Category Archives: Uncategorized

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

An hour before the opening curtain, I found myself in possession of a free ticket to God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, a musical that I had absolutely never heard of and knew precisely nothing about, at the generic-sounding New York City Center theater. I looked at the cast and recognized exactly one name: James Earl Jones. That was good enough for me.

City Center turns out to be a gigantic, gorgeous theater in Moorish style, complete with Spanish tiled dome. It was packed all the way to the back of the uppermost balcony, with something like the audience you’d find on Broadway minus tourists.

The play is adapted from a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, and so early on the main character, scion of a Republican dynasty and president of a MacArthur-like family foundation, leans on a stack of Kilgore Trout novels, handing them out to anyone who will listen. Those books, it turns out, are really copies of the script; the program describes the production as “a concert performance in which the actors may be performing with their scripts in hand”. Tonight was opening night, and some actors clearly had their lines memorized better than others.

There were also some technical issues; either my ears are failing or the chorus voices were a little low in the sound mix. Despite missing a few lines, I could hear that the play was clearly channeling Kurt Vonnegut: unabashedly adult, crude, dadaist, liberal, still trembling with guilt and sorrow from World War II, but also playing games with science fiction tropes.

The play is a bit disjointed, a lurching comedy of the deranged. I can see why the original production closed after 7 weeks in 1979, and has hardly been heard of since. In the final scene, it was suddenly clear why City Center had decided to revive it now. Specifically, it was when James Earl Jones made his dramatic entrance and (after at least a full minute of nonstop applause) proceeded to deliver a monologue that sums up the show’s thesis in terms that seem more meaningful today than perhaps they did in 1979.

I won’t attempt to transcribe it, but the monologue sums up the play’s thesis: that we need to figure out how to give real respect to poor people in rust belt towns where the good jobs have all disappeared due to automation. Of course, the speech can’t use the term “rust belt”, because in 1979 that term hadn’t been coined yet (although it was about to be!). The play also shouldn’t be able to talk about AI displacing human labor in modern terms, and yet it manages to come shockingly close, with poetic consideration of “smarter tools” that are “worth more than the humans”.

In the end, the play finds that the only way for a New York trust fund baby to save his own soul is to go to Middle America and make the people there feel truly respected. That’s a story that sounds almost familiar this year … and our tragedy is that the play’s insane flawed millionaire, Mr. Rosewater, is still so much saner and better than the one we got in real life.

The Incredibles

People have been telling me to see The Incredibles, Pixar’s animated superhero movie for … let me check … 12 years. I finally watched it on the way back from Berlin.

Obviously, the best way to watch a Pixar visual delight is not on a 7-inch screen, compressed to sub-DVD quality, over the roar of a jet engine. Still, I was struck by how far animated features have come in the past 12 years. Compared to the lifelike textures of modern releases (Avatar comes to mind), The Incredibles looked amazingly flat and cartoonish.

That didn’t prevent them from telling a compelling story, and having a lot of fun with classic superhero tropes. The film’s subversion of the genre places it closer to Unbreakable than the latest Marvel monstrosity.

For a cartoon fantasy, I was surprised by the film’s appeal to science and engineering concepts. Specifically, it predicts the emergence of autonomous multicopters six years before the first hackers started building their own from kits. It also invokes “zero point energy” to explain the villain’s power, which puts it at least on par with Iron Man for scientific acumen.

I was also surprised by the level of violence. More than once, the children narrowly escape gruesome death by helicopter blade or machine gun. I wonder if our sensitivities about violence have shifted in the last twelve years. Would Pixar make this movie today?

The Trocks

On the flight over, I was seated amid a crowd of extremely fabulous men who evidently knew each other very well. In the line for customs, I finally asked them what they were doing in Berlin, and they explained that they are the Trockadero Ballet, a dance troupe consisting entirely of male ballerinas, on pointe and in tutus. They’re based in New York City, where they spend half the year, and were on the first leg of a 6-month world tour, arriving back in New York in time for two weeks of performances at Christmas.

And yes, of course, their repertoire includes The Nutcracker.

Cedar Rapids

On the flight to Berlin, by no means a full flight, Air Berlin’s sadistic seat assignment algorithms nonetheless placed me in a non-reclining row. I spent the 8 hour flight bolt upright, with no choice but to watch three movies in a row.

The first one was Cedar Rapids, a movie about a guileless teetotaler who is disproportionately excited to attend an extremely dull-sounding industry conference. There, he is led into a long series of increasingly poor decisions.

It was almost too close to home.

Berlin!

Hi blog. I’m going to Berlin! I’ve never been to Berlin! I’m going right now.

Uhh … also the world has been having a pretty bad week. But personally I’ve been having a pretty good one. And now I’m going to Berlin!

Bye!

Montreal!

I spent the (long!) weekend in Montreal. Photo album here.

Things seen in three days:

  • Meaty sandwiches at Schwartz’s Deli
  • Old masters and odd housewares at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
  • The view from the top of Mt. Royal
  • Tara Kannangara and especially Con Brio at the Montreal Jazz Festival
  • La Centrale feminist art gallery, featuring an anti-colonial lo-fi animation show
  • Notre Dame basilica (just the outside. Seems nice?)
  • The cobblestones of the old city
  • Virtual reality art installation
  • Mel Brooks’s The Producers … in Yiddish! More on that later.

Beautiful weather, beautiful city, and a great use of a couple of vacation days. Now back to work!

Academia

I spent Friday morning at the New York City Academy for Software Engineering, near Union Square. From the name, and the high-tech geometric logo, you might expect that this is an elite private or charter school, like Stuyvesant. That’s not an accident, but at the moment it’s far from the truth. Instead, AFSE is open to all incoming freshmen, subject only to random lottery. Demographically, the school looks a lot like the average New York City public school. (One difference: the number of students labeled white is 9%, lower than the 15% city-wide average.)

AFSE doesn’t have its own building. It shares a gorgeous WPA-era city school building with half a dozen other small high schools. While I was there, another school was having their graduation ceremony in the grand auditorium that takes up most of the first floor.

The event was billed as a hackathon, but in conventional terms it was more like a “pitch competition” without the competition. Students formed into teams, developed ideas for apps or websites on a theme (“the environment”), sketched those themes as “paper prototypes”, and then used moqup.com to make simple mockups of the user interfaces.

Three or four professionals were assigned to each classroom of 16 or so freshmen and sophomores. I floated from table to table, asking what students were thinking about, offering advice and encouragement, and sometimes just hanging and chatting (on topic) with students who seemed a bit unfocused. Overall, I was impressed. All the students, even the most distracted, put in serious effort and by lunchtime had an interactive mockup of a totally plausible website or app to help the environment.

Serious software engineering it is not, but it was a good reminder: if you’re looking for kids with motivation, inspiration, and imagination, they’re not hard to find. They’re everywhere.

The Flying Doctor

The first play Moliere ever wrote was The Flying Doctor, a simple comedy based on the Italian Renaissance-era “commedia dell’arte” stock characters. It’s got a few good jokes, and lots of opportunities for hamming it up. Played straight, it’s maybe 30 minutes long.

Someone in my office sent out a broadcast e-mail announcing a local production of the play in an experimental theater venue at the south edge of Chinatown, with tickets that are practically free. I have a theory that NYC is the best place in the world to be an audience member for any kind of performance, so I took note. On Friday, I finally got to see it.

The production is theater in the round, sort of. You walk through Central Booking, which is something between a housewares store and and art gallery, to a doorway draped with silver tinsel. Through the door is a room full of mirrors and lights at all strange angles, surrounding a mirror-surfaced stage on the floor. (It looks like this.)

Then the actors come in, and the dream begins. In the first half, the actors perform the entire play, seamlessly shifting between cast and band for mood-appropriate indie rock musical numbers. When acting, lines are often repeated and varied, like an improv troupe looking for the perfect version of the story.

Just as the play ends, it loops to the beginning again, this time faster, greedier, less funny, more real, and the comedy tips into an impossible metaplot tragedy.

On Friday night, there were equally many people in the audience as on stage, and only enough seats for maybe a 3:1 ratio at full capacity. On a talent per seat per dollar basis, this show is the deal of a lifetime. If you’d like to spend 90 minutes in a classic, fantastic, otherworldly theatrical experience, and you’re going to be in Manhattan before July 2nd, I highly recommend it.

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe

On Friday night we went to see Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire, shown for free under the grand arch of Washington Square Park courtesy of the French Consulate. It’s a 1972 send-up of the spy movie genre … or maybe a deeper commentary on cold-war paranoia.

The movie portrays two French spy chiefs with overlapping areas of responsibility. Ostensibly colleagues, they spend the entire film spying on each other, keeping secrets, and (most importantly) attempting to drive each other insane. Their internecine war ends in a shootout, among other things.

In the moment, it’s all light comedy, a parody of James Bond and the like. In retrospect, I wonder if it goes a little deeper. 1972 was the height of NATO-USSR spy shenanigans, obsession with infiltration and nuclear secrets. The movie suggests that the spies had become so obsessed with their work, and so paranoid about the enemy, that they had lost all common sense, and sense of proportion. It’s a timely message today too.

I was walking through the park a few days later with a Russian friend who recognized the title. She had seen it in Russia, as she was a big fan of Pierre Richard. I was a bit surprised that Richard (whom I’d never heard of) was so famous there, and so she explained that in Russia, western movies were only allowed if the stars were Communist sympathizers or resolutely apolitical, and Richard was always approved by the censors. I assume Richard was seen as apolitical, but in the case of this film I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s just 90 minutes of slapstick genius … but I also see a critique of state power as hilariously incompetent, unrealistic, rash, and brutal.