12.27.09

4 days in Boston, now off to NYC

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 10:10 am by Benjamin Ross

Well, it’s a rainy Sunday morning, and I’m just about to wrap up my four plus day stay in Boston. I’ve spent most of my time wandering various sections of Boston and the surrounding communities and have taken a lot of pictures, but am going to wait until I get back to Chicago for a more thorough update. I must say though that Boston is definitely one of the more livable cities in the United States. Thanks to it being so old and so much of it developing before the automobile, most of the city is a maze of winding narrow streets, all scrunched together in no particular pattern, with many of them leading either in circles or dead ends. I’m sure driving is horrendous, but as far as exploring the city via foot and public transportation, nothing could be more ideal.

I’ve spent the past four days exploring some of the oldest (and best preserved) luxury neighborhoods in the country, such as Beacon Hill, and my own personal favorite, the South End, a well as some of the more run down parts such as Roxbury and Dorchester, where my Grandpa (and most elder Bostonian Jews) grew up. I was warned by several people not to explore these neighborhoods out of safety concerns, but have found that the hoodier parts of Boston are not nearly as scary as some of the neighborhoods on the South and West Side of Chicago I’ve had to travel through for work. The major reason for this I am postulating is that Boston was never as heavily industrial as Chicago, and therefore the deindustrialization of the second half of the 21st Century didn’t hit quite so hard. In this respect, I am quite eager to see the contrast with Philadelphia, which I am guessing will have as much, if not even more, blight than Chicago.

Boston also has an excellent smattering of ethnicities. Unlike Chicago where ethnic boundaries generally have clear boundaries and don’t mix, Boston’s ethnic enclaves feel more eclectic. On one street you might see a Brazilian restaurant, a Chinese bakery, and an Eastern European deli. The Chinatown is located essentially downtown, in an area which is gentrifying. I encountered significant quantities of Chinese people, and Chinese businesses all throughout the city, so I’m guessing the population isn’t necessarily centered around Chinatown. I also visited the new satellite Chinatown located in Quincy, south of Boston proper. It isn’t large, but I imagine as rents are increasing in Chinatown, more and more Chinese are relocating to Quincy. Seemed like most residents of both Chinatowns were either from Taishan or Fuzhou.

In a few hours I’m off to New York City, currently the home of the largest population of Chinese in the Western Hemisphere. Chinese New York is especially of interest to me because it is the hub of the Fuzhou > US immigration ring which spans the globe, sends millions of dollars to remittances to China, and millions of pounds of General Tso’s chicken down the throats of Americans in cities and small towns all across the US. I’m also going to be looking at two universities, visiting some old friends, and hopefully exploring as much of the city as possible via foot and public transportation as I’ve done in Boston. I’m going to be taking the infamous Fung Wa bus to New York, which several Bostonians have advised me against doing, but hey, how much more dangerous could it be than one of those rural buses in China? More updates to come.


 

12.22.09

East Coast Excursion ’09

Posted in Announcements, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 10:22 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past Thursday I sent in my last grad school application. On Friday I turned thirty. And tomorrow I am embarking on my first significant journey of my thirties. It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled extensively in the United States, with my last major trip being my road trip from Kansas to California in 2003. And with all the China excursions in the middle, it’s due time to explore more of my home country.

One of the most crucial skills I learned during my 3 plus years in China was the benefits of efficient circuitous traveling. In other words, choosing a starting and ending point, then traveling from start to finish with short overland trips, stopping frequently along the way, and always leaving room for improvisation. By my measures, the only region in the US which this can be accomplished with any degree of efficiency is the East Coast. So here’s my itinerary.

I fly into Boston the morning of 12/23. I head back to Chicago from Baltimore on 1/5. In between, I’m also planning multiple day stays in New York City and Philadelphia.

The reasons and goals for this trip are multi-fold. First and foremost, over the past year I have been reading extensively from the literature of urban sociology. As this is my hopeful future field of study, I want to take the chance to experience some of the earliest examples of urbanization in the Americas. Thus, I’m going to be shying away from the typical tourist draws and instead focusing on ethnic enclaves, transportation systems, sites of gentrification, areas which have experienced significant urban decay, and several of the districts and neighborhoods specifically studied in Sociology texts I have read. And yes, I will be visiting multiple Chinatowns along the way.

I’m also going to be catching up with various family and friends whom I haven’t visited in a very long time. My uncle my six cousins will all be in Boston for the holidays; Yueting, my best friend from Fuqing, is currently studying in Philadelphia; and I have various friends from college, Kansas City, and Jewish summer camp smattered throughout the East Coast. I’m also going to be scoping out several of the schools where I applied.

From a logistical standpoint, I am curious how my travel methods and techniques I utilized in China will translate into American public transit systems. I have lived without a car since I moved to Chicago in 2007 and am eager to further test what I hope will be the future of transportation in the United States. The circuitous travel method would never work in the Midwest, South, or West without a car, but I am confident I should be able to make all my destinations out East via subways, commuter trains, and of course the now-famous Fung Wa Chinatown bus service.

I’m going to be writing updates along the way, but probably will hold off on thorough write ups until I am back home since I’m going to be squeezing a lot into 2 weeks. I’ll also be tweeting a lot, so follow @BenRoss if you want to keep tabs. Oh, and as for finishing 《奋斗》, that’s going on the backburner until I get back. More updates from the road. Leaving for Boston in less than 12 hours.


 

12.13.09

Halfway through 《奋斗》

Posted in Pop Culture at 3:54 pm by Benjamin Ross

Well, I’m just over halfway finished with 《奋斗》 and wanted to check in with a few updates and observations. So far, I still agree with everything I previously wrote as to watching the show being an extremely efficient acquisition method. I’ve been spending about two hours a day to watching the show (time I probably should be devoting to grad school essays), and have already noticed improvements in my speaking ability, listening, and vocabulary.

As for the show itself, it’s entertaining…for me. If I were an educated Chinese person, I probably would have given up watching at about the fifth or sixth episode. First of all, the plot, while never dull, repeatedly rests on a series of ridiculously coincidental events. The main character, 陆涛, is an aspiring architectural student and just after he graduates college, discovers that his biological father 徐志森, whom he had been told was dead, was actually alive in the US, and moving back to China. 徐志森 just happens to be a millionaire real estate developer, and offers 陆涛 a job working for his company. After working for 徐志森 for several months, 陆涛 receives an offer to work for one of the top architectural firms in China. He leaves his 徐志森’s company to take the job. However, soon after he starts the new job, he is informed of an impending project with a new client. Who is this new client? Yup, it’s 徐志森’s company. So 陆涛 starts cooperating with 徐志森 on the new project, but soon faces a new nemesis. His stepfather, 陆亚迅, just happens to work for the 规划局 (Planning Bureau) and attempts to thwart 陆涛 and 徐志森’s real estate venture. The situation further complicated when 陆涛’s ex-girlfriend, 米莱, whom he had dumped in favor of her best friend 夏琳, goes into the real estate business (her father is also a millionaire real estate kingpin), solely as an chance to win back 陆涛.

奋斗
Clockwise from the top left, 陆涛, 夏琳, 向南, 华子, 杨晓芸, and 米莱

In another unrelated scene, 杨晓芸 and 夏琳,who are close friends, run into each other at the abortion clinic (not entirely unbelievable based on the prevalence of abortion in the Middle Kingdom). However, neither of them is aware the other is pregnant, even though they talk every day. They both just happen to be waiting in the same line to get their abortions, on the same day, at the same abortion clinic. Now I guess this would all be somewhat plausible, if the story happened in some small village where everybody knows each other. But 《奋斗》 takes place in Beijing.

My other criticism of the show is its underlying message: essentially that the key to happiness is to make as much money is possible so you can buy a nicer house and car than your peers. In Chinese, this is called 瞎攀比, a phrase which is evoked frequently throughout the show. This is especially depicted by a character named 杨晓芸, who marries 陆涛’s friend 向南, shortly after their first date. 杨晓芸 is the prototypical 80s generation materialistic bitch, and constantly scolds 向南 because he doesn’t make as much money as 陆涛, and he drives an ugly old station wagon, as opposed to 陆涛’s Audi (陆涛 became a millionnaire just over a year out of college, so he’s not exactly an easy act to follow). 向南 for his part, is unsuave, whiney, oblivious to the needs of women, and convinced his wife regards their marriage as “heaven.” The couple are constantly at ends with one other, and 杨晓芸 refers to her marriage as the worst decision of her life. In one scene, while shopping in a mall, 向南 makes a comment about 杨晓芸’s mother. 杨晓芸 starts hitting and slapping him in public, as 向南 yells back, and a crowd gathers. The scene ends with 向南 crouched on the floor, surrounded by bystanders snapping photos with cell phones, crying, and yelling “She stole my heart. She stole my heart.” The two are painful to watch and I am eagerly awaiting the episode where they finally get divorced and vow never speak to one another again.

All that being said, the show does have its bright spots. My favorite character is the third lead male role, 华子. Unlike 陆涛 and 向南, 华子 did not go to college, and therefore has to take the blue collar struggle through life. He gets fired from his job as a used car salesman, and decides to open a barbershop, and then a cake store, with his girlfriend Lu Lu. Lu Lu is sweet, caring, not materialistic, and unlike the others, is not from Beijing (coincidence???). She appreciates 华子 for his character, (not his bank account), and the two have the healthiest relationship in the show. 华子 for his part is a joker, and provides most of the show’s comic relief, often in a self-deprecating fashion, as he is the only one who is not 白领 (white collar). He’s also by far and away the best actor of the cast.

《奋斗》 is entertaining enough that I’m going to continue watching the entire series, but from an artistic perspective, I’m starting to comprehend why my Chinese friends always tell me that Chinese shows are so lacking in quality. The cinematography is fair, the acting for the most part is sub-par, and the plot could have been concocted by a high school screenwriting class. Multiple Chinese friends have recommended that I watch the show 《蜗居》 which they say is both artistically worthwhile, and extremely controversial right now. So I think that’s going to be the plan once I finish with 《奋斗》 . In the meantime, I plan to watch 《奋斗》 in its entirety, and would be interested to hear comments from anybody else who might be watching.


 

12.04.09

How to Fix the College Football Postseason

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:11 am by Benjamin Ross

Well, it’s that time of the year again. We are near the end of the college football regular season, and it’s about to re-open the annual BCS bitchathon: how the system isn’t fair; how teams from non-BCS schools get marginalized by the process; how we should just stop all the insanity and move to a playoff. Ever since I was about 6 years old, college football has been my favorite sport of choice, the dynasties, the rivalries, the fight songs, the running quarterback; College football has all the excitement of the NFL, but also packed with the tradition that made America fall in love with baseball…which is why it is so difficult to experience the utter mess that the sport turns into every December.

All things considered, the BCS is actually going to work out pretty well this year. Barring the unexpected, the two best teams from the two best conferences (the Big 12 and SEC) are going to meet in a be all end all, national title game. Sure, TCU, Boise State, or Cincinnati could probably take 2 out 10 against Texas or Florida, but put any of those three teams in the Big 12 or SEC, and I give it 1 out of 100 odds they run the table. But I digress. More often than not, the BCS does not work out as cleanly as it will this season (assuming Texas beats Nebraska) and a system which is intended to leave us with a clear cut champion often raises more questions than it answers. With all the annual talk of reforming the college football postseason, I would like to offer two solutions to the post-season predicament, the first would be my own choice which I think will appeal to some long time fans and most purists, but not the public at large. The second will appeal to a much broader audience, and would probably be the most practical way to end the controversy once and for all. Either one would be an improvement on the system currently in place.

Solution 1
I grew up a Missouri Tigers fan in the 1980’s. Along with Kansas and Kansas State, Mizzou was a perennial bottom dweller in the old Big 8 Conference. We were usually good for a couple non-conference wins, an easy victory over K-State, and if it was an exceptionally good year, possibly beating Iowa State and Kansas. It seemed like just about every year we were 3-8. On the other end of the spectrum were Nebraska and Oklahoma. Back then, the winner of the Big 8 automatically qualified for the Orange Bowl and for the first 10 years of my life (the entire decade of the 1980’s) the Big 8 was represented in the Orange Bowl exclusively by either the Huskers or the Sooners. I have vivid memories of watching my struggling Tigers year by year play against the two perennial Big 8 powers. Usually somewhere in the middle of the third quarter when the score was 49-7, fans from the other side would begin throwing oranges out onto the field in anticipation of their looming Big 8 championship. See, back then going to the Orange Bowl actually meant something. It was the prize for making it through a grueling Big 8 season on top, and afforded the winner a chance to prove their muster against an at-large power such as Miami or Notre Dame. Sure, there was still a figurative national championship, but the Orange Bowl in and of itself was a goal any Big 8 team shot for from the first day of the season. As a kid, I remember dreaming of a Chiefs Super Bowl, a Royals repeat in the World Series, and ultimately a Missouri victory in the Orange Bowl so that I could experience the joy that fell on Oklahoma and Nebraska fans every other year.

The thing is, college football has always had a unique distinction among spectator sports in that multiple teams can finish each season with a win. It doesn’t always have to be all about being #1, especially when you have 120 teams in the FBS. And college bowl games were a perfect system for multiple teams to go out on top. The bottom line was that the old college system was unique. You didn’t have a clear cut “#1” each season, but you did have several champions. And to the fans and the players, those championships, be it the Orange, Sugar, Rose, Cotton, or Fiesta Bowl, meant something. Back then, even just the opportunity to play in a bowl meant something. In 1985 there were 15 bowl games. Today there are 34. Over half of all 1-A teams make it to the postseason, and any team which can finish 6-6 and at least 8th in a 12 team conference has a pretty good shot at making it in.

These days bowl games are a consolation. Does anybody even remember who won the Orange Bowl last season? I sure couldn’t without checking Wikipedia. In fact, who knows if it’s even called the Orange Bowl anymore? They’ve probably renamed it the Geiko.com-save-an-extra-15% Winter Classic. Between the elimination of conference tie–ins for major bowls, overblown corporate sponsorships, and the cornucopia of new bowl games featuring mediocre teams with losing conference records, everything which was once unique and special about the bowl system has long expired. So here’s solution 1:

-Get rid of half of the bowl games, including all of the ones with .com in their name.
-In order to make the post season, a team must post at least 7 wins against FBS teams and a .500 winning percentage in conference games.
-Speaking of which, what is the deal with this Football Bowl Championship Subdivision (FBS) nonsense? Let’s save ourselves some syllables and go back to calling it “Division 1-A.”
-Big 12 winner goes to the Orange Bowl; SEC champ to the Sugar; Rose Bowl reverts to Pac 10 vs. Big 10. -Divide the remaining bowls up with subsequent conference tie-ins, so nobody can get complained of being snubbed because they couldn’t promise to sell enough tickets.

I like this system because it brings back what was once unique about college football. True, there wouldn’t always be a clear-cut champion, but is that really all that different from the current system? Remember when Auburn went undefeated and didn’t get a crack at the title, or when LSU won it with 2 losses? If you’re going to do bowl games, at least allow them the significance they deserve…which brings me to solution 2, which involves eliminating the bowl games altogether.

Solution 2
If the goal of the college football season is to determine a national champion (something I don’t agree with, but I know many fans would) then the only fair way to end the season is through a playoff. Consensus about a playoff is pretty one-sided. Other than the corporate executives with their sponsorships of all those silly bowl games, college football fans across the country are generally in agreement that a playoff would be the ideal way to end the college football season. The question then lies, how do we structure the playoff? I believe there is an extremely simple and fair solution to this problem, and it would make postseason college football one of the most exciting and anticipated events in sports.

Before we go into the details of Solution 2, let’s take a look at the restructuring of college football which has been occurring over the past two decades, and which will be integral for this plan to work. Back in the old days, most conferences had between 8 and 10 teams. In 1991 the SEC became the first conference to expand to 12 with the addition of South Carolina and Arkansas. This expansion also allowed the SEC to become the first conference to host a postseason championship between the winners of its two divisions. While this was a marvelous idea in theory, SEC championships, like BCS bowls, are hardly memorable unless they have national championship implications. The Big 12, and then the ACC, later followed the SEC’s footsteps in expanding to 12 team conferences with a championship game to conclude their seasons. But again, these championships hold little significance when the national championship is not on the line.

In order for Solution 2 to work, this movement towards 12 team conferences will need to be continued to the point where Division 1-A (sorry, we’re not calling it FBS anymore) consists of 5 “power conferences” each with exactly 12 teams each. The good news, is we’re already half way there. The question however remains what to do with the 2 conferences which still don’t have a full house. Here are my suggestions:

-Put Notre Dame in the Big 10. The Big 10 has wanted the Irish for years, and with their present stretch of mediocrity, it wouldn’t be too surprising if at some point NBC dropped their television contract, which could hopefully necessitate Notre Dame finally joining a conference.

-Expand the Pac 10 to the Pac 12. There is no shortage of quality programs out West, and the Pac 10 shouldn’t have trouble finding 2 schools who would fit right in. My vote would be for BYU and Boise State. BYU has been the most consistent non-BCS conference school in college football history. They have won a national championship, produced a Heisman Trophy Winner, and year after year show they can play with top tier national competition. And for Boise… since they joined the WAC in 2002, the Broncos have miraculously lost only 1 conference game. While this alone might not make them a national contender, it does render them at very least, an above average Pac 10 team. Moreover Boise’s football success is not entirely a recent phenomenon. The Broncos also pulled 4 undefeated conference seasons in the 1970’s as a member of the Big Sky. Combine that with a BCS bowl win in 2007, and you have a program certainly deserving a spot in the new Pac 12.

-Big East. The Big East is currently one of the 6 BCS conferences, but in my plan, it’s going to get left out of the “Power 5.” The Big East is a basketball conference, and it always has been. Back when Miami and Virginia Tech were members, the Big East had two consistent football powers, which is probably to this day why they still have a spot in the BCS. With the Hokies and Hurricanes gone, the Big East is now an easy ticket to the BCS for whichever above average team decides to run the table any particular season. Under Solution 2, the Big East joins as the WAC, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, and Sunbelt as 1-A conferences without the “power conference” distinction.

Ok, so let’s just pretend for a minute that Notre Dame is in the Big 10, Boise and BYU become members of the new Pac 12, we now have five 12 team “power conferences” in Division 1-A. We are now left with the perfect scenario for an action packed, equal-opportunity NCAA football playoff. Here’s how it works.

-Scrap the bowl games altogether. If a playoff is implemented, bowl games will lose even the small scrap of relativity they still possess. Sure, college football won’t be the same without the Meinke Car Care Bowl, but the simple fact is that bowl games and a playoff are mutually exclusive.

-With 5 power conferences, each with 12 teams and a championship game, winning the division, and the conference championship game will finally receive the attention and focus that these distinctions warrant. This is because winners of each conference championship will receive 1 of the 5 automatic bids to the 8 team NCAA College Football Playoff.

-Determining the final 3 slots will be done using the existing BCS formula. Yup, you heard right. We aren’t scrapping the BCS completely. The three teams with the highest BCS rating but which did not automatically qualify would receive “wildcard” bids to the playoff. The reason to use the BCS formula to determine the 3 wildcard spots is twofold. Firstly, it allows a team which has put together masterful regular season but lost its conference championship, the chance to make the postseason. Using this season as an example, that would likely mean both Florida and Alabama making the postseason. Secondly, it gives teams from non-power conferences a legitimate chance to make the postseason, as long as they finished the regular season undefeated. Thus, a team like TCU this year would have their shot at the title. Additionally, the BCS formula would be used to determine the seeding order of the playoff, with the three lowest seeds automatically going to the wildcards. This system works because a) automatic bids mean winning in the regular season remains crucial and b) any team can control its own destiny to the postseason. For a power conference team the goal is: win your conference championship ; for a non-power conference team: go undefeated, and under most circumstances this should earn a wildcard.

There you have it. 8 teams, 7 games, 1 undisputed champion and everybody has an fair shot at the prize.

While fixing college football is easy to do on paper, it’s going to be a long time before any new change is implemented. As much as I like to fantasize, solution 1 is never going to happen. Those who prefer a return to the old system are few and far between, and any plan which provides even more controversy over the national championship is unlikely to receive much traction. I bring it up because too often it’s easy for people to forget that at one time college football actually had a postseason which was exciting and memorable.

Solution 2 however, I believe is doable, and in effect, we are already halfway there. The movement towards 12 team conferences is already halfway complete, and with the current trends in college football economics, I wouldn’t be surprised if the other 2 conferences were to follow suit sometime in the not too distant future.

As for the postseason itself, as fair and logical as I believe Solution 2 is, it’s going to take a lot more than fairness and public opinion to bring about a playoff. College football bowl games are big-time operations which in effect are their own entities separate from any amalgamated system. Convincing executives and investors to scrap the bowl hubbub and big name corporate sponsorships in favor of a playoff system which likely will bear them little benefit is not going to be an easy sell. What’s needed is an entire system overhaul which will likely require decades to implement, prepare for, and to allow time for contracts to expire. If implementing a playoff were that simple, it would have already happened years ago. So for now, all we can do is sit back, dream, and make our picks for the upcoming San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. I wonder what it’s like to win one of those.

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