March 2004

From a ScienceNow article (subscription required):

The fossil record is chock-full of angiosperms, a testament to the extraordinary explosion of flowering plants that began around 140 million years ago. Today, angiosperms boast a diversity of 250,000 to 300,000 species, compared to 10,000 kinds of ferns… Most major lineages of polypod ferns, which comprise more than 80% of today’s fern species, arose and diversified a mere 100 million years ago, after the major riot of flowering plants… “The idea that the polypods took advantage of the angiosperms– that’s hot!” says David Barrington of the University of Vermont in Burlington.

In fact, one might call it the hotness if one were into California slang… scientists are fun and funny folk.

On the way to the library today I stopped in the bathroom in O’Brien, one of the not-so-recently renovated engineering buildings. The style reminded me of the men’s room in 14N at MIT. Although much of the floor had been pasted over with a faux-tile laminate, there was still a patch of the old square-tile and grout floor that must have come with the original design. The original monochrome (blue in this case) pattern of speckled tile looked random to me because of the small patch, whereas the laminate I knew came in huge patterned sheets. I wonder if the workers who put in the original floor got to put in the design themselves, or if the patter was pre-specified by the architect.

Nowadays a tile floor like that would be fabricated off-site and just installed, the deisgn having been specifically chosen by the architect to change the way in which we interact with the bathroom floor or to provide a pleasing visual experience to the lavatory users. I imagine someone putting a Magic Eye stereogram in tiles on the floor so that when you’re sitting on the can and zoning out a 3D roll of toilet paper will pop up in your visual field. The idea is about as egregious as the furniture design for the Stata Center at MIT that Rodin rightfully abhors. I rather like the idea of someone taking the time to put in the floor by hand, tile after tile, and perhaps “misplacing” a blue square here and there to mix it up. It would be like writing a comment on the architecture. I’m sure there are all sorts of theoretical implications, but they’d take too much space to sort out.

Tooling like a madman is not at all like riding a bike — you do forget over time. And much to my dismay, tooling on my research does not take the same form as tooling on the Mystery Hunt. I have one crucial ingredient : coffee. Now add a dash of techno, one chalkboard (whiteboard will do in a pinch), and garnish with some zest of fresh madness. A dish best served cold, to harden one’s resolve.

by Michael Chabon. It’s been a while since I had to stay up past my bedtime to finish a book. Summerland was a nice breath of fresh air though my brain, a good way to welcome in the spring. Chabon’s first children’s novel doesn’t quite have the breadth of Kavalier and Clay, but it has inventiveness to spare. I didn’t find it as delightful as Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but it was fun, witty, and pulled me along for the ride.

Unlike Neil Gaiman, who’s Ragnarok-inspired American Gods delighted me with its innovative moderization of ancient pantheons, Chabon conflates the Native American Coyote with Loki, conjures up a mournful She-Sasquatch, and adds a healthy dose of English folk magic as well. A good original fantasy is beholden to no particular mythos, and Chabon picks and chooses his cultural references with gleeful abandon. Part of the joy for me as an adult reader was picking out these folkloric references.

The only downside in my opinion was that the whole book was about baseball. Everyone (giants, werefoxes, and Coyote himself) plays baseball, and I’m just not a baseball fan. Perhaps it’s an even stronger endorsement of the book that I liked it despite its obsession with our national game.

I’m now re-motivated to look at some of my old plays, including A Head For Ganesh to see if I can whittle down the lumpiness therein. There’s a world of difference between a novel and a play, but they both try to tell a story, and in this case, both in a magical way.

Before I rant, a little background. Before becoming my 6th grade homeroom teacher (go team Supernova!) at Urbana Middle School (neé Urbana Junior High), Ms. Randall was an elementary school teacher. While driving out of the teacher’s parking lot in her minivan one afternoon, she hit a child who was careening down the sidewalk in a bicycle. The child was not wearing a helmet and died from the impact. All of this had a profound impact on Ms. Randall — as an educator of children this was about the worst thing that could happen. And so Ms. Randall became a helmet evangelist. It wasn’t that she claimed the child was at fault for not wearing a helmet, but she tried to impress on her audiences that the world is a dangerous place for bicyclists and that we should always wear helmets to mitigate serious injuries. And not soft-shell helmets either, but hard shell helmets that passed stringent crash-test requirements.

Of course, we all thought she was a bit of a nutter, not because she thought helmets were a good idea, but because she was so evangelical about it, and for several other quirks which some of use attributed to the shock of the accident. I suppose that her message must have sunk in though, because I am filled with an irrational rage at Berkeley bikers who don’t wear helmets. Much of this has to do with these bikers’ complete and utter disregard for traffic rules such as right-of-way, one-way streets, stop signs, and yes, even traffic lights. There is a definite positive correlation between lack-of-helmet and this kamikaze approach to city roadways. Perhaps the helmet keeps their brains from sloshing around too much so they can remember traffic laws.

As an aside, let me mention what these confusing traffic laws are: bikes are like any other vehicle. They must stop at stop signs, yield the right of way, and not go the wrong way down one-way streets. I regularly see bikes cruise through busy 4-way stops without even pausing or acknowledging the cars in the cross-direction, dodging though red-lights if there is no oncoming traffic, and cruising the wrong way down one-way streets, occupying an entire lane no less.

The bikes act as if they own this town, and it’s time to stop. I often bike to school, but there’s a line that has to be drawn between making a statement and being stupid. You don’t convince people to start riding their bikes more by acting like arrogant suicidal assholes. If you don’t know how to downshift when you come to an intersection, learn. If you get too tired from stopping and starting, get stronger. And for god’s sake, wear a fucking helmet before some motorist splatters your brains across the asphalt.

Thank you, Ms. Randall.

A lunch with a warm bowl of vichyssoise, a smoked ham and mozzarella sandwich, a tall glass of orange juice, sunlight streaming through an open window, and Michael Chabon’s Summerland is an excellent way to maintain the illusion that it’s still spring break at noon on Monday. Try it sometime.

Last night Erin Rhode and I went to Ashkenaz for an evening with Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, an East Coast Swing/Lindyhop show. Ashkenaz is an odd venue in Berkeley — all sorts of world music, hip-hop, cajun, swing, klezmer, you name it and they play it, as long as it’s not rock-n-roll. The inside resembles a barn more than anything else, exposed rafters and everything. It’s not that big, but there was still quite a bit of room for dancing.

Erin managed to teach me the rudiments of a rock step and a few turns after dinner at home, but I was totally intimdated by the swing-savvy in evidence on the floor. She convinced me to dance one number before I (a) re-twisted my ankle badly and (b) stepped on some woman who looked like my 6th grade teacher and who proceeded to glare at me in a way that suggested detention was in order. I nearly fled the place but ended up driving around the block until my embarrassment faded. We spend the rest of the night standing or sitting and watching the other dancers (lame, I know).

Lavay Smith ended up annoying me more than entertaining me. She was very lackadaisical in her singing, preferring instead to do a few vocal nods in the direction of growling and wailing, and otherwise tossing off lyrics like she was too good for the place. What drew the line for me though was that she started the second set visibly intoxicated. Erin picked up on the slight slurring first, but once it was pointed out to me I could tell some of the band members weren’t sure how to proceed with the show while she waved at various people in the crowd.

All that aside though, I had a good time. Even if she was not so hot, the Skillet Lickers were hot enough to compensate. I was particularly impressed with the alto sax player. And they played Blue Skies, which is one of my favorite tunes. I’m still looking for the Brent Spiner version from that otherwise atrocious Star Trek movie — if anyone has a tip on that, let me know.

Many of the plays that I admire most are overtly political — Marat/Sade (Weiss), Mother Courage and Her Children (Brecht), In The Heart of America (Wallace), Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (Churchill), Marisol (Rivera), and Bhoma (Sircar), for example. I appreciate plays in a different way than I appreciate film or literature. When I see a play and fall in love with it, I want to get involved with it, to grapple with the text and bring it to performance. The theatre is aural, visual, and immediate, which gives it a different flavor than a novel, poem, or movie. The thing I like most about these political plays is the way in which they make their message theatrical.

That is not to say they must be single-mindedly bashing you over the head with some (usually leftist) “point.” A good production of Brecht is not overtly Marxist, but shows the flaws in the way in which society works. Revolution is rarely made the action item of the day, for a generic revolution (as advocated by those Socialist Worker touts on Sproul Plaza) is not going to solve the immediate problem at hand. In Good Woman of Sezuan, Brecht posits that in order to avoid being poor, one must be cruel. When Shen Te comes into some money, she cannot possibly keep more for herself then for her starving neighbors. The poor are shown as opportunistic, and the rich are forced to exploit them, hardly the noble proletariat oppressed by Mr. Moneybags. Of course, that is one way to read it, but I think it’s akin to reading Hamlet as a play about sex-obsessed guy who can’t decide whether to kill himself or not, and then decides to kill his parents. These directorial choices are what make or break a play in terms of nuance.

Directors can spin a story many ways, and herein lies the problem with political plays in the professional theater. In professional theater, you have to satisfy the audience and give them their money’s worth, which leads to two possible outcomes when you produce a political play. If you want simply to entertain, then you produce the play with very little political investment, toning it down, if you will, to make it more palatable for the audience. You play up the jokes and play down the dog-kicking. If, on the other hand, your audience is a bunch of Cambridge or Berkeley intellectuals, they may want to come to the theater to be educated, so you turn your production into a mini-lecture, an intellectual exercise. The need to tell the message is killed, because the dominant need of the professional theater is to stay afloat and get enough subscribers.

The ART has fallen into both traps at different times. One of the first plays I saw there was Dario Fo’s We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay, which is a farce about the high price or groceries. It was a farce alright, but I felt about the same as after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway — sides aching and head empty. More recently I saw Mother Courage and although I was transfixed by some of the performances, the direction was opaque to me. There were terra-cotta Chinese figures, stylized fight practices, and ominous droning for the the scene changes, which I felt added a stylistic noise with no substance. What was worse, I came out of the theater with the thought “war is bad — look at how that poor woman went along with it and then suffered.” It was an almost Aristotelian take on a Brechtian play. I’m all for genre-bending, but I don’t think it follows that if you have the politics of the playwright then you necessarily experience a catharsis (as in Aristotle) from the play where others would be forced to muddle out the open question (as in Brecht).

These traps are also prevalent in the academic theater, where one might hope that the freedom of speech provided on campus might free the director from the commercial limitations of the professional theater. However, the most insidious trap of all is the open casting process for college productions. In order to a political play to have an impact, the actors must be invested in the message and the story that the director is trying to tell. In this case, they must both understand and desire to tell that story, a tall order for most campuses. The drama majors audition for plays on campus because they need practicum credit to graduate, because it’s their only opportunity to do a large-scale production that semester, and because their friends are auditioning. There are very few people who audition for a play because they know it and really want to act in it, and of those, even fewer are cast because they are not usually as well trained as the drama majors. The director is then faced with a motley crew of actors who are all good but who are not necessarily there for the same reason s/he is.

It’s nearly impossible to do with six actors, let alone twenty-nine. When I did Bhoma, I auditioned because it was an Indian play, I was the president of Dramashop, and I liked to act. I didn’t have a great investment in the politics of water in India, I certainly didn’t understand the play very well, and I had only read because we were selecting plays for that season. The other five actors in the production were probably there for similar reasons. In the end, our production was not as good as it could have been because we didn’t understand and need to tell the story we were telling. The barrage of cultural references and stylized choreography didn’t come together to form a coherent picture in our heads, and thus we couldn’t transmit that to the audience. In Marat/Sade, coordinating nearly thirty actors into sending a coherent message was not even part of the equation. Instead, the director asked us to individually work out our attitudes towards the ideas proposed in the play and to present a multiplicity of comments on the action. That too failed, since all fractional shades of interpretation are reduced to the lowest common denominator. I had really hoped the play would be more powerful than it was, but I don’t think there was a way for that to happen.

The upshot is that in order to really make a strong statement, to grab the audience and shake them to get them to wake up, to incite them to take action, you have to do it with a group of committed individuals, an ensemble that is there to do that play because they all want to say something. The cast of Marat/Sade was divided on how they wanted the audience to react, and thus we succeeded in confusing many of them. To do a play like that at a university with maximum impact, you would need to graft a political consciousness onto the actors. I certainly didn’t feel invested in the whole play, and I failed to articulate a coherent attitude towards revolution. I think that Berkeley’s decision to produce Marat/Sade was a good one, and I think the production was good, but it fell short of the play’s potential.

Perhaps what makes the play so good is that each production can capture some of the nuance and can make a political statement, but no production can get it all, and no production can live up to the potential evoked by reading through the script. The goal should be to tranform the possibility of interpretation into a possibility of change, to simultaneously say that here is how things are but yet they need not be this way. The whole enterprise has to be made concrete, but it’s a goal worth aiming for.

by Terry Pratchett. I admit it, I’m somewhat addicted to these Terry Pratchett Discworld novels, which I find somewhat humorous in their self-referential tongue-in-cheek fantasy humor. Night Watch is not a place to start in the series, but might follow naturally after Men At Arms. In this novel, Sam Vimes, who holds the job of police commissioner, is about to apprehend a vicious serial killer when he gets zapped back in time (with the criminal) to his youth. He naturally has to assume the identity of the copper who trained him when he just joined the force, train himself, thwart the criminal, and so on. All very formulaic, but after one Discworld novel you just start looking for the little humorous bits. I fell like in this novel Pratchett gets a bit more into some Deeper Issues, like what it means to look back on your life and your experiences, the values of naivete, and all that rot. But in the end it’s just an entertaining read. Good for airplanes, that’s for sure.

I just picked up one CD from 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, and was groovin’ to it this morning while working on some research, but was disturbed by the crazy skipping action on my CD player. Turns out that Amoeba sold me a skipping CD — first time ever with them. I’m a huge fan of buying used media, but with books you can flip though and see if the pages have been dog-eared (a pet peeve of mine) or if there’s gratuitous underlining, whereas with CDs you cannot. I think it goes back to an underlying problem with the way in which music is marketed. You cannot judge a CD by its cover any more than you can judge a book by its cover, and many CDs get little to no radio airplay. Especially if they are older. So how are you supposed to tell if that 1995 album is one that you want? All of this is old news and old thoughts of others, of course.

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