Research everything, believe nothing

If you want your fiction and science fiction to be believable, look to reality first.

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surrounding a very jittery bunch of spread-out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

(There are actually a lot more forms of matter than these, but you can go read about them yourself if you’re interested.)

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-powered radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to lift that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

Sunday Nibble #92: Hiding in plain sight

On the connection between the arts, the LGBTQ community, and how the second use for any new tech is porn.

It has taken basically forever for those who are not white, Christian, heteronormative, cis-gender people to be centered in any way, shape, or form in popular culture, especially in mass media like movies and TV.

Although there were several early attempts in the late 70s — q.v. Billy Crystal in Soap — they tended to be campy stereotypes and while, granted, every character in Soap was a campy stereotype, Crystal’s Jodie Dallas was dragged through the indignity of suddenly deciding he was “transexual” after being dumped by his shady bisexual boyfriend — “because every gay man really wants to be a woman, right?” as late 70s logic went.

Eventually, Jodie settled down with (and knocked up) a woman, although I think their baby turned out to be the antichrist or something. Or maybe that was the priest who had an affair.

Yeah, not the greatest of times there, eh? It really wasn’t until the early 90s, when people like Scott Thompson from The Kids in the Hall just said “fuck it” and came out, RuPaul broke through the taffeta ceiling, and it was only real when Ellen (not a nice person) came out in real life and on her sitcom.

Boom — the 90s came to an end. You’re gay? Cool. Here’s your boarding pass to the 21st century. Enjoy!

Except, maybe, not so much. There was still a lot of shit to deal with. But what about all the shit that came before?

Once the media gained the ability to record and preserve performances, a certain hierarchy emerged. Now keep one thing in mind. The second use of any new technology is porn. Period.

Some dude invents cave painting as early movies and uses firelight to make it look like a herd of elk is running across the cave wall? Cool.

One cave over, someone else has already figured out how to use the same techniques to create erotic dances featuring everyone’s favorite big-breasted fertility goddess, as well as the first cave-painting feature called Threeway: Hunter, Hunter, Gatherer.

At every stage of the development of art, it really only happened because some dude was trying to figure out a more realistic way to paint titties or dick or both.

Once photography happened, you just know that half of every professional shot taken was some guy convincing his girlfriend, mistress, fiancée, wife, or best friend to strip off and pose with the good stuff.

Film? Yeah, in those early days for every legitimate short or Great Train Robbery, there were at least ten “Millie Gets Railed” or “Horny Farmhands” or “When the Parson Came to Call.”

Hell, in the very early days of legitimate film, full frontal nudity was very common, and it didn’t end until the early 1930s (right after the introduction of sound) when the spoilsports clamped down with the Hayes Code, which didn’t end until after it was declared unconstitutional in 1952 and was finally abandoned in 1968, when the MPAA started its ratings system.

Still, when the Code ended, mainstream Hollywood really didn’t go into full-on porn. The closest they got was Midnight Cowboy, to this date the only X-Rated movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, but to be honest, nowadays it’s a very, very mild R, and the only reason it was so shocking back then was that it depicted (gasp!) male homosexuality because it was about a guy who came from Texas to New York to be a male escort to rich women, but was not above turning the occasional male trick on the side.

But he wasn’t gay, dammit!

The X-rating quickly ended, though, because the MPAA had never trademarked that letter and the porn industry co-opted it to prove that you’d be seeing the real thing. It was eventually replaced with NC-17, but since that’s box office poison because, again, prudes in the industry, it is rarely if ever issued, and most moviemakers would rather release their films as “Unrated.”

Let’s get back to that hierarchy of art again. While porn is the second use of any new art or technology, the older any art or technology is the less likely it is to be censored.

Now when you think of naked art, what comes to mind?

Most likely you’re thinking either Greek or Roman statues or a ton of paintings from the Renaissance onward — the former which influenced the latter — but a lot of which nowadays are pretty much a part of the curriculum for, at the least, high school students studying art, not to mention being common décor in public spaces.

I mean — would a reproduction of the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David be all that shocking anywhere nowadays? Really, no — although some quarters still seem to have a big issue with the fact that David has a dick.

Next up came literature, as in the written word, prose, poetry, and sometimes theatre scripts. And this also goes way back. Hell, just read certain bits of the King James Bible if you want pure porn.

Later on, when serialized novels became popular entertainment because people had nothing better to do than gather together and read out loud to each other, the most popular works were also very obscene and pornographic. Don’t believe me? Read something like Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais to your family and see how long it takes you all to be laughing so hard you’re all crying while also marveling at how filthy it all is while yet being relatable.

Literature is doing and saying things that other art forms can only imagine until we get to the 20th century, and then the subject matter becomes even more daring because, surprise surprise, certain people are working in the field in disproportionate numbers.

In case you’re wondering, I’m talking about mostly gay men (and some lesbians) who have gravitated to working in all areas of theatre in the 1920s in big cities, mainly New York and the touring circuit, and this is where they feel safe.

They are actors, dancers, playwrights, set, lighting, and costume designers, stylists, make-up artists, dressers, assistant directors, choreographers, and so on.

These are mostly not considered to be “masculine” professions because, really, did these jobs even exist outside of big cities?

But it all came together in New York with the unwritten rule: If you don’t stick out too much, you can be as gay as you want behind the scenes and we welcome you, and you get to go on tour with the shows as well.

Of course, not welcome everywhere. When Mae West’s play The Drag opened in Connecticut in 1927, there was instant scandal, and she wound up going to jail for it. Given the title, yes, the play was about exactly what you think it was about — a closeted gay socialite trapped in a loveless marriage.

Mae was an ally even then, and it’s no wonder that her biggest fans until the end of her career and long life were gay men. Of course, she cast actual gay men in The Drag, finding them through open calls at a gay bar in the Village — this at a time when the acting unions banned gay men from having speaking parts on stage.

Irony much?

Apparently, audiences loved the play when it opened. The problem were the prudes and bluenoses who condemned it.

But as long as it wasn’t put out blatantly on the stage, people were too naïve to notice, and so the gay underground went on. The stage in particular, but movie musicals as well, provided perfect cover for all of these young, queer folk. after all, it was an era in which unmarried people did not have sex, ever!

This was partly due to religious ethics and morality and all that bullshit, of course, but the real practical reasons were that truly effective birth control didn’t exist — there was no pill, and at the time, vasectomies were pretty much only used for eugenics — that is, to prevent “undesirables” from being able to reproduce.

No self-respecting red-blooded American man, after all, would willingly give up the ability to make babies, married or not. And while abortions were available, they were still mostly illegal, so only performed in underground clinics or by very expensive doctors.

You’ve probably heard the term “back-alley abortion,” and this was the era for it, although women had other methods, good and bad, like douching with Coca Cola right after sex.

As a kid, I remember my uncle telling a story about an unmarried women who’d gotten pregnant but couldn’t afford the abortion doctor. A friend told her, “Gladys, here’s what you do…” (Women in these stories are always named Gladys.)

“Gladys,” the friend explains, “You drink half a fifth of whisky, then climb up on the kitchen table — make sure the chairs are out of the way. Roll off and land on the floor, and voila. No more baby.”

In my uncle’s version of the story, Gladys downed half that fifth, got up on the kitchen table and rolled off and, as he put it, “She broke her leg but still had the damn baby.”

But, like the clergy, being in a Broadway Chorus was perfect cover — fraternizing between the chorus boys and girls was just not allowed because they were professionals.

Naturally, this left plenty of time for same-sex fraternizing (sororizing?) behind the scenes. And, as we all know, it’s perfectly innocent when two boys or two girls past college age but unmarried live together, right?

And then, gays began showing up in films, although deeply coded. They were often depicted by somewhat prissy actors, but never in sexual roles — look up people like Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton — the former sort of slightly openly gay, the latter in denial for life.

But if a producer or director wanted to dog whistle to audience members who knew, “This guy is a homo,” they’d cast people like them.

After World War II, two conflicting events happened. Number one was that a lot of young men who had gone off into the armed forces discovered during their tours of duty that they did, in fact, love other men. When they came home, they generally arrived in major port cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, New York, New Orleans, Miami, etc.

Instead of heading back home to the Midwest or South, they just stayed in these port towns and found their own kind, and it’s no accident that each of these cities became major gay hubs in future.

But, at the same time, the government, partly freaking out over the Soviet Union suddenly becoming an adversary, banned gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, and proceeded to hunt down those they could find not only in the military but with government jobs.

Meanwhile, Joseph McCarthy was busy finding monsters under his bed in the form of a Communist Infiltration of America. (Hint: It never happened, at least not in the way that HUAC envisioned it.)

But gay men and lesbians in the late 1940s and early 1950s went back to hiding in plain sight. This time, they founded their own communities within those port towns and yet again took on certain jobs — gay men, for example, became hairdressers, interior decorators, designers, personal assistants, or went to work in creative positions for the Hollywood studios.

Tons of lesbians became flight attendants because they were not allowed to get married — another convenient excuse for the parents.

In all of these positions, they were less likely to be investigated, as well as less likely to be fired in a lot (but not all of) them if they were found out as gay.

The ultimate safety for a gay couple, of course, was to start their own successful business, and many a combination antique store and interior design house, florists, a B&B with its own stylist, or music/acting/dance school came out of these disguises.

There were those certain professions that men went into if they wanted to signal that they were gay without being too obvious — interior/set decorators or designers, stylists, make-up artists, or fashion/costume designers, to name just a few, and any of those had their place either serving the wives of rich men or within the studio system itself on set.

By the end of the 1960s, things started to change after the Stonewall Riots, which led to the first pride parades a year later in 1970. It was still an uphill struggle, not helped by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s (and the way it was totally ignored by the Regan Administration), but in some ways that plague galvanized the community.

The old prejudices started to be forced away in the 1990s for a lot of reasons — more representation in the media, more celebrities coming out, and (on a personal level) more and more people realizing that friends and family they’d known for years were gay when they fell ill and came out.

The thing is, these people were the loved ones of those they had to come out to near death, and this really started to change opinions.

After the turn of the century and as medical science started to get a handle on AIDS and HIV, things really started to progress, albeit slowly, until same-sex marriage became the law of the land, LGBTQ+ groups and representation started popping up everywhere, and our current generation of kids in high school and college don’t even question the idea of sexual orientation, or that biological/assigned sex and gender are very different things.

It’s a very different kind of hiding in plain sight, but one that doesn’t so much involve hiding who you are as it does being who you are without hiding it. It’s a nice place to be, as long as we can keep the momentum going forward, but it’s still going to take a lot of work.

Image source: I, Psongco, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Friday Free-for-All #85: Concept, religion, art, humanity

More random questions answered by yours truly, this time covering what humanity needs to learn, the future of religion, and the importance of art.

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.

If you could teach everyone in the world one concept, what concept would have the biggest positive impact on humanity?

The biggest lesson that everyone has to learn and then be constantly reminded of comes down to this simple concept:

Each of us currently lives on the same planet, but every single one of us lives in a different universe. Both are important.

What this means is that while we share a home and resources, none of us, not even identical twins, have exactly the same experience of things — objects, other people, events in our lives, and so on. My college communications professor gave a great, if simplified, example to demonstrate this.

Two sisters, who married around the same time to men in the same profession, both get flowers from their husbands on the same day, at the same time.

The first sister — we’ll call her Alice — sees the flowers and the notes, and her immediate response is, “Oh, that’s so sweet. See how much he loves me?”

Meanwhile, the other sister, Bea, sees her flowers and the card and immediately spits out, “Goddammit, that son-of-a-bitch cheated on me again.”

The flowers could even be the same arrangement from the same florist — hence part of the same planet — but the women’s perceptions, based on their own experiences, couldn’t be more different.

Here’s the kicker: Maybe Alice’s husband has cheated on her ever since they got married, but it’s in her nature to never suspect that and just trust him. Meanwhile, Bea’s husband has been ever-faithful, but she is just the jealous and suspicious type.

Both women have these personality traits because of their life experiences long before they ever met their husbands, and the reactions really have nothing to do with the men at all.

In essence, we’ve spent our entire lives being programmed to perceive the world in certain ways, and that programming has come from many different sources: Our parents, religion, schools, interactions with siblings and friends, random encounters with various aspects of culture or nature or other unexpected things in life, and so on.

The end result is over 7 billion unique points of view on what the universe is and how it behaves; whether it’s inherently safe or dangerous; whether it’s good or evil. There’s only one object fact we can all agree on no matter what our point of view is, and that’s the other half of the original answer: All of us share a single planet, and have got to learn how to get together on it and share it equitably. There’s enough for everyone, provided that some of us don’t get too greedy.

Will religion ever become obsolete?

It’s a yes and no answer here. Will some religions become obsolete? Absolutely yes. We’ve already seen that in the past, when another religion takes over and erases the former, or all its practitioners stop believing or die out.

I think that in the near future we will see more restrictive religions die out as the more fundamentalist versions of everything become less and less appealing to modern, industrialized nations. To some extent, we’re already seeing that happen now.

So, will specific religions as we know them become obsolete? Almost certainly, yes. But the idea of religion itself will probably live on in the concept that there is a force outside of humanity that had some role in its creation and its consciousness, and through which they can find unity.

It might not be called a “god” per se, but we’ve already seen this with various New Age religions that teach the idea of a universal soul or cosmic consciousness or other woo adjacent subjects.

Why? For the same reason that people still believe in astrology; It provides them some sort of comfort in being able to have some certainty about the world without having to try to understand how things actually work.

Removing that tendency from human beings is probably impossible since it has been built into our instincts since before we were even a species. But maybe we can move toward some sort of singular spirituality beyond religion that unites us all as humans, rather than divides us as tribes.

What benefits does art provide society? Does art hurt society in any way?

Art nourishes the heart and soul of a society in the same way that science feeds the mind and body. It’s a way to communicate with each other as well as to feel the touch of distant and long gone humans over the gaps in time and space.

Art is one of the better ways to be reminded of the lesson in the first question as you discover the unique voice of the artists while still experiencing what you have in common with them.

Art can serve as nothing but pure entertainment and an escape from the sometimes monotonous pace of every day life — and you’ll always notice that the spectacle factor in art picks up during times of trouble. American movie musicals had their first explosion during the Great Depression which lasted all the way through WW II and after, into the beginnings of the cold war.

Modern spectacle began with big-budget special effects features and blockbusters, born in the 1970s with The Exorcist, The Godfather Parts I and II, Jaws, and Star Wars: A New Hope — and they’re all still with us in varying forms.

Art can only hurt society when it works against it or serves to incite hatred against disadvantaged groups — for example, Birth of a Nation in 1915 led directly to a revival of the KKK in the U.S., just as Triumph of the Will contributed to the rise of Hitler.

But those pieces and others like them are more works of propaganda than they are true art, and we can protect ourselves if we know how to spot them.

Is humanity headed in the right or wrong direction?

In the long run, I think we are, if we last that long. Yes, our history has been one of three steps forward and two steps back, but with each generation, I think we do manage to move further which each of our forward steps.

The one great advantage humans have is that they die, and so do old, outdated ideas with them, while the promising ones that help everyone continue onward. It happens at different paces in different countries, of course, but I have a feeling that those gaps are going to eventually close as well.

When I was born, things like women working outside the home just like their husbands, single parent households, and no-shame divorce were becoming the norm — not that a lot of suburban parents didn’t still have the naïve belief that their 2.5 kids would grow up to get a good education at a major university, meet their future spouse there (if not in high school), then he’d get a good job with benefits after graduation, she’d stay home to take care of the babies that they started cranking out, lather, rinse, repeat.

Yes, it was a white picket fence, suburban, heteronormative dream, but it was already becoming impossible before I even made it to middle school. Part of that is infuriating — a lot fewer Gen Xers managed home ownership than their parents’ generation did, and that number just keeps shrinking with each generation.

On the other hand… we have gotten rid of the idea that women should not vote and that they’re the ones who should stay home and take care of the kids and everything else in the house. We’ve gotten rid of the idea that it’s some terrible thing if people chose to never marry or, if they do chose to marry someone of the opposite sex, decide to not have kids.

On the flip side, it’s becoming much more acceptable for same-sex couples to marry, as well as to have children either via adoption or surrogacy or, in some families, multiple children through both methods.

We’ve become a lot more aware of the environment in the last generation and a lot of us are finally starting to do something about it in whatever ways large or small that we can. And a lot more people have become politically involved and even become activists in the same time-span.

At the same time, we’re fighting those three steps back that, since 1981, have destroyed the middle class, led to the most wealthy citizens paying the least in taxes, destroyed our social safety nets, and reduced union membership by American labor has shrunk, relative to the total work force, by over 44% since 1983. (Don’t read the figures 20.1% of the work force vs. 10.1% for the work force and think, “Oh. That’s only 10%!” because that’s not how math works.)

Naturally, we’ve also seen an apparent increase in racism and other bigotry in the US in the last, oh, six years or so — but that’s only because it’s become more obvious who feels that way, and not that their numbers have actually gone up.

The one advantage of this, though, is that it’s setting things up for the next three big steps forward. We just have to make sure we get those in before things can swing back further.

We’ll get there eventually. Just as our technology has improved exponentially ever since the invention of moveable type and the printing press, human society will do the same.

Biological and sociological forces just move a bit slower than technological ones.

Theatre Thursday: A Bard’s dozen

Shakespeare was such a genius that his works are adaptable across time and genres because everything he did was grounded in character. Here are some of the best Shakespeare adaptations, literal and not.

I am a huge fan of Shakespeare, so keep that in mind and… here we go…

One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare is that the psychological truths in his plays are so universal that they offer themselves up for endless adaptations and recreations. They can be staged as faithfully as possible to the actual look and feel of whatever era he was writing about, or be stretched and bent into just about anything else. A lot of people may not know it, but the seminal 1950s science fiction film Forbidden Planet is somewhat based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and when you can easily leap from 17th century romance to 20th century science fiction, it says a lot about the original writer.

The other amazing thing about his works is this, and something I cannot emphasize enough to someone who fears getting into Shakespeare: Yes, it may be hard to read his words on the page, but watch them acted by brilliant performers, and you’ll be sucked in in a second. The language barrier will vanish while the emotional power will take you over.

Here then are half a dozen straight adaptations of his works, followed by half a dozen that only took inspiration but still delivered powerful stories because, after all, the Bard of Avon was a powerful story-teller.

Straight Adaptations (Most to least faithful to the original era of the story)

  1. Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Probably one of the Bard’s best-known works, which also gave us West Side Story and  Romeo + Juliet, this tale of star-crossed lovers was best told and most accurately cast in Zeffirelli’s version. Unfortunately, years later, the actor Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in the film, took part in the #MeToo movement, when he revealed that Zeffirelli sexually harassed him on set.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999, Kevin Kline)

This is one of the most over-produced Shakespeare plays ever, possibly because it’s really the fluffiest, but at least this version managed to nail things down definitively with an amazing cast. I mean, come on… Kevin Kline, Roger Rees, Sam Rockwell, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer,  Dominic West, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, and David Strathairn…  how much more stellar could you get?

  1. Henry V (1989)

Branagh. Shakespeare. Say no more. He is one of the most definitive Shakespearean actors — in fact, he can rightly tell Laurence Olivier to fuck right off (because, honestly Olivier wasn’t that good as Hamlet or Richard III.) But Branagh has brought us multiple Shakespearean adaptations, from Hamlet to Henry V to Much Ado, and all of them are brilliant. Still… his turn as director and star in the pivotal film in Shakespeare’s amazing “War of the Roses” cycle knocks everything else out of the park.

  1. Hamlet (1990)

Despite the allegations about Zefferelli mentioned above, he still gave us a version of Hamlet that rang true, even if Mel Gibson was way too old to play the hero and Glenn Close was way too young to play his mother. Branagh did it six years later, but his exercise was way too academic. Zefferelli’s is visceral and gutsy, and definitely blew Olivier’s bloodless 1948 attempt right out of the water. Unlike Branagh’s, Zefferelli did not adapt the play mostly uncut — which is why his version only runs 2 hours and 14 minutes, while Branagh’s is just over 4 hours.

  1. Richard III (1995)

This is my second favorite Shakespeare play starring one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellan, and the reimagination here is brilliant. It takes this War of the Roses and sets it in an imaginary world where the UK went through a civil war in the 1930s and the fascists won — at first. McKellan plays the humpbacked anti-hero with all of the nasty glee necessary, and is aided and abetted by an amazing cast. Full disclosure: My actor’s dream would be to play Gloucester/Richard III through the whole cycle of plays he’s in, from all of the Henry VI’s through Richard III… He’s just that amazing a douchebag of a character.

  1. Titus (1999)

And this is my favorite Shakespeare play, despite most Shakespeare scholars considering it problematic, but in Julie Taymor’s adaptation, it takes off and sings. Her first and most brilliant move was setting it in a Rome that is not specific, but is eternal — it could be anywhere from the time of Julius Caesar to the time of Mussolini, or maybe even Fellini, and it all works. On top of that, the cast is amazing: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Harry Lennix, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Angus Macfadyen. If you’re not sure about Shakespeare, this is probably your best entry point.

Reimaginations (Nearest to furthest)

  1. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Quick catch-up: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from Hamlet. In the play, they are two old school pals of the Melancholy Dane, and they were brought in by the villain to lure Hamlet onto a boat-ride intended to lead to his death. However, Hamlet turns the tables, re-writes a letter and instead sentences these two to be executed in his stead. This play, by Tom Stoppard, makes R&G the lead characters, with the actions in Hamlet in the background, and it becomes an existential comedy. In the film version, directed by Stoppard, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman essay the lead roles, with Richard Dreyfuss appearing as the lead player — more important here than he was in Hamlet.

  1. Ran (1985)

I saw this film at one of the revival houses in L.A. and went in knowing nothing about it, other than that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa. I was about one act into what I thought was some traditional drama set in the shogun era when my brain suddenly clicked and I realized, “Holy crap. This is King Lear.” And it was. Other than a gender swap up top regarding who inherits what, the rest of it is pure Shakespeare, and there are a lot of moments that really stand out visually, particularly the mad king wandering unharmed through a castle afire that is being pin-cushioned by arrows, and the summary execution of Lady Kaede, which indicates that maybe her blood pressure was a bit too high.

  1. Scotland, PA (2001)

Another odd little adaptation, but one which gets the source material entirely: This is Shakespeare’s story of ambitious monarchs writ large brought down to human scale, and it totally works. Yes, it’s set in a real place, and manages to reset all of the drama of Shakespeare’s original in the context of the petty squabbles inherent to a fast-food franchise. Surprisingly, though, this does not blunt the drama from the Scottish Play one bit.

  1. West Side Story (1961)

As if you didn’t know, this is Romeo & Juliet, updated and with an utterly amazing collaboration with seasoned pro Leonard Bernstein writing the score and newbie Stephen Sondheim providing the lyrics. This was lightning in a bottle, almost perfect in every way from Broadway onward, and the movie adaptation is one of the most incredible musicals ever filmed. The talent on tap is over the top, the numbers are choreographed to perfection (thank Jerome Robbins for that), and put this down as the second best adaptation of Romeo and Juliet ever filmed. Only time will tell if the impending Spielberg remake does the original justice.

  1. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Also known as The Taming of the Shrew (see how the titles rhyme?) this is another Shakespeare update that is admirable for bringing the bard to a new and younger audience. It’s the same story in a different setting: Petruchio… er, Cameron, wants to date Bianca, but her dad is stuffy, so won’t let her date anyone until her older sister Kat hooks up. Enter Patrick Verona (see what they did there?) who will try to, well, tame that shrew. This all takes place at Padua High School, and it’s all a lot better than you might think it’d be from the description.

  1. Theater of Blood (1973)

All right. Question one: Do you like Shakespeare? Question two: Do you like Vincent Price? Question three: Are you a fan of horror movies? Well, if you answered “yes” to at least two of those questions, this is your lucky day. Theater of Blood is an amazing film in which Vincent Price plays a disgruntled Shakespearean actor who did not win a critics’ award, so goes on to bump off each of those critics following his most recent season of Shakespeare plays. The cast of critics is an all-star bunch of British actors of the 1970s, Price is abetted by the amazing late Diana Rigg (what ho, Game of Thrones fans!) and we get the amazing combination of Price and Rigg doing Shakespeare, a comedy gore-fest, and a metric buttload of fantastic British actors, well, acting. Keep your eyes out for murders based on Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Othello, Henry VI: Part One, and Titus Andronicus. Price’s character fails, however, with attempts at Romeo & Juliet and King Lear. Oops… spoilers?

What is your favorite Shakespeare play or film adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

Wonderous Wednesday: 5 Things that are older than you think

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only about fourteen 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

More stupid Excel tricks: A secret power of IF

The hardest part about working with data, especially in large sets, is the people who input it in the first place. The reason they make it so difficult is because they’re inconsistent, not only in their day-to-day habits, but between one or more different people all entering info into the same database.

When you’re creating something solely for yourself, then by all means be as inconsistent or idiosyncratic as you want. But if it’s a group project creating information that someone like me is going to have to derive useful information from at some point in the future, inconsistency can make my job infinitely more difficult.

This is the reason why things like style guides were created — and they don’t just exist for the written word. Accounting and data management have their own style guides. So does computer programming, although that field has the advantage, because the program itself won’t let you get it wrong. Excel is the same way, although it won’t always tell you how to make it right.

Little things can cause problems and cost a business money. Sally may prefer to spell out words in addresses, like Avenue or Boulevard, while Steve likes to abbreviate with Ave or Blvd. Sam is also big on abbreviations, but always with periods. Seems innocuous, doesn’t it?

It does until the only way to make sure that a massive mailing doesn’t go to the same household at the same address twice is to compare the addresses to each other. That’s because, to a computer, 1234 Main Street, 1234 Main St, and 1234 Main St. are all completely different addresses. There’s no easy way to fix that because computers don’t have a “kinda sorta look the same” function.

Garbage in, garbage out

It’s also important that a database be designed properly. For example, names should always be entered as separate units — title/prefix, first name, middle name, last name, suffix. They can be combined later when necessary. A lot of good databases do this, but it’s completely worthless if somebody enters the first and middle names in the first name field or adds the suffix to the last name. You may have heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out,” and this is a prime example of that. All of the right fields were there, but if used improperly, it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the proper fields aren’t always included. One example I had to wrestle with recently in a former career was a database showing the various insurance policies people had with the agency. Now, that is useful and necessary information, as well as something that legally needs to be maintained. And it’s all right that a person gets one row of data for each policy that they’ve had. Some people will have one or two rows, others might have a dozen or more.

So what’s the problem? This: There are no data flags to indicate “this is the policy currently in effect.” This was doubly complicated since it’s Medicare related health insurance, so someone can have up to two active policies at a time, one covering prescription medications and the other a Medicare supplement. Or a policy may have expired after they decide to drop an MAPD and go back to “original” Medicare but the only way to know that is to look for an ending or termination date — if it was ever entered.

The secret power of “IF”

This is where one of my “stupid Excel tricks” came into it. You may or may not be familiar with some of the numeric functions dealing with columns or rows of numbers, but they basically operate on a whole range. They include functions like SUM, MAX, MIN, and AVG. The usual usage is to apply them to a defined range or series of cells and they have no operators, so you get things like:

=SUM([Range])
=MAX([Range])
=MIN([Cell1],[Cell2],[Cell3],...[Cell(n)])

Here’s the fun trick, though. If you add one or more “IF” statements within any of these functions, you can perform the operation on a sub-range of data defined by certain criteria. In the example I’m giving, it would look at all of the insurance effective dates for one person and determine the most recent one, which is usually a good indicator of which policy is in effect.

Generally, each item you’re evaluating is in the form of [DataRange]=[CellValue], or in actual Excel terminology, it might look like “$A$1:$A$470=A12” for the version entered in row 12. After the criteria ranges, you enter the range that you want to perform the operation on, close out the parenthesis, then enter.

So let’s say that we have last name in column B, first name in column D, and the dates we want to look at to find the latest are in column N. Our formula would look like this, assuming that the first row has the field headers and the data starts in row two:

=MAX(IF($B$1:$B$525=B2,IF($D$1:$D$525=D2,$N$1:$N$525))

If you’ve entered it right, the formula should be displaying the right number. In effect, you’ll have created a column down the far right side in which the value opposite any particular person’s name equals the maximum date value, meaning the latest. Then you can do an advanced filter (oh, google it!) to pull out just the unique name data and date, then use that to do an INDEX and MATCH to create a dataset of just the most recent plan and effective date. (I covered those two functions in a previous post.)

Or… the original database administrator could have just put those current plan flags in the data in first place, set them to automatically update whenever a newer plan of the same type was added, and voilà! Every step since I wrote “This is where one of my stupid Excel tricks came into it” 396 words ago would have been unnecessary. Time and money saved and problem solved because there was never a problem in the first place.

The art of improv in Excel

On the other hand… solving these ridiculous problems of making large but inconsistent datasets consistent with as little need as possible to look at every individual record just lets me show off my ninja skills with Excel.

It’s really no different than improv. Badly entered data keeps throwing surprises at me, and I have to keep coming up with new and improved ways to ferret out and fix that bad data. In improv, this is a good thing, and one of our mottos is, “Get yourself in trouble,” because that creates comedy gold as things in the scene either get irredeemably worse or are suddenly resolved. Damn, I miss doing Improv, and long for the days when we can finally return to the stage, which has been seeming even more remote by the day. But I do digress…

Back to the point: In real life, not so much for easy resolution. It’s a pain in the ass to have to fix the curveballs tossed at us by other people’s laziness and lack of diligence — unless we approach it like a game and an interesting challenge. Then, real life becomes improv again in the best sense.

And I’ll find it forever amusing that the same rules can apply to both a spontaneous, unplanned, free-wheeling art form, and an un-wielding, rigid and unforgiving computer program. They both have their rules. Only the latter won’t allow them to be bent. Okay, some improv games have rules that are not supposed to be bent. But half the fun is in bending those rules, intentionally or not.

With Excel and data-bashing, all of the fun is in following Excel’s rules, but getting them to do things they were never intended to.

Image source: Author, sample output from a completely randomized database generator in Excel used to create completely artificial test data for practicing functions and formulae without compromising anyone’s privacy. Maybe I’ll write about this one some day, if there’s interest.

Why astrology is bunk

A lot of people believe in astrology — but not only is there no basis in fact for it, believing in it can be dangerous.

This piece, which I first posted in 2019, continues to get constant traffic and I haven’t had a week go by that someone hasn’t given it a read. So I felt that it was worth bringing to the top again.

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

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

Fact

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

Science

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

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

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

History

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

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

Experiment

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

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

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

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

Plus I don’t think it’s even possible for Uranus to go retrograde from the Earth’s point of view.

Conclusion

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

Theatre Thursday: The worst collaborator

It’s funny how sometimes it can take forever between the time you write something and the time it winds up on stage. I think I was just lucky with my first two full-length plays, which were produced within two years of each other and, more importantly, not long after I finished them to the point that I felt like they were shareable.

Two others, no, not so much. Bill & Joan, my play about William S. Burroughs and the fateful night he shot and killed his wife, I actually finished writing not long after that first full-length went up and I finished it before the second one was produced. I had a lot of readings at the time, and some interest, but nothing happened until years later, when one of the actors involved in those readings got in touch with me and said, “Hey, can I pitch this to my theater?”

I said yes, and we pitched it to the current board for that year, meaning that I got to sit face-to-face with French Stewart, whom I absolutely adored from 3rd Rock from the Sun. And… he and the other two turned us down. I still think he’s awesome, though, and it was clearly a case of, “Yeah, I don’t see a role for me in this,” which was absolutely true.

Nevertheless, my actor champion persevered, and when we pitched it to the new triumvirate board the next year, they said yes. And so began the very, very interesting process of suddenly collaborating on a play with the most difficult of co-writers of them all: Myself, from the beginning of my career, looking back from the well-established middle.

Oh boy. It was going to be a difficult job overhauling this one and, in fact, I’d have to say that I threw out at least a third of the original script, if not more — a lot more — and rewrote vast swatches of it. Now it might seem paradoxical to do that. After all, if it was good enough to get picked up to be produced, doesn’t that mean it was good enough as it was?

Short answer: Hell no.

That’s what’s so amazing about the process of rehearsal and working with a director and an amazing cast. It’s all about discovery, reconnecting with why you created a piece in the first place, and (especially with the perspective of so much time between origin and outcome) the ability to suddenly see the flaws with utter clarity.

One of these days, I may go back and do a comparison of the draft we started with and the one we ended with, but I know that we got to the extreme of me combining characters in different ways, adding some and dropping others, and this play was even my incentive to go back and re-learn Spanish to the extent that I am now pretty damn fluent in it.

Why? Well, the main action is set in a jail in Mexico City, and from the beginning, the two cops doing the interrogation spoke a lot of Spanish. However, when I first wrote it, it was my badly-remembered high school Spanish that had abandoned me some time during college. With the help of two Hispanic actors in the roles and a lot of self-study, it suddenly felt like I was crafting those lines as carefully as I crafted the English.

And the entire time, it was an experience in confronting my younger self every day, understanding why I’d written what I’d written, but then realizing, “Wow. I really have learned a lot since then, haven’t I?”

Early last year, rehearsals had just begun for another play of mine that isn’t quite as old as Bill & Joan, but which I did write in another lifetime and which is also very different than my other full-lengths, which are all either based on real people or set in historical periods.

This one, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is a modern day farce with the tag line “Sex, money, real estate. That’s what family’s for.” There was actually an attempt at producing it with the same director back around the time I wrote it, but that fell apart unceremoniously only for the attempted new production to be stopped dead by COVID..

In this case, re-reading the thing in preparation was a lot less cringeworthy. Then again, this play was more mid-career and benefited from coming after the time I’d spent actually working in film and TV and after multiple professional stage productions.

The weirdness in this collaboration, though, really came more from the inspiration rather than the execution. Unlike my other plays, as I’ve mentioned, this one is set in the modern day and was inspired by events in my own life, not to mention that the primary motivation I gave to one of the lead characters happens to be my own as of yet un-obtained dream.

Not to mention that real-life tragedy intervened and put me off the thing for a while only five months after our ill-fated first attempt.

The thumbnail version of Screamin’ Muskrat Love! Is that it’s a story about two brothers who both want to inherit their father’s house and secretly conspire to do so. The older one hires a woman to pretend to seduce the father in order to marry him and take over the place in the traditional way — either she bangs Dad to death or takes it all in a divorce, but then turns it over to other brother per an agreement they’ve made that I won’t say too much about lest I give away too much of the plot.

The inspiration for the whole thing was finding out that my father, in his 80s, had met a woman, in her 20s, at the grocery store, and she had gotten flirty and whatnot with him, and this sent up red flags and alarm bells for my half-sister and me.

Hey, I know what personality traits I inherited from my dad, and it was clear that we had to act fast. It was also very clear that she was probably Romani, and they are known for this kind of thing: Meet old man shopping alone in grocery store, assume that he’s a widower with means, make a move.

The other inspiration was, of course, is the fact that I have always wanted to own a house but, being a Gen-X person in Los Angeles, that was never at any point remotely in reach without me having been a venal and heartless asshole at some point.

So… combine the two elements, ta-da, there’s the play. The first attempt went well until it didn’t, and then six months later, my dad died and evil half-sister announced, “Oh, by the way, his house is in my name. Don’t even try.” Never mind that she had taken advantage of his Alzheimer’s to convince him that I was invading his home every night with friends and slowly making him paranoid about me. But that’s a completely different play that I might write one day.

The house in question would be the house that I grew up in and she didn’t, incidentally. The only possible house I could have ever owned, and her absolutely (pardon the expression) cuntiness in this moment turned me against her forever and, frankly, made me shelve the play because… bad memories.

I guess that time heals all wounds and, if there’s real justice, time will wound all heels, so jumping back into this play, was just a romp and all of the darker connotations had fallen off. So the challenge there was to collaborate with my younger self while being able to ignore the crap that I know younger me went through right after, all while younger me had no idea that he would.

I did give myself a distraction from that one, though, without even knowing it, because one of the intentions I set for myself in writing the piece was to hat tip two of my playwriting idols, Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde and, in fact, the entire finale of this play is an intentional nod to The Importance of Being Earnest in more ways than one.

Still… the glibness of my younger self in tossing this one off did give me pause at a few points when I had to stop and ask, “Damn, too harsh?” Until I remembered, “Nah. Not the audience’s family, and too long ago for me to really care. Proceed!”

Except, of course, we didn’t, and only a couple of weeks before the scheduled opening on April 3rd, everything shut down. So Screamin’ Muskrat Love!  became the only play of mine to actually be in production and not happen. Twice.

A company town

Despite its size, Los Angeles is a company town, and that company is entertainment — film, television, and music, and to a lesser extent gaming and internet. So, growing up here, seeing film crews and running into celebrities all over the place was always quite normal. Hell, I went to school with the kids of pretty big celebrities and never thought much of it. “Your dad is who? Whatever.”

It looks like that company is finally coming back to life after fifteen months of being semi-dormant. It’s tentative, of course, and we may wind up locking down again, especially if a vaccine-resistant variant suddenly pops up. But, for the moment, movie theaters and live venues are reopening, along with the restaurants and other businesses that survived.

But here’s one thing I don’t think a lot of non-locals understand: None of the major studios are actually in Hollywood. How the city of Hollywood — which is where I was actually born — became conflated with the movies is a very interesting story. Once upon a time, there were some studios there. Charlie Chaplin built his at La Brea and Sunset in 1917. It was later owned by Herb Alpert, when it was A&M Studios and produced music. Currently, it’s the location of the Jim Henson Company. The Hollywood Hills were also a popular location for celebrities to live, and a lot of the old apartment buildings in the city were originally designed for young singles who worked in the industry.

Come to think of it, they still serve that purpose, although given the cost of rent in this town, a lot of those studio units are cramming in two tenants.

The one thing that Hollywood did have in abundance: Movie premieres, and that’s still the case to this day. The Chinese, The Egyptian, and the El Capitan are perennial landmarks, and the Boulevard itself is quite often still closed down on Wednesdays for red carpet openings. Although Broadway downtown also boasts its own movie palaces from the golden age of cinema, it was always Hollywood Boulevard that had the great grand openings. It’s also still home to the Pantages, which is the biggest live theater venue outside of downtown, although they generally only do gigantic Broadway style musicals. (Side note on the Chinese Theater — although it’s technically called the TCL Chinese because, owners, nobody refers to it that way, and you’re still more likely to hear it called what it always was: Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Want to sound like a local? That’s how you do it. You’re welcome.)

There is one Hollywood tradition that does not date from the golden age of cinema, though, and it might surprise you. The Hollywood Walk of Fame wasn’t proposed until the 1950s, and construction on it didn’t begin until 1960 — long after all of the movie studios had left the area.

In case you’re wondering where those studios went, a number of them are in the oft-derided Valley: Universal in Universal City (they like to call themselves “Hollywood” but they’re not), Warner Bros. in Burbank, Disney in Burbank and Glendale, and Dreamworks Animation SKG in Glendale (across from Disney Animation!) all come to mind — and damn, I’ve worked for three out of four of them. On the other side of the hill, in L.A. proper, Sony is in Culver City, 20th Century Fox is in Century City (which was named for the studio), and Paramount is in L.A. proper, right next to RKO, which really isn’t doing much lately, both due south of Hollywood and right behind the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — which isn’t in Hollywood either, but which has a large number of dead celebrities. I think that covers most of the majors. YouTube Studios is in Playa del Rey, on the former sight of the Hughes helicopter factory that also happens to be right below the university I went to for film school, Loyola Marymount.

Like I said, company town.

The other fun part about growing up here is all of the film locations that I see every day, and there are tons. Ever see Boogie Nights? Well, most of that film was basically shot within a five mile radius of where I grew up, with only a few exceptions. Dirk Diggler’s fancy new house once he became a porn star? Yeah, my old hood. Location of the club where Burt Reynold’s character finds Mark Wahlberg’s character? I took music lessons a few blocks away from there. Parking lot where Dirk is mistakenly gay-bashed? Pretty close to the public library where I fell in love with reading.

Remember The Brady Bunch or the movies? Well, that house is only a couple of miles away from where I live now. The OG bat cave? Let me take you to Griffith Park. If you’ve ever seen Myra Breckenridge (you should if you haven’t) the place where Myra dances in the opening is right next to where Jimmy Kimmel does his show now and two doors down from the now Disney-owned El Capitan.

The Loved One (an amazing movie) — Forest Lawn Glendale, where I happen to have at least four ancestors buried. Xanadu? The major setting was the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was a burned down wreck in my day, but it’s where my dad used to go on date night to roller skate. Go to the Vista Theatre? It sits on the site where D.W. Griffith built one of his biggest sets for Intolerance, his “mea culpa” for making The Birth of a Nation.

I’m not even going to get into how many times the complex I live in has been used for various epic TV shoots (which is a lot) or, likewise, how the area in NoHo I worked in is used by everybody, from YouTubers to major studios. Although, I can tell you that having to put up with film crews and their needs is always a major pain in the ass, especially when it comes to parking vanishing. That’s right — there’s really no glamor in show biz outside of that red carpet.

But I guess that’s the price of admission for growing up and living in a company town and, honestly, I’ve never had a single adult job that wasn’t related to that company ever. (We won’t count my high school jobs as wire-puller for an electrical contractor and pizza delivery drone.)

Otherwise, though — yep. Whether it’s been TV, film, theater, or publishing, I’ve never not worked in this crazy stupid industry that my home town is host to. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way. What? Wait tables? Never. Although sharing my home town with tourists is a distinct possibility. I love this place. A lot. And you should too, whether you’re a visitor or a transplant. Welcome!

Theatre Thursday: On the shoulders of giants

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

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

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

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: