The Play That Goes Wrong

So, “The Play That Goes Wrong” seems to be a bit polarizing. I have friends whose reactions were “Meh.” I have friends whose were like mine: Loved it. Then again, I’ve always loved “Noises Off,” which is another British play with a similar conceit, in which we watch an amateur theater production go off the rails. In “Noises Off,” there are three acts and a rotating set, so we see the first act as the audience would, the second from the wings, so stage and backstage at once, and the third is only backstage. It’s three looks at the same show, so by the time we get to the end, we know what got screwed up onstage and finally get to see why it happened.

The Play That Goes Wrong” takes a more linear approach, so we see one performance that gets increasingly wonkier. The show-within-a-show is ostensibly an Agatha Christie manqué murder mystery set in a stately mansion. The actor who plays the detective, Chris Bean as Inspector Carter (in reality, Evan Alexander Smith), not only directed the play, he designed costumes, made props, etc., etc. And if you do go to the show, your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by reading the fake actor bios and whatnot in the playbill info for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” because they will add so much to the play for you.

Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, considering that the show starts well before curtain with the stage manager and tech dude futzing with the set (and hilariously involving an audience member in what turns out to be foreshadowing) while two of the running crew wander the audience, frantically trying to find a lost dog, I’d say yes. There is no fourth wall here at any point after you enter the theater, and that’s half the fun. There was even one moment when an audience member shouted something to the actor on stage, and I could not figure out whether it was an usher, or just someone who really got into the spirit of it. It certainly set up the rant from the character that followed, and it says a lot about the writing and performing that he got exactly the reactions he needed from us to make successive lines make sense.

Or maybe there was a lot of ad-libbing and improv of the order of things. Hard to tell which.

As for the show itself, I think the big reasons it amused me so much were these: First, I’ve done a lot of theater in… let’s say, low-budget circumstances… and things are always going wrong, people are forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking props, and so on. Oh, sure. Never to the disastrous scale seen here, but this is just the nightmare cranked up to 11. Second, as an improviser, I was incredibly amused by the conceit that the actors are going to stick to the script as written no matter what happens, dammit! And this is what gets them into the most trouble.

For example, at one point, a character enters to get a pencil for the detective, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. He finally exasperatedly grabs what is very obviously an antique key to the door, still calling it a pencil. All of the characters are working very hard to try to ignore everything that’s wrong around them. Improvisers would embrace this, acknowledge the weird, and run with it.

A perfect example is when one character refers to a portrait on the wall, saying that it’s the father of the brothers in the story and that one of the brothers is his spitting image. But it’s actually a painting of a dog, which in the real life of the play is the same dog the stagehands couldn’t find before the show. The characters continue to play it as if the portrait is human. Improvisers would have gone right to it actually being a dog portrait, but that being the most normal thing of all, and would have come up with one of a dozen ways to justify the brother being its spitting image.

The performances are amazing, and the physical feats as well as the timing here are just mind-boggling. Several characters apparently get whammed really hard by errant parts of the set, and we have stage combat, acrobatics, what amounts to juggling, and several physically tricky exits of characters carried, dragged, or dropped  by others through doors and windows. As for all that “whamming,” which quite often involves hits right to the face and multiple knockouts, I know how this is done, but it was done impressively and convincingly and at more than full-speed.

This is definitely a show that probably has a good hour of slo-mo combat/action practice before every performance.

And as for the acting… it takes an amazingly talented cast to take a bunch of actors as characters who aren’t so great, and make them bad in just the right ways. There are no standouts because everyone was exceptional. Dennis Tyde as Perkins, the butler (Scott Cote) has somewhat of a problem when it comes to remembering or pronouncing obscure words, like “fakade” or “kianeedy,” (façade and cyanide), and this becomes a running gag that leads to a meltdown. Cote draws this character perfectly. As Robert Grove playing Thomas, Peyton Crim the actor brings a very Brian Blessed bigger-than-life vibe to the whole thing, and his physical work, especially when trapped on a lofted playing era threatening to collapse is amazing. Jamie Ann Romero, in real life, plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence, the female lead, who can’t seem to keep it in her panties, at least figuratively, and her affairs with several characters seem to be the catalyst for the murders. Romero is brilliant at giving Sandra just enough talent to be not that talented, but way too declamatory and funny as hell, and watching her morph from Gatsby flapper to a demented and battling Betty Boop is hilarious.

I’ve already mentioned Evan Alexander Smith as Chris Bean, man of many hats, and our detective, Trevor. Not only does he hold the center of the piece together, but he does it as a man who, in his reality, is about to fall apart since this show is his baby, and it isn’t going well. In fact, the moment when he finally breaks character and lets loose is one of the highlights of the whole show.

Then there’s Ned Noyes as Max and Arthur, the trust fund baby, and it’s clear from his fake bio that he’s probably only here because he donated a shitload of money to the company. He’s also the only character who, as an actor, plays two roles but the clue to that is, again, in that bio. He breaks character and the fourth wall constantly, fawns and prances for the audience in many “Wasn’t I clever, there?” moments, and gives a huge bit of fan service in the second act. In short, Noyes makes us love his character for all of his shortcomings as an actor and it’s clear that he, himself, as an actor is just having a ton of fun up there. (Well, everyone is.)

A murder mystery needs a victim, and we open with Jonathan Harris as Charles, the victim, played by Yaegel T. Welch, caught at lights up in the first of many mistakes. His Harris is an actor who can’t quite play a convincing corpse, which is problematic in a murder mystery, but perfect in a play like this. The harder he fails at it, the harder we laugh.

Rounding out the cast are Angela Grovey as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager, and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor Watson, the light and sound operator. They are also the only two American characters in the play. (Again, read those fake bios, people, they’re worth it.) Trevor is only here to get a credit needed to graduate, and he’s not a theater person. Meanwhile, Annie seems to have a terror of being seen by the audience at all. That’s another reason to get there early and watch the pre-show, not to mention that specific things she does then actually turn out to be more foreshadowing of what happens later.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but both Annie and Trevor wind up involved in the onstage happenings more than they want to be, and Grovey and Ellis nail it in character to a T, but in two totally different ways. Annie is initially terrified to be there, but after a moment of audience approval, she suddenly opens up and steals the stage — quite literally later.

Meanwhile, Trevor clearly doesn’t want to be there at all, and especially not when he’s suddenly put in an awkward situation that becomes one of the biggest moments in the second act. (Kudos to Ellis for just going for it as an actor, by the way.) Also impressive: While he spends most of his time during the show scrolling on his phone between cues in the “booth,” which is played by a mezzanine level box, he is still able to take focus exactly when the script needs it, and also plays the audience brilliantly. Of course, I happened to be sitting dead center in the main Mezz, which was right where his eye-line went, so he and I kind of developed a weird little thing during the show.

Not that I have any complaints about that. Nor did Max. But I do digress.

The other two really impressive things about the show are, well, of course the script, and the tech. Script first… the thing to remember is that the murder mystery story here really doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we’re following, but it still made sense. But on the level above that, what really impressed me — and I don’t know how they did it unless there was improv involved — was that certain moments got exactly the emotional response needed from the audience to justify the next lines of dialogue, and this happened multiple times. In fact, when Chris Bean melted down onstage, it happened about five times in a row in the same scene.

The other is that, beyond the timing and juggling of the actors, the physical working of the set was perfect, and whoever designed it deserves All the Awards. We had things falling off of walls, or randomly suddenly staying, a door that became a character on its own, a lofted playing area of many surprises, a stage elevator that, behind the scenes, was way more complicated than this fake company should have attempted — hey, lights and a ladder, maybe instead of a practical lift? — props that either vanished or fell or flew apart, flats that decided to, um, take a bow, recalcitrant doorknobs, and on and on and on. It was a set built to fail, and it fails spectacularly, bit by bit, over the course of the show. The set was, as Trevor describes it, “a death trap.”

The most impressive thing is that the timing of set failures is just as exacting as that of the actors, and I would love to interview the tech people and find out how they did it all. I’m suspecting a ton of remotely controlled magnets and levers (probably via MIDI?), and a third running crew member beyond sound and lights in charge of all the effects.

But I’m just gushing now. As a theater kid, I loved the show just because. As an improviser I loved it even more just because because. Most of the muggles watching with me seemed to love it, too. If you fall into any of those categories, see it if you get a chance. This run ends on August 11. And then before or after, stream “Noises Off,” a 1992 movie version of that play starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and Michael Caine, among others.

Meanwhile, this play goes wrong in all the right ways.

Why astrology is bunk

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially right now, because I’m seeing a lot of “Mercury is going retrograde — SQUEEEE” posts, and they are annoying and wrong.

The effect that Mercury in retrograde will have on us: Zero.

Fact

Mercury doesn’t “go retrograde.” We catch up with and then pass it, so it only looks like it’s moving backwards. It’s an illusion, and entirely a function of how planets orbit the sun, and how things look from here. If Mars had (semi)intelligent life, they would note periods when the Earth was in retrograde, but it’d be for the exact same reason.

Science

What force, exactly, would affect us? Gravity is out, because the gravitational effect of anything else in our solar system or universe is dwarfed by the Earth’s. When it comes to astrology at birth, your OB/GYN has a stronger gravitational effect on you than the Sun.

On top of that, the Sun has 99.9% of the mass of our solar system, which is how gravity works, so the Sun has the greatest gravitational influence on all of the planets. We only get a slight exception because of the size of our Moon and how close it is, but that’s not a part of astrology, is it? (Not really. They do Moon signs, but it’s not in the day-to-day.)

Some other force? We haven’t found one yet.

History

If astrology were correct, then there are one of two possibilities. A) It would have predicted the existence of Uranus and Neptune, and possibly Pluto, long before they were discovered, since astrology goes back to ancient times, but those discoveries happened in the modern era, or B) It would not have allowed for the addition of those three planets (and then the removal of Pluto) once discovered, since all of the rules would have been set down. And it certainly would have accounted for the 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which, again, wasn’t found until very recently, by science.

So…stop believing in astrology, because it’s bunk. Mercury has no effect on us whatsoever, other than when astronomers look out with telescopes and watch it transit the Sun, and use its movements to learn more about real things, like gravity.

Experiment

James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, does a classroom exercise that demolishes the accuracy of those newspaper horoscopes, and here it is — apologies for the low quality video.

Yep. Those daily horoscopes you read are general enough to be true for anyone, and confirmation bias means that you’ll latch onto the parts that fit you and ignore the parts that don’t although, again, they’re designed to fit anyone — and no one is going to remember the generic advice or predictions sprinkled in or, if they do, will again pull confirmation bias only when they think they came true.

“You are an intuitive person who likes to figure things out on your own, but doesn’t mind asking for help when necessary. This is a good week to start something new, but be careful on Wednesday. You also have a coworker who is plotting to sabotage you, but another who will come to your aid. Someone with an S in their name will become suddenly important, and they may be an air sign. When you’re not working on career, focus on home life, although right now your Jupiter is indicating that you need to do more organizing than cleaning. There’s some conflict with Mars, which says that you may have to deal with an issue you’ve been having with a neighbor. Saturn in your third house indicates stability, so a good time to keep on binge watching  your favorite show, but Uranus retrograde indicates that you’ll have to take extra effort to protect yourself from spoilers.”

So… how much of that fit you? Or do you think will? Honestly, it is 100% pure, unadulterated bullshit that I just made up, without referencing any kind of astrological chart at all, and it could apply to any sign because it mentions none.

Conclusion

If you’re an adult, you really shouldn’t buy into this whole astrology thing. The only way any of the planets would have any effect at all on us is if one of them suddenly slammed into the Earth. That probably only happened once, or not, but it’s what created the Moon. So probably ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.

Five easy pieces

Welcome to a little music history and education. I don’t think I’ve mentioned before on the blog, but I am a trained musician who plays anything with a keyboard (including piano accordion, thank you), and was lucky enough to be well-grounded in both the theory and history of music. It’s a fascinating subject.

Here, I’ll be dealing with some tunes that probably everybody would recognize after the first few notes, but very few people could actually name. For the most part, they were created for very different purposes, and a number of them are only known as small pieces of larger works. For all but two, they became iconic once they wound up in film or television — although it could be argued that the pop culture of the pre-mass media world did the same for the other two.

I encourage you to at least sample the linked videos so you can hear what I’m talking about, although most of the “Why you know it” sections will probably make the tunes play in your head automatically.

And-a 1, and-a 2, and-a 1, 2, 3, 4…

1.   Marche funèbre d’une marionnette

Funeral March of a Marionette, 1872, by Charles Guonod

Why you know it: Alfred Hitchcock. He mentioned loving the piece on a BBC Radio show called Desert Island Discs, in 1959. The show was basically one of those “If you could only take X things with you” question formats with celebrities, with the subject being eight pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item. This was one of Hitch’s eight pieces — probably not a surprise at the time, since he had already chosen it as the theme song for his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which debuted in 1955.

How he stumbled across it is anyone’s guess, but it had already been used in a few films very early on, including Sunrise, Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus, and Buster Keaton’s Welcome Danger, all before 1929. Here’s the section from the opening of Hitchcock’s show.

Its original intent: Most likely, Guonod was aiming for a cross between macabre and whimsical. After all, this is a funeral cortege for a “dead” inanimate object, and the score itself plus a change to a D Major near the middle tells us that the “mourners” do stop for what is basically a buffet along the way. In other words, serious, not serious.

How it’s used: To create a general atmosphere of the macabre or sinister, leaving out any bit of whimsy or joy from the original.

Why you don’t know all of it: Hitchcock uses a tiny snippet. The whole piece is about four minutes — way too long for TV credits.

2. Vjezd gladiátorů

Entry of the Gladiators, 1897, by Julius Fučík

Why you know it: Ever been to the circus? You can’t hear this tune without seeing that parade of elephants and lions and clowns, all led by the ringmaster down the street and to the big top.

Its original intent: Pretty much the same as now. It’s from a genre of music called “screamer.” These were marches used in order to pump up a crowd, quite often at events like circuses or state fairs, and frequently right before the entrance of the main act or the famous clowns. What makes them notable is that they focus on the heavy brass in the band instead of the lighter woodwinds, and they are at a tempo that is actually too fast to march at comfortably. If you’ve ever been at any kind of performance that’s used pre-show music, then you’ve experienced this concept, although probably with a much different genre of music. Comedy clubs and live TV “tapings” (they really still use that word) use the same trick — fast-paced, upbeat music right before things start in order to get the audience in the mood.

How it’s used: As originally intended. It’s just that this particular piece happened to win out over all of the other screamers from the era. Oh — and don’t let the title fool you. Fučík never intended it to have anything to do with gladiators, either. He just had a jones for the glory that was Rome.

Why you don’t know all of it: Again, it’s short, and you may have heard the whole thing, but you only remember the hook. Bonus points — it was lifted by Three Dog Night. (God, the 70s didn’t age well.)

3.   O Fortuna!

AKA Oh Fortune, Empress of the World, from Carmina Burana, 1936, by Carl Orff

Why you know it: It’s been used as the soundtrack for countless films and movie trailers since forever. Here it is in Excalibur.

Its original intent: Somebody found a bunch of poetry written by 13th century monks, originally assumed to be from Beuren, but later determined to have actually been created in Austria. Oops! The title stuck, though. Carmina Burana means “songs of Beuren.” Written in a mix of Latin, German, and French of the era, they were not religious songs at all, but, in fact, were rather secular and earthy. Probably not surprising, though, considering that the authors were probably young men only just realizing what they had given up when they chose the monastic life. So, yeah… Orff didn’t start out with high art at all. The raunch is just hidden in the age of the language. Kind of like Shakespeare.

A great and probably honest description of the source comes from an NPR story on its history: “Carmina Burana,” Music of Monks and Drunks. Yeah, like I said, college kids. By the time it got around to Orff, though, he intended it as a pretty serious cantata, to be presented with dance and masks and all kinds of stage craft. After all, he titled it a “scenic cantata,” meaning that it would have scenes and scenery and stuff.

How it’s used: This is the “Shit’s about to get real” theme. Or, when used as satire, it means “Much ado about nothing.”

What you don’t know: It’s the opening and closing of the aforementioned song cycle, but none of the rest of it ever reaches this level of brilliant. I mean, the first four bars of O Fortuna are in a 3/1 time signature. Musicians will instantly get how balls to the wall that choice was. And while all that stuff between the beginning and ending isn’t well known, at least it’s good — unlike our next piece.

4.   Also sprach Zarathustra

Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896, by Richard Strauss.

Why you know it: Stanley Kubrick.

Come on, really. If this isn’t the first movie you think of when you hear this song, you need to get out more. But even if you haven’t seen it, you do know the tune. Kubrick used it three times in the movie — under the opening credits, right before the most epic time span in a jump-cut in movies ever (hundreds of thousands of years, if not a million or two), and at the end as Bowman is… let’s just say, given a jumpstart in evolution.

Its original intent: Strauss was writing a tone poem based on a treatise by Friedrich Nietzsche of the same title, and probably most well-known for the statement “God is dead,” which appears as a question in the prologue and a statement in part two. It was this work that Strauss was trying to capture musically, although he proved that philosophical works probably don’t make the best source for emotionally moving art.

How it’s used: Whenever someone wants to parody or reference 2001: A Space Odyssey or indicate something profoundly epic is happening.

What you don’t know: Similar to Orff, this piece is the beginning and ending of a long song cycle. The difference is that while O Fortuna serves as the cookies outside of an Oreo, Also is just the bread on a shit sandwich. I’ve listened to the whole thing and, trust me, it’s less exciting than watching paint dry. There’s a reason that Johann “The Waltz King” is the better known Strauss, although he and Richard were not related. But Johann did get a piece in 2001 as well.

5.   Treulich gefürht

The Bridal Chorus, from Lohengrin, 1850, Richard Wagner

Why you know it: Come on. You’ve been to some weddings in your life, whether as guest, part of the wedding party, part of the family, or one of the two co-stars. This tune is now known as Here Comes the Bride, and it’s inspired more happy tears than have ever been cried by all of the fans of all the winning teams of every big sports ball championship final match ever.

Its original intent: Again, pretty much as we know it, except for the sole purpose of providing a dramatic, suspenseful, and emotional entrance for a wedding scene in an opera. It wasn’t written to be used in weddings at all. But you know how people are. It only took one socialite at the opera to announce, “Mother, we are using this song when I get married, and that’s it.” Boom. The rest is history.

How it’s used: Whether literally or ironically, it says “someone is about to get married.” It is most always played as the bride enters the wedding venue.

What you don’t know: Probably most of the rest of that opera, Lohengrin. And you probably don’t also realize the irony of weddings often using this song as an entrance and Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as an exit — which is, sadly, not called There Goes the Bride. Why? Well, Richard had no love for Felix because Mendelssohn was Jewish and Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. In fact, whenever the latter had to conduct the music of the former, he would wear gloves so that he didn’t have to come into contact with the score, and then throw the gloves away when he was done. Yes — Wagner was talented, but he was a jerk-ass.

What are your favorite “Songs everyone knows without knowing the source?” Tell us in the comments!

Image by Grzegorz Dymon, used unchanged under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

5 things space exploration brought back down to Earth

Recently, I wrote about how a thing as terrible as World War I still gave us some actual benefits, like improvements in plastic surgery, along with influencing art in the 20th century. Now, I’d like to cover something much more positive: five of the tangible, down-to-earth benefits that NASA’s space programs, including the Apollo program to the Moon, have given us.

I’m doing so because I happened across another one of those ignorant comments on the internet along the lines of, “What did going to the Moon ever really get us except a couple of bags of rocks?” That’s kind of like asking, “What did Columbus sailing to America ever really get us?” The answer to that should be obvious, although NASA did it with a lot fewer deaths and exactly zero genocide.

All of those Apollo-era deaths came with the first manned attempt, Apollo 1, which was destroyed by a cabin fire a month before its actual launch date during a test on the pad on January 27, 1967, killing all three astronauts aboard. As a consequence, missions 2 through 6 were unmanned. Apollo 7 tested docking maneuvers for the Apollo Crew and Service Modules, to see if this crucial step would work, and Apollo 8 was the first to achieve lunar orbit, circling our satellite ten times before returning to Earth. Apollo 9 tested the crucial Lunar Module, responsible for getting the first humans onto and off of the Moon, and Apollo 10 was a “dress rehearsal,” which went through all of the steps except the actual landing.

Apollo 11, of course, was the famous “one small step” mission, and after that we only flew six more times to the Moon, all of them meant to do the same as 11, but only the other one that’s most people remember, Apollo 13, is famous for failing to make it there.

I think the most remarkable part is that we managed to land on the Moon only two-and-a-half years after that disastrous first effort, and then carried out five successful missions in the three-and-a-half-years after that. What’s probably less well-known is that three more missions were cancelled between Apollo 13 and 14, but still with the higher numbers 18 through 20 because their original launch dates were not until about two years later.

Yes, why they just didn’t skip from to 17 so that the numbering worked out to 20 is a mystery.

Anyway, the point is that getting to the Moon involved a lot of really intelligent people solving a lot of tricky problems in a very short time, and as a result of it, a ton of beneficial tech came out of it. Some of this fed into or came from Apollo directly, while other tech was created or refined in successive programs, like Skylab, and  the Space Shuttle.

Here are my five favorites out of the over 6,300 technologies that NASA made great advances in on our journeys off of our home planet.

CAT scanner: Not actually an invention of NASA’s per se — that credit goes to British physicists Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack. However, the device did use NASA’s digital imaging technology in order to work, and this had been developed by JPL for NASA in order to enhance images taken on the moon. Since neither CAT scanners nor MRIs use visible light to capture images, the data they collect needs to be processed somehow and this is where digital imaging comes in.

A CAT scanner basically uses a revolving X-ray tube to repeatedly circle the patient and create a profile of data taken at various depths and angles, and this is what the computer puts together. The MRI is far safer (as long as you don’t get metal too close to it.)

This is because instead of X-rays an MRI machine works by using a magnetic field to cause the protons in every water molecule in your body to align, then pulsing a radio frequency through, which unbalances the proton alignment. When the radio frequency is then turned off, the protons realign. The detectors sense how long it takes protons in various places to do this, which tells them what kind of tissue they’re in. Once again, that old NASA technology takes all of this data and turns it into images that can be understood by looking at them. Pretty nifty, huh?

Invisible braces: You may remember this iconic moment from Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales, in which Scotty shares the secret of “transparent aluminum” with humans of 1986.

However, NASA actually developed transparent polycrystalline alumina long before that film came out and, although TPA is not a metal, but a ceramic, it contributed to advances in creating nearly invisible braces. (Note that modern invisible braces, like Invisalign, are not made of ceramic.)

But the important point to note is that NASA managed to take a normally opaque substance and allow it to transmit light while still maintaining its properties. And why did NASA need transparent ceramic? Easy. That stuff is really heat-resistant, and if you have sensors that need to see light while you’re dumping a spacecraft back into the atmosphere, well, there you go. Un-melting windows and antennae, and so on. This was also a spin-off of heat-seeking missile technology.

Joystick: You can be forgiven for thinking that computer joysticks were invented in the early 1980s by ATARI or (if you really know your gaming history) by ATARI in the early 1970s. The first home video game, Pong, was actually created in 1958, but the humble joystick itself goes back to as far as aviation does, since that’s been the term for the controller on airplanes since before World War I. Why is it called a “joystick?” We really don’t know, despite attempts at creating folk etymology after the fact.

However, those early joysticks were strictly analogue — they were connected mechanically to the flaps and rudders that they controlled. The first big innovation came thirty-two years before Pong, when joysticks went electric. Patented in 1926, it was dreamt up by C. B. Mirick at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Its purpose was also controlling airplanes.

So this is yet another incidence of something that NASA didn’t invent, but boy howdy did they improv upon it — an absolute necessity when you think about it. For NASA, joysticks were used to land craft on the Moon and dock them with each other in orbit, so precision was absolutely necessary, especially when trying to touch down on a rocky satellite after descending through no atmosphere at orbital speed, which can be in the vicinity of 2,300 mph (about 3,700 km/h) at around a hundred kilometers up. They aren’t much to look at by modern design standards, but one of them sold at auction a few years back for over half a million dollars.

It gets even trickier when you need to dock two craft moving at similar speed, and in the modern day, we’re doing it in Earth orbit. The International Space Station is zipping along at a brisk 17,150 mph, or 27,600 km/h. That’s fast.

The early NASA innovations involved adding rotational control in addition to the usual X and Y axes, and later on they went digital and all kinds of crazy in refining the devices to have lots of buttons and be more like the controllers we know and love today. So next time you’re shredding it your favorite PC or Xbox game with your $160 Razer Wolverine Ultimate Chroma Controller, thank the rocket scientists at NASA. Sure, it doesn’t have a joystick in the traditional sense, but this is the future that space built, so we don’t need one!

Smoke detector: This is another device that NASA didn’t invent, but which they certainly refined and improved. While their predecessors, automatic fire alarms, date back to the 19th century, the first model relied on heat detection only. The problem with this, though, is that you don’t get heat until the fire is already burning, and the main cause of death in house fires isn’t the flames. It’s smoke inhalation. The version patented by George Andrew Darby in England in the 1890s did account for some smoke, but it wasn’t until the 1930s the concept of using ionization to detect smoke happened. Still, these devices were incredibly expensive, so only really available to corporations and governments. But isn’t that how all technological progress goes?

It wasn’t until NASA teamed with Honeywell (a common partner) in the 1970s that they managed to bring down the size and cost of these devices, as well as make them battery-operated. More recent experiments on ISS have helped scientists to figure out how to refine the sensitivity of smoke detectors, so that it doesn’t go off when your teenage boy goes crazy with the AXE body spray or when there’s a little fat-splash back into the metal roaster from the meat you’re cooking in the oven. Both are annoying, but at least the latter does have a positive outcome.

Water filter: Although it turns out that water is common in space, with comets being lousy with the stuff in the form of ice, and water-ice confirmed on the Moon and subsurface liquid water on Mars, as well as countless other places, we don’t have easy access to it, so until we establish water mining operations off-Earth, we need to bring it with us. Here’s the trick, though: water is heavy. A liter weighs a kilogram and a gallon weighs a little over eight pounds. There’s really no valid recommendation on how much water a person should drink in a day, but if we allow for two liters per day per person, with a seven person crew on the ISS, that’s fourteen kilos, or 31 pounds of extra weight per day. At current SpaceX launch rates, that can range from $23,000 to $38,000 per daily supply of water, but given a realistic launch schedule of every six weeks, that works out to around $1 to $1.5 million per launch just for the water. That six-week supply is also eating up 588 kilos of payload.

And remember: This is just for a station that’s in Earth orbit. For longer missions, the cost of getting water to them is going to get ridiculously expensive fast — and remember, too, that SpaceX costs are relatively recent. In 1981, the cost per kilogram was $85,216, although the Space Shuttles cargo capacity was slightly more than the Falcon Light.

So what’s the solution? Originally, it was just making sure all of the water was purified, leading to the Microbial Check Valve, which eventually filtered out (pun intended) to municipal water systems and dental offices. But to really solve the water problem, NASA is moving to recycling everything. And why not? Our bodies tend to excrete a lot of the water we drink when we’re done with it. Although it’s a myth that urine is sterile, it is possible to purify it to reclaim the water in it, and NASA has done just that. However, they really shouldn’t use the method shown in the satirical WW II film Catch-22

So it’s absolutely not true that the space program has given us nothing, and this list of five items barely scratches the surface. Once what we learn up there comes back down to Earth, it can improve all of our lives, from people living in the poorest remote villages on the planet to those living in splendor in the richest cities.

If you don’t believe that, here’s a question. How many articles of clothing that are NASA spin-offs are you wearing now, or do you wear on a regular basis? You’d be surprised.

Something to crow about

The other evening, while I was walking my dog, the neighborhood crows were engaging in their usual near-sunset activities, which mostly involve wheeling around the sky, landing en masse on the power lines, cawing loudly at each other, then wheeling around again, going from tree to tree as if they’re all trying to come to an agreement as to which motel to check into for the night.

This particular evening, a good sized murder had settled around one tree, more or less, but various birds kept swooping in and out or going from branch to branch. The thing is, because of their positions and because I started to pay attention, something struck me.

Their calls were absolutely not at random. I’d hear one crow squawk a particular note a certain number of times, then another crow answer with a different note and number, and so on, and each crow always gave the same signal. Also, the shorter calls seemed to come from more mobile birds, while the longest calls came from the same places.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was a family gathering in which each member was either announcing their presence by saying their name or asking if a particular other crow was present by saying their name. It surprised me how completely distinct each call was. Every bird had their own unique note and register and tone of voice, right down to the point that birds with the same number of notes still sounded like individuals. And I don’t think I’m crazy when I say that the two or three birds with the longest calls really sounded like they were squawking with absolute authority.

This is very different than what you hear when the flock is sending out a warning of a predator in the area, or when they discover a member of the family that has been killed by one. In that case, the birds are generally wheeling around in the air, and their caws are more frantic, overlapping, and agitated. Similarly, if a rival flock tries to come into the area, you’ll hear something akin to the predator warning, although in this case the flock will stand its ground, since it’s protecting territory, and may be a bit less frantic and user shorter calls in a lower pitch.

The thing is, dinosaurs never died out. They just evolved into birds. And the corvids, as in crows and ravens and the like, are among the smartest of all birds. They can remember faces and actions. Pro-tip: Never do anything to threaten or annoy a crow, because they will just tell the other crows, and they will gang up on you ever after. On the other hand, if you leave them food, they may bring you shiny trinkets.

Even more remarkable, they can use tools, and figure out problems, like this crow.

At first, this may not seem that amazing, since the crow was taught each of the stages of this puzzle separately, but the key detail is that he was never taught how they all fit together to get the reward. That was the part he had to figure out, showing that these birds are indeed able to think logically and consider the future implications of present actions — “If I do A, then I’ll be able to do B,” and so on.

They have a lot of other superpowers, which are worth reading up on. One of the most amazing, though, is that in Japan, they learned the meaning of traffic lights and began exploiting cars to crack walnuts for them. Watch.

As David Attenborough explains the above, the crows figured out that they could drop a nut in the street while cars were going along it and the tires would crack the shells. Then, when the light changed and stopped traffic, the crows could simply trot into the crosswalk and grab their treat.

There happen to be a huge number of crows in my neighborhood, and I love it. They are majestic and intelligent, they clean up road kill and other crap, and it’s amusing to watch when two or three of them will casually try to intimidate a lone squirrel into revealing where she’s just buried her goodies. (But don’t get me wrong. I love squirrels, too.)

Near sunset seems to be congregation time for the flocks, and it’s always the same process. They will arrive en masse, starting out by landing on the overhead wires and striking up a conversation, albeit a noisy and overlapping one. Then, as if one of them fired an invisible starter’s gun, they’ll take off, soar around a bit, then come back to settle into one or two trees. This is when they begin their alternating individual calls.

I sometimes wish that it were legal to have pet crows, but, sadly, it’s been banned by Federal Law without a special permit since 1918. In case you’re wondering how Frank Capra got away with it, he didn’t. Although legend has it that he owned Jimmy the Crow, who appeared in all of his movies from It’s a Wonderful Life on, that bird was actually a raven, and he was owned by animal trainer Curley Twiford, who presumably had the right permits.

(EDIT: Hat-tip to Kaeli at Corvid Research, whose article I linked above, for pointing out that corvids were not banned under the migratory birds act until the early 1970s, and people did keep them as pets during the Depression, although as far as I know, Jimmy still wasn’t actually Capra’s pet, just another hired actor.)

Finally, there’s the famous riddle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which itself was really Lewis Carroll’s clapback at “modern” math of the day. Since he was also a mathematician, albeit a very conservative one, he took great umbrage at new innovations, like imaginary numbers, set theory, alternate geometries, and the like, and used his fictional works to satirize them. Or, in other words, he was kind of close-minded, although also a brilliant writer who managed to give us such endearing and enduring works as the Alice books, including the Jabberwocky poem contained in one of them, and the amazing stand-alone epic The Hunting of the Snark. By the way, Jabberwocky was the inspiration for the very weirdly wonderful early feature film of the same name directed by Terry Gilliam.

But I do digress. Here is Carroll’s riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” He intended it to be complete nonsense and, in fact, when he finally got tired of fans asking him about it, he provided his own answer, which really is rather inadequate: “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!” Unfortunately, the pun in the intentional misspelling of “nevar” (“raven” backwards) was “fixed” by a proofreader before this went into later editions, eliminating whatever bit of weak and pedantic humor was in Carroll’s original.

The “real” and much better answer, though, should be obvious. It’s because Poe wrote on both of them. Well, duh. And even though Carroll was British and Poe was American, the former should have heard of the latter, since Poe died when Carroll was only seventeen and managed to become somewhat well-known in his brief fortyish years. Carroll in particular should have known of Poe’s most famous work, The Raven, which is an absolute piece of music written in words. The rhyme schemes in it, both external and internal, are sheer art and brilliance, and the rhythm and intentional repetition absolutely create a mood and a forward motion that is inevitable.

But… none of this has anything to do with telling a hawk from a handsaw, by the way, unless Carroll was intentionally homaging Shakespeare with his poorly attempted riddle.

Here’s the point of all the crowing I’m doing, though. If you think that animals are not intelligent creatures with real emotional needs and wants, then you’re probably a little less than human yourself. Moving away from birds, I want to close with this absolutely delightful video that’s worth the time.

After watching those cows physically expressing joy at being let into the field after a long winter in the barn, I dare you to tell me that they are not thinking, feeling creatures.

Image source: Akshay Vijay Nachankar, used unaltered via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The art of war

Ending just over a century ago, World War I, originally known as The Great War or the War to End All Wars, turned out to be none of the above, since it was eclipsed by its sequel, World War II — to date, the planet’s only nuclear war — which also outdid the first World War in terms of “greatness” if you take “great” to mean number of deaths. Also, obviously, the fact that there was a II to follow the I — and many other wars thereafter to the present day — means that World War I didn’t end any wars at all.

What’s often forgotten about the aftermath of that wr was the effect it had on the people who lived through it — sometimes barely — and especially the effect it had on the arts and culture, as well as the politics of the rest of the first half of the 20th century. It left a generation that was as stunned as the post-Vietnam generation. In fact, it gave us the original term for what we now call PTSD: shell-shock.

In the arts, it gave us things like Dada, which led to Surrealism, which were both efforts to deal with the absolute horror of what really was the first modern war. After all, WWI gave us the first aerial warfare with planes (after a brief prelude in Mexico), the first trench warfare and the first large-scale chemical warfare. It also led to the development of new techniques in plastic surgery. Hey, gotta figure out how to rebuild all those faces that got blown off, right?

But it was the art connection that really hit home, because I can think of three films that dealt with World War I that have really stuck with me — the first because of the way it manages to demonstrate the pure horror of that war and all wars, and the other two because they show, brilliantly, how that war went on to influence the arts and artists of that generation as they grew up after it.

The oldest film and oldest source is Johnny Got His Gun, based on a book written Dalton Trumbo in 1938 — or, in other words, right before the sequel to the Great War was released. Ironically, he was later blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s. The movie came out in 1971, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. Both it and the book tell a first-person story about a young veteran of World War I who comes home with all of his limbs and his face blown off. He basically has no way to communicate with the world, and keeps reliving the war while telling us what he can sense — which is mostly the sounds and touches from the nurses around him.

It’s a very dark and hopeless story. This man has basically been condemned to be trapped in his own practically useless body which is just being kept alive because, well, it’s what you do for the wounded, right? He is denied euthanasia and can’t even commit suicide. Even though he finally manages to try to communicate in Morse code by banging his head on his pillow, he’s ignored — just like so many veterans of that (and other) wars have been.

The second film, Savage Messiah, is one of Ken Russell’s earlier biopics. Released in 1972, it tells the story of artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Gaudier was his birth name, but he had a rather unconventional relationship with a much older woman and took her name as a hyphenate way before it was even a thing, even though they never married.

Eventually, he marches off voluntarily to fight in World War I, and one of the scenes near the end of the film is one that has stuck with me since I first saw it in an art-house revival years ago. One character is reading a letter from Henri on the front that is glorifying the war, talking about killing the enemy. Another character, pitched as somewhat of an antagonist, says, “Whoever wrote that should be shot,” and the man reading the letter replies, “He was. This morning.”

And that is how we find out that this artist and sculptor is dead. It’s one of those rug-yank moments that works so well.

The final film, Max, came out thirty years after Savage Messiah, but is perhaps the strongest synthesis of the “how this war affected the arts” with “how this war got a sequel.” In it, John Cusack plays the titular character, a would-be artist who lost his painting arm in the trenches and so who is now just an art dealer and agent. He meets a young Hitler, portrayed by the brilliant Noah Taylor, and tries to mentor him, but it does not go well because Hitler cannot understand the human side of art while Max cannot see Hitler’s nascent fascism in his works.

One of the highlights is a Dadaist performance piece by Max in which he is lowered, apparently nude and with lost arm in full view sans prosthetic, into a giant meat-grinder while he talks about the war, tons of ground beef pouring out the business end. While the character of Max Rothman in 1918 may have been fictional, the film is still a very effective take on the emotional scars that this war left on everyone who had to live through the battlefield. Only the dead were left with just physical scars, and not emotional ones, although that’s probably not better.

Of course, there are a bunch of top-rated World War I movies, some made before, a lot made after; some of which I’ve seen, a lot of which I’ve haven’t, along with the long list of all World War I movies. Also, I can’t forget Black Adder Goes Forth, which basically ended a beloved series with (SPOILER ALERT) all of the characters rushing out of the trench to their certain deaths. But, c’mon. It’s a Black Adder series. That shouldn’t be a surprise at all, considering how the first one ended.

Finally, to really bring it full circle, Rajiv Joseph wrote a play about the start of World War I called Archduke which was pretty amazing and that played in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2017, exactly a century after the U.S. finally entered WWI.

Oh yeah. The other big effect of that war? It’s the one that solidified the U.S. as a world super-power after we fired the first shot in the Spanish-American War but before we stole the thunder from Britain and France by finally jumping in to end the First World War. That part is not necessarily good, though, either.

What films about war particularly move you? Tell us in the comments!

On the shoulders of giants

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!