Hayesy Sunday

Back in Seattle, living alone with a huge TV set, I used to watch a lot of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. At that time, the show was dominated by the phrase “traffic problems on the George Washington Bridge”.

Oh, how the worm turns.

When Maddow was unavailable, Chris Hayes would sub in. They seemed to be cut from the same cloth: liberal commentators with an engaging, academic lecturing style and an emphasis on history and colorful anecdotes.

On Sunday, Hayes spoke at Lehman College, a CUNY site in the Bronx, and I went to listen, along with a few hundred white liberal retirees and younger Bronx locals. It was more or less part of a book tour for A Colony in a Nation, Hayes’s new book.

I haven’t read the book, but the notion seems to be that for some people — basically non-whites — their daily experience is more like living in a colony governed by a foreign power than it is like living in a self-governing democracy. It’s an interesting “frame”, a “theory” only in the philosopher’s sense. It isn’t a prescription, or even a prediction, just a metaphor supported by remarkable stories from American history.

Hayes suggested that curious audience members seek out a few video clips, which he didn’t show. One was Ronald Reagan’s 1980 visit to the South Bronx, in an area which looks more like a devastated third-world country than part of a major US city. Reagan promised to restore jobs to these blighted areas. Instead, the Reagan administration funded a city program that covered some of the broken windows in the area with decals of lovely interiors.

Hayes, a famous rich white man with a white TV audience, is perhaps not the ideal messenger for a reminder about the mistreatment of poor minorities in the US, and the prioritization of white Americans’ needs, but it turns out he’s also a Bronx native. He’s also just as eloquent in person as on his TV show.

I enjoyed the speech, a welcome reminder about the depth of the disparity between communities, deepened by overly white police forces that are accountable to the fearful voting public, not the neighborhoods they patrol. I was intrigued by his analysis of Donald Trump, who came of age at the peak of New York’s racially tinged crime wave, and now projects the dysfunction of that era out to the country at large. I even liked his distinction between policing philosophies that focus on reducing violent crime and “maintaining order”.

Sometimes I get annoyed at writers who jump to solutions, as if each problem in the world has a two sentence solution. (The Economist is particularly bad.) But after an hour soaking in the significance of the problem, some ideas on how to address it would have been a nice touch.

P.S. One other funny thing about this event was the audience’s inability, implicit in the questions they asked, to distinguish Chris Hayes and MSNBC from the Democratic Party, and especially the Bernie Sanders wing. The media’s polite veil of impartiality seems to be lost on their audience.

Green Morning

I grew up listening to Green Day. Dookie, their breakout album, was the second CD I ever owned, and I’ve more or less memorized every track, plus probably one song off of every album since, which is getting to be a lot. I could fairly be called a fan.

So it came to pass that this morning we woke up at 5 AM, put on our best punk rock* outfits, and skedaddled through Central Park to the line for … Good Morning America?

It turns out that NBC’s milquetoast morning show kills time on summer Fridays with about three songs from a different famous band each week. They could just have them in the studio, but instead they set up a stage in Central Park, and invite anyone sufficiently motivated to show up in person, for free. (Also, they like to use shots of the crowd in the live feed to convey excitement that might otherwise be lost on their heavy-lidded, bagel-focused audience.)

It was … odd. The gates opened at 7, but the show didn’t actually start until 8:30. In the mean time, there was a sound check, which looked like this. We sat on bleachers in the back, rather than stand amid the throng for two hours. This also gave us a great view of the white studio chairs where David Hasselhoff was interviewed by the anchors with hair and teeth from a bleach commercial. They smiled their wide-open laughing smile when the cameras ran, then switched to the steely expression of someone who beat 10,000 other people to get that job.

To fill time, they had a comedian chatting up the crowd, telling them when to cheer, hauling little kids on stage to sing Green Day, etc.. Then at 8:30, it was showtime.

Green Day were clearly pros. They’ve been doing this for 30 years, and still sounded great, although it’s hard to hit those high notes early in the morning, and the vocals were a little low in the mix. Still, it was odd. At a normal concert, the band might say something to the audience between songs. At this show, the band was mute, taking cues from the stage manager.

They sang three three-minute songs in half an hour, and then two more after GMA ended. We got on the subway and went to work.

They didn’t play American Idiot.

So I saw Green Day live, probably from better seats than I’d ever buy at a stadium concert, for free … but I wasn’t really the audience. I was just part of the wallpaper. The audience was in their breakfast nooks and airport lounges, listening to advertisements for white bread and stories about kids these days using their computers too much.

*Adult alternative, if you ask me.

Evermore

We saw Beauty and the Beast at the upscale iPic theater, on a chaise for two that was almost right up against the screen. We could see the pixels.

After a while, though, you don’t see the pixels. You see technicolor visuals, watch beautiful but still slightly cartoonish CGI fall in love, and listen to the best (only?) ever bass aria from a Disney musical.

I do think I could improve it by excising the new pop-psych backstory that explains each character’s nature: Gaston has PTSD from The War; the Beast had no female role model, Belle is fighting gender stereotypes to become a woman engineer!

Also, surrealist Busby Berkeley numbers in CGI can really put your suspension of disbelief to the test.

Book report: Harry Potter

I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but last weekend I finally finished the Harry Potter series. If I haven’t mentioned this project, it might be because I’ve been trying to avoid knowing anything about the plot in advance, and the easiest way to ensure that seemed to be to avoid bringing it up.

The first Harry Potter novel was published in the US in late 1998. I was a freshman in high school, and had very little interest in anything marketed for middle schoolers. Harry Potter was for kids; I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson and Vernor Vinge. (And Xanth…)

Maybe I’m finally old enough to be secure in my oldness. Nobody’s going to confuse me for a middle schooler if they see me reading Harry Potter on the plane.

More detailed thoughts below.

Continue reading Book report: Harry Potter

Exoplanetology

The biggest, baddest boy band out of South Korea right now is EXO, short for Exoplanet, and it is indeed like something from another world. Last night, we saw them live, along with 10,000 of our closest friends, at the Jersey Devils’ stadium.

First we waited for two hours in the chilling rain until our hands shook and our teeth chattered. Luckily, it is in fact possible to buy hot tea in a sports arena, and to dance in wet socks, but it’s not ideal. EXO are actually famous for their impeccable logistics, but only after the show starts.

In a way, though, our long wait paid off. Just as we were exiting hypothermia, an attendant to our nosebleed section started handing out tickets to much better seats that had not been sold, and we raced through the halls to get down. EXO recently sold out the biggest stadium in South Korea in 20 minutes, but in New York they’re merely huge.

From our improved vantage point, the show looked like this. Yes, that is fire.

EXO defies American notions of what a band should be. For one thing, there is little or no veneer of artistic independence. EXO was actually announced ahead of time, before its members had been selected, at a seminar at Stanford Business School. (The founder, Lee Soo-man, was already the richest man in the Korean entertainment industry.)

EXO was originally founded as two groups of 6 members each: EXO-K, which performs in Korean (with a heavy admixture of basic English) and EXO-M, which performs in Mandarin. The two groups sing the same songs, but with different lyrics. To my mind, this eliminates the curious polite fiction that attributes American pop stars’ songs to the singer. In fact, EXO separately credits Korean lyrics, Chinese lyrics, and music on each song, and makes no attempt to imply that the band members played a role in any of it.

If American pop stars are positioned as coincidentally beautiful singer-songwriters, EXO members are more like characters in a never-ending musical theatre production. Their stage personas are quite divorced from their personal lives; some even go by totally different names. But more importantly, the band has an associated mythic universe, in which each member appears to have certain supernatural powers. (This lends an EXO concert the aura of a scifi/fantasy convention. Maybe it’s no coincidence that we spotted a great deal of Harry Potter paraphernalia on fellow fans.)

It’s all laid out in their early autobiographical music video, which also hints at several other themes. There’s a visual connection between the 12 members and the signs of the zodiac, but the dominant theme is one of unnatural, bloody division (between EXO-M and EXO-K), that when healed will usher in a new era.

So the theme is division and reunification … and they’re in Korea. Not that subtle.

The rest of EXO’s music is high-energy dance pop love songs, nothing philosophical about it. And yet, when the concert’s opening video lit up the jumbotron, it showed EXO members supernaturally rescuing members of a mysteriously distraught family, with a childlike voiceover explaining that the reason for conflict in the world was because it can be hard these days to tell what is true, and our different truths drive us apart.

This was their first concert in the US since the elections. Oh, and in anticipation of their song “Stronger”, they handed out these banners. Look familiar?

So EXO is a curious thing: a group of talented performers, a polished international boy band sticking to universal teenage truisms, a venue for creative musicians to publish new work, and at the margins, a pastiche of CGI fantasy and front page news.

Now if I could just figure out how to get their shirt with PROXIMA CENTAURI B on the back.

Hydration

10 AM: Tea and muffin
11 AM: Cereal with milk
12: Hot cocoa (with prospective wedding photographers)
4: Tea and cookies with a visiting friend
6: Meeting at a coffee shop with a visiting couple
7: Shirley Temples at a jazz bar
9: Ramen soup at Ippudo
10: Tea and Piroulines

Not shown: photos in Central Park, canceled due to rain.

Engage!

My apologies for the lack of blog. Life has been busy, and I had something to say that had to wait, and that was also too important to bother saying anything else in the mean time.

We are getting married!

There are so many stories to tell, about proposals, vacations, venues, florists, jewelers, dressmakers … but maybe not here.

And certainly not just now. Life is still too busy for that.

Schwartz’s in Paris

So you’ve heard of Schwartz’s in Montreal, the one that’s co-owned by Celine Dion (yes!), but did you know that there is also a Schwartz’s in Paris?  Three, in fact.  It seemed like an obvious choice for a first meal in France.

Proof.
Verdict: not as good as the one in Montreal, or Katz’s in New York.  Also, there’s no half sandwich option, and I couldn’t eat more than half even after skipping lunch.  They actually offered me a take out container for the remainder.  In Paris!

ICCA

Fourteen years ago, my freshman year, I competed with the Chorallaries in the International Championship of Collegiate Acappella, ICCA. The first round is called the “quarterfinals”, and they are held all over the country (and um, maybe also England). The venue was The College of Our Lady of the Elms; I remember being confused when we arrived in the snow as to whether it was a school or a cathedral.

In our 12 minute slot, we sang 1000 Oceans, Wherever You Will Go, and It’s Raining Men, plus an interlude involving a pretend traffic helicopter. We took first place, and moved on to the semifinals. My senior year, we made it all the way to the finals at Lincoln Center.

Last night, the current Chorallaries competed at the ICCA quarterfinals, held before the grand curving pews of the Ethical Culture Society’s main hall, one stop from my apartment. (Most of the other groups were from NYU.)

In most ways, it was a very familiar scene. The groups performed pop songs of the day with a smattering of classics, with incredible energy and dynamic choreography. But some things had changed … most obviously, the technology.

When I started college, using amplification in performance was controversial. Some saw it as cheating, most saw it as challenging. Our first solo microphones were condensers, requiring 48V “phantom power” to bias the capacitor. They had to stay on their mic stand, and couldn’t be moved. We spent $800 on an 8-track mixing board with a SCSI drive and a CD writer.

At ICCAs, microphones were always a problem. The organizers decided the microphone setup, and that was it. Usually there were about 5 in total, some wireless and some not, some in front on stands and some overhead on wires or armatures.

At this ICCA quarterfinal, they solved the problem in a new way: by giving every single singer their own handheld wireless mic, even for groups of 20 singers.

As a matter of technology, this is pretty amazing. High quality audio from one microphone takes 48 KHz * 16 bits = 0.8 Mbps. For 20 microphones, that’s 16 Mbps of throughput … and it also has to be rock-solid reliable, even as people wander around the stage, and seriously low latency, ~< 50 ms. When I started, digital wireless microphones were Not A Thing, and most wifi networks only hit 11 Mbps at best. Today … well, here we are. When technology advances, it changes art. In this case, it was the choreography that changed. Free from the requirement that the soloist stand at the mic up front, we saw every conceivable arrangement: soloists encircled by the group that paced around them, or hidden at the back of line. Singers facing every which way, no need to aim your voice at the overhead mic. It seemed like an explosion of creative geometries. On the other hand, having a mic in the first hand makes some things harder. Our winning performance of It’s Raining Men involved not only some flamboyant clapping but, for the grand finale, a cheerleader-style lift. Groups that wanted to double down on dance in this cycle had to also figure out a way for the dancers to hand off their microphones and retrieve them. In another 14 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve solved that too. The Chorallaries didn’t win, but I suspect their performances were stronger than any of ours in our day. This is an art form that is still ascending.

Drugs

Fun fact of the day: Laudanum, 1822’s drug of the year, is still around, and in some sense is legal. It turns out that when the FDA was introduced, and patent medicines were brought under regulatory control, existing drugs were grandfathered in, even if, like Laudanum, they were ill-defined plant-derived mixtures that had never been subjected to anything you could still call Science. Technically, you can still get a prescription for this stuff, if you want to contribute to our opioid addiction epidemic in proper Victorian style. There are even American manufacturers, which means that someone is actually doing this!

Oh, and not just Laudanum: Paregoric too! Seriously what year is it.

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