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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Review: Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys is the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. If you've never heard of either one of those, I assure you that you've heard their songs before, but perhaps not by them directly.

Here's a link to one of the most famous Frankie Valli Song. Go ahead, Click on it. =)

Most people probably have heard of that song from one source or the least I hope. With that background information, this story tells you the story of the group. How it came to be, the rise to stardom, the problems they faced, and the eventual split of the group into just Frankie Valli. It is a most poignant tale and the directorship of the story was simply amazing.

If you watch the link on the header, one of the talking points of the director was that they wanted to tell the story first and foremost, and then retrofit the songs in the places within the story where it best fit. This is quite different from most musicals of this sort, like say, Mama Mia, where the music is selected first, and a story written around it.

As it turns out, this style of direction gives you the best of everything. The songs are shown more or less in chronological order, the story is first rate, and the choreography and stage work is most excellent as is expected from Broadway productions nowadays.

The story is presented in seasons, with Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter representing one each of the Four Seasons. Each of the Four Seasons also represent an epoch in the timeline of the band, and their individual perspectives drives and perhaps even steals the show! This is one musical where the story actually is as good as or even better than the music!

All in all, I highly recommend this show and its well worth an Orchestra level seat as you can see the nuances of the actors even better. As I said, this is one musical where the dancing is kept to a minimum, and the emphasis is on the story and songs. Not all the songs are presented in full, as its not a concert, but its always more than enough to get you grooving to the tunes.

The Four Seasons never quite gathered the attention of the media the way the Beatles or other more glamarous bands did, and this story serves very nicely their story, and what a compelling story it is!

A must see!

Michael Pollan on Nutritionism

I frequently like to write off the New York Times (especially since their science articles are overly simplistic, and in many cases simply wrong), but Michael Pollan's book was exceptionally good, and this article is worth reading.

For those who don't have time, here's the quick summary:
  1. Eat food.
  2. Avoid food products bearing health claims
  3. Avoid food with too many ingredients or contain high fructose corn syrup.
  4. Get out of the supermarket
  5. Pay more, eat less
  6. Eat mostly plants
  7. Eat ethnic foods
  8. Cook
  9. Eat like an omnivore

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Review: Pan's Labyrinth

Run, don't walk to see this movie. There is nothing that I am going to say here that will give you a better understanding or any higher urgings than what I said in the first sentence of this review.

Billed as a fairy tale for adults, it really is the best way to describe this movie. It is a fairy tale in the mood of what fairy tales are really supposed to be, or what they were before fairy tales were disneyfied. When fairy tales were about cautionary warnings about what happens to bad children if they disobeyed, when consequences were more real, fairy tales were dark, cruel, and very often did not have a happy ending.

That in a nutshell is the best way to describe this movie. If you've ever read any of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, when he turns a fairy tale into something much more than you assume, this movie comes very close to that sentiment, and surpasses it in many ways. It has great warmth for a very dark movie, glimpses of hope in a hopeless situation, and an ending that has so many interpretations for it that no two conversations about the ending will be quite the same.

In other words, run, don't wait, to see the movie. It is gorgeous.

I'll stop here before I start gushing more praise for the movie.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Scott Burns: Americans not that badly off

There's a lot of doom and gloom usually about how little Americans save, so it's nice to see a bit of good news (especially from Scott Burns, who's usually a pessimist).

One household in four owns its home mortgage-free. An impressive 61 percent of households age 65 and over have no mortgage.

What's amusing is that he's mystified by apparel expenditure:

The survey shows that spending on apparel and services is only $1,509 a year for middle income households, rising to only $3,704 for top quintile households. I know we’ve got the most efficient distribution system in the world, but if that’s what we spend, what’s supporting all those Wal-Marts, Kmarts and Targets — not to mention a zillion other clothing retailers?

A quick search finds that there are about 100 million households in the US. If each of them spends $1500 a year, then apparel is a $150 billion market. The Gap only had 16 billion in revenues, so the US market can support 10 companies of approximately that size, plus or minus a couple to account for Wal-Mart.

$1500 a year still sounds like a lot of clothing to me, but I guess that's only 10 sets of cycling jerseys + shorts at full retail. I guess if you have to buy suits for work, that $1500 goes really quickly.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

China's Capitalistic Healthcare System

(Link good for 7 days only)

Ironically, it's China that's first to suffer from the ravages of a capitalistic healthcare system. This doesn't happen here (yet), but one gets the feeling that the Republicans would love to have this kind of scenario:

Resentment over health care is increasing. In November, some 2,000 people mobbed a hospital in southwest China after a boy died there. The boy was rushed in by his grandfather after swallowing pesticides, according to a report by the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy. Doctors sent the old man away to fetch more cash, according to the report, but by the time he returned, the boy -- 3 or 4 years old -- was dead. There are conflicting accounts about what treatment the boy received. But angry crowds were convinced that doctors let him die while they waited for money. They smashed hospital windows and equipment and clashed with police. At least 10 people were injured.

Of course, most of the Republican Base of "have-mores" wouldn't even notice, since they are presumably already on one of the concierge type healthplans.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Review: Ship of Fools

Richard Paul Russo came to my attention several years ago for his delightful twin thrillers set in San Francisco, Destroying Angel, Carliucci's Edge, and Carliucci's Heart, hard-hitting, realistic science fiction which is highly recommended.

Ship of Fools combines two frequently encountered devices in Science Fiction, the Generation Ship, and the first encounter with an Alien object. Unlike other Generation ships, however, the ship in question, the Argonos isn't a generation ship intended for one destination, but is actually an FTL-capable ship whose mission has been lost in time.

The narrator, a deformed person with prosthetics starts the story as a confidant of the ship's Captain, the last of his line of hereditary captains, with political jockeying for his position already happening. The ship discovers a signal, and finds the ruins of a civilization. The landing party discovers some horrors, and a signal is sent from the ruins to an object elsewhere. Following the signal finds an alien ship, and the story proceeds apace from there.

There are several subplots, including a mutiny by members of the underclass, a love interest (which does not turn out the way you might expect, and is extremely effective that way), so as a reader your mind is occupied by a lot of distractions. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite make the mystery of the alien ship a surprise, which is disappointing since Russo's previous books did quite well in surprising me.

This book was worth reading, but I'll be having a very bad year for reading if it made even the top three books this year.

Time. There wasn't much of it left to Nikos because the ship was in crisis---we had not made landfall in all these years, and we had no unified mission. We were travelling almost at random through the galaxy, had been for decades, if not centuries, and there was no consensus of purpose or goal. This had always been the case, at least during my lifetime...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Review: The Perfect Thing

Steve Levy's latest book is yet another example supporting my thesis the English majors/journalists are no longer capable of explaining the complex world we live in. The Perfect Thing is a love paean to the ipod, about how cool it is, how nice one is to use. In imitation of the ipod's shuffle function, Levy even has different copies of the book with the chapters out of order, so each person would read the chapters in a different order. The cute little device works, but that's all it is, cute.

I read the book hoping for an insight about the design and the development of the ipod. Levy has proved himself in the past capable of understanding the people dynamics of software, but in this case he was so caught up with love for the ipod, that he skimmed over the development process in 1 short chapter that was mostly about how good Apple was at UI design. From anyone else, I might understand an excuse saying that he was not given sufficient access, but Levy makes a point of bragging about how many meetings he had with Steve Jobs. And of course, any question of journalistic integrity was long gone when he bragged about being one of the first recipients of the first review products from Apple (presumably he gets all his ipods for free for writing such positive articles about Apple, the ipod, and Steve Jobs).

The last straw for this book came when he spent an entire chapter on the shuffle feature, on how it wasn't really random for him, but his personal ipod liked Steely Dan anyway. Anyone with even a slight understanding of probability theory should be insulted by this chapter.

All in all, the 3 hours spent reading this book is time wasted. This book does not deserve shelf-space in any thinking person's home, not even if you're a fan of the ipod.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review: Battlestar Galactica Mini-Series and Season One

As a note to people who buy DVDs, do not buy the original mini-series DVD. Buy the Season One DVDs because that includes the mini-series in the first disk.

I did originally watch quite a few episodes of the first season (as well as the entire mini-series) last year. However, because of some snafus, I missed the last few episodes until recently, when I managed to borrow them from a friend. So now I can review the entire series with a complete picture.

I can't emphasize how important it is that you watch the mini-series before starting on the series. When I first saw the first episode of the series (the Hugo-award winning 33) out of context, I was impressed mostly by how boring the series was. Watching it in context, after seeing the entire mini-series, on the DVD without ads and with a good sound system, I was blown away. The soundtrack, the tension, and the characters already made sense, and the pacing, which I've already commented on before, was spot on.

I was not a fan of the old Battlestar Galactica show . It was one of those shows that I'd watch as a kid and promptly forgot. This version starts with the Cylons infiltrating the defense systems of the Humans, and then launching an attack by complete surprise on the Human fleet. The only surviving military ship was the Battlestar Galactica, by virtue of its equipment being so old and un-networked that old-style AT&T type phone units were still the major means of communications throughout the ship. The Galactica was about to be mothballed, and the surviving President of the Colonies is the former Minister of Education, who was 33rd in succession to the President.

The remaining civilian fleet, along with Battlestar Galactica head for Earth, a mystical place lost in the past, and concocted up by the heads of state just to keep hopes up amongst the survivors. Unknown to the crew, the Cylons have already infiltrated the Galactica, with human-lookalikes that are programmed as sleeper agents...

As if the plot wasn't complicated enough, the relationships between the characters are also tangled. Captain Lee Adama, the son of the Galactica commander Adama, has a complicated relationship with Starbuck and his father. The second in command of the Galactica is a perpetual drunk, and the civilian and military leaders do not always get along. Laura Roslin, the President of the colonies, has terminal breast cancer, and takes drugs that give her visions that may or may not be true. The casting is excellent: Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama steals every scene he's in. Mary McDonnell plays President Roslin as a serious woman contemplating her fate, but her delight at certain events (such as a baby being born in the fleet) lights up her face in ways words cannot express. Katee Sackhoff plays a very tomboyish Starbuck, whose self-confidence and brashness has you wondering when she's going to be taken down, but in the grand tradition of mavericks, she always gets away with it.

This is a dark show, with serious themes, though not as serious as the ones that will come up in season two . If you look for happy endings all the time and a lot of comedy, this is not the show for you. But for serious drama, intelligent writing, first class acting, and a science fiction show that takes all of science fiction's possibilities and runs with them, this is the show to watch.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Nike+ Resolution

Not sure how this will turn out, but I figure I'll give it a shot. =) So Nike+ is letting you do resolutions, and here I am, deciding to do another easy one, just for fun. So here it is!

Review: Battlestar Galactica Season Two

If I had to vote for a show that I think is the modern successor to Buffy, it would be Battlestar Galactica. The show is incredibly well-written, the actors excellent, the plot (up to season two anyway) believable and interesting, and above all, the pacing is nothing short of astounding.

Ron Moore, the producer/director is I believe the best modern user of negative spaces on TV. The show is filled with silences. Characters stare and look at each other for long moments, allowing your mind to fill in the details in the thoughts and the interactions between the characters. The soundtrack is moody, slow, percussion heavy, and heavy with foreboding. The tension builds until it's unbearable, and the release when it comes is a complete relief.

But the show is by no means plodding! When plot is revealed, the revelation is real, uncontrived. When you learn something new about a character (such as the Cylon agent in Season One), it really causes you to think, "Oh yeah. That's why he behaved like this previously!" There are frantic battle sequences which punctuated the story, but the battles are always meaningful, as though the producer said, "Here's the budget we've got. Better make every special effect count!" And indeed it does.

I never expected the modern remake of the extremely cheesy original Battlestar Galactica to be excellent, but I think this show beats recent shows I've seen, even Veronica Mars and Smallville. To make things even better, the writers do not shy away from possibly controversial themes, including terrorism, the trade off between security and freedom, when brutality towards the enemy ultimately robs us of our own humanity, and ultimately whether survival is sufficient, or whether we need more justification for that for the human race. The themes are not hammered home with obvious morals, and each episode is written with care and respect for the theme as well as the milleu.

Characters are complex and realistic --- even good people do bad things, and sympathetic characters can turn out to be extremely cold-blooded and willing to do harsh things to enemies. There is but one obvious villain --- Gaius Baltur, a scientist who betrays humanity to the Cylons but nevertheless manages to insinuate himself into high office. Yet even he does pull miracles out of a hat sometimes and does something unexpected.

In any case, this show (the mini-series, seasons one and two) are very much worth watching, and highly recommended. Worth paying full price at the DVD shop for.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Little Asia on the Hill - New York Times

The New York Times has an article lamenting the number of Asian students in school, especially top Universities like Berkeley, which is apparently is apparently now 41 percent Asian.

Even at that apparently high percentage, Asian students apparently do so well that the schools still turn away more qualified Asian candidates than they should. And of course, there's the usual complaint that Asian students are nerds, uncreative, and don't ask questions in class.

As someone who grew up in Singapore, where we had 40 students per classroom, and only half-day classes and an incredibly uncreative teaching curriculum, I have to say that the excuses of poor high schools for other minority groups are just bunk. If there's a culture of learning and education, the students will do well and become great students. If not, then it doesn't matter how much creativity the school tries to give them, without a mastery of the fundamentals, all the creativity in the world just produces junk.

As someone who grew up in a much tougher academic environment than most Americans can imagine, all I can say is that if we continue to place value on ridiculous unimportant measures of quality and ignore the important ones, our living standards will drop. The argument should be about why our Math and Science education is so poor, not why there are so many Asians in America's best colleges.

2007 Book Reviews

A new year, another book review Index.

Update: The books of the year for 2007 have been announced!

Graphic Novels (aka Comic Books)

Review: Magic for Beginners

When Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler visited Google, I asked them questions about the demise of short fiction magazines (their circulation is dwindling, especially amongst science fiction and fantasy readers). They claimed that it was tougher to compete against non-fiction, which has really taken off in recent years.

Having read Kelly Link's book, if it was representative of modern fiction, I disagree. One reads Science Fiction for ideas, and even as lackluster as Vernor Vinge's lastest book was, it was full of ideas worth thinking about and contemplating. One reads fantasy for world-building, or exploration of a character in a consistent world.

Link's book is entirely in the mode of magical realism (the classic book of the genre is One Hundred Years of Solitude). I don't know what one reads magical realism for. As far as I'm concerned, it's an entirely bankrupt mode of fiction. The world has no rules to speak of, since anything can happen (and frequently anything does), so it can't be about world building. It might be a character study, except that if the kind of random things that happened in a magical realism world happened to me, I'm pretty sure my character wouldn't be worth studying --- insanity isn't pretty.

But for some reason people who like magical realism think that because I enjoy science fiction and fantasy, I would like magical realism. Link's book has two stories that are interesting: The Faery Handbag, about a tribe of folks who live in a handbag, and Magic for Beginners, a story about an intriguing TV show that comes alive. Neither stories have resolution, but the language is well done and at least the ideas are interesting. I also found Catskin worth reading, a twist on the usual story of the heir of a dying monarch.

Fox is a television character, and she isn't dead yet. But she will be, soon. She's a character on a television show called The Library. You've never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had.

Ramen Inventor Dies!

I usually won't do a news post, but I thought this was...rather significant. Inventor of the Ramen, Momofuku Ando, has passed away. As someone who lived through quite a lot of college years on not much more than Ramen and an egg, I thought I would post a little ditty about it here.

A personal anecdote, I remember when I was growing up, my parents would refuse to allow us to eat ramen on the grounds that it was unhealthy. Well, it turns out that they were right and msg and salt and fried fatty noodles are really not good for you. But still, it was a significant part of my chlidhood and college adulthood, and it never occured to me that there was someone who invented it, and now I know. =)

Rest in Peace, Momofuku san, and rest assured, your legacy will likely outlive the human race. =)

The Queen's Classroom or JuuOu no Kyoushitsu Review

So over the Holidays a friend recommended that I take a look at this not-so-new TV series that came out in Japan. The link in the title links to the first episode of it at YouTube, the quality is not great, the sound is a bit stuttered, but you should be able to follow the show and hopefully, it'll rope you in as it did me.

The basic premise of it is simple, a 6th grade classroom gets a new homeroom teacher, and she is basically a tyrant. She decides to take the fun out of schooling, and makes the entire class a meritocracy. The show chronicles how the class reacts to it, and the subsequent consequences suffered by both the teacher, and the class itself.

At the heart of the show, is a very raw and basic social commentary about the state of schooling as it is in many 1st world countries, and the failures of the conventional schooling methodology. A lot of the commentary is incredibly valid and succinct, and surprisingly is perhaps even more valid about the state of schooling in the US than it really does in Japan. Japan has its problems to be sure, but it is still nowhere as poor as the schooling seems to be becoming in the US.

Certainly the show has caused controversies of its own and you can see this as sponsors dwindle on an episode by episode basis. Fortunately, the show in and of itself is very short, only 11 episodes, with two specials that are really optional. Each episode runs about 45 minutes and going through the entire show takes less than 10 hours.

All in all, I highly recommend you watch the first episode and judge if the show is for you. It broaches on topics that I believe every parent of children should be concerned about, and never stoops to condescension or derision to get its point across. When the show aired in Japan, it was broadcasted on a Saturday night so that both parents and children could watch it at the same time.

You can find more that has been said about this show here and if you follow the commentary, can find higher quality downloads of the entire series for your perusal.

Very recommended, one of the most thoughtful and entertaining TV shows I've watched in the last 10 years. =) Given that I don't watch much TV that probably doesn't say much!