April 2010 Archives

Possession is Nine Tenths

It's Thursday night, so that means Survivor.  I was happy to see the card tower-building challenge return.  I think it's one of the all-time best Survivor challenges.  There's plenty of drama as the towers crumble.  Each player can create and execute their own strategy without interference.  Nobody, a priori, has a better chance at winning than anyone else.  It requires a variety of skills: manual dexterity, spatial acuity, patience, and structural mathematics.  It's a great change of pace from the usual brute force, endurance, or pick-up-the-pieces-and-assemble-a-puzzle challenges.

Two people did incredibly stupid things tonight.  Spoilers safely voted out behind the jump.

Comments (6) | last by Stephen Glenn, May 3, 7:54 AM

There was a lot of very interesting play going on in tonight's Survivor.  Thoughts after the jump.

Comments (2) | last by Chris D., Apr 25, 7:57 AM

In all fairness, it's a reasonable conclusion to draw.  How else to explain a tribe voting out their strongest members while leaving the weakest?  A women's alliance perfectly explains what the Heroes have been seeing.

That doesn't change the fact that this is, by far, the worst decision ever made by a tribe.  What's really amazing is that, at least as far as we saw, there was little to no discussion of how bad this could turn out for them.  If they played it safe and kept their idol, then after winning the immunity challenge they'd go into the merge even with the Villains.  If they're wrong in their assessment of the other tribe, they're digging their own grave.

Once Colby spilled the beans to Russell on the platform, there was no way in hell Russell was going to finish that race quickly.  He was much better off losing, thereby getting the idol AND voting off a potential flipper on his tribe.

I don't understand why the Villains voted out Courtney instead of Sandra.  Did they not watch Sandra's season?  Her strategy is to sell her vote to whoever isn't voting for her.  And they already believe she likes to plant ideas in people's heads.  Courtney, meanwhile, has been completely ineffective at EVERYTHING in BOTH her seasons.  She's no threat at all, and much easier to control.

Sandra, of course, has to flip.  She's lowest in her tribe's pecking order, so she has to shake things up.  The question is whether or not Rupert and the other Heroes will believe her when she tells them that Russell's running the show.  Because Russell will be swearing up, down, and sideways that he's on their side.  And even if they do believe her, they can't tip their hand that they've changed their minds, or Russell will play the idol.

This episode is going to be PAINFUL for J.T. and the other Heroes come reunion night.

Comment (1) | last by Dave, Apr 16, 2:14 AM

The truly amazing thing about Criss Angel: Believe, the Cirque du Soleil-branded show at the Luxor in Las Vegas, is that it manages to fail in so many different ways at once.  It fails as a magic show.  It fails as a Cirque extravaganza.  It fails as a comedy act.  Just about the only thing it succeeds at is failure.

Prior to attending the show, I had almost no exposure to Criss Angel.  I'd seen posters for his TV show, perhaps a commercial or two, but I'd never seen him perform.  My impression was that he was kind of a Goth illusionist, a stage magician with eye shadow and attitude.  If his Luxor show is any indication, what he is not is a showman.  I have never seen a magic act with such poor staging, or one demonstrating less understanding of how to build suspense or create wonder.

There's an old scriptwriting rule in Hollywood: If you're going to fire a gun in act three, you have to show it to the audience in act one.  Angel always jumped right to the third act.  Giant medieval apparati wheeled onto the stage amidst fog and shadow, and before the audience could really take in all the moving parts and anticipate what was coming, strobes would flash and Angel would appear in the device's clutches.  Without the setup, the effect fell completely flat.

The name of the show is Believe, but there was no effort to make the audience believe in any of his tricks.  Magic is a really tough business these days.  We're all used to seeing incredible effects in films and on TV.  We know how easy it is to alter a photograph.  Modern technology makes miracles of the past completely mundane.  So for an illusion to work, for the audience to drop its collective jaw and gape in unfathomable wonder at the impossible, the magician has to sell it.  I may not know how the trick is done, but I might think I know.  Even if I'm wrong, there's no magic if I think I'm right.  The magician has to anticipate how his audience will think the trick is done, then prove to them that it couldn't possibly be done that way.  When a magician levitates someone, they usually pass a ring along the person's body to show there aren't any wires.  When a magician produces a shower of cards, he shows there's nothing up his sleeve.  Most of the time Angel failed to follow these basics.

Many of the big illusions happened at the rear of the stage, as far from the audience as possible.  With the lighting, fog, and set, there was no clear view.  Who knows how many black-clad assistants were lurking back there?  Who knows how many trap doors were concealed?  The best magic is done in the full light of day, so to speak, as close to the audience as possible.  I'm going to think there's someone behind you unless you show me there isn't.

At one point, without any setup or preamble, he walked down the face of a vertical wall, then spread his arms and thrust out his chest dramatically, all but proclaiming, "Magic!".  Anyone who's seen Cirque du Soleil is very familiar with this kind of wire work.  If the intent was to present this as an illusion, you've got to get me to think no wires are involved.  He didn't even try.  If it's just a visual stunt, then don't try to milk applause from the audience as if you'd just parted the Red Sea.

I was a minor magic buff when I was younger.  I performed some magic, even doing a couple of birthday parties once upon a time.  I shopped at the famous Tannen's magic store in New York.  I caught every televised magic special.  My all-time favorite illusion is Houdini's Metamorphosis.  You've seen it a bunch of times-- the magician's hands and feet are shackled, he's tied in a sack, the sack is put in locked box, an assistant climbs atop the box, and raises a curtain around the box and herself.  "One..." she lowers the curtain and raises it back above her head.  "Two..."  She does it again.  "Three, it's me!"  Suddenly the curtain drops and it's the magician atop the box, with the assistant now shackled and bagged inside the box.  Angel's version of this illusion was a disaster.  He stressed that he would perform the fastest version ever, without hiding behind a curtain.  But it wasn't the metamorphosis itself that was fast.  He skipped a bunch of steps.  He didn't show us the empty box first and try to convince us there were no trap doors.  He didn't even shackle himself, or put himself in a bag-- he merely stepped into the box and had it closed and roped shut.  In lieu of a curtain, he used a massive blast of fog and flashing strobe lights that both completely obscured the action and blinded the audience, so that we really couldn't see what was going on for at least 3 seconds.  It was easily the worst Metamorphosis I've ever seen.

Apparently his TV show has run for five seasons, so he must do something right.  But on the stage Criss Angel exhibited no charisma, charm, or rapport with the audience.  His biggest trick was bringing 40-year-old patter back from the dead.  He actually uttered lines like, "You've been a great audience," "You're one of the best audiences we've ever had," and "You're a good kid."  He repeatedly addressed the audience as "folks".  Who does that anymore?  He talked at the audience rather than to them.  When he brought a teenager up on stage, his script was awkward and inappropriate.  I prayed for Jaye P. Morgan or Jamie Farr to dance on stage and put us out of our misery with a swift strike of a gong.

So much for the magic.  What about the Cirque?  The show began with about 10 minutes of horrible clown buffoonery.  It seemed like the same schtick that preceded Ka, another Cirque show, when we saw it about three years ago.  A couple of times during the show a bunch of costumed dancers in rabbit masks frolicked on stage in time with pseudo-creepy music.  And really, that was about it.  No acrobatics, no flying wire work, none of the signature Cirque du Soleil touches.  Just bad theater.

I love magic.  I appreciate the artistry and skill of Cirque du Soleil.  The union of the two should have been a showstopper.  Instead the show should have been stopped before it ever opened to the public.  If you find yourself in Vegas, save your time and money.

Comments (4) | last by dana, Apr 12, 2:16 PM

Fleur de Lys

I don't part with money easily.  Generally, this isn't a problem for my lifestyle-- I have very few real needs.  I don't drink, I don't need the latest tech toys, and Lord knows I don't care about fashion.  While I do make a couple of trips to San Francisco each year for puzzle events, I don't galavant around the world.  I don't go to concerts (unless you're dancing in the aisles, I don't see the point-- and I don't dance in the aisles).  An old car gets me there just as well as a new one.  Really, there are very few things I want to buy in the first place.

Then there's food.

I enjoy food.  I like reading about it, I like making it, and I like eating it.  Food makes me happy.  But even so, I don't like dropping a big wad of cash on a meal.  Food is ephemeral.  When a dinner is over, you've got nothing to show for it but extra inches.  Are the memories of a great meal worth the money you pay for it?

I read about the Great Restaurants of our time.  I see their chefs on television.  And it boggles my mind that such restaurants, where $100 is only the beginning of a meal, are able to sustain themselves.  Who is their clientele?  Outside of Hollywood and Wall Street, are there people who go out to eat at such places on a regular basis?  Who are these people?  How much more than me do they earn?  Or do they make even less than I do, but run up their credit cards and leave nothing in their bank accounts?  Are they living for today, where I'm living for tomorrow?  Or do they just have expense accounts?  I always have buyers' remorse after an expensive restaurant meal, especially one where the price is for artistry and doesn't necessarily result in leaving fully sated.

My wife and I are in Vegas for our babymoon-- a last trip together before the baby arrives and shackles us to hearth and home.  We're here because she wanted to go someplace warm and sit by a pool to relax.  I love Vegas.  I love the energy of the place, the way the Strip comes alive at night with throngs of people, flashes of neon, and a palpable sense of fun waiting to happen.  But this town is built for one thing: separating you from your money.  The only question is whether you're going to give it away in the casino or exact some measure of trade for it elsewhere.

As far as I'm concerned, this trip is all about her.  Couples like to say "we're pregnant," but really-- she's doing all the heavy lifting.  I'm just around to, well, keep her from needing to lift anything else.  So last night I took her to dinner at the restaurant of her favorite Top Chef Masters chef, Hubert Keller-- Fleur de Lys at the Mandalay Bay.  Marital disclaimer: she did not ask to be taken to Fleur de Lys-- that was my idea.

The room itself was surprisingly plain-- a tall room with curved, stone walls and long gray curtains hanging from the ceiling.  Each table was set with attractive floral plates specially designed for the restaurant.  We opted for the 4-course "Elegance" menu, and between us managed to sample almost everything on it.

Dinner began with an an amuse bouche, which I think was the first amuse I've ever had.  I had a tiny morsel of tempura cod over a smidge of puree (potato?) with a cayenne cream; my wife got a gluten-free candied beet with three dots of different beet vinaigrettes.  A lovely bite to be sure, but... where did this whole amuse bouche thing come from?  Could anything be more pretentious?  A single bit of food, plated up to look attractive, but to tease your palate.  If you enjoy it... tough, there's just that one bite.  What a production that must be in the kitchen, to manufacture that single bite of food and present it just so.

The bread basket offered four choices: challah twists, onion herb foccacia, whole wheat rolls, and pretzel rolls.  I tried all but the foccacia over the course of the evening, and while all were fine, none were remarkable.  Oddly, all were served chilled.  The pretzel rolls were my favorite, but would have been even better served warm.  And I've ranted about this before, but... what's the deal with chilled butter?  These days just about the only time butter is brought to your table is with bread.  The whole idea is to spread it.  So why are you serving me a rock-hard slab of the stuff that I'll have to carefully shave with my knife and still tear up the bread as I apply it, instead of a soft, pliable pillow that glides effortless across the bread?

Our first course was a truffled cream of onion soup with a braised duck ragout crepe (I didn't bring a camera, so... Internet to the rescue!).  The bowls were brought to the table with just the crepes, a single shaved truffle, and a swirl of red wine shallot puree at the bottom.  The soup was then poured over, tableside.  My wife is trying to eat gluten-free, so hers came without the crepe and mine came with an extra.  I'm sure you have entirely the wrong image in your mind for the crepe.  It was about the size of a Tootsie Roll or Jolly Rancher-- a ragout of duck bound together by a very thin crepe.  The soup was delicious.  We both agreed we could have swam in it.  I'd expected something more like a French onion soup, but it was nothing of the kind.  There was not a single onion in sight, but the flavor was unmistakable.  The texture was smooth and velvety, and while my wife enjoyed hers, I certainly enjoyed mine more because I got to partake of the duck.  Only for two spoonfuls, one per crepe, but those two bits elevated the dish to an entirely different level.  Our server said this soup was their most-Yelped-about dish, and I can certainly understand why.

Next, my wife had the salmon mi-cuit (partially cooked) in whole grain mustard sauce, which chef Keller had made in the dorm room episode of Top Chef Masters.  I had veal and Yukon Gold potato ravioli with sunchokes, pea shoots, and veal jus.  That's a sunchoke foam atop the dish in the photo, and I now understand why so many people on Top Chef roll their eyes over foams.  Does that look good to you?  It's as if the Brundlefly predigested something atop my food.  Aside from a bubbliness, it didn't impart much flavor.  The ravioli were soft, but otherwise unremarkable.  By far the best thing about this dish was the veal jus.  I brought the bread guy back to the table so I could get something to sop up all that fabulous jus, and didn't let the server take the plate away until there was nothing soppable left.  Wife's review of the salmon (her portion was half what is pictured): "Good, small, nothing spectacular.  The sauce was nice."

Next up were the highlights of the meal.  For my wife, a filet with potato puree, and for me, stout-braised beef short rib with root vegetable puree and stone-ground mustard, with a jus poured around the plate at the table.  Wife: "Fantastic!  Cooked to perfection, melt-in-your-mouth.  Sauce was delicious, and the potatoes were wonderful-- smooth and creamy."  As for me, I don't think I've ever had a better short rib.  The meat was spectacularly fall-apart-with-a-fork tender, with just the right amount of fat distributed throughout the meat-- not fatty at all, but unctuous and gelatinous in a delightful way that lubricated every bite.  The hint of mustard was just right.  The puree, while smooth and creamy, was a mere supporting player-- the short rib was the unquestioned star.  I just wish there had been more of it!

Dessert was merely OK.  She had a quartet of fresh sorbets (blood orange being the standout), while I went with the warm chocolate fondant cake with popcorn ice cream and peanut butter milkshake.  The cake did what it was supposed to do-- oozed warm chocolate when opened-- but the salted caramel center hinted at by the menu failed to show up on my palate.  The popcorn ice cream was terrific-- think Crackerjack, not movie theater.  I didn't expect to like the milkshake (not a fan of peanut butter in any form other than peanut butter) and I wasn't surprised, although my wife happily sucked down the remainder for me.

A plate of 5 half-bite dessert morsels followed, including a fabulous peanut butter, chocolate, and graham cracker square that I'd have eagerly taken in a full brownie-sized bar.

The menu was $89 a person, and our Restaurant.com $50 certificate (which wound up covering tax and tip, but nothing else) was greeted with cheerful enthusiasm.  Service was terrific throughout the meal from all parties.  My water glass was never empty, our server was a pleasant guide, and the kitchen was very accommodating with my wife's desire to go gluten-free.

So was the $180 meal for two worth it?  I'm not sure.  Neither of us left the restaurant feeling full, but neither were we hungry.  I would have loved to eat more (especially that short rib!), but I certainily didn't need more.  There were memorable dishes and some misses.  Service was efficient, pleasant, and unobtrusive (not that I need rappelling wine angels, mind you).  We enjoyed ourselves and looked forward to each new dish.  This is certainly not something I'd do on a regular basis.  I think my expectations are too high.  For the price, I expect to be not merely pleased, but wowed.  Upscale dining may not be my scene.  I'm just a value shopper.  The meal I had at Poppy in Seattle last month was every bit as good as this one, and was more fun, less full of itself, and less expensive.  I'm glad we went to Fleur de Lys.  I'll even do it again somewhere else sometime, perhaps even this trip.  But I'll take a great hole-in-the-wall over an overpriced celebrity chef any normal day of the week.

Stupid and Brilliant

Credit to Sandra for understanding what makes Russell tick and capitalizing on it, playing him like a fiddle.  If there's no merge, voting out Coach is ridiculous.  They'll absolutely get creamed again in the challenges with him gone.  But if the merge happens, it's genius.  Russell's right-- tipped off at the reward challenge that the Heroes think there's a women's alliance on the Villains tribe, voting out Coach will only make the Heroes more sure that Russell will be desperate and receptive.

But I don't even want to talk about that.  The biggest moment of the entire show happened after the credits.  The preview hints that JT intends to offer Russell the immunity idol to get him to flip, which (if it actually happens) will surely go down as the most boneheaded move in <I>Survivor</I> history.  Completely understandable tactic from his point of view, mind you-- they haven't seen Russell's season and don't know anything about his play style.  Wooing him to your side by offering him the idol is a reasonable ploy.  In this case, it's also an unmitigated disaster.

Can't wait for next week!

Comments (6) | last by Dave, Apr 12, 3:07 PM

My wife and I are expecting a baby in early September.

We are, of course, very excited.  Tinged with a whiff of terror about losing our independence.  You know that crazy, wide-eyed look a horse gets when Something Terrible is coming and it desperately pulls at its tether to run to safety, towards freedom?  All completely normal.

She wants to make sure the child gets outdoors, plays sports, socializes with other kids.  I want to make sure the child understands that brick and lumber are the most important things in the early game, that no problem is so horrible that it can't be solved by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, that good knife skills are more important than good penmanship, and that the ancient wizards were absolutely correct: words have power.  She wants to limit the child's screen time; I plan to lull the child to sleep with the gentle vibration of the 360 controller's rumble.

We're both agreed that the child will learn to eat what we put in front of it.  Soda will not be part of the child's normal diet.  The child will learn to save money at a young age.  Barbie and Bratz are forbidden, but bring on the Lego.  TV shows that are just extended commercials for toys are off limits (unless the show or toy is really cool).  Bedtime might be extended to the end of the next chapter.  Daddy's board games are not to be touched without permission.  Even if my wife and I disagree, we will present a unified front to the child.  Except just this once-- but don't tell mommy.  Our child will be the first of its friends to have a computer, but the last to get a cell phone.  We will perpetuate the white lies that bring joy to childhood-- the Tooth Fairy and her ilk-- but will otherwise tell our child the truth.  We will encourage our child to ask questions and find answers.

We will support our child, but not stifle it.  We will raise a child we can trust, and we will trust it.  We will set good examples for our child, and in so doing become better people, so that our child will be a good person.  We will love our child, and it will know it is loved, always.

But first, there will be poop.  Lots and lots of poop.

Comments (15) | last by Bruce, Apr 13, 10:10 AM

The A-Z of Awesomeness

If you're up on geek culture, this is at least seven kinds of awesome.

That's what my wife said tonight after Tribal Council.  And he's got to be one of the producers' favorites.  Let's face it, Rob's money.  He delivers for his team, he delivers for the camera, he delivers for the show.  He's a terrific player, with a great head for strategy.  His problem is that everyone knew him.

But nobody knew Russell.

If the Villains had seen Russell's season, there's no way he'd still be there.  There's no way Jerri would have cast her lot with him.  But Russell is playing an even better game this season than he did last time.  He made bold moves that have paid off.  Playing his idol on Parvati's behalf-- thereby exposing himself for eviction if Tyson doesn't prove himself an idiot (again!)-- was likely the main reason Jerri decided to switch teams.  And from the previews, it looks like she regretted it pretty darn quickly.

I'd say Rob's the most deserving non-winner in the history of Survivor.  I haven't forgotten about last season-- Russell was unquestionably the most deserving finalist and absolutely should have won.  But I'm not talking about people who got the shaft.  In every season, Rob's been a strong, strong player.  Give me a field of any players from any season of Survivor, and I'm going to root for Rob.  He's never mean.  He's often clever.  He works hard.  He can do the physical, the social, the strategy, the puzzles-- he's got it all.  So I'll always root for him, because I genuinely want him to win, and because the show itself-- Survivor, Amazing Race, whatever-- is always more entertaining with him in it.

Coach, meanwhile, continues to be a hypocrite and not even realize it.  He bellyached about not wanting to break his word to Russell, conveniently forgetting how he'd already given his word to Rob.  And instead of staying true to either of them, he knowingly throws his vote away on Courtney to avoid a tie.  Feh.

I don't think Russell makes it much further.  I don't think the Heroes will trust him at all, and there are plenty of people on his tribe who are eager to flop after the merge.  I'm really surprised that after playing the hidden idol last week, we haven't seen him going hunting for a new one.  He's found them before without any clues.  Maybe he figures that the first one was hidden so well, his chances of blindly finding the right landmark are slim now that the producers are wise to him.

Parvati's on borrowed time.  If Courtney makes it to the merge, she might just go the distance under the radar.  Nobody views her as a threat, so once it's an individual game, she's got a free ride unless the Heroes hold their alliance strong.  If that happens, I think Colby and Candice go home, and we get a final three of Rupert, Amanda, and JT.  But there's a long, bumpy road between here and there, so we'll just have to wait and see.

Comments (6) | last by Dave, Apr 12, 2:44 PM