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.

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.

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