Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Funny Story from Dubomedy

Dubomedy launched a new mixed comedy event series this weekend, at its now regular venue, Fraiche Cafe and Bistro in JLT. Held as it was in the early evening at a cafe, the first event of this "It's a Funny Story!" series had a significant youth demographic in attendance. Also, a nice raised stage.

The evening began with stand-up, as the lineup of comedians narrated humorous tales that may or may not be entirely true. I only got there in time for the last few, but well in time to see sets from some of my favorite Dubai comedians.

And after the interval, several definitely made-up funny stories were created by Dubomedy's Improv Revolution troupe in primarily short-form WLIIA-style improv games, including a couple of fun games I had not previously seen from the troupe. Mainly thanks to the more experienced actors, it was a generally enjoyable and engaging show.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Math, sociology, and a unified theory by Dr Guillermina Jasso

Can social forces be quantified? According to NYU sociology professor Dr Guillermina Jasso, who discussed just such a question at this NYU Abu Dhabi public lecture, not only can they be quantified, they can even be figured into a mathematical "unified theory"of sociology and social psychology that can be used to make real-world predictions. I found this talk consistently fascinating, not in the least because modeling of social forces is of professional interest to me.

Dr Jasso's introduced the leanings and engines of societies, and their permutations, and went on to talk about her "New Unified Theory" in terms of its constituent social forces: justice, status, and power. I don't have nearly as deep a background in sociology, but her descriptions of how these forces could be measured and their dynamics fitted to familiar mathematical functions seemed quite plausible.

Things got even more interesting when it came down to applications. Dr Jossa's portfolio of validated predictions based on her models was impressive, listing several predictions per slide about how the theory could be applied to model outcomes in matters of war, crime, family, marriage, politics, etc. It might be worth keeping an eye on related developments.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Two new books for Dubai poetry fans

A busy season for the local poetry scene gave us book launches by two prolific Dubai-based poets: Frank Dullaghan's third title, The Same Roads Back, and Zeina Hashem Beck's award-winning debut title, To Live in Autumn. Following grand individual launch events, the poets held a joint reading session at DIFC's Bookshop readers' cafe.

After reading out a few of the most characteristic and/or popular poems from their portfolios, Frank and Zeina took questions from and discussed their art with attendees. Topics on the table included the characteristics of "good poetry", free verse vs. metre and rhyme, Zeina's peculiar but apparently effective multilingual composition technique, and some anecdotes and advice on getting published and getting feedback.

Zeina's poems lend themselves well to performance, specifically the creative punctuation and the repetition of words or lines for effect. It makes pleasant reading too, though. Generally more urban in context, the poems refer to colorful personalities, and paint you-had-to-be-there experiences, many of which seem tinged with nostalgia.

Frank's use of metaphorical flourish, combined with everyday language and attention to detail, paints lucid imagery of human and natural scenery, using such phrasing as "quality of light" and "green state of grace". One is easily transported one into the moment, into the perspective of observer or participant. The seemingly mundane is rendered intimate and significant.

The differences between the lived stories of a grey-bearded Irishman and a Lebanese woman who was a college student not long ago are evident in their respective books. There's also some overarching commonality in the use of free verse and vivid descriptions of personal observations. Both books will therefore appeal to fans of this style, while offering differences in content and delivery sufficient to warrant reading both.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Fanny Azzuro piano recital

Keeping to its tradition of organizing quality musical programs, local Alliance Françaises brought a great French pianist to the UAE's audiences for two evenings of recital. Given my schedule for the week, I figured it would be more convenient getting to the Abu Dhabi program at Novotel al Bustan on the island.

AF Abu Dhabi director (and good musician himself) Jean-Yves Carnino introduced the event and the pianist, Fanny Azzuro. The event was held in a ballroom that had been set up with a projector and camera to ensure that everyone got to see her technique live.

Azzuro's recital began strong with Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Corelli -- a dynamic piece that also did well to exhibit her skill -- and continued to impress with other early 20th century works of diverse style and mood, especially Ravel's Mirrors. And with my passion for the genre, I naturally loved Kapustin's jazzy Variations Op 41 at the end.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Horrible Histories Barmy Britain

The Horrible Histories musical comedy theatre show returned to Dubai this weekend with Barmy Britain, a journey through British history. Although it was staged this time in the huge Madinat Theatre, and with more showtime options from which to choose, I nonetheless made a relatively early booking, as the show is immensely popular. I'm not sure how many other adult fans of the TV show were in the audience, as almost everyone else seemed to be accompanying children. Even I was the only one, though, who cares? As a history geek, I could not miss it.

No material from the TV series was used in the hour-long show, as far as I recall from the former, but the two-man cast still had some great sketches scripted and songs composed to bring alive British historical facts and figures, from Boudica to Charles I to Victoria. The HH TV show tradition of contrasting historical contexts with modern culture ad absurdum could be seen in some of the sketches, such as Queen Elizabeth going undercover, and the Dick Turpin story done in the style of a reality TV show. The actors did well for the number of very diverse roles they had to play, pulling quick costume changes between sketches, and delivering a very energetic performance all through.

So while the show was oriented towards a child audience (with a couple of sing-along games and such), I still found most of it engaging at my level, and certainly very educational.

Bahria on The Beach

Just the day before I gave this place a try, I read a breaking post online about a lunch stopover by the ruler of Dubai. That kind of set the bar pretty high, I admit. I was about to tread in the footsteps of royalty.

Bahria certainly has the location going for it: the white sands and azure waters of the beach ahead matching the restaurant decor palette, the towers of JBR in the backdrop, the bustling open mall. The weather being what it is at this time of the year, throngs were thronging, and alfresco was the natural choice. Traffic at JBR is still awful, though -- it took me over 45 minutes to get to The Beach from TECOM. Next time, tram.

The pescetarian Arabesque fusion set sampling menu began with a seafood bisque (bottom right). It was not the typical bisque though, with the curry-like spices making it taste more like a laksa. Cold starters were generally good, especially the calamari salad (top right, right), the beetroot-shrimp salad (bottom left, center) and the dips. Among those the fish tajine (bottom left, right -- actually, strips of fish on hummus, not like the North African tajine) was the best, with the nutty house hummus coming in second (top right, top right). The shrimp fattet (top left) was interesting, but not really to my taste; shrimp with yogurt gave me a weird mouthfeel.

The only cold starter I could not quite take was the provençal (top); it was overpoweringly sour. The hot starters were great overall, though, and I liked the seafood kebbeh (bottom) the most -- perfect texture, inside and outside.

No complaints for the mains. The fish tasted fresh and cooked to perfection, and the sauces provided went very well with. The rice looked like it might be dull to the palate, but it was surprisingly good in its own right.

I had to skedaddle midway through dessert, but the ayesh al saraya I sampled before leaving made a perfectly sweet and creamy end to a generally very good meal.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dubai Chamber Orchestra autumn concert

The Dubai Chamber Orchestra held this season's concert today at a new venue: the Centre for Musical Arts at Gold and Diamond Park. The performance hall was fairly large, but extra seats had to be brought in to accommodate the turnout. Additional venue bonus: a metro station right next door.

Conductor Barnaby Priest led the orchestra through a three-part program, consisting of Mozart's Overture to Der Schauspieldirektor, Carl Nielsen's Little Suite for Strings, and a beautiful Symphony No 99 by Haydn. A subset of the orchestra also delighted with a special performance of a collaborative artistic piece composed by Priest, featuring the littoral-themed video art and haunting countertenor talent of Janet Bellotto and Rodney Gilchrist, respectively.

Review of Bing Sheng: The Ultimate Master of War

Bing Sheng (2008), a TV dramatization of the life of legendary strategist and Art of War author Sun Tzu, runs the length of the Wu state's power peak period. It gets a little slow at times - specifically when the human drama bits are going on -- but its production values and inclusion of a range of major historical characters make it a great watch.

The latter, in fact, is its main attraction, with the tremendous amount of "fan service" available for Chinese history geeks. It starts with a young Sun Tzu in Qi during the era of the legendary Yan Ying and Sima Rangju, when the Sun and Tian clans were locked in conflict against the Gao and Guo clans.

Simultaneously, the Wu clan is in trouble for standing up for righteousness in the state of Chu. The story then follows how Sun Tzu and Wu Zixu leave their respective states, and eventually end up in the service of ambitious King Helv of the Wu state -- a confluence of military, civil and political factors that leads Wu to dominate the south and gain hegemony.

The achievements of the Sun/Wu partnership for the Wu state, however, results in political over-confidence and jealousy-driven schemes against them, and these serve as the moral lessons expressed in various story arcs in the later part of the the series. Other characters from that period also feature, including wily Prince Fuchai, corrupt minister Bo Pi, legendary swordsmith Ou Yezi and his apprentices Gan Jiang and Mo Ye, Chu figures Fei Wuji and Shen Yinxu, and leaders of ascendant Yue, King Gou Jian and strategist Fan Li.

As usual, though, some additional characters and subplots get thrown in to put some fat on the historical facts. In the case of Bing Sheng, the machinations of a vengeful scion of the Guo clan, which the Sun clan eliminated in Qi, drive much of the first half of the series, giving a face and a name to the Chu enemy. There is also a slightly awkward fictional spy subplot thrown in towards the end, as well as a few liberties taken with having Sun Tzu also serve under Fuchai. The eventual fate of Sun Tzu in the series, however, was actually written well.

The series does well as far as battle scene production and the armory, which is pivotal for a series about the art of war. Probably not very historically accurate, but each nation has its own well-designed style. The strategies used by Sun Tzu are also depicted well; I doubt that there is enough of an historical record to have these considered as actual historical accounts, but they are clearly Art of War in spirit, and Sun Tzu explains them well too. Acting in the series is generally good too, with Zhu Yawen and Zhao Yi doing a superb job portraying the world-weary Sun Wu and the fiery Wu Zixu. But for a few fast-forward scenes, it's a good series with plenty to delight a Chinese history fan.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Sandwich Tea Party

The story goes that John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, preferred to not interrupt his card games (or his paperwork, according to another version) with a sit-down meal, and asked his servants to bring him meat between slices of bread instead. His friends noticed this, and soon began to order "the same as Sandwich", which became The Sandwich. Of course, many bread-n-stuff consumption types previous existed, including stuffed buns, wraps, and folded or open-faced forms. Two slices of loaf bread with something between them, however, has always been the "true" sandwich, and this has even been backed up by a court case (White City Shopping Center, LP v. PR Restaurants, LLC).

Choosing the Nov 13th birthday of the Earl as the occasion to celebrate this format, I made one of my theme meals centered around his namesake: a sandwich tea for a party of 6. Few meals are as aristocratic as the sandwich tea, with the emphasis on delicate, refined preparations that are only fleetingly filling, and often contain little actual nutrition.

The savory menu consisted of four of the most classic tea sandwiches: the quintessential mild cucumber sandwich, the creamy egg sandwich, the sharp cheddar sandwich and the salty salmon sandwich.

I went shopping in the early afternoon to find the freshest fillings and bread. The only advance preparation was the mixing of the chopped dill and chives with lemon juice and zest into seasoned cream cheese, and the mixing of mashed boiled egg with seasoned mayonnaise. And the de-crusting of the bread, of course.

Another little prepping process I did was that of the two layers of sponge cake for the sweet "sandwich". I retained the classic sandwich shape here, by using a square baking tin. The preparation began with 200g caster sugar mixed with 200g butter, to which 200g flour and 2 tbsp baking powder was kneaded in, followed by whipping in 2 tbsp milk and 4 large eggs to get a smooth batter. I divided this in two, baking separately at 180C for two minutes to get two flat sponge cakes.

I assembled the sandwiches in two rounds: cucumber and egg in the first, cheddar and salmon in the second. For each cucumber sandwich, I buttered two bread slices on the inside, lay out freshly-cut thin slices of extra-long, seedless cucumbers to cover a buttered surface, and sprinkled on some finely-chopped mint leaves. I used similarly buttered bread to sandwich a dollop of the egg mixture topped with some loose arugula leaves (I could not find watercress anywhere, so this was the closest available substitute).

For the second round, I sandwiched a thick-cut slice of cheddar (had the cheese guy at the supermarket do it to my specification) with a spoonful of Branston pickle between buttered bread, and a generous amounts of smoked salmon between plain slices of bread that had been spread on the interior surfaces with the cream cheese and herb mixture.

I cut up and arranged the sandwiches, garnishing each plate with a few sprigs of the herbs/leaves saved from the preparation stages of the corresponding sandwiches. While the smoked salmon and the egg were received well, the cheddar elicited especially good feedback, and the cucumber was the surprise hit of the evening. All of it went down well with a few cups of hot Earl Grey tea (Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey and the namesake of this tea, was, for part of his life, a contemporary of Sandwich, which made this choice of tea all the more appropriate).

When we were done and ready for "dessert", I spread clotted cream and raspberry jam over the top of one of the (now cool) sponge cakes, placed the other one on top of that, and sifted icing sugar on top of the upper cake. This "Victoria Sandwich", named after Queen Victoria, was a delightfully indulgent end to a lovely tea party, despite being exceedingly simple to prepare.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Quoz Art Festival and a spot of ISEA

The Quoz Arts Festival returned to the neighborhood this year, with a new branding, a wider audience, and a lot of food. Literally, one lane of Al Serkal Avenue, turned into a food street. A satellite attraction was the upcoming expansion of the Avenue, the construction for which was now looking much closer to completion in the plot next door.

Before taking a look around the galleries, though, I dropped in at the Fridge for the final performance of ISEA 2014: Maziar Ghaderi's Dissolving Self, featuring Vrinda Bhandula's dance performance visually augmented with a live projection behind her, controlled by her movements. It's not the first motion-controlled rendering in the world, but the simple bi-chromatic star field, coalescing, expanding and spining with her was beautiful in execution.

I only had the time to look at a few galleries. One I liked a lot was FN Designs and its exhibition of pop art, especially the long panorama of iconic aspects of Dubai life, pixelated and colored in a style reminiscent of retro computer games.

At Grey Noise, Michael John Welan's Lupus consisted of works in the metaphorical vein typical of the gallery, using different media and/or cultural symbols to wistfully allude to the demise of the Irish wild wolf.

Further afield, Mottahedan Projects' multi-artists exhibition, The Other Side of Visibility, featured a diverse and mostly interesting array of art, with my favorites including the works of Tala Madani (right), Maryam Hoseini (top left) and Habib Farajabadi (bottom left).