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Archive for December, 2011

A movie, a play, a time stuck in traffic

December 29th, 2011

This stay-at-home vacation thing is unexpectedly working out in a way that my top-priority sizable project for the week (in the “home video” category) remains untouched on the to-do list. And there is only one formal vacation day left…

I suppose going for a matinee movie showing one day followed by a mid-day theater outing followed by long-distance chauffeur duties were bound to kill enough time over the course of a few days to make it feel that I am actively occupied on what I thought would be a very lazy week.

The movie I watched with Becky was the latest Sherlock Holmes, which was both entertaining and somewhat disappointing. I am not a Holmes purist to any degree, I was familiar with the first movie and calibrated my expectations accordingly, and I appreciate the high entertainment quotient and directorial skill found in the latest installment. And I actually think the second movie went to greater length to showcase Holmes’ deductive reasoning than the first one. But in the end, it felt as if it was mostly about guns, explosions, well-placed acts of sabotage, hand-combat skills and a fortuitously positioned cannon than about, you know, brains. Downey Jr and Law do play off each other fantastically, though.

The next day it was musical theater’s turn. A friend recommended a play running at the NYU’s Skirball Center and we went for a city outing alongside several families. Started with a nice lunch at Café Español, then moved on to Washington Square so that the younger kids could have some fun on the playground, and finished the day’s itinerary with a play.

Called Shlemiel the First, it is Jewish-themed and theoretically was supposed to appeal to our crew of folk music lovers. But I ended up thoroughly outnumbered when attempting to craft a positive review afterwards. The prevailing opinion ranged from Kimmy’s diplomatic “I did not like it that much” to the blunt “It sucked” voiced by several people in the party. It is not that the music was too Broadway-ized to be readily identifiable as Jewish. It is not that the plot was silly and its resolution was dumb. It is not that the lyrics were mediocre and the jokes were mostly unfunny. It is not that the actors were, charitably, unremarkable as singers. It is, frankly, all of that combined together that created an overall impression of something that should have been, in hindsight, avoided.

Least of all I understood why we brought children along (kids, actually, comprised a large portion of the audience). There were a couple of mildly risqué scenes, but not a single children-level joke. Given the buffoonery overtones of the proceedings, the play could not be called educational in any respect either.

My attempts at finding positives about the show stopped at appreciating the choreographed open-scene transformations that were well worked into the flow of the performance. Becky agreed that it looked really neat, but refused to give the show any other props.

Driving into Greenwich Village in the late morning went along considerably smoother than driving into Midtown Manhattan in the early afternoon. Today I had to pick up Becky’s friend from the Penn Station as she arrived for a few days’ stay with us, and my composure was sorely tried. Too many cars, too many pedestrians, too many “you can’t turn here, go straight” prohibitions. On the bright side, I did spend considerably more time than expected on the round-trip, further reducing my idle existence on this boringest of vacations.

Art & Culture, Chronicles, Movies

Perrault who?

December 27th, 2011

After a family viewing of one of Becky’s favorite childhood flicks, worldly person that she is, she made a whimsical reference to her high-school friends about being fond of a Russian dub of a Japanese take on a French fairly tale. When the name of the story came up, Puss in Boots, most of her friends reacted with, “You mean, the one from Shrek?” Nobody had ever heard of Charles Perrault.

After so many years of living in America, I still cringe when a fellow émigré would ridicule an average American’s view of world culture as being encompassed entirely by the American pop culture. Yet time and again I come across relatively unremarkable nuggets of proof that such ridicule is largely deserved. Being familiar with an iconic literary character solely on the basis of its latter-day appearance in a Hollywood movie speaks volumes about these kids’ – and, unfortunately, their parents’ – awareness of the world, culture and history beyond the American borders. Upsetting.

Art & Culture

The Russians are here

December 23rd, 2011

In our neck of comparatively multi-cultural suburbia, there is a fair percentage of people who hail from the former Soviet Union. Kimmy recently relayed an anecdote that illustrated that rather amusingly.

She was having lunch in her middle-school cafeteria. A few girls sat together, as usual. Kimberly, Danielle, Gabriela, Emily, Nicole – common American names, proper English-language conversation.

At the nearby table, a boy with a distinctly Russian name Artyom (easily converted into “Artie”, of course) was bragging to his non-Russian-speaking friend how he could say anything he wanted in Russian and no one around would understand a word of it. To prove his point, he switched to Russian and started chanting rather loudly “No one can understand me! You can’t understand me! No one can understand me!”

Distracted by the noise, Kimmy turned to him and said in her perfect Russian, “I can understand you”.

Then, Danielle, Gabriela and Emily, all with Russian-born parents, said each, “Me, too”. Only the Italian-American Nicole was left out of the proceedings.

Kimmy says Artie’s jaw almost literally hit the floor. His family moved to the area very recently.

Suburbia

My favorite sights of Prague

December 22nd, 2011

Both within this virtual space (here, for instance) and in meat-space, I never hesitate to proclaim which city I consider to be the most beautiful among all. Prague, hands down! Such opinions are subjective, I realize, and your mileage may vary relative to other places you’ve seen and things you value in a foreign destination. Me, I’m looking for architectural ambience of historic proportions, for narrow medieval streets opening up to grandiose public spaces, for latter-day architectural styles (such as any Art Nouveau flavors) fitting in rather than sticking out, for breathtaking vistas. No other city in the world gives me as much of all of that as Prague.

This first picture perfectly illustrates that.
 

Approaching Little Quarter on Charles Bridge

 
It is the view of the Little Quarter side of the famous Charles Bridge, with the Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral seen high on the hill on the right and the dome and the bell tower of the Church of St Nicholas peeking from behind the bridge tower. One of my most favorite views in all the world.

The picture was taken early in the morning, when the sun was already sufficiently up but tourist hordes were not yet out and about. In fact, I consider coming to the Charles Bridge in early morning a quintessential visitor experience in Prague. The bridge is so busy during the day and well into the night that you cannot fully appreciate the beauty of what surrounds you unless you come when most people are still asleep.

Night view of Little Quarter bridge towerI did manage to take a night-time picture of the same area with few people to obstruct the view one night, aided by the light rain that had been falling all day long and drove away all but the most dedicated of guests. Charles Bridge, view towards Old Town, mid-dayTake my word for it: If you want to have the bridge to yourselves, your only choices are bad weather or an early morning. In mid-day, the number of people crossing the bridge in either direction will make any picture taken on the bridge look like the crowd itself is the focus. Nonetheless, the view to Old Town is equally impressive from any viewpoint at any moment in time.

I can linger on the Charles Bridge for hours. Crowds do provide endless amusement from people-watching perspective, and when they get thinner, I can just gaze at the sights of the city.

There are literally dozens of elevated points in the city to cast your eye over rooftops and towards grand structures. One of my favorite spots is the top terrace of the Vrtba Gardens, which allows for this magnificent close-up of the St Nicholas.
 

St Nicholas, viewed from Vrtba Gardens

 

Spires of Prague - ClocktowerPrague is rightfully called the city of a hundred spires. The sky-piercing needles can be admired from the ground, of course, but I much prefer climbing up to some lookout for an eye-level view. For instance, the Old Town bridge tower not only gives an unparalleled perspective of the Little Quarter and the Castle, but also allows a close look at the fetching clocktower above Smetana Museum. Spires of Prague - St GilesThe tower of the Old Town Hall, due to its central location, gives you absorbing views of the Old Town’s St Nicholas church (yes, there are two of them in Prague – one on each side of the river), the eye-catching St Giles (with the National Theater in the background), and especially the striking Tyn Church that soars above the central city square. And from the Castle’s elevated lookouts, panoramic views of the city, with Little Quarter’s St Nicholas featuring prominently, are simply majestic.

 

Spires of Prague - Virgin Mary Before Tyn  Spires of Prague - St Nicholas (Old Town)

Spires of Prague - St Nicholas (Little Quarter)

 

No matter where I am in Prague, I can’t help to return to the Charles Bridge again and again. Here it is seen from the river, with a bonus cool perspective on the National Theater through one of its arches.

 

Charles Bridge viewed from Vltava river; National Theater in the background

 
It’s a beautiful city!

Photography, Travel

Click on pictures

December 21st, 2011

With a bit of spare time on my hands, I decided to change the way embedded pictures are enlarged to a more contemporary and elegant method. Feel free to click on any image within any post, and please do let me know if you come across any buggy behavior. Thanks!

Website Bulletins

On testing

December 20th, 2011
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Here’s the Twitter conundrum in its full glory: The simplest thing to do was to tweet something along the lines of “Took a professional test – piece of cake. Now certified in something I don’t actually expect to be focused on.” Instead, I wanted to elaborate, and link the occurrence to what I think is an amusing fact in my biography. In other words, I felt like making a blog post out of it.

I’ve taken my share of “qualification” tests of my life. We’ll leave aside education-variety tests that have no obvious pass-fail boundaries and are judged according to informally accepted notions of success. My career as a technologist in financial services demanded – or gently suggested on occasion – that I obtained licenses or certifications by taking professional exams that had clear failure thresholds: Answer a certain percentage of questions correctly – pass; screw up one more question than allowed – there is no “good enough” in stock for you.

An instructor for my Series 7 preparation years ago was fond of repeating, “My goal is to have you answer the first 175 questions correctly and not bother with the rest, because 175 is all you need to pass”. In other words, if you master all aspects of the subject, you should really be able to ace the whole test, which, while nice on some level, is not exactly necessary. Of course, in real life, the length of the examination and the varying ability of people to maintain focus under pressure conspire to cause even the brightest and most knowledgeable make stupid mistakes here or there. I suppose the allowance for the number of wrong answers is at least partially meant to cover for the eventuality of inadvertent mistakes.

Only, when the passing score for an exam is 70%, doesn’t it translate into validation of your knowledge at no more than C-?

Which, coincidentally, could allow someone with superior testing skills, enough common sense and only an average knowledge of the subject matter to successfully navigate the examination.

I’ve never failed an important qualification test in my life. But on most occasions, I could probably teach the subject at hand myself. That Series 7 examination was the only time until now that I was not a practicing expert in the field; a rigorous corporate preparation program ensured that I became at least a theoretical expert by the time I needed to take the exam.

Today was just the second time that I went for a professional certification in a field in which I do not consider myself an expert. Oh, I am far from a newcomer to the discipline; many of its components are a natural part of what a technology manager does day in and day out; some aspects of it neatly overlap with my skills obtained elsewhere. But rigorously following the prescribed practices – or even bothering to learn more obscure elements of professional lingo – was never high on my list of priorities. Nonetheless, I started feeling recently that getting another certificate under my belt was a career-enhancing move.

So I studied a little. I made sure that I knew every acronym and label, that I recognized each proper mathematical manipulation for a given type of data-oriented question. More than anything, I relied on common sense.

I was more or less confident in 81% of my answers. Adjusting for stupid mistakes that I surely made but also for possibly guessing right some of the remaining questions, I would estimate my score to be anywhere between 73% and 86%. Between C and B. The testing system did not provide me with much details beyond congratulating me for passing; it did mention that I was “proficient” in two knowledge domains and “moderately proficient” in three others. Sounds to me like average. I did not overextend myself in order to get an average passing grade, passing being the operative word. So, the exam was a piece of cake, in hindsight. But it surely takes some shine off my new certified designation to know that it was not challenging enough to obtain.

Maybe, I just hate getting average grades.

And the amusing fact I mentioned in the beginning? I did fail one single certification test in my life, although technically it was not immediately important at the time. When we moved to New Jersey from New York in 1999, I went to the Motor Vehicles office to change my driving license. I had to pass the written test, which would be achieved by answering 15 questions out of 20 correctly. I only managed 14. After having been driving for years on the streets of Brooklyn, I must have completely forgotten then that rules of the road did actually exist – at least, in theory – in other places… Two weeks later, I aced the test on the second try, but that blemish will stay with me forever. Oh well.

Apropos

Liberty Science Center

December 18th, 2011

When we lived in London, we made several trips to its Science Museum (for instance, as recorded in this old entry). But in all years of living in New Jersey, we have never visited our own Liberty Science Center. Today, Kimmy and Natasha rectified the glaring oversight (yours truly stayed home with the baby).

The 11-year-old – and Mom! – had smashing time. They watched an IMAX movie about Hubble Telescope, a 3-D offering on dinosaurs, participated in tons of interactive activities, played with air and light, among other things, impersonated tadpoles growing into frogs, et cetera, et cetera. The day went by really quickly.

Unlike its counterpart in the British capital, the place is far from free to enter – and not exactly cheap, if you are buying movie tickets in addition to exhibition entry (movies do cost extra in London, but the exhibition itself is free). The cost possibly contributes to smaller crowds on a regular weekend, which is a plus. We were the beneficiaries of a Groupon discount deal, generously presented to us by friends who could not go themselves. At less than half the price for all-inclusive tickets, it was too good to pass up.

Kimmy never leaves any museum without buying something in the shop. One of the things she brought home with her was the following Periodic Table of Texting. I am sooo behind the times…
 

Periodic Table of Texting

 

New York City & Environs

Joining Twitter

December 17th, 2011

Trying to think – not for the first time, mind you – what I would use Twitter for.

I don’t care to share the tidbits of my life as they happen. Maybe, I did care a bit more during the years in England, but even then, I do not see myself stopping for a second to compose a 140-char blob about what I might have been doing or seeing. Writing a marginally thoughtful blog entry after a period of reflection kinda feels more worthwhile. Or, in the past tense, felt.

I rarely have thoughts or insights that I feel need to be broadcast to the world. I carry the label of “being opinionated” everywhere I go, but I tend to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to sharing opinions. Ask me a question – you’ll get a full-blown answer. Otherwise, I am good with keeping my opinions to myself.

I don’t particularly care to know what my friends are doing at any specific period of time. I cherish our friendships and our close relationship, I do, you know that, but please forgive me if I’d rather learn what you thought or saw when we talk face to face next time. I am a very infrequent visitor to Facebook, as a matter of fact. Staying connected with long-distance friends is much easier online, no doubt, but I am struggling with the minute information overload that comes with that. Maybe, I just have a different view of our level of closeness, my apologies for that.

I am perfectly fine with becoming aware of important news some time after they happen, not the very moment they do. And I am quite indifferent to people’s reactions to assorted events. I can get my fill of interpretative opinions via any number of op-ed pieces out there on the web.

Nor do I have any interest in keeping up with various celebrities’ doings and goings. I am just not into that kind of information consumption. There’s not enough time in the day for me to consume the information that I do find important, to start with.

I thought that, maybe, by following certain publications I could get alerted to some of the stuff that I do want to read. However, I quickly realized that the info stream includes large percentage of stuff that I do not care about, which means that perusing my Twitter timeline is entirely a duplication of flipping through my existing RSS aggregation.

So, what did I get a Twitter account for? I honestly don’t know. Everybody seems to have one, it does not cost anything, so here we are. Can’t think of a meaningful tweet, can’t come up with whom to follow, but I’ve joined nonetheless.

I realize that some pieces of my meager blogging output could have been presented as micro-blogging notices. But as I find it challenging to work up enthusiasm for blogging, so I find it equally unappealing to convert to tweeting. Otherwise, I could have made my inaugural tweet something like: “Sciatica is a pain in the ass, literally so. Treated with steroids, no less!” Hey, on the bright side, the world has been spared that insight, beyond the few of you in the audience.

If anyone here thinks they would enjoy hearing about the vagaries of my daily commute and other stuff that crosses my mind, I’m willing to give it a try. Let me know. Start following @IlyaBurlak. You got little to lose, if my blogging history is anything to go by.

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