Thursday, July 20, 2006

Across the Golden Gate

I recently finished reading the novel Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. It's not my usual fare -- it's much more literary than the stuff I usually read -- but a friend had recommended it as "probably the finest piece of literature I've ever read" so I thought I'd try it.

It's about a group of friends living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s, and their relationships, loves, losses, etc. There is a male-male relationship, which some people may find off-putting, but the treatment of it is pretty decent -- it's one relationship among several. Some of the story is happy; some of it is sad.

But what really makes this book special is not the subject or the plot, but that the entire book is in rhyming verse. Even the table of contents, acknowledgements, and dedication are in verse! And it's not your basic iambic pentameter, either. While it's impossible to imagine the characters' dialogues happening as written, I found myself rereading paragraphs out loud just because they were so luscious to roll around in my mouth.

I got it out of the local library. You might try that, or you can get Golden Gate on Amazon.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

It All Comes Down to the Last Minutes

One thing that amazes me about football (soccer) is how strongly defensive and low-scoring the games usually are. The Italy-Germany game today was scoreless until the 118th minute. The outcome of the entire game was decided in a period of about two minutes at the very end. That's almost two hours of watching twenty men running full tilt around a large field, following a little ball around and knocking each other down seemingly at every opportunity, while two other guys each stand in a small area hoping they don't have to do anything. Wouldn't it be nice if we could know ahead of time that nothing would happen for the first 117 minutes of the game? Then we could go about our daily lives, doing the laundry, getting work done, and so on, and then just pop in to see the last couple of minutes.

Ah, but that's not the point, you say. The point is to watch the Beautiful Game, to appreciate the clever strategies of the coaches and the players, to laud the heroics of the keeper diving to save that impossible shot, to marvel at the teamwork and interplay among the players, and to wonder at those miraculous kicks and headers that bury the ball in the back corner of the net.

But I did that already. It only took me the first forty-five minutes of the game, other than waiting for that elusive goal. So now what am I supposed to be doing?

On the good side, soccer players are generally a nice lot to look at. They are healthy and in very good shape, well-built and muscular without being overdone (and Germany's Lehmann certainly has some very good definition in his thighs! :-) ). Most are good examples of their races, the Koreans, the English, the Germans, the Angolans, the Brazilians, and so on, each with distinctive facial and other characteristics (and I find them all attractive). All are superbly honed into running, kicking, diving machines. Some, well aware of their status as handsome football hero, wear their long locks in a ponytail a la Ronaldinho, while others bleach their hair at the tips, mousse it like Beckham, or shave it all off.

In American football, the players wear helments with facemasks, huge pads on their shoulders and elsewhere, and they are completely covered except for possibly calves and forearms. No glowing skin, no muscle definition; nothing to see that makes a player look unique. And off the field they become these big huge guys like William “The Refrigerator” Perry of the Chicago Bears, bragged about how much food he could eat. He weighs well over 300 pounds, and there are other players now who weigh a lot more. Sorry, not my personal idea of attractiveness.

In soccer, the players wear shorts, shirt, shoes, and knee socks with shinguards. That's it. My World Cup vote for best uniforms goes to the Angola team. Nice tight shorts, a strong color scheme of black, red, and yellow, what's not to like? Those shorts show off their glistening muscular legs to perfection. And after the players on all the teams have been running around for a while, their shirts get soaked with sweat and become almost see-through. Many players even take them off immediately after the game, providing a nice show of toned tummies, backs, and shoulders.

Ah, the pleasures of football. Well, maybe I can manage to sit through another session of overtime play...

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Toilet and the Da Vinci Code

When I was a student at MIT, I.M.Pei was the architect we all loved to hate. This famous MIT alum (Class of 1940) has designed several of MIT's buildings over the years (as well as many famous or important buildings around the world). Most of these buildings have nicknames in addition to their formal names, rarely used for some buildings, as well as their numeric designations. Students and faculty at MIT usually call buildings by their number: the Landau Building is Building 66 ("Landau Building" is almost never used), and the Dreyfus Building is Building 18 (Dreyfus Building?? I'm not sure anyone ever called it that), and the Green Building is Building 54 (though "the Green Building" is often used for this one). If you look at MIT's very cool online map, where you can search by name or number, you'll notice that even there the numbers come first.

I.M. Pei's MIT buildings are all fairly dramatic examples of cutting-edge design for their times. Many MIT students, unenlightened to the principles of modern design, thought they were all pretty ugly. Buildings 54, 66 and 18 are what I always thought of as the "waffle buildings", because the facades have a design like a giant concrete Belgian waffle. These were all dark grey concrete, a color that didn't do much to improve their attractiveness.

The Bathroom

Pei's MIT Media Lab building E15 (or Wiesner Building, but it was rarely called that), was really radical and distinctive. It was built while I was a student, and with its white tile and decorative portal, it almost instantly became nicknamed "The Bathroom" or "The Pei Toilet". The decorative portal, a massive concrete "gateway" to the building's courtyard, was gleefully called the "Soap dish and Towel Bar".

The Da Vinci Code

I was reminded of all of these buildings recently when I went to see The Da Vinci Code. An important part of the movie takes place at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The Louvre Pyramid, a major addition to the museum finished in 1989, is now probably I.M. Pei's most famous work. The movie shows it clearly, almost lovingly caressing it with the camera.

In jarring contrast with the surrounding buildings, the angular glass and steel structure rises out of the middle of the courtyard like a phoenix, golden and shining. [Images
1, 2, 3]

I went there years ago, shortly after it opened. I still remember the feeling of light and space I got standing in the underground level with the sunlight streaming down through the glass ceiling.

Many people hate the Pyramid, considering it the equivalent of a pimple on the nose of the beautiful Louvre. And yet, given that the Louvre needed an expansion, how would you do it? Try your best to match the existing buildings, with their old-fashioned, expensive, and labor-intensive building techniques? Knowing that the best you would ever be able to do would be something mediocre bandaged onto the old buildings? Or would you really go for it, making a bold strike to create something dramatic and unique? Something that balances and contrasts the ancient with the modern, the opaque with the transparent, and the decoratively-curved with the clean and angular? The contrasts go on and on, and it's clear that I.M. Pei took the bolder course.

I find much of Pei's work boldly ugly. The John F. Kennedy Library, for example, is a boldly-designed but dreary set of concrete blocks and glass. And finding out after-the-fact that the Raffles City project in Singapore is one of his designs explained to me why I disliked that place.

But the Louvre Pyramid? Ah, that I like.


MIT has a wealth of avante-garde buildings by famous architects, as well as a large art collection. They even provide a walking tour map to see these.

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Web Addiction

Wow, this Web 2.0 stuff is fascinating and addictive! I'm not sure where my Web 2.0 report is going, but I'm definitely getting hooked on some of the Web 2.0 components, particularly blogging. Not only have I started writing my own blogs, but I've even added my own and others' Atom.xml feeds to my Google homepage (and tweaked my posts to get the feed working properly). I've been learning a lot, very quickly.

I've never been a serious web surfer; I've usually had something in mind that I went looking for on the web. I've used the web to find tie-dye supplies, home-remodeling information, information on summer camps for my kids, and of course shopping and product info. Sometimes my friends and I will get into random discussions at lunch where we start wondering about some topic, but nobody knows "the answer". "What kind of shorebird is that?" "How do they make paper?"After lunch a couple of us pretty much run back to our desks--it's a race to find it on Google. One friend is a total whiz on Google; he'll have an answer before I can think of search criteria!

I'm now using the Technorati tags to find other blogs that interest me because they touch on similar subjects. Today I followed my link on "peer pressure" through Technorati to the blog of a teenager in Bangalore, India. He had some interesting thoughts on the classification of peer pressure. A click on the link to his profile, and I find that he likes a lot of the same things I do, even though I'm half a world, a gender, a race, and at least a generation away (though I have been to Bangalore, but that's another post).

The web has definitely shrunken the world.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

The Pleasures of Football (Soccer)

I've never been a sports fan. Quite the opposite. But somehow, with the World Cup 2006 hysteria going on all around me, I've found myself becoming a bit of a soccer fan lately. It's that peer pressure thing again. My cooler friends are all excited about it, and that excitement is contagious.

My friends all call it "football", as if it's the only game deserving of the name. You know you've been hanging with a multinational crowd a lot when it becomes second nature to call that other game "American football".

My friends and I have been watching parts of the games together as our schedules allow, which has been fun, but I've even been finding myself watching some when I'm at home by myself. I keep checking myself to see if I've broken out in purple spots from some hideous contagious disease!

But there are pleasures to be found in watching soccer, particularly World Cup soccer. For one thing, it reminds me of what an amazing place I live in. I've lived most of my life in places with a very diverse population: Los Angeles, Boston, and now the San Francisco Bay Area. I've grown up seeing a wide variety of faces around me all the time. My elementary school in LA boasted that it had kids representing 45 different countries! I grew up with blacks, whites, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Philipinos, Mexicans, and many others. My college in Boston drew a very international crowd to its doors. Even though I'd describe my tastes as being truly "color-blind", I'm very conscious of race. That is, I notice it, and I celebrate it. The diversity in cultures, and shapes, and colors (there's that fascination with colors again!) never ceases to amaze and dazzle me.

So when I'm watching these World Cup games, every now and then I notice the races of the players: "Whoa! That whole team is Korean! They all have the same color skin!" or (explaining to my kids) "The black guys are trying to get the ball past the white goalkeeper, and the white guys are trying to get the ball past the black goalkeeper". Every now and then my mind boggles when I realize that a country having just one race and culture is and has been the norm in many areas. I'm used to seeing a variety of colors and distinct cultures side-by-side, with some blending at the edges. Certainly there are multiple races on several of the teams. Many countries besides the US have become "melting pots" over time.

There are other pleasures to be had from watching soccer, but that's enough for now.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Colors of the Rainbow

Colors of the Rainbow

I am seriously into color, specifically in the form of tie-dye. The brighter the better. I make my own tie-dye shirts, and bags, and scarves, and socks, and... you get the idea. White cotton articles don't stay white very long at my house.

I wear a lot of my own tie-dye work. So does the rest of my family. I wear tie-dye most days. If I'm not wearing tie-dye my friends wonder if I'm feeling really down, or what the special occasion might be.

I get weird looks and snide remarks all the time: "Hey, did you get lost in the Sixties? Cool, man, totally psychadelic!" But it's not that. I love color. I love squirting the dyes onto the white fabrics and watching the colors bleed together. I love rinsing out the clothes in the sink after the dyes have been on overnight because I love watching the colors flow in parallel multicolored streams down the drain. I can do these things for hours; I get a great feeling of "flow" and tranquility this way.

And then! The excitement of opening up the shirts after dyeing to see how they came out! My tie-dye never comes out the way I expect it to, and that's a lot of the fun. Depending on just how the dye penetrated the fabric, the colors come out in a myriad of patterns, separated by white, or blended together, or bleeding different colors than the dye I started with. My purple dye always bleeds blue around the edges; I use that knowledge to achieve special effects.

I love to wear serious color, as well, and not just because it's my own work. I like to flatter myself that it suits my personality: It's bright, cheerful, and lights up the room. And it stands out and proclaims that I am an individual. Well, maybe it also proclaims that I'm a nutcase throwback to the Sixties, but I've heard there were many good things about the Sixties...

Sometimes when I'm in a meeting at work, I'll look around me and see everyone else looking dour in black, grey, white, brown, and navy blue. And then I'll look down at my own wearable palette and smile. It's colorful. And it's me.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

Down the Rabbit Hole

Oh my. What started out as a "quick" research assignment has tumbled me down through a rabbit hole to a world of myriad linkages, connections, and networks. I was told to read up and report on the nature of "Web 2.0", and now I'm experiencing it firsthand. Not only have I started my own blog, but I've been initiated into the Technorati, and I'm finding it all

My head feels like it's spinning, though, as I find myself tracing and retracing my path through all these sites. Read a friend's blog, follow a link to get my own blog. Got to write and post my blog. Look at my blog. go back and edit my blog. Add a link to my friend's blog. Get my friend to add me to his blogroll. Back to his blog to follow his link to my blog. Dizzy yet? No? Then I sign up for a Technorati account. Then I go back to edit my own blog and add Technorati links to it. Then I look at my own blog again. Now I can see who has linked to my blog. Oh look, my friend has linked to my blog, and off I fly back to his blog, which has more links...

... and somewhere in there my friend has steered me to setting up a account. I'm still not quite sure what the purpose and point of all that is, but maybe it's so I can find out more about what "the cool people" are up to: what they are reading, what they care about, what the latest fads are. Gotta keep up, after all.

But wait, there's more! Now I can add extensions and buttons to my Firefox browser. Oops, first I need to upgrade my Firefox. On both my home and work computers. Then I can add the extensions, twice. Oh, and wasn't there some Technorati extension to install so I can get the full experience?

And just so I don't get bored, let's start experimenting with BitTorrent and Azureus. Oh, that's something to keep me up all night!

Maybe at some point I might get to read some of the wondrous content of the Blogosphere. And maybe I'll learn what I'm supposed to report on regarding Web 2.0. But first I need to install some more extensions. Oh, and maybe I should get some sleep.

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The Cool People

Peer pressure is an amazing thing. It can inspire you to pick up or drop new likes, dislikes, hobbies, friends, values and so on. "The cool people" go to parties and drink lots of alcohol (or not). "The cool people" drive certain types of cars. "The cool people" prefer certain sports to watch or play, and certain teams to root for. "The cool people" stay abreast of politics or world events (or not). "The cool people" wear the right clothes. "The cool people" watch the right TV shows. "The cool people" even look cool.

"The cool people" have blogs and RSS feeds. That's why I'm here, writing my own blog. I've succumbed to peer pressure, because I want to be one of "the cool people".

And yet, even while I want to be one of "the cool people", I tend to use the term as a perjorative. I use it to refer to
Them. The Cool People.The people who put a lot of effort into how they look, follow the latest trends, and will always look "better" than I do. The people who seem more successful, or smarter, or richer than I do. "I have better things to do than spend all my time shopping, or primping, or working out", I say. "They're more shallow than I am", I say. "I'm more interesting", I say. Maybe, but there's always that nagging little voice that tells me I'm just a little jealous.

We all either choose or fall into our own peer groups. Cliques. We cluster together with some common bonds, ideas, appetites and prejudices. And we want, more than anything else, for our own group to be "the cool people". We want to be somebody else's Them. The Cool People.

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