Strained Overuse of “Strain” Straining Headlines Worldwide

I am calling for a moratorium on the overuse of the word “strain” in news headlines.

“Strain” and its variants (strains, strained, straining, etc.) are convenient verbs and modifiers that reporters use to communicate a general sense of tension between two or more entities without articulating exactly what that tension is. The word’s convenience in this respect has made it into one of the most overused terms in headlines that I have ever seen.

Seriously, check this out:

  • “Easing the Strains Between Japan and South Korea” (Wall Street Journal, 08/04/15)
  • “EU officials deny Greek deal strains” (Financial Times, 08/06/15)
  • “Inside Syria: Kurds Roll Back ISIS, but Alliances Are Strained” (New York Times, 08/10/15)
  • “Trump and Fox work to repair strained relationship” (USA Today, 08/10/15)
  • “U.S. Strains Mount After China Devalues Yuan” (Wall Street Journal, 08/11/15)
  • “Breakdown at BP Refinery Strains Midwest Gas Prices” (New York Times, 08/13/15)
  • “Argentina Feels the Strain of China’s Devalued Yuan” (Bloomberg, 08/13/15)
  • “Emerging markets feel the forex strain” (Financial Times, 08/14/15)
  • “Czech GDP Growth Surges to EU’s Fastest to Strain Currency Limit” (Bloomberg, 08/14/15)
  • “Crews Strained by Legionnaires’ Outbreak” (New York Times, 08/16/15)
  • “Record Number of Travelers Strain Seattle Airport”(New York Times, 08/16/15)
  • “Bovis: Rising Labor Costs Putting ‘Strain‘ on Business” (Bloomberg, 08/17/15)

As you can see, the New York Times and Bloomberg are especially egregious on this front. I should have taken a screen shot of that day a few weeks ago when the NYT published three “strains” on its homepage simultaneously. And these are just the headlines. “Strain” shows up constantly in ledes and throughout the main body as well — and sometimes in all three parts of an article!

I can appreciate (a) how tricky it can be to write short and snappy headlines for an attention-deficient audience, (b) the pressure of reporting (or creating?) news in a 24/7 news cycle , and lastly (c) how hard it is to write articles as news is evolving.

But surely we can try a little harder.

“Strain” can certainly be deployed if the news is evolving and the reporter isn’t quite ready to characterize the situation just yet (see point c above). However, just an extra stretch of the imagination–or a handy thesaurus–can help copyeditors find an equally unassuming synonym to avoid over-straining their headlines:

  • “Easing Historic Tension Between Japan and South Korea”
  • “Argentina Feels Anxiety over China’s Devalued Yuan”
  • “Emerging markets feel the forex pressure

In cases when the news situation can be described with greater specificity, I think these publications can afford to drill down a step further, i.e., tell it like it is. Some suggestions:

  • “Trump and Fox work to repair tempestuous relationship”
  • “Breakdown at BP Refinery Hikes Midwest Gas Prices”
  • “Legionnaires’ Outbreak Forces Crews to Work Overtime
  • “Record Number of Travelers Crowd Seattle Airport”

(Caveat: I’m not the best headline writer, and I’m sure the professional copyeditors at these newspapers can do far better.)

I do not want to sound overly critical of these newspapers and the great work that they do, so I duly apologize if I am coming across that way. Journalism is a tough business, and of course I wouldn’t want to throw more obstacles in their wake. But shouldn’t writing be, well, fun? In the rush to get the story out, shouldn’t someone take delight in crafting a unique and clever turn of phrase in the headline, or elsewhere?

I sure hope so.

So, Hollywood doesn’t love a comeback story?

Adam Sternbergh argues in New York Magazine that Michael Keaton lost the best actor trophy this year for his work in Birdman because the Academy “doesn’t love comeback stories.”

There’s nothing wrong with Sternbergh’s logic per se, but before you can even consider his logic, the argument immediately falls flat on its face for ignoring the gigantic British elephant in the room. Eddie Redmayne won the trophy for starring in a comeback story — perhaps one of the best-known real life comeback stories of our time. A brilliant aspiring astronomer discovers that he has approximately two years to live, and his muscles will start giving away one by one until he can no longer communicate with the outside world. Yet … not only does he continue living for decades to come, but he becomes one of the most celebrated scientists of all time. (Can you hear the Rocky music?)

If I had to guess, Michael Keaton’s loss had more to do with the fact that it was hard to tell whether his acting was good or brilliant or somewhere in between underneath all that … stuff. I found it difficult to evaluate the richness of Keaton’s craft while the colors, music, special effects and swooping camera movements swirled round and round him with increasing speed. Not to sound cheesy, but I really couldn’t get a good look into the character’s soul with that much activity going on.

Whether people thought Birdman’s strong artistic direction was impressive or irritating, most would probably agree that the film was ultimately more about sustaining itself than about telling a great comeback story about its leading man. In fact, I would argue that Keaton becomes more of a centerpiece than a leading man. In his (arguably) best scene of the movie, he’s dazedly jogging through Times Square in his underwear, and the camerawork invites us to see him as more of a object of fascination rather than a real person.

Alternatively, maybe Keaton lost because the voters simply thought Redmayne was better. If you’ve seen The Theory of Everything, this is not a stretch. Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ performances are the standouts in a frankly middling film. Perhaps the Academy decided that James Marsh’s film showcased the archetypal comeback story in a more poignant fashion.

Regardless, there’s really no need to make broad sweeping suggestions that Hollywood is only “supposedly built on delivering rousing narratives” (emphasis is mine). What about Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Jamie Foxx in Ray or even Colin Firth in The King’s Speech? There’s nothing Hollywood loves better than a comeback story.

Frankly, I’m more concerned about the fact that the 2015 best actor nominees featured more than one comeback story about a white man, in an all-white field at that.

Iceland: a visit to the land of fire and ice

I just returned from a four-day trip to Iceland and can’t wait to plan my next trip. The country is, no doubt, one of the weirdest places on earth. It offers a varied, stunning, and oftentimes eery landscape (volcanoes! glaciers!), and a fascinating history (vikings!). Here are five quick and dirty must-dos that I hope will be useful if you are planning a trip to the land of fire and ice:

1. Drive yourself.

15 Drive to Blue Lagoon
Driving to the Blue Lagoon

Most tourists in Iceland seem to prefer the day tour option. And no wonder, since it seems so convenient. The tour company picks up you at your hotel every morning in a big bus, takes you to two or three popular tourist sites, and drops you off in the evening. Sounds good so far. Yet … I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come all the way to Iceland to be stuck on a tour bus with other Americans (no offense — go ‘murica!). More importantly, you don’t want to miss out on the wonderful sense of freedom and adventure that you can only get from driving yourself through a truly spectacular and unspoiled landscape. You can pull over and admire the beautiful mountains, volcanoes, fields, and beaches at your will. The main roads are easy to navigate and in excellent condition. They are also nearly empty. Every half and hour or so, we’d pass by a tour bus, but otherwise, it was just us and the mountains. Renting a car is easy. You can easily reserve one with any of the rental companies servicing the Keflavik Airport. Our cheapest quote happened to come from Budget. Be cautious when selecting a vehicle — most on offer are manual, and they will be labeled as such. And definitely get the GPS.

2. Drive from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón and back in one day — it’s doable.

113 Drive to Jökulsárlón
The stunning drive to Jökulsárlón.

Speaking of driving, there’s a ton of debate on the web about whether or not it’s feasible to drive from the capital city to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and back in one day (4.5 hours each way). Most of the recommendations skew toward spreading the trip over two days instead. I disagree. If you’re like me and didn’t want to burn a second day, the ~9-11-hour roundtrip is both feasible and enjoyable, even in late October. We woke up early, grabbed breakfast and a few snacks for the road, and left our hotel in Reykjavik before 8 a.m. We easily made it to Jökulsárlón around 2 p.m.– a trip that included stops at Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, and Vík along the way, not to mention numerous pit stops we made to take photos, as the southern coast is simply breathtaking. After a tour around the gorgeous region (see featured photo above), an amphibious boat tour of the lagoon, and some coffees at the cafe, we were on the road again just after 4 p.m., and we made it back to Reykjavik just after 9 p.m. Although the drive is long, it is a straight shot along freeway 1 until you get closer to Reykjavik. We even had enough energy to go out for drinks and dinner that night!

3. Seljalandsfoss. 

In the belly of the beast.
In the belly of the beast.

Seljalandsfoss is my favorite waterfall and it’s on the way to Jökulsárlón! Yes it may be Iceland’s most famous waterfall, but no it is not merely a tourist trap. Huffington Post recently described it as one of the most relaxing places on earth, which seems weird to me, since I would go with “astounding” or “powerful” instead. Walking around Seljalandsfoss is a cold, wet, loud and even harrowing experience given how slippery the “walking path” can be (wet jagged rocks and no handrail). But you as you steady yourself on the colorful rock wall, wipe the cold spray off your face and camera lens, and look out onto the world from behind sheets of rushing water, you will feel completely exhilarated. Strap on your sturdiest waterproof hiking boots and enjoy!

4. Mount Esja.

Halfway up!
Halfway up!

On our last afternoon in Iceland, we wanted to do something that the locals in Reykjavik do. A waitress recommended that we hike up Mount Esja, the beautiful snow-topped mountain range to the north of the city (“We go hiking there on the weekend to stay fit,” she said). After a 20-mile drive north, you can park your car in one of the lots and choose your preferred path. We chose to head for “Steinn.” You can actually walk up most of the mountain–it’s not Everest–without any equipment, and view of the city below is amazing and probably not something that most tourists see. Dress in layers, as it gets blustery near the top, and be careful where streams have turned to ice. This website offers more details about the hike.

5. Kopar. We had our best meal here. Friendly service, excellent food, a great wine selection, and a lively mix of Icelanders and tourists. What else do you need, really, to rejuvenate after a long day of adventuring? Order the rock crab appetizer.

Bonus tip. Do not take a northern lights tour. Just don’t. Yes, the tours, like all tours, seem convenient, and the guides purport to know the “best places” to view the lights. And yes, they offer a free redo if you don’t see the lights. But it wasn’t worth it, and I’ll tell you why. After two aurora-less nights, we got desperate and booked the Gray Line tour. It was a borderline scam. The tour bus first took us to a field not far from Reykjavik where the city lights were very visible and clearly polluting the sky. Nothing happened. Then they took us to a restaurant half an hour away where they had “arranged” hot drinks and food for everyone. Of course, nothing was free or even discounted, and I’m sure that the restaurant made a killing. Even worse, the sky was so bright from the restaurant and surrounding neighborhood that we could barely see the stars — on a perfectly clear night! After an hour or so at the restaurant, they got everyone back on the bus and during the drive back to Reykjavik announced that there was no northern lights activity in Iceland at all that evening.

I realize that the elements are well beyond a tour company’s control, but the ground circumstances certainly weren’t. Maybe there are tours that offer real off-roading in monster 4x4s to areas that are truly beyond the city lights. But my understanding is that if they get a big enough group that night (and they nearly always do), they’ll drag you around in a bus. My advice: wait for a clear night, look at the aurora forecast, and drive to wherever’s best yourself.

In sum … go to Iceland and DIY! Hope these tips are helpful. Obviously, everything above is subjective, so please don’t hesitate to chime in and leave me a comment.

A long weekend in Cape Cod

I spent a long weekend in Cape Cod. The weather was good on Friday, humid on Saturday, and cool on Sunday. I spent most of my time biking along the rail trail, touring the tiny galleries in Brewster, eating oysters, and thinking about the irony that is the cape.

Maybe it’s my ignorance as a west-coast transplant, but I can’t help feeling that there wasn’t anything really special about this place. I liked it, but its charms were never more than a little charming. It’s funny to me that the cape, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket have a reputation for being a playground for a rich and fabulous. The most special thing about the area seems to be how normal it is — how distinctly “small-town” it is compared to the urban centers these rich and fabulous folks live in year round.

The beach at sunset ... obviously :)
The beach at sunset … obviously 🙂

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that some people gobs of money for the privilege of summering in a place that feels like an average American town? It reminds me a little of Marie Antoinette’s passion for her faux rustic summer cottage (minus the negative implications … I think).

But what was I expecting? Maybe I need to go again for a better sense of the milieu. I like to like places so much that perhaps it would be worth a second shot.

Disappointing dystopia

I thought this was going to be really good. Sigh.
I thought this was going to be really good. Sigh.

Elysium has so much going for it. A $115 million budget, a brilliant young director, an Oscar-winning cast, the best digital effects available, and a sharp sociopolitical plot. Last week, I sat in my scratchy chair at the Kips Bay theater, giddy with anticipation. But about halfway through the movie, my enthusiasm waned. Why? Because the movie doesn’t live up to its promise. It doesn’t even come close. Granted, director Neill Blomkamp gave himself a tall order to fill, and he seems to be filling it nicely up until the moment that — spoiler alert — William Fichtner’s defense contractor character dies. Then things start falling apart.

See this? This shouldn't have been so dull.
This shouldn’t have been so dull.

Here’s my rough diagnosis of what went wrong:

  1. The sociopolitical satire falls flat on its face. The initial set up is fantastic. The year is 2154, and a privileged few live on a space station circling above earth, while the rest of humanity live on poverty-stricken, disease-ridden earth. The conceit basically takes our society’s growing angst about the 1% and whips it up into a fantastical but not implausible extreme. That’s great, but the set up is all that we get. Where are the revolutionaries who want to overthrow the system? There are none. Why is it that Matt Damon’s character couldn’t care less about any of this and only wants to invade Elysium to 1) cure himself of radiation poisoning and 2) make sure his childhood sweetheart doesn’t think too badly of him? There’s no reason for his apathy throughout the entire film — in fact, it does a great disservice to it. Three quarters of the way in, I realized that I had no one to root for. Blomkamp spends a lot of minutes trying to position Damon’s character Max as a struggling everyman who unwittingly turns into the revolutionary that he was born to be (he even throws in a prescient nun who tells Max this as a little boy). But the second half of the equation never fully manifests, and that was disappointing. The socioeconomic satire that seemed so riveting in trailers dissolves into petty inter-fighting among various ragtag groups, which was confusing thematically, perplexing logistically, and, honestly, just plain boring.

    Not her best.
    Not her best.
  2. Jodie Foster is misused and, frankly, kind of weird in this movie. Foster is one of my favorite actresses of all time. I’ve seen Contact about ten billion times, and the idea of watching her in another blockbuster sci-fi flick (as a villain this time!) was thrilling beyond words. I kept waiting for her show-stopping speech defending Elysium’s way of life over the underprivileged masses stuck on earth. (“Why do you get everything, and I get nothing?” a tear-streaked Damon would demand. “Because we do,” she would respond icily.) But it never came. Sure, she looked great strutting around the space station with her steely clothes and attitude, but nothing came of it. Spoiler alert: she disappears well before the end and is effectively replaced by a far less interesting villain. This made no sense to me whatsoever. Why dispose of your symbolic antagonist so cavalierly? Why, come to think of it, would you prevent your protagonist and antagonist from ever meeting? That’s right — Damon and Foster come face to face zero times. Sure, I’m all for subverting viewers’ expectations in clever ways, but this felt bungled. Also, what’s with Foster’s pseudo-British accent? People in my theater were laughing.
  3. We never find out much about Elysium itself. Is it a mere coincidence that a fabricated paradise bears the name of the ancient Greek afterlife? It might as well be, since the movie does next to nothing to show us a side of the glittering Stanford torus that isn’t two dimensional (if you’ll pardon the pun). Apart from flashes of sloping lawns and blue pools and fleeting glimpses of a party at the defense minister’s pad, Blomkamp offers us few hints of what it’s like to live there. What do these elite Elysium citizens have that earthlings don’t, aside from Versace medical pods? Is life there perfect, or is it invariable, tedious, deadening even, as its name suggests? Who can afford a ticket and what does it cost? How did it come to be in the first place? All of these questions probably should have been answered or at least alluded to in the movie, but they weren’t.

In summary, Elysium offers plenty of teasers, but little follow-through. Full disclosure: I have not finished District 9, but I look forward to finishing it soon to see what Blomkamp can create when he’s at his best.

Read the New York Times and New Yorker reviews for far more positive takes on Elysium than mine.

Charles Ives by Detroit: a review

A view from the dress circle
A view from the dress circle

This is my brief and belated review of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s all-Ives program at Carnegie Hall last week.

I found their performance of symphonies 1-4 cheerful, engaging, and quite ambitious. Perhaps a little too ambitious, as the string instruments had trouble making the sharper turns, particularly in the 1st symphony. But that may have just been jitters, for they performed the 4th and most difficult symphony of the set beautifully. I also appreciated conductor Leonard Slatkin’s commentary on the 4th prior to the performance. He illuminated its wit and complexity for the many Ives novices in the audience (including myself). Although the 4th is not the composer’s most clamorous piece, it can sound chaotic to new audiences, with its abrupt transitions, ghostly refrains, and eerie off-stage drumming. Mr. Slatkin encouraged us not to struggle so much to make sense of the components, but rather to take it as a whole. It was certainly a good reminder. As Ives said, “Maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be transcendental language in the most extravagant sense.”

Charles Ives
Charles Ives

I did not, however, appreciate historian (or Ives-ian, as she called herself) Vivian Perlis’s protracted lecture between the 1st and 2nd symphonies about Ives, his college life, insurance business, and the lovely time she’s had exploring his life. Good for you, Ms. Perlis, but the only thing that I want to hear after the 1st symphony is the 2nd symphony. The audience didn’t like it either. Many groaned and took out their smartphones when she reached the 10-minute mark of her speech. If anyone wanted to revisit Ives’s biography or endure a detailed historical account of his pieces, it’s right there in the programs. That’s what they’re for.


The crowd was a mix of New Yorkers, tourists, and supporters from Detroit, who waved red scarves in solidarity with their musicians. I found the rambunctious crowd to be a refreshing change from the usual sea of white hairs that usually flood Carnegie Hall (at intermission, a man in a tweed jacket said to a Hispanic couple from Detroit sitting next to him, “I thought the only Ives fans were old white people from New England”).

Thanks, Detroit, for offering up an uplifting Friday night. You can read the New York Times review here.

Brooklyn Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms 1

Spring is coming!

If you’re being technical, it arrived about 40 days ago. Yet we’d barely had a taste of spring weather here in New York before now. To celebrate, I rambled through Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s cherry blossom festival on Saturday. Plump blossoms and tulips were aplenty. Although they had no daffodils, Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud, which I found so cloying in high school, danced pleasantly through my mind. Enjoy the pictures!

Cherry Blossoms 2


Tulips 2