Monday, March 29, 2004

Am back...

Hello Kari:

Thanks for the update on the planning. I'm sure you will proceed with the matrimonial planning with military efficiency! Through it all be sure to have fun and laugh at all the goofy stuff.

As you and some of our readers may know, I was on "spring break." I hope to have a few photos and some travelogue up in a little bit.

In the meantime, I will report that while I was away, I didn't check email once, watch CNN, eat at an American fast food chain nor buy an English language newspaper. As such, I have no idea how exciting or not the first four rounds of March Madness was. Do give me your word's eye view of the rounds in terms of surprises and who looks the strongest in the Final Four. Suffice to say, my picks were totally wrong and yours doing quite well. I might as well order up those chocolates in the next couple of days!

Take care and be well,

Monday, March 22, 2004

Just don't tell them it's a wedding

Hi-De-Ho Rene,

Some advice from one who's learning the hard way: When you decide to get married, don't tell anyone.

Well, I really don't mean that. Just don't tell the various retailers and other vendors you have to deal with that the stuff you're getting from them is for a wedding. Because if you do, you can count on jaw-dropping markups.

Trying to plan an economical wedding that will be enjoyable for all is harder than I thought it would be. I've planned more complex fundraising events for larger audiences in much less time than this whole wedding thing is taking. Perhaps that's because vendors don't believe the words "wedding" and "economical" can be used in the same sentence.

If we were planning a big party with identical details to a wedding, without it being an actual wedding, I'm convinced that we'd be done already. But since I'm trying to do it at a cost similar to a big party with identical details to a wedding, it's a little more complicated.

Take catering, for example. As this story reports, caterers will charge up to half again as much at a wedding reception than at another event with an identical menu. Accessories sold at bridal shops are easily 50% more than at a department store (and more than twice as much as I've found bargain hunting). Wedding invitations run somewhat higher than other invitations, and services like videography are marked up too.

Luckily for me, I have family members and friends who are so talented that some of the usual pricetag items are being given in-kind. I also have a legendary bargain-hound for a mother, and she's figured out all sorts of ways to save. For example, instead of using a florist for decorative flowers (other than bouquets), we're buying from a garden center. We're also using a toule rose motif, saving dough and ensuring no wilting.

Anyway, I won't bore you with more details, but suffice to say that when I call the jazz combo today to negotiate their price for playing at our reception, I'll try using the word "reception" without the W-word as a modifier.


Wednesday, March 17, 2004

LA Scene: Kansas born composer unveils new work

(Tenth in a series of occasional posts on Los Angeles life)

Hi Kari:

One of the things LA Phil Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen likes to do is play new music.

Thus, last Friday night in the final First Nights concert of the 2003-2004 season, LA was treated to the world premier of Steven Stucky's Second Concerto for Orchestra.

New music is inherently less popular. Of my four concerts this season, this was the least well attended though I'd say that 80% of the seats were filled.

Steven Stucky was born in Hutchinson, Kansas in 1949. Part of the program was a slide show about Stucky's life. In a surprise, one of his middle school classmates showed up and came on stage to share a story about how Stucky had composed an orchestral piece for the school's music class to play.

Stucky would explain how some other works have influenced his composing style. He would describe some section of a noted work and then have Salonen conduct the LA Phil to play that excerpt illustrating his point. This type of classroom-talk show-concert format is part of the LA Phil's periodic attempts to make symphonic music more accessible to the masses. The non-traditional format was a risky proposition (I enjoyed it and I think many did) and it seemed some of the more antsy audience members couldn't get into the spirit of the occasion as I saw a handful of people leave half way through the program.

The Second Concerto for Orchestra overall has a slightly spooky mood to it. It often made me think of movie music for an adventure film. It has a lush sound and a vivid sense of motion.

What I enjoyed most about the work was most notable in the second movement: how the music utilizes the full variety of the instruments in the orchestra. It seemed like every section of the orchestra at one point or another got to lead with the melody and everyone else harmonizes or responds to that section. Because of the close proximity of my seats to the orchestra there were many moments where I felt the sounds coming at me from different directions and you get the sense of the instruments dialoging with each other.

New music is very hit and miss to me. I've been a subscriber since 1999 and some of the new compositions are quite forgettable and the audience is sometimes left granting polite applause with looks ranging from apathy to puzzlement to a vague sense of alarm.

Stucky's work appeared moderately well received as portions of the audience gave the composer a standing ovation and the rest gave proper applause. The response was nowhere near the usual boisterous levels common to programs where the music is widely known.

As for me, upon it conclusion, I thought to myself, I would like to hear it again and explore it some more. I also found myself wondering if it would be as enjoyable at a less acoustically clear and bright hall? The work highlights the dynamic range of sound an orchestra can make and Disney Hall is lively enough to make that fuller appreciation possible. Interestingly, in the post-performance question and answer session, Stucky remarked, I'd hate to think how that would have sounded in the old Dorothy Chandler!

And all the music fans said, "Amen." Okay, we didn't actually say it but I imagine most of us thought it!


At the Department of Water and Power building facing south toward the Downtown skyscrapers

Looking west at the fabulous fountains at the DWP building

And of course, the famed Hall

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

March Madness: Winner gets BBQ sauce or Chocolate!?

Hello Kari,

How about a friendly little wager on the NCAA?

If I win, will you get me some of that great renown Kansas City Gates BBQ sauces and seasonings?

And if you win, I'll order up some of LA's finest Leonidas chocolate for you and yours.

My selections can be found at Yahoo! Fantasy Sports.


Monday, March 15, 2004

March Madness: West-Coast Bias Edition

Dear Kari:

As a culture blog, we have to post about the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament!

With no teams of local interest, I didn't watch the selection show and it is only now with my Monday morning newspaper that I know the match-ups.

So a quick look at what I see with my obvious West-Coast bias.

First, a short rant: Utah State got robbed. Yes, people will say their RPI is too poor and they come from the Big West, a wimpy conference. As a UCI Anteater, it is hard for me to say anything nice about the Aggies but they rampaged through the Big West just losing to UOP (got the Big West slot this year) in the regular season and to CSUN in a heartbreaker in the tournament semi-finals. Utah State beat Ohio State in 2001 and last year pushed Kansas to the brink. You’ll recall Kansas went on to the National Championship game.

Utah State plays solid defense and run a disciplined offense and would have put up a good fight no matter who they played. They was robbed.

Now onto a quick look at just a few teams from the Western part of the USA.

In an off year for the Pac-10 with talk of only sending two teams, Washington *played* their way into the tournament after an 0-5 start in conference to finish 12-6 and be the only team to beat Stanford so far. Even with that finish, I don't know if the Selection Committee would have let them in. But the Huskies beat UCLA and Arizona before falling to Stanford in the Pac-10 tournament. Not much size on the front line but they are tenacious. Overall, their asset is speed. Would love to see the Huskies upset the Kentucky Wildcats in a round two showdown.

Gonzaga will have a tough road. Should get past Valpo but possible showdowns with Michigan State, G-Tech and then Kentucky means the Zags will be a Cinderella story if they get to San Antonio. Will a non-power conference club finally break into that Final Four club? Will the Zags do it? Or will the St. Joe's Hawks do it? Or will power conference teams knock them both off somewhere along the way?

You know who I'll be rooting for.

An Arizona vs. Duke round two game is what CBS would love. Arizona has had a tough year being short handed and erratic on defense. They try to outscore people and certainly would be good for an upset or two but probably don't have enough to go all the way.

Finally, there is Stanford out West. They would love to avenge an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Maryland from a few years back. If all goes accordingly, they could face Maryland in a regional semi-final this year. Stanford should go far but UConn is clearly the strongest team in the bracket and maybe too much for the Cardinal.

More sports punditry to come…

What is the buzz about the Big12?


Tuesday, March 09, 2004

How libertarian are you?

Hi Kari:

Have you seen the Libertarian Purity Test by Bryan Caplan? I came across it in a recent visit to

In a previous post you introduced me to the Politopia political quiz where you were "northwest" of "centerville" while I was "north." This meant that you were more libertarian than me.

I'll be curious to see to what extent this is true as assessed by this Libertarian Purity Test.

Ready, set, go...

I got a 28 of which they say the following:
16-30 points: You are a soft-core libertarian. With effort, you may harden and become pure.
What did you come out as?


P.S. Dear Readers, would love to know where you stand too! Please let us know via the comment feature. You can always omit filling in the name field if you wish. Thanks!

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Theobroma, the food of the gods... a.k.a. Chocolate!!!

Hey Kari:

Speaking of guilty pleasures... if I recall, you have some fondness for chocolate? I seem to be surrounded by people who love the stuff and so I've become a social partaker of the sweet stuff. Well, maybe I should just confess... I've been known to buy the stuff for absolutely no reason other than to have some for myself. I sometimes buy it for others to assuage my guilt!

I recently received a link to this page about the realm of Swiss Chocolate from a good friend. It covers some history about chocolate, plugs (of course) the virtues of Swiss Chocolate and describes the business side of the industry.

Here is their link to some history. Excerpt:
The great botanist Carl von Linnaeus was by no means the first to recognizee the unique merits of the plant to which he gave the botanical name of "Theobroma Cacao L." "Theobroma" means "food of the gods". Cocoa was already recognized as such by the Toltecs, Mayas and Aztecs, from whom we got the name "cacauatl". Around 600 AD the Mayas were already cultivating cocoa in Central America. They used the cocoa beans to prepare a very nourishing drink, which they called "Xocolatl", from which we probably get the modern word "chocolate".
How about a little quiz of your chocolate business IQ?

In the USA, in 2001, what was the per capita consumption of chocolate?
A. 0.4 kg
B. 1.4 kg
C. 4.9 kg
D. 13.1 kg

How many tons of cocoa was harvested from 2001-2002
A. 99 thousand
B. 875 thousand
C. 2.8 million
D. 45.2 million

Which nation was the top harvester of cocoa?
A. Brazil
B. Indonesia
C. Ivory Coast
D. Kenya

You can get these facts and more by plowing through this page. If you just want the answers to the quiz, click on the comments link below this post.

To read about the science of chocolate, check out this site prepared by Exploratorium.

I was surprised to learn that initially, the stuff was part of drinks. Excerpt:
The chocolate of these Mesoamerican civilizations was consumed as a bitter-tasting drink made of ground cacao beans mixed with a variety of local ingredients.
Eventually, it would take the form we now know and love. Excerpt:
But it wasn't until 1828 that the "modern era" of chocolate making and production began.

In 1828, Dutch chocolate maker Conrad J. van Houten patented an inexpensive method for pressing the fat from roasted cacao beans. The center of the bean, known as the "nib," contains an average of 54 percent cocoa butter, which is a natural fat. Van Houten's machine -- a hydraulic press -- reduced the cocoa butter content by nearly half. This created a "cake" that could be pulverized into a fine powder known as "cocoa." Van Houten treated the powder with alkaline salts (potassium or sodium carbonates) so that the powder would mix more easily with water. Today, this process is known as "Dutching." The final product, Dutch chocolate, has a dark color and a mild taste.
Today, the Swiss are famous for their chocolate, and rightly so. In the late 19th century, they developed a number of processes that contributed greatly to creating the solid chocolate candy that we all enjoy today. Two major developments occurred in 1879. First, Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolate manufacturer, had the idea of using powdered milk (invented by Swiss Chemist Henri Nestle in 1867) to make a new kind of chocolate, milk chocolate. Second, Rudolphe Lindt invented a process called "conching," which greatly improved the quality of chocolate candy by making it more blendable.
In Los Angeles, I'm always discovering new places and I've heard on KNX-1070 Newsradio that there is a store called Leonidas very close to where I live. In their web page, they make this alluring statement:
Our decadent hand-made chocolate collections consist of the finest Belgian chocolate blends filled with a variety of rich ganaches, smooth and impossibly light fresh creams, creamy caramels, and our heavenly hazelnut praline paste. Leonidas famous Belgian chocolates are air-shipped from Belgium to Los Angeles, then directly to you. Why deny yourself the pleasure of the finest chocolates money can buy?
Click over to this page for their wide assortment of offerings.

Can you guess how much one pound of this chocolate costs? If you have clicked on the web page you will know. But if you haven't yet take a guess and check your answer by clicking yet again on the comments link below.

Anyway, I hope to make it out to the store someday soon and buy some to taste what it is all about. I'll be sure to blog back once I recover from bouncing off the walls from all that sugar.

Have a nice weekend,

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Opera, it ain't

Hi-De-Ho Rene,

I have to admit to a guilty pleasure: American Idol.

Not the endless extra American Idol specials, like American Idol: Return of the Self-Unaware, or whatever, but the warhorse itself.

The format is ridiculously simple and often cheesy, and you usually have to sit through 32 minutes of pap and 24 minutes of commercials to enjoy 4 minutes of quality, but those 4 minutes are imbued with the joy of discovery – some kid discovering that he has “it,” that he really is able to connect with people, and that he’s not just deluded like most of his fellow semifinalists.

It’s interesting to watch the bar slowly being raised as the contestants advance, and to see how they respond to growing levels of pressure. When any one of the several hundred kids who “made it to Hollywood” auditioned, they all sounded pretty good. Then they got to LA, and suddenly many of them were obviously overmatched. Out they went, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Some were probably hearing for the first time in their young, pampered lives that they weren’t the bomb.

I didn’t watch the first season until the penultimate show, and by then it was so clear who was the best that I wondered what the fuss had been about leading up to the crowning event. If the other two they ran out there against Kelly Clarkson were the best alternatives the competition had to offer, why hadn’t she been declared the winner by TKO long before?

I watched a little more of last season, basically from the “wild card” round through the finals. In that season, there were two performers who stood way above the rest, so there actually was some suspense: Would America choose Rosie Greer or Howdy Doody? (That’s unfair, as Ruben is actually a cute, cuddly-looking guy, and Clay apparently appeals to girls in some way unfathomable to me. And both can belt a tune.)

This year, I’ve been with it from the beginning, and I think this season may be more competitive. While most of the semifinalists have been banal, at best, there are a number of real talents who have made it to the finals. But that’s what I think now. Perhaps the Peter Principle will continue to work, and kids who’d seemed great against milder competition will now sound like they’re auditioning for a backup gig at the Easy Times Lounge.

American Idol is an interesting exercise in meritocracy, and at least in the first two seasons, America proved with its speed-dialing fingers that it still believes in rewarding ability over appearances, or at least wants to believe in it, despite all the evidence to the contrary in the pop culture that spawned the phenomenon.


LA Scene: LA Opera @ the Dorothy Chandler

(Ninth in a series of occasional posts on Los Angeles life)

Hi Kari:

I went to the opera for the third time in my life last Thursday night.  

I can't remember a thing about the first opera I went to.  There were no supertitle translations and they wouldn't have helped me because they would have been in German! I contented myself to enjoying the grand interiors of the opera house and people watching which was fun enough because it was at the famed Vienna State Opera House. If you are ever in Vienna be sure to check out the last minute standing area ticket option which is how I got to see the show.

The second one I saw was Turandot with the Berio completion. Lots of action on the stage, colorful costumes and big sets... it was like... you know a musical?!

You (but most readers might not?) may know that Puccini died before he completed Turandot. The ending has been a source of discontentment for opera fans. Here is an excerpt from the article I linked in the previous paragraph:
The well-known Finale by Franco Alfano has often been derided for its loud, crude, bombastic chords and heavy-handed orchestration that are contrary to Puccini’s original intentions.  The recent unearthing of Puccini’s 20 additional sketches further discredited Alfano’s work, and served as an impetus for Berio’s new attempt at solving the ultimate Turandot Riddle; i.e., how to end the opera as the composer had wished – softly and quietly – without making it sound like an anticlimax.
Since I have never seen the more commonly performed ending, I can't say whether I like Berio's effort better. I can say I liked the Berio ending and it was indeed soft and quiet and a little ambiguous. When I say ambiguous, I mean that, in my opinion, the solidity of Turandot's love for Calef was left somewhat unclear by the mood of the music and the actions of the singers on stage.

For my third opera, I saw Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Here is the plot synopsis. And here are some photos from the LA Opera web site of the current Robert Wilson production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion.

Since I've only seen the Wilson staged Butterfly, I can't compare. In the pre-opera lecture, the speaker said that often times Butterfly is staged in very elaborate fashion. In his opinion, some productions were like barnacle encrusted ships and not very appealing.

Wilson's staging was sparse as seen in the production photos. The music set the mood and the lighting panel at the back of the stage added a visual element to the emotional temperature.

Are you familar with the details of the opera?

There was one part that I'm still trying to figure out and perhaps you (or any opera knowledgable readers) could help me out. In the scene before the finale, Butterfly's son did a ballet like sequence where he danced/walked around the house and picked up pebbles and put them into his mouth. Eventually, he returned to his mother and took them from his mouth and gave them to her. She then took the pebbles and went outside with them and appeared to put them onto a pile of rocks.

What is that all about?

These hang in the north part of the Chandler.

These light up the East lobby of the orchestra wings.

The pre-opera lecture was well attended. I caught the last ten minutes of the talk.

The water fountains in the plaza between the Mark Taper and the Dorothy Chandler.

I can't say I'm a fan of opera yet. But I am beginning to see the appeal.

First, there is simply beautiful music. I happen to like most types of music but especially classical music.  

Second, the emotional content of the story and lyrics reaches me. People don't talk in arias but by putting maximal beauty into the choice of words, the turns of phrase, the imagery and the emotion, it somehow elevates the human experience it describes.  It has the same effect on me that Shakespere does.  Most of us don't run around speaking in iambic pentameter but his words capture the truth of the human experience even if it is not expressed in a "normal" way.  

Thirdly, there is something neat about the whole atmosphere of an opera... the staging, the lighting, the costumes and the people watching. Going to the opera itself is an event unto itself.

I have to conclude this post with the lyrics from the most famous part of Butterfly. Such beautiful music and words and its power is magnified because we know how sadly the story ends.

Take care,
One fine, clear day, we shall see
a thin trail of smoke arising,
on the distant horizon, far out to sea.
And then the ship appears.
Then the white ship
enters into the harbour,
and thunders out it's greeting.

You see? He has come!
I'll not go down to meet him. Not I.
I shall stay on the hillside and wait,
and wait for a long time,
and I'll not grow weary
of the long wait.

Emerging from the city crowds,
a man is coming, a tiny speck
starts to climb the hill.
Who is he? Who?
And when he arrives.
What will he say? What will he say?
He will call "Butterfly" from the distance.
I, without answering,
will remain hidden.
A little to tease him
and a little so as not to die,
at our first meeting;
and then rather worried
he will call, he will call:
"My little one, my tiny wife,
The names he gave me when he came last.

All this will happen,
I promise you.
Keep your fears to yourself,
I, with faithful trust will wait for him.