My own review of the book will be years away, if I stick to my Agatha Christie challenge. (And if I still have enough vocabulary to write a blog posting!)

Interestingly, the central character of the book is a female novelist struggling with memory loss as she tries to help Hercule Poiroit solve a crime. In an interview, Lancashier notes that Christie may have sensed her declining mental ability and made it an essential element of the book. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

TV Commercials that Reach the Senses

The Bra, a commercial for the MTV Awards, combines humor and action. Rebel Wilson and Channing Tatum star. The commercial is credited with boosting the show's ratings by 20 percent.

Vodafone's The Kiss has little to say about the services provided, but it's memorable and tender. I love the music by Ludiovico Einaudi. This commercial is like a mini-movie. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Agatha Christie Challenge: The Man in the Brown Suit

I've just finished book four of my Agatha Christie challenge, and already I am noticing recurring themes and devices. For example, travel is a key ingredient in many of Christie's later books (The Mystery on the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds, Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile, Passenger to Frankfurt, etc.) and is already an essential and recurring plot device in these earlier books as well. In Murder on the Links (1923) there's a chance encounter on a train that is key to solving the murder, in The Secret Adversary (1922), the sinking of the Lusitania is pivotal to the narrative, and in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) the protagonist witnesses a murder that leads to travel to South Africa. 

Another recurring theme Christie uses (like Alfred Hitchcock later uses) is to place ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Her focus on an ordinary character enables the reader (or the audience in the case of Hitchcock) to relate to the action. In The Secret Adversary, Tommy and Tuppence, two everyday people, become entangled in a spy ring. In The Man in the Brown Suit, an innocent young woman is witness to a murder that eventually leads to international travel. It makes me think of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which Jimmy Stewart plays an average American vacationing in Morocco when his son is kidnapped, and Northwest By Northwest, where a New York businessman, Cary Grant, is mistaken for a CIA agent that culminates on Mount Rushmore. Yet, even though, in a way, they are using the same story over and over, these recurring plot devices never seem hackneyed. Both Christie and Hitchcock always make them seem fresh and new. 

Likewise, Christie employs geopolitical crises in many of her works, not just as background and commentary, but as essential elements in the narrative (South African unrest in The Man in the Brown Suit, and cold war intrigue in They Came to Baghdad).

As a mystery, The Man in the Brown Suit is weak and predicable. Nevertheless, I found the book amusing and funny. Moreover, there are a few interesting coincidental references in the book. For example, the protagonist is the daughter of a famed archaeologist (Christie would later marry an archaeologist). She also happens to have a wise great-aunt Jane (perhaps a forerunner to Miss Jane Marple, who was introduced two years later?)

Rating: B

Saturday, April 13, 2013

John Singer Sargent's Watercolors: Pretty Postcards

Simplon Pass: Reading 1911
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was one of America's greatest portrait painters. He was a true master of oil painting and was able to capture the soul of the people he painted. Then, in his forties, Sargent abandoned oils to focus on his passion for watercolor. 

I finally had an opportunity to see some of this later work this week at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which is currently showing 93 of his watercolors in an exhibition called John Singer Sargent Watercolors (April 5-July 28, 2013). The paintings feature scenes of Venice, the Alps, country gardens, sailing vessels, and even a few portraits.

The works are enjoyable to look at and certainly demonstrate Sargent's technical competency at watercolor, but to my mind, these works are too obvious and all surface. They make wonderful postcards, but they lack the psychological depth and intimacy found in his oil portraits. For example, in his masterpiece, Madame X (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Sargent evokes the seething eroticism that lies just beneath the surface. The emotion is repressed and controlled, yet very much part of the painting. Likewise, in the beautifully painted The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (Museum of Fine of Fine Arts Boston), Sargent's unsettling atmosphere of the four young children suggests alienation and the sad loss of innocence.

Madame X
Oil on Canvas
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
Oil on Canvas

Sargent's watercolors are definitely worth seeing if only to contrast with his oil portraits; yet, I found the most fascinating part of the exhibition to be the videos that are paired with some of the paintings. Each video shows a contemporary artist demonstrating how Sargent might have painted a particular part of a painting. (They make it look so easy.) 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Let Them Eat Cake? Health Department Says No!

The night started off with high expectations, but turned out to be mostly about restaurant hygiene. Our itinerary included dinner at Sam's Place, a favorite of ours, and then, for dessert, a slice of cake from the Buttercup Bake Shop, a bakery that I discovered a few days ago. (Their carrot cake is absolutely delicious!) 

These days, I pay close attention to the NYC Health Department's restaurant certification, which is supposed to be prominently displayed. I rarely go to restaurants with less than an A rating. At Sam's Place, the certification appeared to be missing until I discovered a B rating, obscured (no doubt "accidentally") under some other postings. Somehow the hidden certification bothered me more than the sub-par rating itself. We moved on.

On our way to another restaurant, we passed the Buttercup Bake Shop, and oddly, it appeared closed, even though it was within the posted hours. (This is a common occurrence in Portland but unusual for New York.)

After a wonderful dinner at Chola Eclectic Indian Cuisine (an A rating), we headed back to the Buttercup Bake Shop, still hoping for a slice of that mouthwatering carrot cake. As we approached the Buttercup, we could see it was completely shuttered and locked. Then we saw the Notice. It was posted on the window (see photo at top).

I don't know how far below A or B rating you need to go to get this kind of Health Department action, but after eating two slices of cake from the Buttercup this week, the Heath Department closure made me laugh and feel queasy at the same time. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

New York's Greenacre Park and Green-Wood Cemetery: a Hit and a Miss

Greenacre Park
During my current visit to New York City, I visited two highly praised landscape designs: Green-Wood Cemetery, one of America's first rural cemeteries, and Greenacre Park, a 1970s pocket park. One was a hit and the other a miss.

Greenacre Park, located on East 51st Street between Second and Third Avenues is a small oasis (only 60 by 120 foot) in Midtown Manhattan. Its spaces are well-defined comprising three levels of fixed and movable seating, a gushing 25 foot multilevel waterfall, and lush plantings. The park transports you from the urban intensity of NYC to a place of quiet repose and tranquility. It's Landscape Architecture at its best, and is without a doubt, one of my favorite outdoor spots in the entire world! Central Park is wonderful, but Greenacre Park is magic.

Green-Wood Cemetery
On the other hand, Green-Wood Cemetery, located in Brooklyn, left me cold. In a sense, Green-Wood's success was its undoing. Many of its innovations such as pastoral vistas, meadows, ponds, sculptures, and winding trails are now common features in cemeteries.

Green-Wood comprises 478 acres of hills, valleys, ponds, and winding paths. Founded in 1838, Green-Wood rivaled Niagara Falls as the country's greatest tourist attraction by the 1860s. In fact, Green-Wood inspired the development of the modern cemetery from a place merely to bury the dead (graveyards) to a place of reflection, intimacy, and comfort. 

Today, Green-Wood is a National Historic Landmark, and is the final resting place for many celebrated politicians, artists, entertainers, and captains of industry, including Leonard Bernstein, Boss Tweed, Horace Greeley, and Samuel Morse. Its history is very special, but its innovative features are hard to appreciate since they've been commonplace for over a century. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Agatha Christie's Golf Course Murder

The Agatha Christie Challenge:
A chance encounter on a train, but where will it lead? So begins Murder on the Links (1923). It was Agatha Christie's third published novel and the second one featuring Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings. Christie is still experimenting with plot and narrative techniques; yet, in this book, Christie's classic trademarks are present: the marginalized woman, thwarted love, and unexpected twists. And even though Christie is still developing the Poirot character, Poirot is more multifaceted than in The Mysterious Affair at StylesHe's funny, egocentric, compassionate, jealous, and petty. Likewise, Hastings is less a buffoon, and more the lonely heart in search of love. Women are also central to the narrative. Are they victims, murders, or possibly both?

It's not my favorite Poirot mystery, but it has clever dialogue (especially the banter between Poirot and Hastings) and a surprise ending. It's one of the few Christie books where I failed to guess the culprit. Overall, I enjoyed the book very much. It was fast paced, inventive, and spiced with humor. One criticism is the constant twists and turns. If anything, they were unnecessary distractions from the overall plot.

Rating: B+

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What's Your Social Class?

Here's an interesting study from Britain that divides people into seven social classes: Elite, Established Middle Class, Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Workers, Emergent Service Workers, Traditional Working Class, and Precariat. Traditionally, classes have been divided into working, middle, and upper classes. This new classification system evaluates economic, social, and cultural factors in determining social class. Take the Social Class Test (some questions refer to British Pounds, so answer accordingly), and see where you stand.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Why I Won't Use TurboTax Next Year!

I've used TurboTax to file my federal and state taxes for years without any problem. It has been fast, efficient, and moderately inexpensive. This year my TurboTax experience has been frustrating. A small glitch in the software program almost prevented me from filing my state taxes electronically.

Because I was unable to remove a "0" from the Schedule 1, line 3, the tax return could not be filed. It didn't matter that the "0" was in the spouse column (I'm single), and that the "0" did not affect the tax, the program would not let me file.

The TurboTax (Intuit) help desk was useless, and the override function on the program ineffective. I was only able to remedy the problem after a time consuming Internet search. I will definitely think twice before using TurboTax again. 

To fix the problem:

  • click the override function (right mouse click) while hovering on line 3, spouse column;
  • enter a random number in line 3;
  • close the TurboTax program;
  • re-start the TurboTax program;
  • start the tax filing process again;
  • when prompted, delete the random number;
  • click transmit.
Now, your taxes will be transmitted and filed.