All posts by Ben

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.

Security

Sorry for the long absence. There didn’t seem to be much point in writing here, now that the world has ended.

However, in honor of the apocalypse, I’ve finally moved this site to HTTPS. Better late than never.

The Front Page

The whole reason to live a block from Times Square, right on Theatre Row, is to be able to go to a show when you’ve got a spare night. This weekend, after six months in our new (still un-housewarmed) apartment, we finally did it.

The snowstorm probably helped. On an average Saturday night, getting cheap tickets for any Broadway show* is a challenge, even if you’re a local. In the middle of a snowstorm, you’ve got a much better shot. In the mid-afternoon, I trudged over to the Broadhurst and picked up a couple of standing-room tickets to The Front Page for less than half the cheapest seat.

This production is an interesting phenomenon. The cast is mostly movie and TV stars: John Goodman (The Big Lebowski), Nathan Lane (The Birdcage), John Slattery (the boss from Mad Men), Holland Taylor (the mother on Two and a Half Men), Christopher MacDonald (the villain from Happy Gilmore), Dann Florek (Lt. Crager on Law and Order), and Dylan Baker (the one-armed professor in Spider-Man 2 and 3). And those are just the ones I personally recognized; the rest are Broadway royalty and more actors from TV shows like Mad Men, etc.

The play is both a slapstick comedy and a cutting satire of the news business. While the scene is perfectly of its time, the comedy and criticism are timeless. We see the stratification of the news business into literary, mainstream, and tabloid. We see the corrupt relationship between politicians and the politically motivated press, days before a racially charged election with one side fearmongering about an invented bogeyman. We see the pride and subservience of reporters talking to their sources and editors in countless hilarious monologues (making good use of a roomful of old-fashioned telephones).

The night we went, the performances were mostly amazing. Nathan Lane is particularly fantastic against John Slattery’s straight man. John Goodman is undeniably himself. Dann Florek’s stage voicing seemed a little forced, but then he always had a very distinctive cadence. I’m personally a big fan of Christopher MacDonald’s performance; his background comic relief was the realest performance of all.

The Front Page is only playing for about three months, including previews. I suspect a cast like this is awfully busy, and I feel just a little bit lucky to have gotten a chance to see them.

I think that’s how you’re supposed to feel.

*other than Cats, for which we actually won the ticket lottery but skipped anyway.

NYPD

The NYPD is running subway ads recruiting new officers. In huge all caps letters, each poster says

IT’S YOU WE WANT

. Each ad features a smiling attractive young person, evenly covering genders and ethnicities, wearing a pastel t-shirt with a slogan on it in white text. The slogans are

  • SERVICE ORIENTED
  • HONESTY IS MY THING
  • all about Respect
  • COM PASS IONATE
  • READY TO SHOW COURAGE

Rather than be critical, I will simply say that I hope they succeed in hiring many new officers with those qualities.

LA LA LAND

Saturday morning I was in LA. Sunday evening I was watching LA LA LAND, a dreamy musical about LA (whose title therefore qualifies as a triple-entendre — very impressive).

Having just seen or at least learned about all the sights of LA, it was a bit disorienting to see them again onscreen. I had to remind myself where I was at least once.

The movie opens with an ancient studio title sequence, from the very earliest color films. That sets the target: this is a movie in pursuit of Old Hollywood, and everything is a reference. Then the opening sequence starts … and it’s people stuck in traffic on the freeway. That sets the setting: a vision of modern LA grounded in prosaic reality. We pan … and then people burst out of the cars and into song and dance. None of them are famous faces, but as the camera continues its long single shot, we see more and more of the surroundings, eventually revealing that we are on an actual LA freeway, on a curving ramp high over the interchange below, with actual traffic flowing and yet our traffic jam, complete with dancers on the roof of every car, stretching nigh unto infinity.

That sets the method, the mood, and the topic: high-budget hijinks, playful surrealism, song, dance, and a celebration of the young performer trying to make it big in Hollywood. Mix in a dose of bittersweet ambiguity, and you have a perfect recipe for Oscar bait.

Actually, watching it in my Manhattan movie theater, that wasn’t what I thought of first. My first thought was: when is it coming to Broadway?

As musicals go, it’s less musical than most. Screen time devoted to music is low, even lower if you subtract performances that are literally occurring within the plot. The singing sounds like an amplified whisper. Music is emotional, but our screen couple are cautious people, who share their feelings only quietly, tentatively, privately. I expect that this is entirely deliberate; Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone could probably be virtuosic if that’s what was needed.

Oh yeah, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. One of the old Hollywood references in this movie is in its construction as a “star vehicle”. Maybe you could make a movie like this around unknown actors, but it wouldn’t be the same. Watching Emma Stone fail an audition, or Ryan Gosling playing deeply reluctant keytar in an 80s cover band, is funny instead of sad.

For them, at least, we know it’s a happy ending.

Friday Night in LA

Friday night, I was in Los Angeles for one day, at a conference. And the conference was over by lunchtime. So what to do with myself, in LA on a Friday night? A DJ night at a dance club? An underground art gallery opening? An improv standup show by Kevin Smith? A performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” entirely in Spanish?

Oh, sweet, an astronomy lecture and stargazing at Caltech!

In the end I didn’t even go to the stargazing. After the lecture (about the ALMA 66-antenna array, sharper than Hubble and in mm-wave!), four of the grad students and postdocs set up shop at the front of the room and ran a “stump the experts” style Q+A.

It was pretty fun.

A few pictures here.

FUSIONS

It was Saturday night. We could have gone to a movie, but hey, we live in Manhattan! Anyone can go to a movie! Let’s go to this thing.

FUSIONS dissects through music, clowning, and video, the impact of the technology on the nowadays’ society. The humorous and absurdist dysfunctional daily escape of the characters into the realm of reality TV shows, movies, the internet and social media, place their lives into a virtual reality, raising questions about the future of the human relationships.

I expected a combination of modern dance, atonal music, and some weird distorted video projections. Perfect for 10 PM on a Saturday night.

Instead, it was more like Sophocles. Characters with occupations but not names stood alone before the audience, delivering monologues on the nature of life as an actor, nerd, clown, or, um, woman, basically. The woman is distinguished as being “obsessed with reality TV”, which is sort of a bizarre idea at the end of 2016. What’s a TV?

The clown is an actual clown, who does a whole bunch of very impressive clowny tricks. Also everyone goes by their real names, or rather, the characters all take the actors’ names.

After the monologues, a very simple, surreal story develops involving a love triangle of sorts. The clown is the straight man, representing the audience in his desire to muck around and generally not have anything to do with these other characters. The others are pencil-thin single-issue archetypes, more concept than character.

The Actor spends most of the play telling the audience they should go see a movie instead of a play, and enumerating all the various ways that watching and acting in movies is superior to watching and acting in plays.

In this case I suppose he may have been right.