All posts by Ben

So Many Steps

I went to England with my parents for two weeks, in 1996 if I remember right. At that time, was running at The Criterion Theatre, which must have been where we saw it. It was a madcap comic masterpiece, with plenty of physical comedy but also a dash of very sophisticated humor. I also remember seeing Noises Off and The Black Comedy, which merited the same description.

I loved them all, and I viewed them as some sort of isolated incredible British phenomenon … which is why I was delighted to discover the same ethos last week in the off-broadway* production of The 39 Steps.

The play is nominally an adaptation of a famous, and famously dark, thriller from the 1930s by Alfred Hitchcock. It benefits from being both iconic and yet not so well-known that the audience cannot be surprised. The movie is not, however, a comedy by any stretch.

This production, much like The Compleat Works, turns the original absolutely on its head. A cast of four actors plays over 30 different characters. There are often more than four characters in one scene, with amazing feats of choreography that border on acrobatics, and then “accidentally” fail at the last minute, “forcing” other actors to break character in order to get the show back on track. Props and cues are always unreasonably convenient or “accidentally” missing. The total effect is a perfect blend of genre parody, slapstick hijinks, voice play of every kind, and meta-level humor about all the ways a stage production can go horribly, perfectly wrong.

I loved it. Also, tickets are really cheap.

* The theater is at Union Square, which is actually on Broadway, but you know what I mean.

Cheap tickets

There are now services offering helicopter rides to or from NYC airports for, by my calculation, about $120 a seat. They claim it’s a six minute trip.

I wonder if you could actually save money this way, by arranging otherwise impossible connecting flights through, say, Newark and LaGuardia.

Two shows

Friday night I went to a friend’s birthday party, the centerpiece of which was Saved By the 90s at Le Poisson Rouge, a weekly event featuring a 90s cover band. Doors opened at 11, and the band went on about 12:30. They played covers of mostly 90s pop and alt rock from the likes of No Doubt, Green Day, Blink 182, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Alanis Morrissett, and (alas) Sir Mix-A-Lot. To this end, they had both male and female lead vocalists, the latter of whom changed costumes so frequently that one partygoer questioned the implicit gender politics.

The band was talented, theatrical, and purposefully inauthentic. It didn’t much matter that they were good, because the effect was more of a sing-a-long than a concert: everyone knew the words, and was singing them to avoid considering how many years they’d known them.

The show ended around 2:40, and I got home around 3:35. Twelve hours later I was at another concert, in a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house on the edge of a forested lake in Wilton, CT. It was my friends’ dad’s piano recital, played to a packed living room of people a solid generation older than me. The program included Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, Beethoven’s Sonate No. 26, Schumann’s Carnival, and Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s aria for “Gretchen Am Spinnrade”, a poem from Goethe’s Faust.

Having now, in one day, heard the top American music of the 1990s, followed by the top German music of the 19th century: they are different.

Flow State

I had lunch over the weekend with a long lost friend who now works in finance, and he introduced me to the concept of “buying order flow“. I think it’s fascinating.

He used the example of Citadel and Etrade. For many years, Citadel (a gigantic hedge fund) was executing all of Etrade’s customers trades. Not only that, but they were offering Etrade’s customers a better deal (lower spread) than they could get on the open market. If you were an Etrade customer, you would get to buy the stock slightly lower than the open market asking price, or sell it slightly higher than the open market bid price.

You might think that Etrade would pay Citadel for performing this service, especially since they are providing better trades than would be available on the open market … but in fact, Citadel was paying Etrade billions of dollars for the privilege of performing this service! Why would they do this?

In his words: because Etrade’s customers are “stupid”, in the sense that they have no “correctness”. Over time, Etrade customers do not buy low and sell high. Their actions are at best unrelated to the future behavior of the market. That means their trades are occurring essentially at random, so Citadel’s (reduced) spread is pure profit.

To put it another way, the reason markets have spread is not really because of a lack of “liquidity” in the old-fashioned sense of trades having overhead. It’s also not because equities are “hard to value” in some objective sense. The reason for spread in the market is because you worry that the other guy knows something you don’t. The spread is insurance against that, and the more the players in a market scare each other, the bigger the spread gets.

It works even better if you can track individual traders, as Citadel could in their deal with Etrade. That meant that they could keep an eye out for sharks, the rare few whose trading patterns suggest that they might know what they’re doing, and quote them a bigger spread. Goldman Sachs employs a similar approach in-house, quoting worse prices to more sophisticated clients.

Buying order flow appears to be controversial for two reasons. The first is that it increases spread on the open markets, because the only people left trading there are the sharks (like Citadel and Goldman) who have good reason to fear each other. This in turn drives more traders to middlemen like Citadel to execute their trades with lower spread, effectively increasing the number of middlemen who have to make money somehow. A unified open market might actually have a lower spread, because you wouldn’t have to pay the middlemen.

The second reason is that it was invented by Bernie Madoff.

Chelsea Piers

Now that I have a fresh set of contact lenses, I put them to use by going to the adult beginner gymnastics class, held twice a day at the sprawling Chelsea Piers athletic complex. (I was definitely on the upper end of the “adult” spectrum in play … oh well.)

The class was “Beginner/Intermediate”, together for the first 45 minutes, and separated for the second 45, with about a dozen people in each section. Based on the level of skill I observed, I would have labeled the two groups “excellent” and “astonishing”. Even the beginners could all do solid cartwheels in a number of variations. They spent most of their time perfecting their handstand form and practicing back handsprings and such. The “intermediate” group on the other side of the room was busy doing some kind of complicated aerial trickery that was almost as good as the antigravity hijinks of the elementary-school-age girls in the other half of the gym.

As for me, I might have been the only one there who couldn’t do a backwards somersault. (I’m still pretty confused about how that one works.) There was one other first-timer there, a big lanky asian guy who made sure that I didn’t look like the class’s lone loser by being just as bad, if not worse.

It wasn’t what you’d call an ego boost, but it was pretty fun, and I felt like I was improving … maybe. It would take a lot more classes before I could possibly blend in with the “beginners”. It might be worth it.

Up High

I was helping new neighbors move in yesterday when I saw, amid the pile of industrial sewing equipment and mannequins, a dressform that was attached at the neck to a long metal rod with rubber ends and some sort of mechanism in the middle. I asked what it was called, because I thought I might be able to use one to mount my projector, after my previous ceiling mount experiment failed due to the lack of floor joists in my building … and she just gave it to me (minus dressform, which went out in the hall and was promptly snatched up by someone else in the building).

As it turns out, it’s a Manfrotto Autopole, which is basically a very fancy metal pole. It was recently featured in Museum of Modern Art in NYC, so I’m calling it the Eames chair of tension pole mounting systems. In the US, for some reason, Autopoles are available almost exclusively through the two big chasidic NYC camera equipment vendors: B&H and Adorama.

I had already bought a cheap ceiling mount, and it turned out that the Autopole “superclamp” arm mated up very easily to the projector mount components … except that the picture wasn’t level. I was able to remedy that with a 5/16 inch bolt, fender washer, and wingnut, plus a ton of elbow grease to tap/widen the plastic mounting components.

Anyway, it was a heck of a lot easier than my last tension pole project.

Anyway, it looks like this:

image
image
image

Next step: cable ties.

The Lagoon

In a Boston winter, being on a university rowing team is a bit of a downer. The Charles River freezes in early January, and can stay frozen into April, leaving rowers to stay in shape indoors … hardly what draws an oarsman. MIT, like many northern schools, decided to mitigate this by organizing a training trip. In January, the whole team would fly south to warmer climates for two weeks of intense training that didn’t involve dodging icebergs.

We stayed 4 to a room at the cheapest motel in Hollywood, FL, which looked like a former vacation destination now fallen on hard times. (The mall prominently featured a shuttered multiplex cinema.) Each morning we would wake up before dawn, run almost two miles to the intracoastal waterway, and take our shells (which had been trailered down ahead of time) out onto the beautiful marine highway. Then we would take vans to a breakfast of powdered eggs and oatmeal served by our very own private chef at the local VFW post. We’d rest for a bit, and then go back out in the afternoon, totalling 4 or 5 hours of heavy exercise every day.

I have a lot of stories from those few weeks. Some of them might even be true.

One sunny afternoon, sophomore year, me and my friend Mike (whom I recently ran into at the cafeteria at work) were rowing a Pair: a boat with two rowers, and a total of two oars. Of all rowing shell configurations, a Pair is absolutely the hardest. The rowers cannot see each other’s hands, but they must row with perfect symmetry and synchrony to avoid tipping the boat to one side. If the boat does tip, there is no one else on that side to catch it, and so one may easily find one’s oar stuck in the water, with the momentum of the boat dragging it deeper until the boat capsizes.

That’s what happened to me and Mike.

I stood up, expecting to tread water, but the sprawling lagoon was so shallow that my feet landed in the muck, and I stood up … minus glasses. I felt around in the muck for a while but couldn’t find them. Eventually I gave up, and we shimmied back into the shell.

I didn’t have another pair of glasses with me. When I got back, I called my parents, who realized you can’t very well order a pair of glasses for someone who can’t try them on … but you can reorder contacts. They ordered a 6-month supply of contact lenses overnighted to my hotel, and I got new glasses when I got back to MIT.

Twelve years later, thanks to the masked events at Mardi Gras, I’m finally down to my last pair of contacts. This morning, I went to the optometrist and ordered another 6 month supply.

Left

On the left side of the less-than-antiseptic folding table in the basement laundry room, there’s a space where residents seem to leave unwanted stuff. Usually it’s boring junk: magazines, a pet carrier. Once I nabbed a DVD player, which it turns out I have not used. Oh well.

Today someone left a big stack of books, including The Broom of the System and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which indicated to me that this was a person of excellent taste in books. They also left House of Leaves, which I didn’t know anything about. I judged it by association and took it home. Ditto the sequel.

Also I took a huge (but almost worryingly light) shiny stew pot and a cooking thermometer. We’ll see if they get more use than the DVD player.

EDIT: Someone took the copy of Infinite Jest.

NYU Law Revue

Four years ago, I went to the Harvard Medical School second-year show, which was phenomenal. Now, I may have finally found its match: the NYU Law Revue.

Like the Second Year Show, the Law Revue is a musical comedy with a cast of students in an intensive, elite graduate program, and songs with familiar melodies but new, subject-appropriate lyrics. They’re both hilarious … but the Law Revue takes it up another notch.

Most obviously, the Law Revue has an incredible amount of dancing, with detailed choreography. On several occasions, the entire cast was on stage at once, singing and dancing, each time in a totally different costume. There are close to a dozen major soloists, most of whom have to sing while dancing, which is basically impossible.

The musical numbers are all backed by a live band … not an orchestra. The Second Year Show had an orchestra with a ton of violinists, which makes perfect sense for a talent pool of ex-premeds. Law Revue has a full brass band, with, if anything, an excess of saxophones. They passed time between scenes by covering pop songs that weren’t in the show, well enough to play any lounge in the city that’s big enough to hold them.

Every ticket holder receives a booklet that includes not just the basics, but also hilarious fictional biographies for every cast member, a detailed description of the cast and characters in every scene, and complete lyrics to every song in the show. Then, for audience members who aren’t lawyers, they also provided a “gLAWsarry” explaining the background on every inside joke, with even more humor written into the explanations themselves.

The amount of love this must have required is mind-boggling, and the amount of time (from some of the world’s busiest people) even moreso.

By the end of show, this all began to make sense to me. Practicing law is the art of writing within the constraints. Litigation is improv drama. Of course they have tons of people who want to write scripts and alternate lyrics, perform for an audience, and provide obsessively perfect documentation. Even the saxophones kind of fit: law is jazz!

Oh, by the way, this year’s comic plot: an evil corporation is about to produce an artificially intelligent document review engine, leading to totally computational law and 100% law student unemployment. I felt like a representative of the “enemy”.

P.S. My favorite reference was to this case

Filled

I got my first filling today. I opted for no anesthesia, mostly so I could get back to the office and not be half-paralyzed. Oddly, the only painful bit was the air jet that they use to dry out the working area. The drills and such … I hardly felt a thing.

Anyway, now a big chunk of one of my teeth is made of some kind of photo-cured resin. This is the first time that a part of my body has been replaced by a non-biological component. It’s hard to guess what the next one will be.