Friday Free-for-All #83: Double tech, impact, business

More random internet questions: Technology in education and in general, the pros and cons of IQ tests, and my ideal business

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

How can technology improve education? Can it hurt education?

Technology, when it comes to education, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes access to information so much easier. when I finished high school, we did have computers, but the internet was only just starting to develop, and it hadn’t gotten far enough while I was in college to make it all that useful.

Unfortunately, my school was not among the first six to receive a .edu domain and hence email for everyone. Hell, they hadn’t even received one by the time the 90s rolled around and I can’t remember the first time I got an email begging for money to which I wanted to reply, “Bitches, I already gave you enough that I’m still paying off, so just back off.”

But… technology is a double-edged sword in education because on the one hand, it can make learning and research too easy and, on the other hand, it can make learning and research too easy.

If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s not. These are two sides of the coin, which means that no matter how advanced technology gets or how integrated it becomes with our educational experience, it will always need experienced, trained humans to guide students through it.

On the positive side, if you need to look up quick facts about things, you can now do it in seconds from your own home or phone, with no need to make a trip to the library or pull that encyclopedia volume off the shelf. Or, right, no one has had a set of encyclopedias in their home since maybe the mid-90s.

But note that this only refers to simple facts, and you still have to be wary of your sources. Remember: Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and if you happen to hit the page on Edgar Allan Poe during that ten minutes when some joker added American Psycho to his list of works and you don’t know better, you’re going to wind up with a bad book report.

Not to say that Poe wouldn’t have written American Psycho if he lived in the last century, but he didn’t.

But with a proper teacher, or a curated and guided site, like Khan Academy, then education can be in very good hands via technology. But don’t fall prey to Prager “University” or its ilk, because that is the opposite of education. It’s indoctrination.

The other great benefit technology offers for education is the one we’ve seen over the last year and a half plus: Remote learning. It’s a boon for parents who also work from home, very helpful for children who might otherwise have issues interacting in person, and can also allow for parental involvement in their child’s educational process, which is very important to learning.

Well, as long as the parents just shut up and defer to the teacher. Because the dark side of that is what we’ve seen in contentious schoolboard meetings with angry and misguided parents protesting everything from mask and vaccine mandates to the actual content and curriculum, often with violent threats. And, yeah. We don’t need that shit. That helps no one.

Another downside to learning remotely can be social isolation. However, like it or not, the current generation of kids born in the last decade are probably going to grow up know as many people online as they know in real life, if not more, and will probably never meet them.

And you know what? That’s fine. I’ve been living in that world for at least the last 25 years or so, and since everyone has now been exposed to life via Zoom in the last 19 months, that’s only going to become more normal.

Then again, I was regularly doing video remote meetings fifteen years ago in a ridiculously high-tech room in which an entire wall was covered in super hi-def video screens, and we would have live meetings with the staff of our co-production company. We were in Glendale, U.S., and they were in Bristol, UK, but that tech created one long boardroom table that all of us sat around.

Okay, sure. No one had the tech or bandwidth to do this at home at that time, but just look at us now, and imagine where technology will be in another ten or twenty years.

Can it help education? Oh, hell yeah. But with one gigantic caveat. We will still and always need educators to keep rein on the tech to make sure that bad information is not leaking through. We will always need teachers no matter how well we think that our AI can teach.

And that is why this should become one of the most highly paid professions before the end of 2022.

Is there a limit to what humans can create through technology and science?

Of course there are, and those limits are written into the universe itself. We can never create a system that will propel anything with mass faster than light-speed — although we may be able to figure out how to travel through space without moving through space, effectively creating a warp drive or fold that will get us from point A to B without violating the universal speed limit.

We will probably also never be able to negate the force of gravity because it doesn’t seem to be a force mediated by a field or particle, but rather an intrinsic property of space and time. We might be able to manipulate space via achieving some sort of control over matter, and hence being able to concentrate gravity, though.

But this is all getting into Kardashev scale territory, which ranks a society based on how much energy they are able to exploit. We’re close to but not quite at Type I, which is harnessing all of the energy that reaches a planet from its star but, of course, all of the energy on our planet came from the Sun in the first place.

If we want to get to Type II, we’d need to harness all of the energy of our Sun, which would mean surrounding it in something like a Dyson Sphere, although this would be bad for planets that we don’t hook up to this energy boon. Remember: We’re only getting a little cone of sunlight that only hits half of our planet at a time. A sphere capturing everything would increase that power output enormously because it would expand that tiny cone to include the entire surface and circumference of the Sun in three dimensions.

Imagine the difference between shining the light and heat of an incandescent bulb through a small hole punched in a piece of carboard, and then imagine the light and heat created if you surrounded that bulb with a spherical screen that was entirely mirrored on the inside.

To get to Type III, good luck — you have to harvest all of the energy available in your own galaxy, which would probably make your galaxy go dark to the rest of the universe and might be a dead giveaway. Then again, if you can harness the energy of an entire galaxy, I don’t think that any non-Type III society would be a threat at all.

Kardashev never postulated a Type IV, but that society would be able to harness the power of the entire universe, although what they could actually do with it would be questionable. Maybe they could accelerate a ship with substantial mass to 99.99% the speed of light, but given universal distances, that would still be incredibly slow and, unless all that extra energy can somehow greatly extend the lifespans of organic creatures, it seems a useless party trick, really.

Still, there’s reason for optimism. Earth right now is at the Type 0 level, but we’re only a century or two away from Type I if we keep trying and, literally, aiming for the stars.

What single event has had the biggest impact on who you are?

I’ve discussed this before but, ultimately, it was that fucking IQ test my school gave me when I was seven, and I can’t believe that this bullshit persisted for so long. The long and short of it was that IQ tests were created early in the 20th century as yet another facet or institutional racism, founded in the ridiculous theory that some races were not as smart as others.

Of course, when your race is creating the test, you can skew to prove whatever you want it to, and that is exactly what IQ tests in western white society did.

If you were white and middle class, the whole thing was biased to fit right into your experiences, which is something you weren’t supposed to notice when you were seven years old, which is when they tested us.

And, surprise, surprise… little white kids tended to test much higher, while little black kids didn’t. It had nothing to do with intelligence, and everything to do with the test designers putting their thumb on the scale in favor of… well, you know.

Of course, by the time I took it, the melting pot of America had at least stirred enough that two other groups also did very well on the tests — Jews and Asians — but that was mostly a byproduct of decades and multiple generations of assimilation.

Their success would have driven the originators of the tests nuts, but it was actually a good thing, because I wound up with most of my friends through school being Asian and Jewish.

And how did that happen? Simple. The IQ test was pretty much a filing system for students, and what was determined in that short period of time in first grade changed everything that came after.

I happened to land in the “Profoundly Gifted” category, and that launched me into the school track that actually stuck me in the “Hey, y’all are super-privileged” slot. The two problems were that, for one thing, I didn’t know this and, for the other, while I may have been super-privileged in school, my parents were not super-connected, so it really didn’t advantage me much at all.

Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Because I always identified more with those other kids — the Jews and the Asians — and set out to be an artist. But because of that test, I wound up having the friends I did, making the choices I did, and never really bonding with other classmates who weren’t on my same track.

These were the ones who scored below me and here’s a funny thing. The ones who wound up in kind of the average track were also the ones who landed, in their adult lives, in conservative-ville and, sadly, are still living there. And I won’t say that it’s because they’re stupid. It’s just that they were steered in a direction that gave them less of an advantage in education.

I can only imagine what would have been different if I had tested three or four levels below where I landed. But everything that came later was born out of that, for good or for ill.

If you opened a business, what kind of business would it be?

This question has been on the list a long time, but every time it’s come up I’ve tended to ignore it. I guess I might as well answer. I don’t know why I was avoiding it because the answer was always obvious to me. Maybe it just seemed too simple or obvious to state.

Assuming unlimited funds, I would open a non-profit theatre center dedicated to three things: education in all aspects of theatre — writing, performance, directing, design, tech, etc.; development of new artists and their works; and actual production of those works, in several variations.

I imagine the place as having one large mainstage producing new works and pushing the boundaries of theatre technology and content, but there would also be a studio space which would produce the works of the students as a part of their training. You can’t really learn about theatre, after all, until you do productions, and it would work a lot like a university theatre program — everybody does everything at least once, whether it’s in their emphasis or not.

Ideally, the mainstage productions finance the training and studio. Attached to both would be the development labs, designed for writers and creators, with the student actors and dancers available for developmental workshops. These would eventually lead to productions in the studio space, with selected works possibly moving on to the mainstage or pitched to regional theatres.

It would take a space about the size of the L.A. Theatre Center, although maybe not quite as many stories. That building downtown is five stories up and five stories down, although the public usually only sees three of them, plus a small part of the first basement, which is where the restrooms are, located in what was originally a vault when the building was a bank.

In case you’re wondering, yes theatres do need that kind of height, although five stories is a bit unusual. In the case of LATC, it’s because of the way the theatres are arranged, with one of them actually being partly underground and going up several stories. Meanwhile, the largest house has a very steep audience section, and the smaller space that’s on the second level of the building itself goes up a couple of stories.

What you don’t see is what’s above those theatres, several of which have so-called fly-space, which has to be at least as high as the stage itself. That’s because these spaces hold set pieces or flats that are lowered onto the stage when needed. That process of lowering in theatre is also known as “flying in,” hence “fly space,” because these flats and such are often just referred to as flies.

Above the entire theatre, you can also find the light grids, which is where most of the various units that will be illuminating the stage will be living. This includes not only lights, but projectors, although any of these can also be located on the stage and in the wings.

So, anyway, it can be quite easy to wind up with a large theatre that goes up five stories, even if part of that space is also below ground. Surrounding the unused space above the public second floor were offices, costume shops, and various rehearsal spaces.

Meanwhile, downstairs was where they kept the prop and scenery shops, the dressing rooms, and so on. The first basement was also the floor accessible via the truck ramp off the back alley that led to the elephant doors. You need big doors to get big set pieces in and out.

Of course, even smaller theatres can have a bit of height and depth to them. When I worked at the El Portal with ComedySportz, we only had two theatres. One was about 300 seats, and the other was 49. But the main stage probably took up three stories as well, at least, although it was probably closer to four, because I don’t think people realized that the front end of the house after going down the various steps past the audience seats was actually a full story below street level.

And something even I didn’t know until one night when I was the last one out and the alarm system told me that there was a door ajar somewhere in the bowels of the place — the building had not one but two basements below the basement that was behind the platform under the stage itself.

It had the typical dressing rooms and storage and such, but the way it was designed, you just had to walk all the way through one level to take the steps down to the next. It was kind of a labyrinth in that regard. At least there was no Minotaur, and I didn’t have to leave a thread to find my way back out.

But I do digress. A building with the footprint size and height of the El Portal would actually be perfect for my imagined theatre center, although I would make damn sure that the offices on the second and third floors had windows. That, and go for a much more mid-century modern/futurist design aesthetic, rather than attempted 1890s brothel.

Oh — and parking. The place would have to have plenty of parking on site for students, staff, and guests, with students and staff having designated spots and permits, and guests never having to pay. I guess that might add a couple of stories to it, or we could just use the front half of the basement levels for parking and the back half for all of the dressing room and design space.

But, sadly, it’s one of those dreams only achievable with a major lottery win or some other sudden pot of gold moment.

Theatre Thursday: Two bands for the price of one

How my grandfather inadvertently introduced me to two very different bands that started out as one — 10cc and Godley & Creme.

Once upon a time, when I was a kid, I had a grandfather (my dad’s step-father) who collected records avidly. He had a habit of going to local yard and barn sales (he was in a rural area) or raiding antique and thrift shops, and then buying vinyl in bulk, by the crateload.

Now, his interests were limited. Anything that came out after around 1950 that wasn’t jazz was trash in his mind. So were any spoken-word records. And everything from 1950 through the early 1980s that vaguely seemed to be rock or pop likewise went into the reject bin.

He focused on jazz and big band music, as well as 78 rpm LPs in both vinyl and shellac, as well as the original wax cylinders.

So… he bought a lot but he tossed a lot more, and in the best way possible. He’d put the crates of rejects down in the basement, where he had all of his ridiculously amazing audiophile equipment, and then tell all of us cousins — his wife’s grandkids, basically — to go take what we wanted.

Challenge accepted, sir!

Fortunately, my cousins and I had very different tastes. They were all about snarfing up the 60s through 80s heavy metal and hard rock. As for me, I went for a combination of anything classical, any comedian, pop music, and more experimental bands.

And this is how I discovered two bands for the price of one. The former had released most of their oeuvre before I was even aware enough of pop culture to grok it. The latter was born from that band, and was much, much better. And I probably got into their stuff when I was a wee bit too young to actually get it all.

As an adult — damn. Amazing artists all around.

The first band was called 10cc, which comprised Graham Gouldman, Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. The quartet had actually been recording together since 1968 — and the Beatles influence is evident — but 10cc itself didn’t start yeeting out studio albums until 1973.

These were 10cc, Sheet Music, The Original Soundtrack, How Dare You!, and Deceptive Bends.

After Deceptive Bends, Godley and Crème split off to form their own group, appropriately called Godley & Creme, and their oeuvre began with an epic three-record concept musical called Consequences, released in 1977, although I first found them because of their album Freeze Frame, which had a discretely nude couple on the cover.

Godley & Creme were active from 1977 to 1988. Their other half sort of held out until the early 1980s, but quickly became a parody of the original band by flogging the hell out of one of their biggest hits.

But, anyway, by the time I dragged them out of grandpa’s rejects, both groups had released most of their major works, and what I quickly learned as I listened to them was that it was entirely possible to incorporate all kinds of styles into rock music — opera, Broadway musical, classical, experimental jazz, and (before its time because Godley & Creme were just like that) rap and hip-hop.

In other words, they had an anything goes approach, and some really dense and amazing lyrics and stories going on. It took me years after my initial fascination to unpack all the adult stuff going on, but both groups provided a master class in how to do music and do it different.

Of course, after Godley & Creme split from 10cc, it became pretty obvious which half of the quartet had been doing the major lifting in the creativity. Another thing to keep in mind about the groups — their politics were always progressive, even from the beginning, and just as they embraced the “anything goes” theory of musical styles and the like, this extended into the people they wrote about and the stories they told.

They were also not afraid to write about unhealthy obsession with a critical eye. Hell, the big hit that 10cc continued to flog when they were way too old for it to be cute anymore, I’m Not in Love, pretty much delineated teen angst and obsession, and why it was not at all healthy.

Listen closely to their entire works, and you’ll find validation of every member of the alphabet Mafia, LGBTQA+, along with endorsement of sex-workers, and a general celebration of Freud’s polymorphous perverse — except that Freud was a totally repressed asshole who never really got the idea that it should have been polymorphous average instead.

Wednesday Wonders: 10/20/20

October 20 is a surprisingly eventful day. Here are four things that happened on this date in history, some good, some bad, some ugly.

I found a bunch of things that have happened on October 20, some good some bad, and there were too many to decide which to focus on — so here’s a sampler of the best and worst the day has to offer.

Dancin’

I’m going to start with a bright spot. On this day in 1914, Fayard Nicholas was born. One half of the dancing duo the Nicholas Brothers, along with his brother Harold. They started out performing in the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, New York, eventually appearing in a number of feature films.

They combined tap-dancing with more athletic moves, and if you watch the clip below, I’m sure you’ll be able to see their influence on all the actually talented TikTok dancers doing their moves now.

I was fortunate enough to have known Fayard and his wife Katherine near the end of their lives, and he was an incredibly warm and gracious person. And yes, even in his 90s, he could still hoof it.

Bailing out Bonaparte

Meanwhile, 111 years before Fayard was born in Alabama, the U.S. greatly expanded because Napoleon needed money, and so the Louisiana purchase was ratified by the U.S. Senate (back when they actually got things done) on October 20, 1803, increasing the territory of the U.S. by 828,000 square miles. The cost was $15 million dollars, or $262.3 million adjusted for inflation.

Of course, it all depends on POV. While the USA called it the Louisiana Purchase, the French referred to it as the Vente de la Louisiane, meaning the Louisiana Sale.

On top of that, though, the French didn’t actually control all of the territory they sold to the U.S. A lot of it was under native control, so it was just another example of white, European fuckery. France basically sold the U.S. the right to go screw the natives without any French interference without really having those rights in the first place.

Quelle surprise.

The new territory, however, would push Manifest Destiny forward and begin the great rush to the west, and also enable Andrew Jackson to be a genocidal, racist asshole, leading to his election as the 7th president.

Creating an architectural icon

On a brighter note, 170 years after this land deal was ratified, on October 20, 1973, the Sydney Opera House was officially opened, sixteen years after the original design won a contest in 1957.

There are actually multiple venues within the Opera House itself, comprising a concert hall, a theatre designed for live show, opera, and ballet, and a theatre, cinema, and library, which were later replaced with three live theatres, the smallest one presenting work in the round, and referred to as Drama Theatre, the Playhouse and the Studio.

Incidentally, it cost far more than the Louisiana Purchase — $102 million at the time, $604 million adjusted for inflation.

But what Australia really got for its money was an instant icon, and a man-made symbol that immediately identifies the country to the rest of the world. When anyone anywhere sees the building, they can’t help but immediately think “Australia.”

It’s pretty similar to the Statue of Liberty and the Hollywood Sign; the Elizabeth Tower (since 2012, and often incorrectly called Big Ben), the Tower Bridge, or perhaps the London Eye or Stonehenge; the Little Mermaid; the Eiffel Tower; the Brandenburg Gate; Burj Khalifa; St. Basil’s Cathedral; the Great Wall or Forbidden City; or the Moai of Rapa Nui, aka those big stone heads.

I’m hoping that you got every single country not mentioned by name in the above. That was the power of the creation of the Sydney Opera House.

Athletes being a-holes

But I have to end this piece on a downer, which happened 70 years ago, on October 20, 1951. Dubbed the Johnny Bright Incident, it was a blatant racist hate crime committed in public, during a college football game at what was then Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State University, or OSU.)

Bright was a halfback and quarterback for Drake University, a Heisman Trophy candidate. He was also the first Black footballer to play on Lewis Field, Oklahoma A&M’s home field, in 1949, without incident.

However, in 1951, Oklahoma A&M players decided to target Bright, with the players egged on by both the student newspaper and local press.

Once the game started, Oklahoma A&M player Wilbanks Smith intentionally knocked Bright unconscious 3 times in the first seven minutes, his final attack breaking Bright’s jaw and, although Bright completed a 61-yard touchdown pass despite it, his injuries put him out of the game.

Two photographers, John Robinson and Don Ultang, having heard about the threats against Bright, were on the scene and ready, focusing their cameras on the quarterback and capturing a sequence of images proving that Smith had dealt the jaw-breaking blow well after Bright had handed off the ball. They rushed their photos to Des Moines, Iowa to be published, ultimately winning a Pulitzer for their efforts.

Oklahoma A&M tried to cover up the incident for years, and Smith himself did such mental gymnastics that he actually tried to describe himself as helping the Civil Rights movement, saying that his act was, “a tool [those] organizations used, and it was very effective.”

Smith died in 2020. OSU did not apologize to Drake University for the incident until 2005.

Bright was only 53 when he died in 1983 due to a massive heart attack during surgery for an old knee injury. Smith was 89, once again proving that only the good die young.

Well, mostly. Fayard Nicholas was one of the good ones, and he died very old — albeit still too soon.

Image source: Mfield, Matthew Field, http://www.photography.mattfield.com, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Talky Tuesday: Navigating Language in a leaky boat, part 2

How certain terms that leaked out of academia have been misinterpreted by laypeople, making a giant mess of it.

Last week was the first installment of this article on words that have slipped out of academia when they shouldn’t have, with the end result being that people think they know what they mean, but they don’t. Last time, I looked at triggered, safe space, gender neutral, and latinx. Here are the rest.

Non-binary

Academically (and medically) this refers to someone who does not identify as either gender and, often, either sex as well. This is regardless of what bits they may have been born with — one, the other, or both. And their brains themselves may not click firmly into the male or female category.

As noted above, “non-binary” just means not limited to only two options.

And that’s totally normal and okay. If bisexual (which, yes, is absolutely a real thing) is the orientation version, then non-binary is the gender version. Sometimes, a non-binary person may feel like a boy. Sometimes like a girl. Sometimes like both at once, and sometimes neither.

And that’s pretty much it. It’s just one more option on the vast and varied menu of sex, gender, and sexual orientation,

Once upon a time, there were only two items on the menu — beef or fish — but they were served up by the biological sex of the patrons at the waiter’s discretion. Beef is for girls and fish is for boys.

Luckily, that menu has turned into a smorgasbord or an all-you-can-eat buffet, with a continuum of foodstuffs available to everyone — Beef, fish, chicken, tofu, pork, sashimi, salad… knock yourselves out. It’s all good, and none of it is tied down to rather useless definitions like biological sex.

Because there are more than two of those, after all. Surprise!

Pronouns

Although this is probably one of the more innocuous bits to slip out of academia to the point that someone listing their pronouns after their name in a Zoom chat window, the list of possible pronouns has gotten a bit out of hand, and this is what non-academic critics have latched onto.

Don’t get me started on all of the transphobia I’ve seen in the wild — even in the LGB community — especially the G part of it. I don’t know why it is, but I find the really queeny gay men of a certain age to be the most transphobic — which is very ironic, because this is the same group that seems to be the most into campy drag.

I think that, deep down, they have the same issues that insecure straight boys do when it comes to transgender people — that they’re going to meet them, fall for them, go home and find the wrong genitalia in the panties.

But that’s not how it works. The Crying Game was a fantasy, and no transgender person is ever going to take home a stranger without first thoroughly explaining to them what’s up — in a public place with a lot of people around.

This is doubly true if that transgender person hasn’t yet had bottom surgery, so that their genitalia and gender don’t currently match, because they know that one of the best ways to get killed is to spring surprise bits on a man in the heat of passion, whether that man is gay or straight.

Getting back to pronouns, though, to be honest, I’ve run across very few people who insist on the exotics, like zie/zim/zir, and mostly see the usual he, she, or they — but all of those odd spellings (some sources claim there are 78 neopronouns) came right out of academia, where they should have stayed.

Why? Because there’s really no logical connection between the words outside of the he/she/they and the genders or non-binary status they represent. But I have yet to run across anything explaining that certain pronouns are for transgender women and others are for transgender men, and another set are for non-binary people.

All of the transgender people I know use either the pronoun of their true gender or “they.”

Critical race theory

Whoever chose these words to describe this thing made one of the biggest fuck-ups in academic history, because what it really represents is a very good thing. But putting those three words together turned it into a lightning rod for criticism from conservatives and misunderstanding from moderates.

Progressives know what it really means, but their opinion on it never gets a lot of media attention.

The way that the right seems to read “critical race theory” is this: “Teach kids that everything white people have ever done is wrong,” but there could be nothing farther from the truth. Still, I can see how the combination of words could make people who don’t understand academia nervous.

One excellent description I’ve seen of what “critical race theory” is: “Teaching history as it really happened.”

This means teaching both the good and bad of what Europeans in general and white people specifically did — the Renaissance and Enlightenment generally managed to advance science, health, and education, and despite all of its flaws and faults as it was established and grew, America did turn into a place for immigrants to begin new lives to the point that we are probably one of the most culturally and racially mixed countries in the world — or at least we’re running neck-and-neck with Brazil.

But, while it’s okay to mention these things, here’s the other big important part of teaching history as it really happened. We have to include all of the people who were not white, Christian, land-owning males over the age of 21 — because that latter group is pretty much the one that is centered in most of those “Western History after 1500” courses that college freshmen have to take.

And… there’s another term that needs to have a gender-neutral version. How about just “frosh?” Or “paroled high schoolers who still don’t know quite how to act around adults.”

All along the way, as Europe moved into the Americas and all those new countries formed and developed, there were indigenous peoples, women, non-Christians, and yes, even LGBTQ+ people involved in that process.

We make the teaching of history stronger when we include everyone who took part in it, but more importantly — we engage the kids we’re teaching it to.

For example, what positive impact would it have on a girl in middle school to learn how many women were actually very influential soldiers and spies during the American Revolution, one of them being snipped out of history only because some man years later wrote a poem about Paul Revere instead of her — while Revere mostly got drunk in a pub and didn’t really do what he was alleged to have done, while Sybil Ludington did.

Or what about Alexander Hamilton? Casting him as a POC in the hit musical Hamilton! was not just a stunt so that Lin Manuel Miranda could play the part. Nope. Hamilton really was mixed-race, and all of his portraits through the years have probably been heavily whitewashed. Imagine a young Black boy learning that in middle school. Hell, he might even grow up to be president.

There are also indications that Hamilton may or may not have been gay, but this is entirely based on correspondence between him and John Laurens at the time, when men were much more likely to use flowery language and declare love for each other without it ever going past the platonic.

On the other hand, Baron Friedrich von Steuben probably was as gay as Christmas on Fire Island, and teaching that story likewise would inspire some young and closeted student to accept themselves.

And so on. So, rather than being a case of “teach kids that everything white people have ever done is wrong,” it’s more like “teach kids that white people did a lot of it but didn’t and couldn’t have done it alone.”

Then teach about the people who helped.

Yes, America became a world powerhouse and media titan mostly under the leadership of rich white men — but those men built their fortunes on subjugating everyone else — initially slaves, without whom the South would never have had an economy — and then immigrants, who were underpaid and exploited.

As for that “media titan” part, well, a huge part of our music was ultimately stolen from Black and Irish Americans, with jazz, rock, rap, and hip-hop being stolen from the former, and bluegrass and country being co-opted from the latter.

Ironically, punk and pop were probably the only two styles that did come from white people — the former from kids who couldn’t be arsed to really learn to play their instruments and sing and the latter from kids who really liked showtunes and the easy-listening, “safe” non-rock their parents listened to in the 1950’s.

So there are just a few of the terms that have leaked out of academia without their original context, only to be terribly misinterpreted by the media and regular people. Unfortunately, academics are constantly creating these terms and concepts, but they really need to stop — or at least stop up the leaks that let them ever escape from academic-only conferences and seminars, where they know what they’re talking about.

And, FFS, they need to translate the terms back into clear and simple English before they unleash them on rank-and-file professors, TAs, adjuncts, and students. .

Monday chills and thrills: “Within” with Peter Bean

A short horror film from Peter Bean, Erick Claux, and Chispa Productions. This was shot by two people in one stairwell in a single night. Can you escape from the monster Within?

As Halloween approaches, there’s nothing like a good thriller to set the mood for the season. THis film is by someone regular readers of my site have already met, Peter Bean, who made his debut here guest-blogging right before everything shut down in March. He is a ridiculously talented filmmaker and editor (hire him!), as well as one of the nicest, down-to-earth people I know.
 
He got married at the beginning of October, just over two weeks ago. Woot!
 

He’s also made me much more environmentally conscious purely by example, and I want to be him when I grow up.

He’s made some pretty amazing short features, but since this is his only really spooky one so far — and because it’s an amazing example of what a crew of two can accomplish in a stairwell in San Francisco — I’m sharing Within, in which Peter is also the lead, proving that yes, he can act, too.

You can see some of his other films at his company’s, Chispa Productions, Youtube Channel. They’re all worth a look or two.

Image: Peter Bean in Within, © 2012 Chispa Productions

Sunday Nibble #84: The One, Ten Thousand, and other L.A. horror stories

How over-priced apartments for TikTok influencers and a ridiculously oversized house in foreclosure exemplify L.A.’s big property problems.

This is a story that starts and ends with property, but in particular with one address in Los Angeles that I will always associate with architecture.

That address is 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90067 and, at the time I first new it, my father worked there for an architectural firm called Welton Becket & Associates.

I know. “Welton Becket” sounds like its already an association of two, but it’s not. He was an actual person, born in 1902, and who was in the business long before my father took up the profession. In fact, it wasn’t all that long after my father joined their firm that Becket died in 1969.

It was a company with a lot of legacies. The landmark Capital Records Building , the Cinerama Dome, and the Los Angeles Music Center were a trio of famous Welton Becket designs, and my father worked as a structural engineer on all of them.

He did it from a three-story office building at 10000 Santa Monica, which was right on the border line between the cities of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills — although Los Angeles is this weird literal fruitcake of towns and cities, so the Los Angeles that Beverly Hills bordered was just a continuation that wrapped around the smaller city and covered most of the county.

The fruits and nuts in the huge lump of dough that is L.A. are various unincorporated areas with their own names but which are still part of the City of L.A. — Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Hollywood, Los Feliz, etc.

Others are their own, independent cities with their own municipal governments and police departments — Malibu, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Culver City, and Burbank, to name a few. While none of these fall under the jurisdiction of the City of L.A., all of them are part of the County of L.A.

Note: If you’re from out of town — especially if you’re from out of town — please call it L.A. We much prefer that to hearing it butchered as “low sanjaylees” or “la sanjulees” or any other abomination that ends with a long “E.”

Anyway… Welton Becket & Associates sat on the border of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, but it was also directly south of a place called Century City which was not itself a city, but rather a large, mixed-use development designed and built by Welton Becket & Associates.

It was quite an idea for its time, and still exists in mostly in its same original form, albeit with more buildings shoved in around the edges.

It featured both high-density, high-rise apartments and condos right next to office towers, two of the most famous having triangular footprints. The whole thing came about — and got its name — because it sits right behind what was then 20th Century Fox Studios, and they had a lot of backlot they weren’t using, so the studio head decided to go into real estate development.

Apparently, it was revolutionary for its time, and the design was so futuristic that it was used many times over the years for film and TV shoots, particularly for science fiction.

In fact, the famous Nakatomi Plaza from Die Hard was actually the nearly-constructed but not-yet-open Fox Plaza, within the confines of Century City and owned by 20th Century Fox. Rumor has it that the company was able to make a small fortune renting the building to its own construction, as well as demolishing bits on unfinished floors to take the write-off. Hey, why not? It was still under construction.

Anyway, growing up, I had a rather personal connection to 10000 Santa Monica as well as Century City — as a kid, it really was the coolest, most “This Is the Future!” place I’d ever been outside of Disneyland, and I got to take the bus after school over there all the time when I was old enough to meet up with dad and see a movie.

So it was some shock that I only just recently learned about Ten Thousand, which is a building located exactly where my father’s office used to be — a building that became the ESPN headquarters, by the way, after Welton Becket eventually shut down.

It’s at least 13 years old, going by Google Street View’s archive function, and it’s a forty-story monstrosity tucked into the same footprint as my father’s office, which was low but wide. Now, that wouldn’t be so unusual for L.A. — we have plenty of high-rise apartment buildings, especially in the area from Hollywood west through Beverly Hills, Westwood, and beyond.

No, what makes Ten Thousand unusual is that it recently changed its target audience from the super-rich, foreign business-people, and various celebs to the new kids in town: TikTok Influencers.

Apparently, if you know what to look for, you can spot TikTok videos that were made there just by what the apartments look like inside — sorry, no filming allowed in common areas.

The place is overloaded with services and amenities. You can read all about those in the original article I found them in. Unfortunately, it’s only available to subscribers to Graydon Carter’s Air Mail email newsletter, so I understand if you don’t want to bother with that — although it’s not that intrusive but is a news aggregator that does not tread the same grounds and everyone else.

Indeed, it was hard to find specific mention of the TikTok angle although I can find plenty on the Ten Thousand Building, such as why it’s called that, and it’s not just the address.

Nope. Read that number as $10K, which is the minimum rent on the smallest studio in the place, with rents going all the way up to $65K. Yes, that’s per month.

Now, this isn’t the first location catering to social media influencers. Hype House, founded in 2019, is both the name of a collective of influencers making videos together, as well as a mansion in Southern California where many of them live and work together.

And let’s not forget Jake Paul’s infamous Team 10 Mansion in Calabasas, which became the focus of neighborhood ire once it turned into an out-of-control party palace. Of course, back in the summer of 2020, the FBI raided the mansion and found firearms connected to riots in Arizona.

Paul’s star had already fallen by that time, but he did wind up selling the place at a huge loss in 2021, heading off to Miami.

But let’s not let the TikTok angle distract from the real issue here: High-rise apartment buildings in Los Angeles that get away with charging rents that would make New Yorkers blush.

Keep in mind that the average rent in Los Angeles is $2,518, with the average unit size being 791 square feet. That figure reflects both people who are paying below market because they’re lived in rent controlled units for a long time as well as new renters paying market value and the super-rich paying whatever “change” they find in their sofa cushions for luxury units that would be a really nice mortgage payment on the average house.

Yes, the change in the cushions was a joke. Still, the most expensive areas to rent in in Los Angeles hit the top at $4,054 per month in Oakwood. This neighborhood is right next to the more bohemian Venice — yes, it has canals, too — where average rents are $2,498.

This is another great example of gentrification. Once upon a time, Venice, along with Hollywood, was a cheap neighborhood with older apartments where hippies, artists, and musicians could afford to live. That demographic has definitely been developed right out of Hollywood, which is one of the worst examples of out-of-control growth in the city.

So, in answer to the question: How can Ten Thousand get away with charging those kinds of rents, which are way above the already inflated rents in the rest of the city?

Simple. Dog’s balls. I.E., because they can. And you can bet that they have absolutely zero units set aside for low-income housing, as developers are supposed to do.

There’s one big problem in Los Angeles when it comes to affordable housing. Well, fifteen, and they are called the City Council, although locals have a more colorful name for them that I’m sure you can figure out.

The simple problem is that they tend to be as corrupt as hell. The latest example is Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has been indicted on corruption charges for, among other things, getting his son into USC and then assigned to a professorship in exchange for shady favors, and all this right around the time he was on the County Board of Supervisors, voting with others to tear down the Los Angeles County Museum of Art because… rea$on$.

Note: The County Board of Supervisors is just as corrupt as the L.A. City Council. They’re just a lot more expensive.

But when it comes to affordable housing, the City Council dance goes like this. Developers submit plans that will basically tear up and destroy neighborhoods — but look! More housing!

Residents in those neighborhoods, homeowners and renters alike, show up at hearings on proposals and permits, and express their strong objections. The more enterprising will go directly to their City Council Member in person and get their ear.

City Council Member will show up at neighborhood association meetings, listen to their side, promise to save the character of the neighborhood and push back on the scale and/or location of the development, and maybe even make a speech or two against it in a planning session hearing or open City Council meeting.

And then… they will get very quiet and a couple of votes sneak by. Maybe there are a couple of modifications on the project, but not a lot, and then your City Council Member goes ahead and votes for it and stops answering calls from the neighborhood leaders that had been working with them.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Now, while my current district has, historically, had the smallest number of Council Members  — only eight in just under a century — we did boot out a long-time incumbent, Tom LaBonge, in 2015, because it was clear he was working for the developers, replaced him with David Ryu, who promised the world to renters and homeowners alike, and then abandoned both as soon as he got into office. We turned him into a one-term wonder, and the jury is still out on the current member, Nithya Raman, although like many elected officials, she did get really quiet after the election.

There was already a failed recall effort against her, but that was backed by someone I can best describe as a wee bit… unstable.

But, unfortunately, places like Ten Thousand have become the rule, not the exception, and complicate this with developers now diving into the market to buy up single family homes, tear them down and then jam eight tiny and expensive rental units on the lot, parking not included.

Also, affordable housing not included.

This has also made it very difficult for legitimate home buyers because, while they can and do make an offer, sometimes against asking price, it’s with a down-payment and mortgage, but developers will swoop in with an all-cash offer, and a lot of motivated sellers just can’t resist that. Meanwhile, the average homebuyer cannot compete.

It’s destroying the housing market, plain and simple.

About the only good mixed-use developments I can think of are the ones that they’ve been building on top of Metro Stations that include commercial, business, and rental properties — but they still need to make the housing much more affordable.

I can think of a few quick solutions off the top of my head, although don’t hold your breath, because this would require governments to pass laws unfriendly to developers. But here we go.

  1. Ban corporate ownership of single-family residences. The only exception: brief ownership by the bank or lender if the place goes into foreclosure, but it must be sold at the cost of the balance of the loan, and only to an individual buyer.
  2. Single-family residences can only be occupied by the owner, family, or boarders/lodgers in designated rooms or outbuildings. No such residence can ever be dedicated entirely as a vacation rental, like AirBnB, or partially for more than 90 days within any one calendar year. Owners must be in residence during vacation rental occupancies.
  3. Units within multi-family buildings can only be occupied by individuals who are signed to a lease. They may not be used as corporate housing for, for example, flight crews on layover, visiting executives or employees, or other occupational transients. Such people can only take up residence in contracted or owned commercial residential units, see below.
  4. Corporations can buy multi-family housing buildings, such as apartments, duplexes, or townhouses. However, if any of the units is occupied upon sale, the new owners are barred from evicting those tenants for ten years for any reason other than criminal behavior which results in felony conviction and/or imprisonment, and cannot perform major renovations on unoccupied units without the written consent of all existing tenants.
  5. Any residential rental units that have remained vacant for more than six months, whether or not the owner or management company showed due diligence in trying to rent them out, shall be put onto the market with the City as broker at one-half their current market value rent, subject to all of the same rent controls with that as the base rent. All income shall still incur to the owners, but at a new, fixed rate.
  6. Any commercial residential units, like hotels, motels, transient hotels, or the like, that have remained vacant for more than a year shall remain in the owner’s possession but shall be administered by the City as transitional housing for the homeless, with the City reimbursing the owners on a per tenant/per room basis each month.
  7. Any commercial property, like office buildings, malls, or the like, that cannot sustain 20% occupancy for more than five years or which fall below 10% occupancy at any time shall be seized by the City by public domain, with the owners compensated at the rate of one quarter of current monthly square foot rental cost times five — or 4/5ths the current square footage cost. Take it or leave it. These buildings would be converted into more of that mixed-use housing that developers seem to love so much, except owned by the city, or possibly a city-county-state combo, and could provide both housing and services to the homeless, battered woman seeking shelter, abandoned or runaway kids, and college students.
  8. Every new unit constructed must include one parking space per bedroom within the square footage of the entire lot, whether exterior to the units or placed underground or in a structure. Every new multi-family construction must include 25% low-cost units priced at an amount equal to 25% of the current median household income in the county, limited to people who make less than the median.

I call this my “How to Make a Developer Shit” list, but it’s long past time that we do it. L.A. technically has plenty of land and square acreage to see that everyone is housed affordably, There are no excuses to developers to be buying up single family homes and converting them into tiny, market-rate units with no parking, or for corporations to be renting out apartments in multi-family homes when hotels are available.

There’s also no excuse for so much vacant commercial property sitting around unused, and especially no excuse for mega-developments in suburbs or on known earthquake fault-lines. (Fortunately, the permits for that last one were recently revoked by the city.)

There’s also no excuse for a place called The One, a 105,000 square foot monstrosity located in Bel Air. It has 21 bedrooms, 42 bathrooms, a 50-space parking garage, a movie theatre, nightclub, cigar room, 10,000 bottle wine cellar, salon, bowling alley, a movie theatre to rival any multiplex black box, and more.

Developed by film producer Nile Niami, creator of such well-known “classics” as Galaxis, DNA, Resurrection, and Tart. In other words, a lot of direct-to-video material, but his films made him enough money overseas that he started investing in real estate here, culminating in his construction of The One, for which he originally estimated would sell for $500 million.

However, he defaulted on the loans used to develop and build it, so it’s now going on sale via receivership and the asking price is now a mere $225 million.

If any single-family home in Los Angeles should be torn down to put up a ton of units in its place, this is the ideal candidate. Or just throw a couple of apartment towers on top of it, move all of the TikTok kids from Ten Thousand in and give them the amenities, then turn Ten Thousand itself into low-cost single-family housing.

After all, the TikTok influencers don’t really need to go anywhere but they probably all own really expensive cars anyway, so being on a hill a few miles away from stuff shouldn’t be a problem.

Meanwhile, people who need a rent break and may not even have cars could sure use an affordable place to live next to Century City, which is close to a lot of transit lines and will be sitting on top of the L.A. Metro system one day soon.

I’d call this trade a great example of sustainable development, actually.

Image source: BDS2006 (talk)., (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday Morning Post #86: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 3)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer. This story focuses on the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre Company in Hollywood, and its owner, Bill, who believes in creating his characters in order for his actors to have huge breakthroughs and learn about themselves. His latest effort involves Max and PJ.

Fifty minutes later, Bill crept back into the theatre, careful not to make any tell-tale noises. He snuck up to the darkened booth and edged to the glass. He looked down at the stage and smiled. He’d gotten the acting breakthrough he’d hoped for.

Max and PJ were on the bed, shirts off, PJ on top, making out like a couple of horny teens. If he could get that onstage, everything would work out. Max started pulling PJ’s pants off and PJ made no objection, but Bill knew they’d had enough rehearsal for today. He snuck back downstairs, opened the front door quietly, then slammed it, making sure it was quite audible. He turned on the lobby lights and dawdled, counting to fifty before he entered the theatre.

Max and PJ were sitting, keeping their distance on the stage, shirts on, although PJ’s was inside-out.

“Hi guys,” he called out. “How did it go?”

“I think I get the scene now,” PJ explained, Max covering a laugh and a glance.

“You two want to try it once, then?” Bill asked as he took his seat in the front row.

“Sure,” PJ replied, moving to the bed, Max joining him.

“Okay. And, lights are off, anticipatory laughter from the audience, cue the maid, she turns the lights on — go.”

Max and PJ looked at each other, startled. Significant comedy pause… and then they vacuum-locked their faces together, PJ wrapping a leg around Max, Max dragging PJ in with both hands and the moment was beautiful. It really would bring the house down, the big revelation when everything else made sense.

The boys finally broke and looked at Bill, who applauded. “Excellent,” he said. “We’ve got a winner on our hands.”

And indeed they did, at least for this third of the cast. All through the rest of rehearsal, PJ was flying, nailing everything, not holding back at all. Bill had broken the wall, freed his talent and he saw that it was very good.

One down, two to go…

* * *

The secret was always discovery, not revelation. With actors, it was like training lab rats. Never show them the cheese, let them wander the maze and think they figured it out themselves. Donna was great at figuring things out, but lousy at letting herself realize she had.

Then Bill saw her walk into a car. She was coming to rehearsal and happened to arrive at the same time as Vince, and they were both crossing the street, talking but not looking at each other, at least not openly. Since they were jaywalking, they had to go between parked cars and Vince lead the way, but Donna was paying no attention at all and — wham!

Right into the side of a big, brown American beast, rebounding, stopping. Bill heard her call out, “God, I am so stupid.” Vince hurried over to Donna, took her arm gently, probably asking if she was all right. He guided her between the cars to the sidewalk, looking very concerned. She kept nodding, looking for the hole to crawl into, but Vince’s concern was completely genuine.

They both spotted Bill, walked toward him.

“You didn’t see that, did you?” Donna asked him.

“See what?” Bill lied. “Hey, guys, you know what? Your director did a stupid thing tonight. Come on inside.”

They entered the theatre and Bill explained his faux pas. He had intended to work with Mark and Donna, but had called Vince instead. It was too late to fix that, and anyway all of Vince’s scenes were fine. But would Vince mind reading Mark’s part tonight, working with Donna?

And of course he wouldn’t, and so they did, Vince reading from the script as Donna played the scene — and played it with something much different than had ever appeared opposite Mark. That was, of course, the plan. Donna’s character was supposed to be madly in love with Mark’s but afraid to say it, until this moment in the play, when she confessed her love. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Mark’s character was madly in love with her, et cetera, et cetera. Each of them was supposed to think they were talking about someone else.

Suddenly, it played beautifully. Donna was a little giddy and shy and hesitant, and so was Vince and the whole thing positively reeked of two people crazy about each other but unable to just say it. Artifice catapulted to reality, and Bill gave himself a mental pat on the back. This show was going to come together like none of the others ever had.

And by opening night, it did. He’d heard rumor among the company that Donna and Vince went out for coffee one night, then dinner and a movie soon thereafter. The grapevine reported that Vince finally admitted he was crazy about Donna but was still in the middle of getting a divorce, something he’d kept secret though, so he hadn’t dared say anything to her. But, as soon as it was final, would she…? And she would and they did, eventually, and on opening night, their acting soared.

So did PJ’s and Max’s. The curtain call got a standing ovation and the opening night party was rambunctious with the joy of success.

Except that Max was standing alone afterwards, PJ nowhere in sight. Bill walked over to him. “Good job, Max. But where’s your leading man?”

“He’s not mine,” Max explained, looking around. “There he is.” He pointed and Bill looked, seeing PJ talking to other cast members, his arm around a young man who wasn’t part of the company.

“He’s got a boyfriend already?” Bill asked, amazed.

“He’s had him for six months,” Max said. “He finally decided to let the big secret out.”

“And you?”

“You cast us on purpose, didn’t you?” Max answered.

“Okay, I confess,” Bill said. “I did. I thought…”

“No, I appreciate it, really. He’s a good kisser. He’s just taken, that’s all.”

Bill smiled, nodding. This play had been more of a success than he could have hoped for. He excused himself, started to walk away when Max continued. “And Vince and Donna. And Mark and Loretta. Funny how every time we do a show, some new couple gets together, isn’t it?”

Bill stopped, looked at Max, wondering if he’d figured it out yet. Maybe, but Bill wasn’t going to tip his hand. “Funny how theatre works that way, isn’t it?”

“Very funny,” Max answered, and Bill was sure his secret was safe. “So what’s next for us, Little Billy?”

“Oh, you’ll see,” Bill replied. “You’ll see.” He made a mental note. Max had mentioned once that he never thought he’d be able to do nudity onstage. That was an actor’s block that needed to be removed, one more step in Bill’s big mission. And removed, it would be.

All their blocks would be removed, eventually, and they would be better people for it. True love would be discovered and true talent revealed and Bill’s company would continue to be one, big happy family. That was the promise he’d made when he’d cashed that big check, the promise he’d continued to keep. It was the price he’d agreed to pay for his windfall, but it was a debt that constantly paid him back with happiness.

His fear had been removed, and he was going to do his best to do the same for others, for this big, wonderful company. His children, his stars.

Because stars were meant to shine, after all, and the show would go on.

Significant dramatic pause, and then Bill exited to his office, already working on his next play, hoping for another rousing success.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #82: Three words, tattoos, grail, oldest friend, bestest friend

Time to answer some random questions again, this time covering tattoos, home ownership, and friendship.

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website, and it’s a rare five-banger. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What three words best describe you?

I think this depends on whether you ask me or my friends. I’d describe myself as shy, depressed, and lazy. Apparently, though, my friends seem to think that I’m super-smart, outgoing, and happy. I love my friends, by the way, because they clearly think more highly of me than I do of myself.

What do you think of tattoos? Do you have any?

I have mixed opinions on tattoos. One or two subtle ones in places that aren’t normally visible are fine. But once somebody tries to go for the full-body, double sleeves, or (worst of all) the “make me unemployable” hand and face inkings… that’s too much.

I don’t have any tattoos myself, although I have considered a Phoenix tattoo many times for very personal reasons. But there’s no way that I’d ever turn my entire torso or back into some inker’s canvas, nor would I get my ass inked.

I mean, come on. Why destroy a beautiful view by slathering it in ink? It just gets in the way of enjoying what your momma gave you.

Speaking of which, Peter Davidson finally wised up to it, and he’s going to be spending the next few years getting all of his 100+ tattoos lasered off. Smart move there, Pete.

But, yeah… basically, if you get naked and look like you’re still wearing clothes, that’s way too damn much ink. Get back to me when you’ve had it lasered off, thank you.

What is the “holy grail” of your life?

It’s the promise that the Boomers made to those of us in Gen-X and beyond, but then totally fucked us out of. Home ownership. Honestly, the only way that’s ever going to happen for me is either moving to some city and state I really don’t want to live in, via winning the lottery, or by duping enough people into financing it through Kickstarter. (Hint: please don’t do that.)

And it’s not like I don’t make good money. If I did move to some semi-rural area in a reddish state, I could probably buy a really nice house on a decent sized plot of land with a big down payment and mortgage payments a lot lower than my rent is now.

But, again, the trade-off wouldn’t really be worth it. It would probably be far from the ocean, subject to flooding, tornadoes, or winter snowstorms, and I would be isolated from all my friends, except online.

Not that the last part isn’t so different from how it’s been for nearly the last nineteen months and I work remotely anyway — my employer is in Florida. But still, the idea of everyone being so physically distant would be unsettling, to say the least.

Who is your oldest friend? Where did you meet them?

This really relies on the definition of “oldest.” Do you mean the person in my life I’ve known for the longest time, or the person I now know is older than any other friend of mine?

Okay, let’s start with the assumption that “friend” excludes family because, obviously, I’ve kind of known all my living relatives since birth.

So for the friend I’ve known the longest, I was going to say that it’s definitely a friend I met in high school — my junior year and his senior, I think. Then we lost touch for a long time, then reconnected later.  So, where did meet him? It was actually in marching band in high school.

And I write that I was going to say that because then I realized that this isn’t the answer. The oldest friend I have is technically my half-brother’s current girlfriend. They hooked up fairly recently after his previous marriage ended, but they’d dated in high school, so I would have met her at home, when they came to visit my parents. Well, his dad and step-mom.

Since my half-brother is a lot older than I am, I met her when I was a kid, but then didn’t see her for years. I’m actually in touch with her a lot more than him because he doesn’t like to do social media. She’s also the genealogist of the family, a hobby that we share.

But if you mean the oldest person chronologically whom I know, that’s much more recent. I think I met him around 2017 or 2018, when he was about 93 or 94. I met him at his home on Mulholland Drive, which he shared with his husband, who is 35 years younger. And he’s still alive and kicking.

Who was your best friend in elementary school?

I’ll just give his first name, Mike. He moved into the area with his family and transferred into my elementary school around fourth grade. He was a little over two months older than me, but we hit it off almost immediately and we had a lot in common that we bonded over but enough differences that we worked well together.

We were literally like a best-friend team designed by Hollywood writers — one blue-eyed brunet only child (me), one brown-eyed blond middle of three brothers (him). I was the bookish, writerly musician. He was the hands-on crafty builder. Through the rest of elementary school, we seemed to manage to constantly get in trouble together even though I seriously don’t remember us ever actually doing anything bad.

But the principal had it in for us for some reason. Maybe it was because whenever we were together, we settled into our own little world and we did have rather anarchic senses of humor.

We continued to be friends through middle school — still Jr. High at the time, since this was pre-90s — and were all set to continue on to high school together, but then on the last day of summer school between 9th and 10th grades (I enrolled early so I could take driver’s ed as soon as I hit 15 1/2), I ran into him on the high school campus to find out that he was moving away. Apparently his parents had gotten divorced, and he was going with his father.

They were moving to one of the beach communities at the southern edge of L.A. County, which might as well have been another country. The last time I saw him was in the parking lot in front of the school, and the memory, which should be vivid, is a jumble in my mind, possibly because of my emotions over what was going on.

I think he invited me to come down for the weekend because this wasn’t the permanent move yet, and got the impression that he really wanted a friend with him as a buffer so he wasn’t stuck with “dad only” for the whole time. And I wound up not going, but to this day I cannot remember whether it was because I called my mother to ask and she said “No,” or because I didn’t want to make the trip.

One of the biggest mistakes of my life, really. If I’d gone, it would have given us the opportunity for more bonding and, more importantly, for figuring out how we were going to stay in touch during the separation.

I have no doubt that we would have, and he might have even been the type of friend I would have conspired to go to college with. Instead, that early August day was the last time I ever saw or heard from him and, since the internet didn’t exist yet, finding him again would have been too daunting a challenge at the time.

If he happens to read this and recognizes himself, he knows where to find me now.

Theatre Thursday: So you want to be a playwright, part 2

This is the second part of a playwright’s advice to people who want to become playwrights. Part 1 appeared last Thursday.

The first part of this article appeared last Thursday, and it just got too long for one piece, so here’s the rest of my advice to beginning playwrights and other people crazy enough to want to be involved in a life in theatre.

Write every day, and then write some more

Write, write, write, a little bit or a lot every day. And don’t feel compelled to just dive into a full length and go. I didn’t. The best approach — and, oddly enough, most marketable — is the so-called 10-minute play, for which there are contests all the time, and I think that my first four or five produced works were all within that limit.

Working with plays of this length makes it a lot easier to write every day, but there’s another big advantage to the form.

It teaches you how to write perfectly formed scenes, because 10 to 20 minutes really is the ideal scene length for any play, although some may go as short as seven. If you can do a strong beginning, middle, and end in that length of time, then you can essentially write 9 to 12 short plays that chain together and advance the overall plot and, ta-da — full-length!

Side note: this formula is also the secret of writing for film or TV. If you want to do half-hour, for example, perfect writing the seven-minute scene. For one hour, aim for nine to thirteen minutes.

The best description I’ve ever read of a one act or short play is this: The playwright’s job is to bring a stick of dynamite on stage at the beginning and then somebody strikes a match at the end. And… scene.

This is exactly the approach I took to that full-length I mentioned after having written a bunch of 10-minute plays, and I think it’s why I ultimately wound up getting produced. Well, that and I copied the elevated linguistic style of late 19th century playwrights, since the play was set in 1865.

Character first, plot later

Also, in structuring your plays, do not focus on plot. Rather, focus on your characters. Define each one in terms of who they are, what they want on a day-to-day basis, who or what they would kill to actually have it, who they think they are, who the other characters think they are, and so on.

Toss all of these into the pot and stir, and then you’ll have your plot — because if you let your plot drive your characters, then you just get sitcom or soap opera, and that’s crap.

Jumping back to Shakespeare, Richard III is a great example of this. The story is not about what Richard does to become King of England. Rather, it’s about why he does it.

We enter the story through his insecurities and needs, and then follow his personality, which drives everything else he does, from having his own brother drowned in a barrel of wine to ordering his nephews be executed in the tower of London to accusing his brother’s widow of being a witch, and so on.

But every one of his vile acts comes out of his needs and wants because the only thing he must have is the Crown of England. It’s a singular focus, but it makes for a very strong character and powerful play.

Also, to Shakespeare’s credit, he actually created this arc and these needs for Richard over not one but three plays — Henry VI part 2 and  part 3, and Richard III.

If you’re really adventurous, check out what’s known as the Eight-play Henriad, which includes Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2, Henry V, Henry VI part 1, and the aforementioned three plays.

And then… go read August Wilson’s Century Cycle, which actually covers a slightly longer time period — and much bigger changes — than Shakespeare’s Henriad. And yet… is still driven by the needs of the characters involved.

I’ve written a play, so now what?

Look for playwriting groups or classes in your area, then join one. The best ones will involve no drama besides what’s on the pages and will be safe spaces that nonetheless provide valid criticisms and suggestions on the work.

The best format is generally just a bunch of writers sitting in a circle and, at each meeting (usually weekly) everyone brings pages — usually 10 to 12 (there’s that short play advantage again), then assigns roles to the other playwrights and the piece is read and then discussed.

And don’t worry whether the other writers can act or not. Sometimes, as with watching bad plays, you can get a really good idea of whether your dialogue works when it’s read really badly. If what you’re trying to say comes through, then you’ve succeeded, so try not to bite through your arm during the reading.

The best of the writers’ workshops will also periodically hold fully readings of works that the teacher and writer think are developed enough, generally beginning with one class session dedicated to a read-through of the entire piece, often with invited actors, and then a public reading designed to elicit feedback.

I cannot stress the importance of all these things enough in developing new work. No one can create in a vacuum. Bonus points: Sometimes, you can get lucky in casting an actor, and their performance will actually inform how you rewrite and tweak the part. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me.

Okay, now I’ve finished the play. So now what?

Okay. You have that play or that stack of short plays, so what do you do with them? The best route, really, unless your aunt is a theatrical agent or your cousin is a producer, is to enter contests and/or if you’ve been involved with a small theatre company as part of the doing all the things part, see if they’re open to considering your works.

There’s a lot of material out there, especially at the larger theaters, and if you submit directly if they have an open policy, it can take years to get a response. I think I once heard back from a theater something like six years after I’d submitted, and by that time, although they mentioned the title when they rejected it, I didn’t even remember the play off the top of my head.

Most importantly, never give up. My personal record for length of time between developing a play and seeing it produced was about twenty years — and that was actually the second full-length I’d ever written, which I started on the heels of the first one, which was produced within a year or two of me finishing it.

It was also the strangest collaboration ever, because I was essentially working with a dead playwright — myself from twenty years earlier — and fixing mistakes I’d made at the time. Ultimately, the whole thing turned out amazing.

Someday, I’m actually going to go back and try to figure out how much of the original “final” draft I threw out and how much was totally new.

Image: Moliere, by Mcleclat, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Wonders: Another curious route to a story

How buying a cheap pair of wireless headphones six months ago and a random discovery about a new computer led to an epiphany about the timing of nostalgia.

I can tell you exactly how this particular story came about. It all started when I ordered a pair of wireless headphones in order to do Zoom meetings way back in March, when I started a new job that is 100% remote.

Now, the problem was that I needed something that wasn’t BlueTooth, because my computer didn’t have that, so I wound up settling on an RF model. That is, one with a transmitter pack of the type that would plug into the computer’s audio jack, with the headphones themselves completely unattached.

It’s not really at all unlike what a reporter or performer would wear — a battery pack, usually taped to their back, connected to an audio source, like a microphone, with the audio signal picked up elsewhere.

It worked great, even though I did have to wind up buying extra rechargeable AAA batteries for the transmitter and a whole set of rechargeable 9-volt batteries for the headphones.

Side note: Something I learned during lockdown: Rechargeable batteries are the best investment you can ever make. Get enough for all the little battery-operated doodads you have around the house, and then double that. Sure, it costs a lot up front, but you’ll save an assload pretty much instantly.

Case in point: The two times early on that I forgot to turn off the headphones and drained the 9-volt battery would have cost me more in non-rechargeable replacements than five rechargeable 9-volts with recharger cost in the first place.

But there were two big issues with these headphones. Number one is that I could not leave them on all the time so as not to run them down, meaning that I would have to go through the start-up process just before every Zoom meeting started — power up transmitter, switch on headphones, push ‘activate” button and then “connect” button, and hope that it worked.

Still, not being physically tethered to my computer with a cable was totally worth it — and I’d accidentally wrecked too many of those at the business end by forgetfully walking away while they were plugged in and on my head.

And no, I’ve never driven away from a gas pump with the nozzle in my car, thank you.

Of course, a lot of headphones are also just cheaply made crap. Even the Beats by Dre ear buds that we were all given one year as an office present didn’t last long after the internal wiring crapped out on one side. I’ve had earbuds I’ve gotten at the 99 Cent store that lasted far longer and sounded just as good.

Surprise, surprise — cheapness turned out to be the problem with these. It wasn’t more than a week before the foam earcups just detached from the headset, and no way in hell I could get them back on, because the retaining edge had clearly been machined into the earcup, and I just didn’t have the machinery to do it.

Meanwhile, after a month or so, the control buttons on the right ear cup — i.e., the ones absolutely necessary to make the things work — suddenly pushed in, as in sank below the surface of the back of the ear cup, so became useless.

Still, since they were so cheap, I ordered another pair. These lasted a bit longer, although they still had the foam problem and, eventually, the part where the headband attached to the left ear cup just snapped, and not with any particularly sudden or sharp movement.

I’m not going to call out the brand, although I will say that, since they worked with a computer, these technically were digitAL earphones.

After the second pair died, I spent eight bucks at the Rite-Aid next door for a plug-in pair that didn’t have the greatest sound quality, but did what I needed, and so it went until a week ago last Monday.

That morning, I read a news story explaining why it might not be a good idea to update to Windows 11 right away, so I had to check to make sure that “auto-update” was not turned on. I only found out later that Microsoft is actually allowing people to opt out this time, miracle of miracles!

Anyway, in the process of looking for the setting, I inadvertently discovered, nearly six months after I’d bought it, that my new computer does, in fact, have BlueTooth.

I tested it by tethering to my phone and, sure enough, it worked.

Well, fuck me sideways with a wooden hanger.

Delivered the next day — a pair of BlueTooth headphones that have been working like a charm, and have the best of both worlds, and more. For some reason, they have an FM tuner built in, an SD card slot for off-line music listening, a built-in battery with 30-hour life that’s rechargeable via USB-C (the best of the USBs) and the ability to also connect to an audio device via a cable.

Not to mention that the sound is just lightyears better than that from either the crappy RF phones or the cheap wired ones. And so is the battery life. I’ve had them on most of today, after their first full charge, and have been through several Zoom meetings and lots of audio, and the battery is still at 60%.

So this led me to testing out their audio qualities, and I began searching left and right for things to do that it with. Eventually, a vague memory that led to a search for “Star Wars disco” opened up a portal on a ton of albums from the late 70s that were basically DJ’d into the EDM of the era, but all based on Big Band music from the 1940s, and that’s when I was reminded of the great Truth of Nostalgia.

Nostalgia runs in 30-year cycles.

Why? The simple reason for this is that this is the point when kids who grew up on something have come of age but have also achieved enough power within various industries to start shaping culture instead of just consuming it.

So 1980s kids were consuming pop culture. As grown-ass adults in the 2010s, thirty years later, they started remaking, reimagining, or reforming all that shit from their childhood. Right now, we’re seeing the 1990s coming back.

But this is nothing new.

Let’s go back to the 1950s, for example, when one of the most popular movies was Singin’ in the Rain. And what was the story about? Why, the transition of silent films to talkies in the 1920s, and how new technology threatened traditional art forms. Westerns and gangster films were also big. The former were a big film genre in the 1920s, and the latter were an actually thing in the 1920s, thank you Prohibition.

And yes, Singin’ in the Rain was most likely a subtle commentary on the threat that television presented to theatrical films at the time via new technology, since it parodied the reaction to Hollywood and the introduction of talkies — i.e., films with sound.

Meanwhile, a teen idol from the 1920s, Rudy Vallée, made a huge comeback in film and TV in the 1950s. Brace yourselves for Harry Styles coming back in our 2050s, at the start of which he’ll be (gasp!) 56.

Then again, in 1950, Rudy was already 49.

But let’s get back to the nostalgia pattern. The 1950s definitely locked onto the 1920s because they both experienced post-war booms that kind of petered out, transitioned from somewhat liberal to very conservative, and saw new technology changing life as they’d previously known it.

The 1960s, meanwhile, mapped onto the 1930s, because both decades were eras of protest and economic uncertainty, along with foreign wars (The Spanish Civil War and Vietnam) leading up to World Wars (WW II and the Cold War.)

Both decades were also periods of sexual liberation, even if the 1930s were more subtle about it, but, for example, in big cities, gay men and lesbians were absolutely accepted in certain fields, like theatre or interior design. In Hollywood, a lot of gay people were openly so within the industry, provided that any hint of it never leaked outside of studio walls and publicity dates with persons of the opposite sex could be arranged and manipulated in the press.

Talk about “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” although that ironically came back in the third wave of the 1930s/1960s, also known as the 1990s, which are coming back right now one more time, although I guess that the “don’t tell” part now refers to whether a woman has had an abortion.

One big phenomenon from the 1990s — groups like Squirrel Nut Zippers, and the whole swing revival. They were actually modeling the 1930s, not the 1940s. Two very different styles — neither of them involving Harry or watermelon sugar, which may or may not be Style’s nostalgic callback to Richard Brautigan’s 1968 novel, seeing as how Harry falls into the 1960s/1990s/2020s/2050s pattern.

But it was finding all of this music from the 1970s that made me realize the 30 year thing, especially the epiphany that disco was just a playback of 1940s post-war big-band music. In the 1970s, it was post-Vietnam and party time, while in the 1940s, it was post-WW II.

Both artforms, though, had the same goal: Drag asses onto the dancefloor and get them to all shake their booties, and, sure enough, in the 2000’s, Christina Aguilera came along to bring it all back with her song Candyman — aka the video that makes every gay man question his sexuality.

This was also right around the time when the successor to the 1940s and 1970s crash-landed on the scene as EDM, or electronic dance music, and went mainstream.

Guess which decade the 1980s lapped up. Yep. That would be the 1950s, and it’s abundantly clear in both New Wave music and styles — remember those skinny ties, black suits, and poofy skirts? They were just the 1950s with neon highlights.

And punk wasn’t immune from 1950s influence, either. In its roots, they were just a revival of the Rockers and Teddy Boys of 1950s England, with the New Wavers and second generation glam acts like Adam Ant and Boy George cast as the Mods.

Cinematically, one of the most interesting curious from the era is Walter Hill’s 1984 film Streets of Fire largely forgotten now. It’s mostly notable only for marking Willem Dafoe’s screen debut as the villain, which he performed when he was… 29, or just a year short of being nostalgic for what he was appearing in. He really broke out in the movie Platoon, made when he was 31.

But the thing about the movie is that it was completely ambiguous as to when, exactly, it was set. A lot of the design aesthetics were firmly stuck in the 1950s, but the soundtrack and the attitudes were decidedly modern. Well, for the time.

Jump ahead to the 2010s, and both the 1950s and the 1980s feature prominently, with films like The Master and Inside Llewyn Davis nodding at the eras. The former was set in 1950 and, while the latter is set in 1961, it’s still before the assassination of JFK, which really was the emotional border between the two decades.

And remember that Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight? Yep. Set in the 1980s, and so is Stranger Things, which debuted in 2016, and Call Me by Your Name, set in 1983 and released in 2017. So is The Wolf of Wall Street, which I have to honestly say is one of the worst movies I ever forced myself to sit through. The only redeeming feature in that hot mess is Joanna Lumley.

So here we are in the 2020s, with the 1990s, 1960s, and 1930s sneaking back into the zeitgeist. Once again, we have the sexually and socially liberated vs. the repressed would-be oppressors, the economic battle between the haves and the have nots, and simmering protests that break out into hot fires at the drop of a hat.

In the 1930s, unemployed workers took to the streets, protesting the same economic inequalities that we have now, all in the shadow of the Great Depression. In the 1960s, it was students occupying their campuses and taking to the streets, initially to fight for their First Amendment rights on campus, then ultimately to protest the Vietnam War. Remember, the military draft lasted until the 1970s, so they had a direct stake in objecting.

The 1960s also brought us events like the Watts Riots, echoed by the L.A. Riots in the 1990s, and the George Floyd BLM protests of this decade. and every one of these events happened for the same reasons: Police abuse and murder of people of color.

While the 1930s were a bit open about sexuality in a very hush-hush manner mainly in large cities where anonymity was much more possible, in the 1960s, the sexual revolution came roaring out of the closet, and not just for gay people.

Suddenly, women had The Pill (literally approved as the decade began), which gave them a lot more autonomy over their reproductive choices than relying upon trusting their partner to either wear a condom (without slipping it off)  or pulling out (without still managing to splash the target.)

Of course, the fun police in various states tried to make it illegal for married couples to use birth control because, um… “You must make babies, dammit?” At least Planned Parenthood was there to get these laws overturned through court battles, ensuring that a married woman could take The Pill and still bang her husband as of 1965.

The idea of sex before marriage being a sin also pretty much fell by the wayside as modern teens scoffed at old morality and started doing it left and right. By the way, these people are what are known as Boomers, although given their sexual behaviors in the 1960s — well, at least that of the cool ones — maybe some of them should be called Bangers.

The 1960s were also when the modern Gay Rights Movement got going with a little incident called the Stonewall Riots, which were the endcap on the decade.

In the 1990s, the gay rights movement really took off big time, largely in response to the absolutely abysmal response of the Reagan administration to the AIDS Crisis that had started in the 1980s. This was the decade when the first celebrities started coming out (Scott Thompson long before any of the others), gay characters started to show up in mainstream media and not as stereotypes, RuPaul first burst onto the scene, and someone being gay started to become not as big a deal as it used to be because of increased visibility.

In the 2020s, we’ve got all of that, plus the Nirvana Baby trying to sue the band and other entities over his appearance on the cover of their 1991 album Nevermind. Never mind that the grown-up version of that baby has reshot that cover three times, twice while underage, albeit with his dinky winky covered in the other versions.

And you know how old that baby, Spencer Elden, is now? Take a wild guess.

That’s right. He turned 30 in February of 2021, so his nostalgia meter is right on track, apparently. None of which absolves him of being an asshole, of course.

Update: Also right on track, the day after I wrote this story, this bit of news popped up. They’re creating a spin-off of That ’70s Show starring the parents from the original and it’s called… That ’90s Show. Guess when it’s set.

And does anyone remember That ’80s Show? It only ran for a few months. Premiering in 2002, it was a decade early and might have done a lot better in the 2010s.

Image source: paul bica from toronto, canada, (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons