Eixample Day in Barcelona

10 AM: Alarm goes off. Walk across the alley to an Italian-British flatbread shop for breakfast.
Noon: Take a bus to the Gothic Quarter for lunch in a picturesque hidden square at a six-table restaurant full of American tourists and construction noise.
2 PM: Take a subway to La Sagrada Familia.
3 PM: Take the elevator up to the top of the Nativity Facade towers. Look out across the city, then walk down the 300 steps.
5 PM: Get some gelato and look up at the Passion facade.
6 PM: Take a bus back to the hotel and switch into swimsuit.
7 PM: Take a bus to Barceloneta beach, and buy a towel, a carton of Gazpacho, and a baguette.
8 PM: Swim in the Mediterranean. It’s cold.
9 PM: Dinner at a snazzy beachfront restaurant.
11 PM: Bus back to the hotel.

Multiply by 6 for a solid week in Barcelona.

Pinocchio

A few years ago we went to an amazing performance, a musical adaptation and transformation of a European classic, based closely on an old English translation. The space was decorated entirely in mirror foil, which made for a radical experience from the first step inside.

Last weekend I had a friend in The Pinocchio Project, an occasionally musical adaptation and transformation of the European classic, based on an old translation. And wouldn’t you know it, when we walked in, the space was completely covered in mirror foil.

It was a transporting experience, told with enough humor and dynamism to make up for the bluntly didactic original, while also making me feel like I learned a thing or two about the real story of Pinocchio. They were so engaging that I didn’t even notice they’d dropped the nose thing until someone mentioned it during the discussion at the end.

What we saw was a “workshop performance”, a new idea for me. The play was unfinished, not that we could tell. That means, if everything goes well, in a few months or a year Pinocchio will happen again, for real.

I hope I get to go see it again.

Passover Polyhedra, round 4

I used to make stuff for Passover out of Matzoh. It had been a while, but this year we needed a vegan dessert, and I had a few minutes to spare, et voila.

This was definitely my lowest-effort concoction yet. It’s literally a matzoh PB & J, minus the PB. I used a few different flavors of jam for variety, made each block four slices thick, wrapped it in plastic, let it absorb in transit to soften the matzoh, and then sliced it into bricks onsite.

Result: surprisingly delicious, soft and sort of fluffy and flavorful. Using three whole jars of jam will do that.

Also, this might be my first biblically defensible Passover dessert. The Israelites aren’t described as building any pyramids, but they surely were using some sort of bricks.

Location, Location, etc.

We live right in the middle of the theatre district, and we try make good use of it. Mostly, this doesn’t work, and we end up sitting at home watching Doctor Who, which is also fine. Sometimes, though … sometimes it’s pretty amazing.

On Sunday afternoon we were twiddling our thumbs, looking on the internet for something to do, and saw that there was a free musical … in ten minutes. So we put our shoes on and walked over, with time to spare.

The show was INGVAR!, a new musical about IKEA. Well, not really a musical. More of a song cycle with occasional furniture-related gags. It’s a tongue-in-cheek hagiography of Ingvar Kamprad, the obsessive founder of IKEA.

The music was not as expected, centered on a style I would call “atonal christmas carol” but with variations reaching out all the way to gospel and beyond. And indeed, Ingvar is held up as a “savior” and at some point literally crucified, at least to the extent possible at a staged reading where everyone is holding their sheet music.

The star of the show, as the eponymous hero, was Ryan McCurdy, who sold every odd note and awkwardly-translated-from-Swedish line like a flat-packed ladder-back birch chair. At a one-off reading of a bizarre little one-act, he could have phoned it in, but instead he hand-delivered it fully assembled. (The rest of the cast, in contrast, seemed like they might not have had as much time to rehearse as they would have liked. At least they got to wear lampshade hats.)

INGVAR! might well never play again. Don’t feel bad if you missed it; you can get the executive summary of IKEA’s history from Jonathan Coulton’s version.

Hello Bernie

For my mom’s birthday, I took the family out to Hello, Dolly, with Bernadette Peters in the bigger-than-the-title role: her name was bigger than the title on the posters, and her persona was bigger than the character to the audience.

I wasn’t familiar with Hello Dolly, and was shocked by the extreme surrealism, bordering on magic. In the opening scene, Dolly hands out cards advertising her many services, eventually including one, to a painter who she deems in need of dance lessons, reading “painters taught how to dance”.

This production kept the comedy as light as a feather, and also embraced throwback style: the flatly painted set could have been from 1964, or indeed from 1935 when the play on which Dolly is based opened on Broadway. There were some hints of modernity thrown in, though. The cast was just a hair more diverse than those of generations past, and the 14th Street Association Parade had a sizable contingent of suffragettes, literally marching under the banner of Women’s Rights. For the year 1895, that’s actually plausible: in 1894, suffragists presented a petition with 600,000 signatures to the New York state constitutional convention asking for votes for women.

Also, Bernadette Peters managed five minutes of silent comedy gold by eating an entire tray of tiny sandwiches, live. I don’t know how she did it, or whose idea it was, but it worked. Dolly does seem like the sort of person who wouldn’t let perfectly good food go to waste.

Skates

My parents got us ice skates, but for most of January it was ironically too cold to use them. Today was unexpectedly warm so we finally put them to use at the Bryant Park ice rink.

I think the last time I wore figure skates was probably in second grade, and sure enough the toe pick did catch me off guard a bit. I only fell twice.

Then we came home and watched the Olympic women’s short program, and scoffed at their under-rotated triple toe loops.

Southwest Airlines

I don’t normally fly Southwest. This might be my first time, certainly first in a long time. I’d heard good things.

Southwest, I learned when I bought the tickets, has an open seating policy: sit wherever you want. Like a bus. The European budget carriers have a similar approach. It’s a little disconcerting, but after the first flight I was pretty happy with it. (I picked an exit row window seat with amazing legroom, no upgrade required.)

The gate agent did try to take my boarding pass, but I snagged it back, since I had my next leg printed on the back.

On the second leg, though, there was a snafu. After boarding, a flight attendant said two men’s names over the intercom, asking if they were on board. There was no response. Then they counted the cabin, checking that the expected number of people were on board. It didn’t match, and they counted again. Still no match.

The flight attendant asked everyone to pay close attention, to tap their neighbors if they had earbuds in, then repeated the names. No luck.

So the flight attendant asked everyone to take out their photo IDs, and announced that the flight attendants would be checking the names of everyone on board.

For a few minutes they tried to avoid this, double-checking subsets of people, like those who were continuing on this plane from a previous segment, but they couldn’t locate the mismatch. Eventually they started to map the cabin, asking everyone’s name (but not checking ID), one notetaker starting from the front and one from the rear. They also announced the two men’s names again.

As an airline anecdote, this is pretty boring … but I think it might be an interesting lesson in fault-tolerant data structure design. The major problem here, the open seating plan, could be seen as choosing to store passengers in a structure that’s neither indexed nor sorted, like a flat file. That allows efficient insertion and clearing, but it makes validity checking O(N). Even worse, the boarding pass could have made every member of the set self-validating, but they collected them all upon boarding, preventing the use of, say, a handheld barcode scanner to accelerate the process. Instead, the linear scan has to compare each name to a very slow master database (a paper roster).

With sufficient foresight, the seatback screens could have an app that allowed each passenger to enter their own name, sharding the process and rebuilding the seatmap in parallel. Unfortunately, there was not such foresight, nor were there any seatback screens at all.

An hour after scheduled departure, the count had completed, and the crew was huddled at the front of the plane, scanning through the results and trying to figure out what to do next, and periodically calling out names of people to press their call button.

A few minutes later, a flight attendant explained that the printed roster had more people on it than there are seats on the plane. The master database must be corrupted, making the consistency check worthless.

At 75 minutes, we were told to deplane, but leave our bags. When in doubt, rebuild the database from ground truth. We were told that we could save our seats by leaving something on them … but please don’t mark any open seats, because more people will be joining us. There will be “a gesture of good will on our reservation”. In Southwest’s lingo, this is a “GOG”.

Deplaning and then reboarding a 737 takes a bit over 30 minutes, using photo IDs instead of boarding passes.

Two hours after scheduled departure, the database is finally consistent and we are ready to go.

World

I switched to Linux around 2003, and eventually wound up on Gentoo with an XFCE desktop. That gave me just about all the latitude one could hope for in customizability, and so I installed a little script that used daytime and nighttime satellite images of the earth to synthesize a map, showing city lights in the places where it’s currently night, etc. It was actually almost useful, when communicating across time zones. The script would also download the latest cloud images from NASA every day, so I could watch hurricanes and fronts roll across the map. Fun stuff.

Eventually I discovered that NASA publishes aurora maps, and I hacked the script to download daily aurora images and overlay them too.

That was maybe 2007.

I just got a new phone, and one of the default backdrops available is a world map exactly like the one I found in 2005, but rendered as a globe. It even has the updated cloud map. In a way this feels like a microcosm of the story that’s played out recently with quadcopters and 3d printing, where hobbyists have been about ten years ahead of the mainstream.

No aurora though.

The Play that Goes Wrong

In honor of the State of the Union, it seemed like the perfect night to see The Play that Goes Wrong. From the description, it sounded like the second coming of Noises Off, which I think turned out to be a fair guess. It’s hilarious, of course, especially if you get orchestra seats at the Rush price.

I count myself a fan of these British slapstick frame-device productions, not that I’ve seen more than a few. There’s The Black Comedy of course, and … that’s all I can remember. Wrong is very much part of the genre, an Agatha Christie homage that rapidly descends into hysterical mayhem.

Wrong might be the most technical comedy I have ever seen. Yes, the actors are amazing; without breaking character, they spend the entire production playing bad actors, each terrible in their own very peculiar way. But above all it’s the set that is the star of this show. From the very start, the play’s central theme is that the set is badly constructed and not quite finished. In fact, the set is a technical marvel, full of impossible and terrifying misbehaviors that literally place the actors in increasingly awkward positions, until it all comes crashing down at the end. The set is so intricately designed and precisely actuated for its purpose that I think it might qualify as puppetry. The set is a member of the cast, operated by a highly skilled but invisible team of set crew/puppetmasters.

It’s a miracle that no one gets hurt.

That means that unlike Noises Off, which my high school’s theatre group once performed, you won’t be seeing The Play that Goes Wrong with anyone but professionals — so you might as well see it on Broadway.

Singapore

I’m in Singapore. I’ve been here for a week. I … really can’t figure out what to say.

I was here for a conference, at a convention center that’s attached to a giant upscale mall. That seems to be a common theme here: there’s more than one such place.

Singapore is incredibly British. Everything is in English and everyone speaks English that ranges from excellent to native. But it’s not just that. For one thing, it’s very Christian in a very English way. There are two churches on this block, the old-fashioned kind with a steeple, one with columns and the other (built in 1841) with gorgeous stained glass in all the windows. I saw a couple walking in in a dark suit and white dress, when the bells were ringing on Sunday morning.

There are also other signs of Britishness, like the double-deck buses, or the occasional London-style black cab. What’s really British, though, is the amount of Christmas.

In the US, Christmas shopping starts on Black Friday. It is traditional for Americans to complain about the Entire Month of Nonstop Christmas, with carols playing over the PA systems in all the stores. We should be grateful: in Singapore, in the absence of a fall-holiday firewall, Christmas starts November 1st.

The malls are all decorated to high heaven with boughs and ornaments and giant green cones that are supposed to be Christmas trees. Because, of course, we’re thousands of miles from the nearest Douglas Fir. It’s 90 degrees and 100% humidity outside, every day year-round. We are in the tropics of Southeast Asia here. Oh, and the Christmas carols are here too. I’ve heard most of the classics already, definitely Noel, Jingle Bells (!!), and White Christmas (!!!).

It’s so weird.

At least it’s not completely everywhere. I walked over to Little India after the conference was over today, and there was a clear and rapid shift, from Timberland and Nine West and Victoria’s Secret in the air-conditioned corridors, to tiny owner-operated storefronts selling everything from pasta to pianos. (That very cute store was about 1.5 pianos wide, with floor-to-ceiling shelves of sheet music all the way around.) Then in Little India, everything was “Sarees” and gold. No sign of Christmas.

On the way back I spotted a Chinese-Christian church, built in a modern style. It made me think that other areas of the city might a little different, with some actual local culture. Not here. As a friend pointed out, if you dropped an American from into this district, it could easily take them a full day to figure out that they weren’t in Los Angeles (or maybe Honolulu).

Maybe that’s really what Singapore is about. It’s a bite-sized portion of high-grade Anglo culture, in a part of the world where that is in high demand and short supply. I can understand why that might appeal, if you’re living in Kuala Lumpur or even Seoul. If you’re in the USA … you could probably just visit your local mall at Christmastime instead.