Sunday Nibble #19: Go on an Odyssey at the Iliad

I don’t make it a habit to plug commercial venues here, although I will promote friendssites, but I’m going to make an exception with an opening caveat: I was not asked to do this and I am not being paid or otherwise compensated to do so. But I just wanted to give back to a local business that has been a big part of most of my adult life.

It’s a used bookstore that I discovered not long after it first opened and not long after I moved out on my own after college. It’s called the Iliad, and for several decades was next door to a video rental place called Odyssey. I’m not sure which came first, but it was a perfect combo.

Odyssey survived right up until 2019, despite a Blockbuster having opened up across the street in a cynical attempt to drive it out of business. Well, Odyssey won that battle but, ultimately not the war, most probably because they specialized in “Adult” videos and DVDS, as well as more obscure, artsy non-adult titles, and they didn’t edit R-rated flicks.

Iliad (and Odyssey) survived the ’94 Northridge Earthquake. The former, but not the latter, also survived a greedy landlord, up until the point that they moved to a cheaper and larger store — their current location — and then got socked with the current crisis.

But… happy accident… they’d been planning to close for a remodel anyway, which is in progress. And before I get to the plug, let me get back to why I love this place so much.

They have everything, and the people who work there know what they have. They also have bookstore cats and dogs that wander freely, some of them quite friendly, and post newspaper clippings on the appropriate aisles noting the passing of various authors and literary figures.

They carry both new and used books, and their used book prices are very reasonable. Their collection is also incredibly eclectic. When it comes to fiction and graphic novels, their genre shelves are deep, and if you’re into language, science, humor, generally weird shit, plays, music, history, art, photography, biography, reference, or anything else, they’ve probably got it.

Their massive Two Dollar table was always a joy to explore, because it held all kinds of really eclectic stuff — frequently coffee table size — that was often outdated but fascinating precisely for that reason. And, come on. Two bucks. How can you go wrong?

To me, visits to the place have always been magical treasure hunts in which I can explore for hours, come out with a large stack of exciting finds that cost me less than what a movie ticket would and, bonus points: they always have boxes of “Shit we really wouldn’t feel comfortable charging you for, so take ‘em” on the front steps, and even those have their gems.

For example, that’s where I found the entire Norton Anthology of English Literature, for free, one November evening. That’s something like eight or nine volumes, from Beowulf to nearly now.

So that’s what I love about them, and whether you’re in L.A. to do curbside pick-up or are elsewhere but want to order online, I encourage you to visit their website, look around and buy stuff.

I really didn’t realize it until I sent out a random “what’s up” email to them — and actually got a response — that the store has been staffed by mostly the same people since the beginning, and as I mentioned, I’ve pretty much been a customer since then, too. I’d like to keep being one, so help them out if you can.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 4

Last week brought us to the last first-person short story. Now comes the closing novella, told in third-person, in which everyone comes together. Since a lot of us are still locked up, I think I’m going to share a bit more of this one in a few installments, since this part is 20,000 words or so. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here. Here, we continue with the post wedding activities of the main characters.

TAKING HOPE

Cindy and Jackson had glued themselves to each other the second they’d sat down. The connection they had forged was beyond amazing, especially because neither of them ever thought that they could have found true love at their ages, which were well into their 60s. She was 64, he was 67. But they did, and they also found out that they were still interested in and able to have sex, and it was loud, passionate, and crazy, especially because they did not have to worry at all about unwanted pregnancy. Cindy’s eggs had long since fled the coop, and Jackson’s sperm count was lower than the DJIA in the last year of the Trump presidency a decade ago.

And being at such an amazing and festive wedding, and sitting very near the loving… well, Jackson dubbed it the “love cluster” comprising his assistant, his boyfriend, their third, and the other couple they all seemed to be fucking — just put him in a mood to finally ask. He’d bought the ring a couple of weeks earlier, but figured that this would be the perfect event to spring it at, probably during the reception. Once the ceremony actually started, he and Cindy just leaned into each other and held on tight, and found themselves giving each other loving glances at every super romantic moment.

“Yeah,” Jackson thought. “This is definitely the day to pop the question. I just hope I can figure out the perfect time.”

Rafael and Vince certainly noticed, especially because of that whole “Want to get straight married” question in light of the quake, but sitting here now among the contingent that Madame Alice managed to bring in just put them more in mind of it. In fact, during the ceremony, Rafael casually tossed his arm around Vince’s shoulders, and Vince returned the favor, and they shared a bro look at least several times. And then, at the reception after the reception — i.e. the part where the middle class and below were told to go to the better party down the hill, Raf and Vince hit the bottom of Grand Park right before the end of the Maná and Natalia Jiménez show. At the end of it, he grabbed his Bro’s hand and said, “So… I know we joked about that getting married thing earlier, but — ”

“Oh, fuck yes, dude,” Rafael replied before Vince could even finish asking, and so it was going to happen.

Tycho hadn’t noticed because he was too wrapped up in his own group, but his request through the mayor’s office had been accepted, and so Rebekah wheeled Matt in, although they took up a position near the back of the nave, in a spot with a short row of pews meant for the handicapped. If Tycho had looked back, he might have wondered why the House of Jesus wouldn’t have accommodated putting the lame at the front, but since they rolled in just before the flutes started up, he never saw them.

Matt did, though. He spotted Tycho almost immediately, and all he could do was just stare forlornly in his direction, hoping that his wife didn’t notice. Maybe, one day, he’d actually get the chance to tell Tycho how he really felt — although, at the moment, he seemed really happy with at least two of the boys sitting next to him, if not several others.

Hell, maybe one day Matt’s legs and his dick would work again and he could get divorced and play daddy for Tycho and all of his hot little friends. And he had to admit that he was impressed when he realized that Tyty was, in fact, pulling tail with at least four other hot, young guys.

If only he could walk, and not depend on… her. And still have his government job. Fuck the earthquake. Fuck the earth. All that Matt could do was stare at true beauty at the far end of the room and feel the complete sense of loss and regret and anger.

Rebekah had never told Matt that the only reason they were there was because of Tycho’s largesse. She let him think that she’d pulled the strings. She constantly reminded him of how much she loved him, which she did. Every time she did so, he cringed inside.

From his spot house right (stage left) Toby sat and watched, and recognized several familiar and friendly faces he’d met thanks to Adrian’s amazing work. Note to self: Another bonus due, probably in the mid-five figure range. He also noticed that he didn’t see the pain in the ass councilor whom he had sicced his lawyers on the second she tried to take away Edna’s property, not to mention screw with Alice’s easements and permits. Well… good. There had been a reason he’d bought his way into this wedding, and this was that. He’d gotten to know people all around the neighborhood bordered north and south by Wilshire and San Marino, and east and west by Irolo and Western, gotten to like them, and was going to make it rain for them. What else could he do? After all, as Adrian had wisely surmised, the only thing he’d been feeling since the morning before the quake was incredible guilt. And he still hadn’t been able to explain it to anyone. But he was damn well going to do something about it.

When the recessional music started up, he heard the words “I won’t let you down” right after the first twelve bars, and thought, “Wow. That fits perfectly what I want to do for Alice and Edna and everyone. Maybe this is a sign.” He had actually never head of OK Go or heard the song before, but that was probably because since a very early age, he had been a huge Asian language nerd, and so only listened to K-Pop, as well as Cantonese and Mandarin music and podcasts, all in an effort to learn the languages. By the time he was out of college, he was fairly fluent in all three and just starting on Korean, and it had led directly to his success in business. Sure, it did leave him a little lacking in American pop culture, but only slightly, since up until the infamous Chinese lockout that didn’t end until January 21, 2021, he could see his fill of American blockbuster movies dubbed in any of those languages and understand them.

Toby wasn’t the only one moved by the words. Jackson and Cindy gave each other a smile and a hand squeeze, and so did Adam and Tony, Rafael and Vince, and Tycho and Finley. James just settled for trying to give them a smile, not wanting to incur Tycho’s wrath again. But it was that kind of a feel-good song that sent everyone out in a fantastic mood.

On the repeated line, “Lights out in Babylon,” Alice and Edna gave each other a knowing look that said, “Been there, done that, too many times.”

At the back of the room, Rebekah touched Matt’s shoulder, trying to be reassuring, but Matt was just watching as Tycho and company got up and exited the sanctuary via the façade exits into the cathedral proper on the south transept — which was actually pointed east by south east due to a fluke of church terminology. The wall behind the altar was always called the east wall, which in this case was aimed slightly off of north, so that all of the compass directions in the place, if referred to in doctrinal terms, were shifted just under 90º counterclockwise. It was a leftover from the whole looking toward Jerusalem to pray thing, also related to bowing toward Mecca, or finding qibla, the relative direction to Mecca from anywhere on Earth. This had caused much debate over twenty years earlier, right before Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor became the first Muslim astronaut to visit the ISS.

And it was a legitimate question. Properly, a Muslim had to pray five times per day, and bow toward Mecca while doing it, as well as face the ground. Easy to do on Earth. On space, in a machine that orbited sixteen times in a single earth day and without gravity, not so much.

If you measured a day by sunrise and sunset, then it would mean a Muslim astronaut had to pray 80 times per Earth day. At about five minutes per prayer session, that would be six hours and forty minutes per day doing nothing but praying — not something that Roscosmos or NASA would be too happy about. Also, given the speed and altitude of the ISS, the relative position of Mecca could shift by up to 180 degrees in those five minute chunks — that is from looking to the left to looking to the right or vice versa every time.

One early school of thought had dealt with this problem with the advent of trains and then planes, which also moved. Their solution was to determine qibla at the point you were at when you started praying, and then to keep looking that way no matter how much the train or plane moved.

But this brought up another question. The ISS orbited at an altitude of 254 miles, or 408 kilometers, so how to measure the relative distance to Mecca? Straight line down to Earth and go from there, or straight line up from Mecca, and go from there? The big problem with the latter is that it might have someone not face the Earth at all and, in fact, possibly do the worst possible and most blasphemous thing — praying while facing the moon or sun.

Eventually, an 18 page booklet came out that was a guide to how Muslims could follow all of their rules and rituals in space, and it boiled down, basically, to this: “Do the best you can, but Allah isn’t going to judge you if you can’t under the circumstances.”

Most of the Muslim astronauts silently made the same choice: Facing the entire Earth was de facto facing Mecca, and that was where the twenty-four hours counted — not moonrise and moonset. So they followed the clock based on wherever they had launched from and the only thing they had to be careful about was to not be looking in a direction that would put the rising sun or moon in what would be their line of sight if they weren’t looking at the “floor.”

It had turned out to not be as complicated as the scholars had made it out to be. The difficult part was not launching yourself into a back flip if you brought your head down to the prayer mat too hard.

Oddly enough, Jews and Catholics had come up with similar workarounds themselves many times before. In fact, it was a long-standing rule even among the most Orthodox of Jews that if it were a choice between following the Kosher laws and sacrificing a life, then life won out. That vital drug that will save our child’s life is haram because it only comes in gel-caps made out of pig’s hooves? God says “Okay.”

For some reason, in the west, only certain Protestant cults hadn’t figured this out, in particular a lot of evangelical sects, but especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Well, at least their leadership, who still wouldn’t even allow a blood transfusion to save a life because… reasons only they understood. A lot of their members didn’t, though, and since accepting a transfusion was seen officially as them renouncing the church and responded to via shunning, membership had been declining rapidly, especially since the leaders decided that vaccines, and stem-cell and DNA treatments were also sinful. There were fewer than twenty-thousand official members left — definitely far shy of the 144,000 who would be the only saved ones.

Nobody outside of that group cared. Especially not when, hell, even the Mormons finally relented and decided via a “special revelation” that the gay thing was okay because of David and Jonathan, and even started doing marriages and sealing same-sex couples in the temple. Real reason: they were seeing their membership numbers decline as well, and got pragmatic. And what better way to recruit missionaries than to give young male couples the chance to get away from their parents, who might not be approving, and spend a year living and working together? The church even got rid of the whole idea of missionary housing not having any bedroom or bathroom doors to prevent any personal “soiling” of the soul. And yes, that’s a euphemism for exactly what it sounds like.

Tycho was always fascinated to see that the religions that happened to accept that evolution was a thing also actually evolved. The ones that didn’t died out in exactly the way that Darwin’s theory predicted. But he had always known that the Church accepted scientific advancements and did so by racking them up as parts of “god’s mysterious ways.” Hell, it was a Jesuit priest who came up with the Big Bang Theory.

And the whole Galileo thing had been misinterpreted for centuries, with people still somehow believing that he was executed for believing that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Far from it. He basically received the equivalent of mild house arrest and supervised probation and, although the heliocentric theory is clearly the right one now, at the time it wasn’t so clear-cut given the evidence at hand, and the Church doubted Galileo’s scientific methods. He did write a dialogue debating the two theories; Earth-centered and Sun-centered; although he did stack the deck in favor of the former.

The Church’s execution of Giordano Bruno had been a travesty of justice but, to be fair, that happened a generation before Galileo’s trial and while Bruno did put forth the hypothesis that the universe was infinite, without a boundary and with the center basically everywhere, it was more his open dabbling in the occult, denials of various strictly held Church beliefs (read: The Trinity, Transubstantiation, and Mary’s virginity), and belief in reincarnation that transcended species that really irked the church and got him burnt at the stake.

But Darwinism pretty much indicated that modern Jews and Catholics would survive, and modern Muslims could be added to the list. Fundamentalist Muslims — or fundamentalist anyone — not so much. They were on the way out, too, along with all of the other inflexible, hardcore religious nuts.

And Tycho knew about all of this because he’d grown up “sort of ” Catholic, then learned about the whole ISS questioning thing once he’d taken over Rebekah’s position with the county. That and forty million other stupid religious rules and customs, and he sometimes wondered why the modern world bothered trying to accommodate them all when there were so many religious folk who did know how to make exceptions and not bend the world to their own rules. Of course, he was an even bigger atheist than Rebekah, salthough when he looked at his paycheck, he’d realize that he worshipped a god, too, but it was called money. Well, okay. He had two gods. Money and sex. But that was totally fine with him.

Neither Matt nor Rebekah knew anything about the naming of walls, although Rebekah really should have learned it when she had had Tycho’s job. And all that Matt knew was that he watched as Tycho and company quickly walked out of the church to his right and through a door far enough away that there would be no chance for them to catch up and make casual conversation at the reception. They were also apparently in the VIP section, while he and Rebekah probably were not, so they would be halfway through dinner before he and his wife even got in the door.

As she turned him around to wheel him out, the full force of his depression hit him and he told her, “Honey, I’m really tired now and not up to this. Do you mind if we skip the reception?”

“Not at all,” she said, way too cheerfully, and her loving attitude just made him resent her even more.

Image “Grand Park at Night,” © 2018 Jon Bastian, all rights reserved

To be continued…

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #16

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What piece of technology brings you the most joy?

This one is actually very simple. It is the lowly but very important integrated circuit, or IC. They combine a host of functions previously performed by much larger and more complicated devices — mostly transistors, resistors, and capacitors — which can create all sorts of tiny components, like logic gates, microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors, and on and on.

In the old pre-ICs days, transistors, resistors, and capacitors all existed on a pretty large scale, as in big enough to pick up with your fingers and physically solder into place.

Before that, old school “integrated circuits” were big enough to hold in your hand and resembled very complicated lightbulbs. These were vacuum tubes, and essentially performed the same functions as a transistor — as either an amplifier or a switch. And yes, they were considered analog technology.

The way vacuum tubes worked was actually via heat. A piece of metal would be warmed up to release electrons, which was also the reason for the vacuum. This meant that there were no air molecules to get in the way as the electrons flowed from one end (the cathode) to the other (the anode), causing the current to flow in the other direction. (Not a typo. It’s a relic from an early misconception about how electricity works that was never corrected.)

The transition away from vacuum tubes to transistorized TV sets began in 1960, although the one big vacuum tube in the set — the TV screen itself — stuck around until the early 2000s.

But back to the vacuum tube function. Did it seem off that I described transistors as either amplifiers or switches? That’s probably because you might think of the former in terms of sound and the latter in terms of lights, but what we’re really talking about here is voltage.

Here’s the big secret of computers and other modern electronic devices. The way they really determine whether a bit value is 0 or 1 is not via “on” or “off” of a switch. That’s a simplification. Instead, what they really use is high or low voltage.

Now, granted, those voltages are never that “high,” being measured in milliamps, but the point is that it’s the transistor that decides either to up a voltage before passing it along, or which of an A/B input to pass along which circuit.

Meanwhile, resistors are sort of responsible for the math because they either slow down currents, so to speak, or let them pass as-is. Finally, capacitors are analogous to memory, because they store a received current for later use.

Put these all together, and that’s how you get all of those logic gates, microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors, and on and on. And when you put all of these together, ta-da: electronics.

These can be as simple as those dollar store calculators that run on solar power and can only do four functions, or as complicated as the fastest supercomputers in the world. (Note: Quantum computers don’t count here because they are Next Gen, work in an entirely different way, and probably won’t hit consumer tech for at least another thirty years.)

So why do ICs give me joy? Come on. Look around you. Modern TVs; LCD, LED, and OLED screens; eReaders; computers; cell phones; GPS; synthesizers; MIDI; CDs, DVDs, BluRay; WiFi and BlueTooth; USB drives and peripherals; laser and inkjet printers; microwave ovens; anything with a digital display in it; home appliances that do not require giant, clunky plugs to go into the wall; devices that change to or from DST on their own; most of the sensors in your car if it was built in this century; the internet.

Now, out of that list, a trio stands out: computers, synthesizers, and MIDI, which all sort of crept into the consumer market at the same time, starting in the late 70s and on into the 80s. The funny thing, though, is that MIDI (which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is still around and mostly unchanged. Why? Because it was so incredibly simple and robust.

In a way, MIDI was the original HTML — a common language that many different devices could speak in order to reproduce information in mostly similar ways across platforms and instruments. Started with sixteen channels, it’s proven to be a ridiculously robust and backwards-compatible system.

Over time, the number of channels and bit-depth has increased, but a MIDI keyboard from way back in the early 80s will still communicate with a device using MIDI 2.0. You can’t say the same for, say, storage media and readers from different time periods. Good luck getting that early 80s 5-inch floppy disc to work with any modern device.

What’s really remarkable about MIDI is how incredibly robust it is, and how much data it can transfer in real time. Even more amazing is that MIDI has been adapted to more than just musical instruments. It can also be used for things like show control, meaning that a single MIDI system runs the lights, sound systems and, in some cases, even the practical effects in a concert or stage production.

And, again, while MIDI 1.0 was slowly tweaked over time between 1982 and 1996, it still went almost 25 years before it officially went from version 1.0 to 2.0, in January 2020. Windows 1.0 was released on November 20, 1985, although it was really just an overlay of MS-DOS. It lasted until December 9, 1987, when Windows 2.0 came out. This was also when Word and Excel first happened.

Apple has had a similar history with its OS, and in about the same period of time that MID has been around, both of them have gone through ten versions with lots of incremental changes along the way.

Now, granted, you’re not going to be doing complex calculations or spreadsheets or anything like that with MIDI, and it still doesn’t really have a GUI beyond the independent capabilities of the instruments you’re using.

However, with it, you can create art — anywhere from a simple song to a complex symphony and, if you’re so inclined, the entire stage lighting and sound plot to go along with it.

And the best part of that is that you can take your musical MIDI data, put it on whatever kind of storage device is currently the norm, then load that data back onto any other MIDI device.

Then, other than the specific capabilities of its onboard sound-generators, you’re going to hear what you wrote, as you wrote it, with the same dynamics.

For example, the following was originally composed on a fairly high-end synthesizer with really good, realistic tone generators. I had to run the MIDI file through an online MIDI to audio site that pretty much uses the default PC cheese-o-phone sounds, but the intent of what I wrote is there.

Not bad for a standard that has survived, even easily dumping its proprietary 5-pin plug and going full USB without missing a beat. Literally. Even while others haven’t been able to keep up so well.

So kudos to the creation of ICs, and eternal thanks for the computers and devices that allow me to use them to be able to research, create, and propagate much more easily than I ever could via ancient analog techniques.

I mean, come on. If I had to do this blog by typing everything out on paper, using Wite-Out or other correction fluid constantly to fix typos, then decide whether it was worth having it typeset and laid out (probably not) and debating whether to have it photocopied and mimeographed.

Then I’d have to charge all y’all to get it via the mail, maybe once a month — and sorry, my overseas fans, but you’d have to pay a lot more and would probably get it after the fact, or not at all if your postal censors said, “Oh, hell noes.”

Or, thanks to ICs, I can sit in the comfort of my own isolation on the southwest coast of the middle country in North America, access resources for research all over the planet, cobble together these ramblings, and then stick them up to be blasted into the ether to be shared with my fellow humans across the globe, and all it costs me is the internet subscription fee that I would pay anyway, whether I did this or not.

I think we call that one a win-win. And if I went back and told my first-grade self, who was just having his first music lessons on a decidedly analog instrument, in a couple of years, science is going to make this a lot more easy and interesting, he probably would have shit his pants.

Okay. He probably would have shit his pants anyway. Mainly by realizing, “Wait, what. You’re me? Dude… you’re fucking old!”

Oh well.

Image (CC BY 3.0) by user Mataresephotos.

 

Theatre Thursday: On the shoulders of giants

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted one year ago but which is still relevant today.

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!

Wonderous Wednesday: 5 Things that are older than you think

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted in February 2019, but which is still relevant today.

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only twelve years old, for example, although the first Blackberry, a more primitive form of smart phone, came out in 1999. The first actual smart phone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was introduced in 1992 but not available to consumers until 1994. That was also the year that the internet started to really take off with people outside of universities or the government, although public connections to it had been available as early as 1989 (remember Compuserve, anyone?), and the first experimental internet nodes were connected in 1969.

Of course, to go from room-sized computers communicating via acoustic modems along wires to handheld supercomputers sending their signals wirelessly via satellite took some evolution and development of existing technology. Your microwave oven has a lot more computing power than the system that helped us land on the moon, for example. But the roots of many of our modern inventions go back a lot further than you might think. Here are five examples.

Alarm clock

As a concept, alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks, frequently involving water clocks. These were designed to wake people up before dawn, in Plato’s case to make it to class on time, which started at daybreak; later, they woke monks in order to pray before sunrise.

From the late middle ages, church towers became town alarm clocks, with the bells set to strike at one particular hour per day, and personal alarm clocks first appeared in 15th-century Europe. The first American alarm clock was made by Levi Hutchins in 1787, but he only made it for himself since, like Plato, he got up before dawn. Antoine Redier of France was the first to patent a mechanical alarm clock, in 1847. Because of a lack of production during WWII due to the appropriation of metal and machine shops to the war effort (and the breakdown of older clocks during the war) they became one of the first consumer items to be mass-produced just before the war ended. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating history of alarm clocks that’s worth a look.

Fax machine

Although it’s pretty much a dead technology now, it was the height of high tech in offices in the 80s and 90s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fax machine that isn’t part of the built-in hardware of a multi-purpose networked printer nowadays, and that’s only because it’s such a cheap legacy to include. But it might surprise you to know that the prototypical fax machine, originally an “Electric Printing Telegraph,” dates back to 1843. Basically, as soon as humans figured out how to send signals down telegraph wires, they started to figure out how to encode images — and you can bet that the second image ever sent in that way was a dirty picture. Or a cat photo. Still, it took until 1964 for Xerox to finally figure out how to use this technology over phone lines and create the Xerox LDX. The scanner/printer combo was available to rent for $800 a month — the equivalent of around $6,500 today — and it could transmit pages at a blazing 8 per minute. The second generation fax machine only weighed 46 lbs and could send a letter-sized document in only six minutes, or ten page per hour. Whoot — progress! You can actually see one of the Electric Printing Telegraphs in action in the 1948 movie Call Northside 777, in which it plays a pivotal role in sending a photograph cross-country in order to exonerate an accused man.

In case you’re wondering, the title of the film refers to a telephone number from back in the days before what was originally called “all digit dialing.” Up until then, telephone exchanges (what we now call prefixes) were identified by the first two letters of a word, and then another digit or two or three. (Once upon a time, in some areas of the US, phone numbers only had five digits.) So NOrthside 777 would resolve itself to 667-77, with 667 being the prefix. This system started to end in 1958, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Of course, with the advent of cell phones prefixes and even area codes have become pretty meaningless, since people tend to keep the number they had in their home town regardless of where they move to, and a “long distance call” is mostly a dead concept now as well, which is probably a good thing.

CGI

When do you suppose the first computer animation appeared on film? You may have heard that the original 2D computer generated imagery (CGI) used in a movie was in 1973 in the original film Westworld, inspiration for the recent TV series. Using very primitive equipment, the visual effects designers simulated pixilation of actual footage in order to show us the POV of the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. It turned out to be a revolutionary effort.

The first 3D CGI happened to be in this film’s sequel, Futureworld in 1976, where the effect was used to create the image of a rotating 3D robot head. However, the first ever CGI sequence was actually made in… 1961. Called Rendering of a planned highway, it was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on what was then the fastest computer in the world, the BESK, driven by vacuum tubes. It’s an interesting effort for the time, but the results are rather disappointing.

Microwave oven

If you’re a Millennial, then microwave ovens have pretty much always been a standard accessory in your kitchen, but home versions don’t predate your birth by much. Sales began in the late 1960s. By 1972 Litton had introduced microwave ovens as kitchen appliances. They cost the equivalent of about $2,400 today. As demand went up, prices fell. Nowadays, you can get a small, basic microwave for under $50.

But would it surprise you to learn that the first microwave ovens were created just after World War II? In fact, they were the direct result of it, due to a sudden lack of demand for magnetrons, the devices used by the military to generate radar in the microwave range. Not wanting to lose the market, their manufacturers began to look for new uses for the tubes. The idea of using radio waves to cook food went back to 1933, but those devices were never developed.

Around 1946, engineers accidentally realized that the microwaves coming from these devices could cook food, and voìla! In 1947, the technology was developed, although only for commercial use, since the devices were taller than an average man, weighed 750 lbs and cost the equivalent of $56,000 today. It took 20 years for the first home model, the Radarange, to be introduced for the mere sum of $12,000 of today’s dollars.

Music video

Conventional wisdom says that the first music video to ever air went out on August 1, 1981 on MTV, and it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It was the first to air on MTV, but the concept of putting visuals to rock music as a marketing tool goes back a lot farther than that. Artists and labels were making promotional films for their songs back at almost the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles a prominent example. Before these, though, was the Scopitone, a jukebox that could play films in sync with music popular from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and their predecessor was the Panoram, a similar concept popular in the 1940s which played short programs called Soundies. However, these programs played on a continuous loop, so you couldn’t chose your song. Soundies were produced until 1946, which brings us to the real predecessor of music videos: Vitaphone Shorts, produced by Warner Bros. as sound began to come to film. Some of these featured musical acts and were essentially miniature musicals themselves. They weren’t shot on video, but they introduced the concept all the same. Here, you can watch a particularly fun example from 1935 in 3-strip Technicolor that also features cameos by various stars of the era in a very loose story.

Do you know of any things that are actually a lot older than people think? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Jake von Slatt

Talky Tuesday: If you love it, you’ll learn it

When you’re learning a new language, there’s one excellent method to increase your vocabulary and improve your fluency, and here it is.

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted two years ago but which is still relevant today.

Different people have different learning styles. Some people learn visually. That is, if they see it, they won’t forget it. Others are auditory learners, who pick things up via hearing. And there are also people whose learning method is tactile, through touch or physical motion.

Now, some of those skills seem to apply obviously to certain disciplines. Painters are probably visual learners, musicians are auditory, and dancers are tactile. In the case of language, you might think that it’s an auditory skill, but that’s not necessarily the case. Fortunately, you can use different tricks to learn a new language via your own method.

For visual people, it’s all about words, so the obvious best natural ways for visual learners to pick up a new language are reading and watching.

For auditory people, it’s all about sound, so they’re going to want to listen, although videos won’t hurt if they do have sound as well.

For tactile people, it’s all about sensations, so they’re going to be doing a lot of writing things down by hand.

That part of the lesson may seem like a “Well, duh” moment, but the key is in what you’re reading, listening to, or writing. If you want to learn a new language, treat it like your first language.

That is, whether you’re reading, listening, watching, or writing, you’re going to want to do it with things on subjects that interest you. I can’t emphasize this enough. What you should be doing is seeking out online resources in your target languages — generally newspaper and magazine sites — and then focus on the sections that pertain to your interests.

Whether you’re a fan of movies, TV, sports, fashion, politics, or whatever, if the content in the target language you’re scooping into your brain via your preferred method happens to be about topics you already love, then your contextual understanding is going to go through the roof.

Why? Well, because specialized topics happen to use specialized words, and the quickest way to start to understand the heart of a language — which is how words are derived, how idioms are formed, and so on — is to pick up those words that were created to describe your favorite topic.

I’m a fan of film and theater, for example, so a word I see a lot is taquilla, which means box office. As in English, it’s both a literal and metaphorical meaning. It can refer to the physical place where tickets are sold or to the amount of money a film or play took in.

But where did taquilla come from? Well, like a lot of words in Spanish, it came from Arabic (La Conquista lasted for centuries), and taquilla is a diminutive for “taca.” That word, in turn, came from the Arabic taqah, which referred to a window with bars — a good physical description of a lot of actual box offices, actually.

Incidentally, pretty much any word in Spanish that begins with “al” came from Arabic, where the al- prefix just means “the,” similar to how Spanish combines the articles “a” (to) and “el” (the) into “al.” For example, algodón, which means cotton, and which is also the source of the English word; or alfombra, which means carpet, and this gets back to the focusing on what you love idea. Alfombra was permanently cemented in my brain after seeing it in a few articles about movie premieres always in this context: “en la alfombra roja.” On the red carpet.

The best part is that this is not just limited to Spanish, thanks to the internet (either la internet or la red), because you can probably pretty much find resources in any target language somewhere. If you want to read, you can find national newspapers in the native language and probably plenty of websites — and it will also be a big help to adjust Google’s language settings to include your target. If you want to watch or listen, then there are also tons of videos in other languages. And if you learn by writing, you’ll need source material, so transcribing audio or copying the written word will help as well.

But, again, the key to it is this one simple bit: engage with what you’re interested in in the first place, and it will make your target language come alive in a way that rote lessons or drills or routines never will.

Love it, live it, learn it!

Image © Syed Ikhwan. Used via Creative Commons license 2.0.

Momentous Monday: Dog talk

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted one year ago but which is still relevant today. In fact, this one is even more relevant because, when I wrote it exactly one year ago, I had no idea that all three of my dogs would be past tense by now.

I’ve noticed a really interesting phenomenon with two of the three dogs I’ve owned as an adult. Well, technically one-and-a-half, because the first one, Dazé, started out as the family dog that we adopted after the first dog died. Basically, we started out together when I was still doing the whole K-12 thing and lived with my parents when I went to college.

But although she was supposed to have been my mom’s dog, Dazé was having none of that. She decided that I was her human almost from the beginning — we adopted her at 12 weeks old — and when I finally moved out on my own after college and as soon as I was able to, she moved in with me and then never left. She was probably the most intelligent dog I’ve ever met, and also one of the most easy-going. She loved people and other dogs, and yet somehow always managed to be the boss dog in any pack. The first place I moved her to, there was a Rottweiler mix that started as a puppy but who grew into a giant of a dog that could stand on her hind legs and look me in the eyes, and I’m 6’2”. Didn’t matter. That dog, Toad (my former roommate has an odd but wonderful sense of humor) totally deferred to Dazé in everything, and all it took was a look from my dog. She never bared her teeth or made threats or anything. It was amazing to watch.

This carried on later when I lived in a house with two other guys and four other dogs, all of which were much bigger. Dazé weighed about 30 pounds, while the other dogs each weighed at least 90. That didn’t matter. It was a house rule, at least among the dogs, that none of them were allowed in “my” room, even if I tried to beg and coax them in. I remember one particular night when the roomies were both out of town and it was storming something fierce. I’d let one of the dogs, Sarah (an Irish Wolfhound, so you know the scale) into the backyard because she gave me that “Gotta pee” look. But when she was done, I decided to let her in via my room, which had a sliding door that opened onto the yard, rather than through the kitchen. So I opened it, called her in, and despite the downpour and sad look on her face, she really, really didn’t want to.

And what was Dazé doing? Just sitting on the bed, looking calm and harmless. I finally managed to get Sarah to come in, but she slinked so low to the ground and dashed through so fast, that the message was obvious:

“SorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorryokayImout.”

And Dazé just stayed on my (ahemn — her) bed, doing nothing.

I never really did figure out how she had this super power, although I did see one crack in it at a New Year’s Day party held by a playwright friend of mine. Her theory was that since we could never really know the exact birth dates of our dogs unless they came from a breeder (hint: they never should) then we might as well just peg it to the start of the year and go from there. So everyone was invited to bring their dog.

All well and good, Dazé gets along with dogs, but then a party guest who had snorfed a little too much herbal refreshment started giving Milk Bones to my dog and the hostess’ dog, Hank, who was a pretty hefty yellow Lab mix. Well, the inevitable happened. She tossed one too close between them, Dazé went to grab it, and Hank decided to put her head in his mouth. It was more of a warning than an attack, but she ducked and fled, and when she came back to me — and it was very clear that she was in “Daddy, daddy, help” mode — I was able to pick her up like she was a Kleenex. She’d gone so limp in fear that she really seemed to weigh nothing. There was a tiny nick on her head that was bleeding, and it was the one and only moment I ever got to see her lose her mojo.

Flash forward to current dog, who has a lot in common with Dazé, but a brief side trip through dog number two, Shadow. I adopted her when she was about a year old, exactly eleven days after Dazé finally passed, and she came to me as a fearful rescue, a white German Shepherd mix who started out terrified of me until I just ignored her, but once she realized that it was okay for her to sleep in my bed with me and that I gave her food, she bonded totally. Just like with Dazé, I was her human. However, she never really developed the talent that Dog 1 and Dog 3 did, and although I loved her very much, I have to say that she was the problem child I had to have in order to learn.

When Shadow was five, I decided that she needed a companion, and so I adopted Sheeba, who was 11 months old, and who had been thrown out of a car for reasons I’ll never understand. What struck me about her in the shelter, though, was that she just seemed so calm — and this was even more amazing when I found out on adoption day later that week that I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in after being saved from the streets.

Sheeba is a lot like Dazé. Put her in a pack situation, and she goes into boss mode. The big difference with her, though, is that it’s really clear that she does it physically instead of mentally. Dazé would just give a look. Sheeba tends to get in the other dog’s face and puff up. (By the way, the two of them were just about the same size.)

And yes, she’s gotten into her share of fights — several times with Shadow, and once or twice with friends’ dogs. These mostly revolve around food, as in, “Bitch, back off my dish, or Ima hurt you.” A big thing I learned when I had both Shadow and Sheeba was this, too: As a human, do not try to impose the alpha/beta roles, because it will lead to disaster. See, in my mind, I did the typical parent thing. “Older kid gets first dibs and such.” Yeah, that works with humans. With dogs? Not so much.

If I’d been aware enough from the start, then I would have made Sheeba alpha, and that would have made both of them happy. Instead, I tried to make Shadow alpha, which only managed to piss off Sheeba and make Shadow even more nervous.

Oops.

But… all of that said, the real point here is this: What I learned from Dazé is that dogs really do speak to us, too. We just have to learn to listen. Now, I’m not sure whether I’m the one who took so long to pick up on it, or she’s the one who took so long to figure out how to train me, but… during the last five or six years of her life, I started to notice that she would approach me with intent, make eye contact, and then basically create a subject-verb-object sentence (SVO) by where she was looking.

The funny thing is that this is actually the way that English works, too. “You do this” is probably one of the simpler examples. Stripped down in dog talk, though, it omits finer points of vocabulary like adjectives and adverbs, although, to be honest, these really seem to come out of attitude — a really impatient, huffy dog is coloring the entire sentence with “fast” or “soon.” In a lot of ways, that’s like any form of sign language, where the tone of the sentence isn’t portrayed in what the hands are doing, but rather in the face and expressions.

In that context, it makes total sense, because our dogs have basically had to figure out how to teach us how to understand their signing. And that’s pretty amazing.

Both Dazé and Sheeba eventually started doing this, and it always took the same pattern. After they’d gotten my attention, they’d make eye contact, which meant “You.” Then they would pointedly turn their head to look at something, so literally using an action as an action word, although I think that “Dog” probably only has one universal word that can mean do, make, get, or give. This really isn’t all that far off from human languages, which not only frequently have one verb that can mean all of those things, but it’s also one of the most irregular verbs in the language. (Side note: It’s almost a guarantee that the verb for “to be” was, is, and/or will be ridiculously irregular through all tenses in every language.)

Anyway, so… look at me, then turn the head — subject, verb. And what happens next? Object, which is where the dog looks — their bowl, meaning “food,” the sink, meaning “water,” the cupboard, meaning “treat,” or the door, meaning “walk,” or… anything else. The point here is that the need the dog expresses it not abstract, and that is probably where the species separate.

After all, a five-year-old can tell its parents, “I want to go to Disneyland when school is out.” A dog, not so much. While they may have a sense of language, they do not have a sense of time. If you doubt that, compare how excited your dog is to see you come home after five minutes vs. five hours. Not really a lot of difference, right?

A long time ago, humans naively believed that we were the only species to develop language, but that’s clearly not true. If we define language as set of syntactic methods to communicate, then most species have language, and humans are not unique. We are probably unique in the sense that we alone use written or inscribed symbols to represent the sounds that make up our language, which is what you’re reading right now, but we do not absolutely know that we are the only ones.

The point, really, is this: We all need to step back from this idea that humans are the superior life forms (hint: we’re not) and, instead, start to listen to all of the others, and to nature itself. If you’re lucky enough to have pets of any kind, start to pay attention and listen. They may be trying to tell you something, and are getting totally frustrated that you’re too stupid to understand. Dog knows that this is how Dazé finally taught me.

Did I mention that the first couple of times she tried the “You give food” thing with me, she actually gave me a dirty look when I didn’t get, audibly sighed in frustration, and then pointedly repeated it until I finally got it? Because that is exactly what she did. And that is why I got it the first time Sheeba did it. Which is interesting in itself, because it means that one generation of dog managed to teach me a language that I was able to understand in a much later generation, and, holy crap, how amazing is that?

Image: Dazé, Shadow, and Sheeba © Jon Bastian

How have your pets communicated with you? Let us know in the comments!