Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Key to the City: Queens Edition

G-san obtained a Key to the City and graciously invited U-chan and me to join her in exploring one of the boroughs today. Specifically, Queens.

Why, you may ask, does G-san have a Key to the City? Is she a head of state? a conquering hero? an amazing celebrity? Well, of course she is! But the project website describes it this way:
Keys to cities are traditionally given by a mayor to a hero or dignitary, symbolizing that they can have free entrance to the city. This new Key to the City belongs to us, and is awarded among ourselves.

We opened locks at the following places:

  • Tortilleria Nixtamal: We had lunch there (note to self: get the carnitas next time!), drank some delicious horchata, then opened a key to the basement for a hands-on tour of the kitchen...

  • Louis Armstrong House Museum: The key opens a small bathroom with all the original decorations (for viewing only, not for use) and is graced by a rear-view photo of Mr. Armstrong himself, buck naked backstage. The docent said Mr. Armstrong loved that photo and had 1,000 copies made so he could autograph them and send them around to all his friends and admirers... but supposedly his agent ripped them up (boo!) except for this one.
Mr. Armstrong was apparently a fan of a particular laxative. We were supposed to get a sample (?!) but they ran out a few weeks ago:

I would have been happy to accept this sample in lieu of the laxative, but the docent didn't seem very interested in that idea:

  • a district councilperson's office: The key basically opens a glass case that is used as a drop-box.

  • Eddie's Sweet Shop: The key gets you a discount and allows you to open a little drop-box.

Afterward, G-san had to go back to Manhattan, but U-chan and I enjoyed the views at Long Island City for a while.

Enjoyed dinner at Sripraphai with Chris.

Since I had to change trains in Times Square anyway, I disembarked to go see the movie "Inception". En route, I took a photo of some sculptures at the Hilton Times Square.

As I finished up, some guy ran up to me and said "You're beautiful!" Now, that's something that doesn't happen to me every day.

Some of the images in "Inception" were pretty cool. Maybe $18 worth of cool in the IMAX format. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was too sleepy to worry about logic or meaning.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Delacorte Victory!

Well, 5th time's the charm. Finally got into Merchant of Venice at the Delacorte Theatre! It was a last-minute decision (joined the line at 6:20 pm), since I'd been planning to go on a sunset/moonlight hike on Breakneck Ridge today. I didn't think there was any real chance, since the voucher folks had apparently been shut out after waiting from 3 am, but figured it was a good opportunity to read Crisis and Command, listen to RFI podcasts, nap, and observe the passing scene.

MoV was good, though played for tragedy; in this production, all three pairs of lovers are haunted by the events in Venice, starting their married lives under a cloud.

Although Shylock obviously is vicious in his revenge, they also highlighted the unchristian behavior of the Christians ... both where the text required it, and elsewhere. In particular, the forced baptism scene involves a tableau in which two "Christians" disdainfully knock Shylock's yarmulke off his head and immerse him, then walk away, leaving him practically face-down in the pool. Two Jews then come in to help Shylock up and escort him away from there. He is clearly grateful for their support, but eventually feels compelled - reluctantly - to make his way toward the silent watching Christians.

Playing the baptism scene this way strikes me as a modern interpretation. Those imposing a forced conversion as condition of Shylock's continued life would surely have thought they were doing him a favor; they were saving his soul. In that context, it's hard to imagine (rationally) that they would have been so vicious in welcoming him into their flock. Surely he would no longer be an outsider, an Other, a Jew, and they would presumably (if they wish to claim the name of Christian) have to change their ways toward him. Then again, their treatment of Shylock from the beginning never showed any signs that they were attempting to follow Christ's example, so rational thought may not have entered into it.

Of course from a modern perspective, it's difficult to believe that a forced, outward conversion could have any value in changing the state of one's soul, let alone one's heart. Thus the reinterpretation of this forced baptism as a way of cutting Shylock off from his friends and support system, his tribe. Yes, a dismal prospect.

The one thing that doesn't quite work for me in the production is Jessica's transformation from eager convert to disaffected wife. It can't be based on the treatment of her father, since she hasn't heard about that yet. She herself seems to be welcomed into the fold wholeheartedly, especially by her new husband, so it does not seem to be that either. Perhaps we are supposed to think this is what happens when we reject our roots, our "people" -- but that does not ring entirely true to me, in the context of the play.

Nor does it ring entirely true in America, either, where past generations often shed their former identities as quickly as they could (my grandfather knows very little about his ancestors for this very reason). And especially in New York City, where people come to reinvent themselves, and one of the first things to go may be the last vestiges of the seemingly restrictive religious identities of their youth.

Dr. Who Season 5

I bought Season 5 of the non-classic Dr. Who series on iTunes (the one starring Matt Smith).

One very striking element of the new series (Eccleston, Tenant, and Smith) is that the Doctor keeps making promises to his friends and companions - promises he cannot possibly keep, because they are beyond his control. Mostly promises that the person he's talking to will be OK, that the situation will not degenerate.

Season 5's Doctor, I noticed, also keeps telling people to trust him - while also openly admitting that he (a) has no plan, (b) is unarmed, and (c) in the case of Amy Pond, is not telling her the truth.

It's amusingly self-conscious and hip, I suppose, for the Doctor to acknowledge that he consistently goes up against overwhelming odds and implacable enemies armed only with his wits... and yet by focusing our attention on the implausibilities, he undermines our ability to suspend our disbelief and simply enjoy the tale.

I'm more disturbed by his statement to Amy/Amelia in Flesh & Stone: "If I always told you the truth, I wouldn't need you to trust me." Logically and morally, it doesn't add up. He is telling her, in effect, that he needs to deceive her. Are we supposed to infer that this is for her own benefit? How so?

Don't get me wrong, I like the new series (in fact, I absolutely loved the episode Midnight with David Tenant), and the classic series obviously had its flaws. But all this Trust me and I promise business bothers me, perhaps for the same reason they bother me when I see parents dealing that way with their children. (E.g., a parent who says NO but then caves in 2 minutes later, teaching a child that No means Maybe.) Or is the problem really promises without consequences, promises made lightly without due consideration of one's ability and willingness to perform? If the Doctor is committing his word and honor to outcomes he cannot reasonably guarantee, how are we to trust him?

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I woke up too late to cheer Ryan on at the start of the triathalon (7 am start for the dip in the Hudson), but I did make it to church. Kate was talking about reconciliation, giving examples of Rwandans who've managed to forgive and be reconciled with their relatives' killers.

Afterward, a quick drink at Chipotle, then went to Won Jo for Korean BBQ.

The food was nice, but our triathlete guest of honor wasn't hungry at all. His mom and sister were there from out of town, so it was good to meet them.

Afterward, I went home and took a nap. I didn't make it to the moondance salsa event, but instead I made a lot of progress in going through several months' worth of papers that have piled up.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Storm King

One advantage of waking up very early? This morning, I checked my email and saw that some friends were going hiking. I was able to get my lunch and gear together in time to join them!

It was a hot day, and S-Y set a brisk pace up a sometimes steep ascent. There were blueberry bushes, but the berries were small and a bit hard and tart. Not quite ripe.

Here's the view from our lunch spot:

View of the lunch spot:

Back at river level, with kayakers:

Afterward, we went back to the city. The rest of the gang had BBQ at Daisy Mae's, but I splintered off to catch Joel's second musical improv show. It was really funny and well-done. The musical was set in Antarctica (based on audience suggestion), and the students quickly set up a conflict ripe with comic possibilities: a group of lonely male scientists; a group of women (some played by men) who'd come to Antarctica to meet men but had somehow gone astray and not managed to find anyone at all; and two bears, madly in love with each other and ready to take Antarctica back from the humans by force.

Since this was a one-time-only performance, I don't feel bad about giving spoilers here. The denouement involved a bear-human showdown, with a male scientist tied to a chair. The bears have made him talk so they can gain necessary intel for their planned bloodbath. But he talks his way into their sympathy when he expresses his desire for one last liaison with a human female. The rest of the humans arrive. A tense situation is defused when the humans promise to leave, AND agree to leave one of their group for the bears' feast. In fact, they exchange one of the females (played by a man) for the male scientist hostage. Yes, they sacrifice the most annoying and expendable member of their group to buy their freedom. Beautiful improv.

Friday, July 16, 2010

NY Philharmonic in Prospect Park

Tonight's concert repeated the Tchaikovsky & Bernstein pieces, but added selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. It was a cute decision, in both concerts, to play West Side Story along with a bit of R&J (more subtly, the SSO did Gounod's "je veux vivre" on Tuesday night).

It wasn't too crowded -- perhaps in part because there were very localized "monsoons" in Dumbo and Tribeca in the afternoon, leading some people to conclude that the lawn would be a mud field -- so I snagged great seats just behind the VIP section. A guy came around a bit after 7pm and gave out these soft rubber rings with flashing lights. Put a ring on it, baby!

The orchestra was definitely into it:

The crowd, well.... It was a fun evening, but definitely much less about the music this time -- plenty of conversations around us which got louder in the second half (ironically, a guy near us had shushed us from speaking quietly in the first half, but he left at intermission so had no idea how things had degenerated since his departure).

The fireworks were nice. Here are some samples:

I love the "fireworks" setting on my camera. So cool to catch the traces as the lights streak through the sky!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra vs. NY Philharmonic

The NY Philharmonic beat the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra tonight, 3-2, in historic Central Park. The local hometown favorites are thus undefeated going into tomorrow's concert.

It was a perfect evening under clouds and stars, with birdsong accompaniment for Wagner's overture to Tannhäuser ... and the NY Philharmonic snapping their fingers in all the right places for the West Side Story symphonic dances.

Here's the lineup.

For the SSO:
  • Wagner's overture to Tannhäuser
  • Rossini's largo al factotum della città from The Barber of Seville (feat. Changyong Liao, bar.)
  • Gounod's "je veux vivre" from Romeo and Juliet (feat. Ying Huang, sop.)
  • Mozart's "la ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni
  • Guang Zhao's Ode to the Expo
  • Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (feat. Lang Lang, but no red Steinway this time)

For the NY Phil:
  • Tchaikovsky's Polonaise from Eugene Onegin
  • Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
  • Ravel's Boléro

It was a fun time. Despite bouts of rain throughout the day, some folks got there super-early and reserved a spot for the rest of us. I arrived around 6:30 and quickly found Patricia, Jon and the gang. Although I'd brought a blanket to sit on, I hadn't really believed the show would go on ... so I didn't bring any food! Luckily Patricia brought food for a small army (thanks, Patricia!).

The visitors played first. They were good - esp. the baritone in the Rossini piece - although the "Ode to the Expo" didn't do much for me. And the supposed audience choice for the SSO's encore was a bit fishy; I wasn't buying that everyone had texted in a vote for "China Song".*

Then the home team came on after a long seventh-inning stretch. Their playing came across as more precise than the SSO - they really nailed each piece, whereas the SSO's playing seemed a bit more slippery at times. If that makes any sense. But in any event the music was beautiful. I know I've heard Boléro before, but I had not recognized its power. It really came across to me this time, the gradual building in intensity. So good.

No fireworks, and no fireflies, but otherwise perfect.

FN* The NY Times explains that this was the first time in 46 years that the NY Philharmonic had shared the parks program with another orchestra. It was apparently a win-win situation: "By sharing this parks program, the Shanghai Symphony was basking in the Philharmonic’s renown and reaching new audiences. ... [T]he Chinese orchestra helped defray the cost of the concert. So it was more essential to get in the performances by the visitors. There was no possibility of a rain date, since the Shanghai musicians were scheduled to leave New York on Wednesday."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

U-chan's birthday!

We three musketeers celebrated with a trip to the American Museum of Natural History. Some logistical issues - I misunderstood which 5th Ave entrance, U-chan misunderstood which train - but G-san got us all sorted out in time to meet a penguin and see the Race to the End of the Earth exhibit.

The south pole expedition is set up in a way that unemotionally compares the Norwegians' well-planned expedition with the British one, allowing visitors to see for themselves the mistakes and inevitable failure of Scott and his men.

How did the leaders select their men? Scott chose 60+ men with upper crust credentials, including (as I recall) a few paying volunteers. Amundsen chose 18 hardy outdoor men.
How did they gear up? The Norwegians learned from the Inuits, bringing sled dogs and animal skins. The British seem to have planned from the comfort of their armchairs, bringing ponies and woven clothing.
How did the two expeditions spend their forced wait over the winter months? The British wrote letters home and engaged in scholarly and scientific pursuits. The Norwegians tested and refined their equipment under the harsh local conditions, solving difficult practical problems like leaking fuel tanks (which was literally the difference between life and death).

Over and over again, we see how carefully the Norwegians planned and focused on their goal. They achieved it ahead of schedule and without losing a single man. Ironically, they brought more than they needed, and yet much less than the British. (They ended with extra dogs to sell to another expedition. And they were even able to leave some supplies behind for the British as they returned to their ship; they chose not to leave fuel, however, because they didn't want to risk the lives of their men if they ran into unexpectedly bad conditions.)

The timeline comparing where each expedition was at each time is particularly compelling.

Lofty Living Room

Friday, July 02, 2010

Fisher Cats

I took a long burst of photos of the pitcher pitching. I liked this shot, because he looks like he is channeling his inner figure skater:

During the first inning, the Fisher Cats used a highly trained bat dog:

This was my favorite inter-inning sport: Jousting! The knight heads are pillows balanced on top of the outfit, and they try to knock 'em off... but of course typically end up losing their own in the process.

Museum of Science

We really could have spent the entire day here, but we cut things short to catch a NH Fisher Cats game.

First off, we attended a bubbly museum guide's meerkat show-and-tell presentation, which was moderately interesting. On our way out, we walked by a diorama of ... a fisher cat!!!

Things quickly looked up from there. We spent some time with the unlabeled bird exhibit - picking them out on the the computer to find out their names, songs and call signs (er, I mean calls). The woodpeckers' song, like their call, apparently includes their rat-a-tat pecking.

Nearby, a room of East African items (many hides, furniture, bric-a-brack, and these amazingly cool doors) collected by a lieutenant colonel and donated to the museum in honor of his father, a rear admiral:

The room on collections and classification (especially shells) was pretty cool. This ant nest looked more like modern sculpture than anything else:

We lingered in the Mathematica room, and also saw the Whales movie in the OmniMax theater.

The highlight was probably the "Seeing is Deceiving" exhibit featuring MC Escher (not to be confused with MC Hammer):

The Escher drawings and the other optical illusions were all familiar to me, but it was still cool to see them. Three or four of the Escher drawings appeared to be originals, which was really fun. I hadn't seen a 3-D version of the faces/vase illusion before though; it was a slightly lopsided vase on a turntable, so that it looked like the silhouette faces were talking!