April 2007


(by Federico Garcia Lorca, directed by Evren Odcikin, at Shotgun) Blood Wedding is one of those plays I always meant to read but never did, so I was glad of the opportunity to see it staged at Shotgun. The aesthetic of this production was flamenco, and scenes were started with a stomp of the foot, chairs were slammed on the ground, and the actors tried to conjure up a feeling of duende to heighten the tension of the piece. Unfortunately, it only worked half the time, and I felt that the first act, whose dialogue is less lyrical, was a little overdone. Actually, the first act reminded me of Charles Mee in a strange way — the lines were broken down and the interactions intense and choreographed — distilled, if you like. Lorca’s poetry came out more strongly in the second act, where I thought the evocation of a haunted and surreal nightscape struck the right balance. As usual, Shotgun’s stuff is worth seeing, and the play continues through this weekend. I’m glad I got a chance to see it, and maybe now I’ll go read Bernarda Alba or something.

(by Tanya Barfield, directed by Delroy Lindo, at The Berkeley Rep). The Berkeley Rep’s latest play investigates the notion of African-American identity and history through one night of memories in the life of Lewis, an African-American professor of the philosophy of mathematics. His white wife has just divorced him and his father has died the year before, and he is sort of falling apart. Lewis’s meditation is interrupted by his ancestors, from Simon, the slave who became free, through his own father, and has to come to grips with his own family’s history and how his own struggle to be an academic success has been shaped by his own upbringing.

This is a play worth seeing, and is definitely not the bildungsroman that Passing Strange was. The writing is at times too obvious, and the billing as a “play with music” feels inaccurate compared to other “plays with music” that I have seen. Lewis’s research is on questions of causality and how time is represented mathematically, which may or may not be something that real math philosophers deal with, and is of course a convenient metaphor on which to bounce the story of the play. What really shines out are the performances, which salvaged any unevenness in the writing for me. David Fonteno and Teagle F. Bougere are simply electric together.

Auctions of divisible goods with endogenous supply
K. Back and J.F. Zender
Economics Letters 73 (2001) 29–34

I’m working on a research problem that has some relationship to auction theory, so I’m trying to read up on some of the literature. I finally found this paper, which is more related to what I’m doing — an auction in which the amount of the divisible good is determined after the bidding. This is used in Treasury auctions in some countries, but is also a reasonable model for a kind of “middleman scenario” I think, where the seller is a middleman and uses the bids to purchase the good to be sold from a supplier.

In a uniform-price auction (where the bidders bid demand curves and the seller sets a price), equilibria exists where the bidders bid really low and then get the good for free. This can be arbitrarily bad for the seller. In a discriminatory-price auction (where the price bidders pay is kind of like an integral of their demand curve), this problem doesn’t happen, since bidders are interested in their entire demand curve. This is good for the seller.

But you can fix up a uniform price auction by letting the seller restrict the supply after the bids come in, This paper shows that in that case, the equilibria are better for the seller, and in fact the seller will not have to restrict the supply. So by retaining the right to restrict the supply, the situation is improved, but that right need not be exercised.

The Estimation of Probabilties (Irving John Good) This slim volume is subtitled “an Essay on Modern Bayesian Methods,” and is a relatively quick read. I found the going a little tough at times, since the terminology is perhaps a little out of date and I’m not completely at one with all the statistics terminology. He talks a lot about Type I probabilities (priors), Type II probabilities (priors on priors), and even Type III probabilities (priors on priors on priors). Broadly, the book deals with estimation of distributions from samples — given a set of exchangeable samples from a distribution on t elements, how should you estimate the probabilty p_i of seeing element i? Later on, he talks about how to do this estimation when t itself is unknown, which leads to the famous Good-Turing estimator. There’s been a fair bit of work on these questions recently, which motivated me to read the book. Plus it has great quotes like:

If the Bayesian prefers, he can… with some boggle, imagine an infinite sequence of distinct universes selected at random… The notion of a random selection of universes is of course purely metaphysical… and any crutch to one’s judgement can be used unofficially. It might be inexpedient to mention to one’s customers that one had such naughty unscientific private thoughts.

The Thursday Next Adventures (Jasper Fforde) I finally read, or rather devoured, these novels. Set in a world which takes its literature very seriously indeed and the boundary between the written page and reality is thin and permeable, these mystery/adventure novels follow the adventures of Thursday Next, a Special Operations agent in charge of literary misdemeanors. The best thing about these books was that they actually made me want to go back and read Great Expectations and other classics. I suspect that was part of Fforde’s intent. But they’re good stuff.

The Big Over-Easy (Jasper Fforde) A spin-off from the above, this is a murder mystery set in a world populated by nursery rhyme characters. Detective Jack Spratt investigates the foul murder of Humpty Dumpty. Is Solomon Grundy to blame? Sometimes Fforde’s writing becomes a little too precious, but it’s just too fun to read, especially if you like a good mystery.

The Bartimaus Trilogy (Jonathan Stroud) Young-adult fantasy series about an England run by magicians whose power is entirely derived from enslaving djinns. I’d put this stuff up there with Diana Wynne Jones, and good reading if you like that genre.

Longitude (Dava Sobel) A book about the history of the longitude problem, which plagued seafarers for centuries. The historian in me liked the book quite a bit, but the engineer in me wanted more details about the construction of the (very clever) clocks that eventually solved the problem.

Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) A hilarious and touching tale of finding one’s roots and discovering the past, told by a novelist (named Jonathan Safran Foer), who wants to reconstruct the shtetl in Ukraine where his grandfather lived, and his translator, whose English is deliciously massacred. I haven’t seen the movie, and I find it hard to believe that a movie could possibly do justice to the book.

Pastoralia (George Saunders) This collection of short stories was a bit hit-and-miss, subject-wise, but George Saunders’ writing is always spot-on. I particularly liked Pastoralia and The Barber’s Sadness. If you like George Walker’s plays, you would like George Saunders — they have the same concern with getting inside the heads of people whom society might classify as “losers.” I bet there’d be an interesting piece of criticism waiting in there, actually.

Bhopal (Rahul Varma) This play takes a hard look at the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, and the layers of complicity and complication. Varma is an Indian-Canadian playwright, and our “in” on the play is via a Canadian doctor who is doing some medical research on women and babies near the factory in Bhopal. What is interesting is how the play complicates this NGO involvement by asking us to consider how our medical research also manipulates the poor in coercive ways, even though we are doing it for “a good cause.”

Next on the list : Creating Modern Probability (von Plato), Desis In The House (Maira), and Magic for Beginners (Link).

And it’s a good thing too — I don’t even like Buffy

Xander wishes to leave a message for his friend Buffy and writes it on a chalkboard using a secret code. After he leaves, Spike comes by and sees the encoded message on the chalkboard. Not content to leave things as they are, he decides to make some limited alterations to what was written. When Buffy comes back that evening, she has to recover the message left for her by Xander, despite Spike’s non-causal tampering with the encoded message. In this paper we will look at a model for this problem, which can be thought of as randomized coding for arbitrarily varying channels with the codeword known to the jammer.

San Francisco’s recent ban on plastic bags has been widely reported, but what surprised me is that The Economist is wholly supportive of it. Their reportage pointed out something which hasn’t appeared anywhere else that I’ve seen — similar bans have been established “in Rwanda, Bhutan, Bangladesh…, South Africa…, and Mumbai.”

I’m amazed at the corn-starch plates and forks, and biodegradeable bags are a great step too, provided that the energy cost in making them is not too excessive. But it’s hard to find real data on that. Until then, count me in for the ban, and I hope other cities follow suit.

I went to see a performance on Sproul Plaza by a aprt of Jana Natya Manch, a street theater company from Delhi, and later went to see a documentary about their work. From talking to Liz, I had thought that agit-prop really died in the early Soviet Union, but it’s alive and well in India. After years of watching the Mime Troupe’s ossified preaching-to-the-choir form of direct political appeal, JANAM’s methods and approach are refreshing and immediate. I don’t really know if the CPI(M) is the best option really, as I have a distrust of most political parties. One woman in the troupe talked a bit about this during the documentary — she was more interested in social change than political parties, but then realized that political parties should be about social change.

The flip-side is that their style would not work in the US. I have a lot of half-formed theories about this — the entrenchment of our two-party system, the fact that the economically downtrodden in the US have been duped into thinking that they are not as downtrodden as they are, and our curious predilection to be left alone all the time. People simply do not stop what they are doing or where they are going to see a piece of street theater.

Anyway, it was food for thought and food for blogging.

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