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

Friday Free-for-All #12

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 is the best path to find truth: Science, math, art, philosophy, or something else?

I suppose it depends upon how you define “truth,” but if we take it to mean objective facts that cannot be refuted by any subjective evidence, then the hands down answer is math, period.

Yes, our terminology for things is arbitrary, but what’s happening beneath it all is objectively true. 1 + 1 = 2, although you could just as easily express it as pine cone + pine cone = melon, blarf + blarf = smerdge, or whatever.

Note that those are metaphorical pine cones and melons, of course. The idea is that the symbol for a single thing plus the symbol for another single thing equals a total of a double thing.

The circumference of a circle has an absolute and fixed ratio to its radius, easy as pie. The sides of a right triangle will always compare to each other in the same way in Euclidian geometry — likewise with trigonometric functions. And it doesn’t matter what kind of numbering system or base you use.

When it comes to simple math, you’ve probably seen those online puzzles that will show something like two ice cream cones equal ten; an ice cream cone and a hamburger equals seven, and so on. Well, this is just simple algebra, except that the typical Xs, Ys, and Zs are replaced with emojis.

That doesn’t make any difference, and you’re still going to get the same answer once you solve it all out.

Let’s try one right now — although since I can’t embed emojis easily here, we’ll stick with the classics. Just imagine hotdogs, eggplants, peaches, whatever. Solve the last equation:

X + X + X = 15

X + X + Y = 13

Y + Y + Z = 10

X + Y = Z + ?

It’s all a lot simpler with reductions. The first equation is the same as 3X = 15, so X is obviously 15/3, or 5. In the second, 2*5+Y = 13 is exactly the same as 13-2*5 = Y. 13-10 = 3. In the third, 2Y + Z = 10, or 10 – 2*3 = Z, so Z = 4.

And in the last equation, 5 + 3 = 8, which is 4 + 4, or Z + Z.

Math like this has given us a way to measure the world, but it doesn’t give us the “why” behind any of it, just the “what.” This is where the next step to truth comes in, and that is science, which stands on the back of math.

The job of science is to ask questions, and then use all of those irrefutable truths of math to get to the next level of truth, which is not objectively true, but which is demonstrably true until falsified.

Note that math gives us a way to measure, because that is very important in science. Science is all about measuring. It’s about coming up with the hypothesis of “The degree to which A happens is affected by both B and C,” and then creating an experiment to test that, then measuring the results over and over.

For example: The hypothesis is dead cats bounce higher if the person who dropped them donated to the Calico party.

How to test it: Get a bunch of people to drop a bunch of dead cats over and over. Record which party they donated to, correlate to how high the dead cats bounced, gather enough data points to establish a pattern, publish results.

Preliminary theory: Yes, donating to the Calico party seemed to have an effect that made the dead cats bounce higher.

But let’s say you’re skeptical of that result. How to make sure it’s true? Time for a double-blind study. First, we make sure that the people dropping the cats have no idea that we have any interest in which party they donated to, so we ask them a ton of innocuous questions for “demographic purposes.”

We might even lead them to think that we’re interested in their hair color.

Second, we make sure that the people recording the results have no idea what we’re looking for either.

Finally, we make sure that we don’t know who falls into which category by issuing each test subject a random and anonymous ID that is tagged to their party, but locked away until later.

Then the cat dropping commences.

And guess what? Once the results are tabulated back to the data on party donations, it actually turns out that party donation has absolutely no effect whatsoever on how high the dead cat bounces.

But at this level, in order to get to the truth, it took a lot of maneuvering around human bias and whatnot to find it. And — surprise — all those steps in creating the double blind procedures came from… math.

And you hated it in eighth grade? Don’t worry. So did I. It took me a long time to understand why it’s so important.

Anyway… with enough of the scientific method going on, we can get to a pretty good semblance of the objective truth, although really not quite, although a bunch of it sticks.

For example, the theory of gravity. You’re not about to step off of a tall building to test it, are you? Nope. You’re going to trust that this would just lead to a short, fast fall, a hard splat, and death.

This brings us to art and philosophy, and I’ll frankly dismiss the latter as just so much intellectual jerking off, no matter who’s doing it. The only school of thought I could ever come close to agreeing with was Empiricism, which basically felt that knowledge could only come from direct experience.

Or, in other words, I can only know it if I’ve experienced it through my senses, or humans can only know it if they’ve measured it. That is, science. So the empiricists basically managed to establish their own field as complete BS. Nice job, really.

As for art, it will never discover any objective truths, because that’s not what it’s about. But what it can do is take the objective truths of math and science and turn them into relatable and subjective truths for their audiences, and do it by creating an emotional reaction in that audience.

The scientists who have spread the truth the best have also been artists in that they have performed and created an emotional reaction. Just look at Carl Sagan and how he enflamed interest in science with his series Cosmos, or how Neil deGrasse Tyson repeated that success in the 2010s.  And everybody loves Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

But, again, why? Because art swoops in to popularize science. And while art only ever leads to subjective truths, art in service of science education will always lead to objective truth.

So… what is the best path to find truth? If you happen to be mathematically or scientifically inclined, then those. But if you’re artistically inclined, follow those artists who create a lot of stuff about science, and you’ll get led back eventually.

Most definitely, though, ignore the person on the soapbox who is saying that their way is the only way without backing it up, because they are a philosopher, and they are just yapping to hear themselves talk.

Trust me. I met their kind at university, and it wasn’t pretty.

Wednesday Wonders: Sometimes, you just need to LEGO

Okay, yes. I’m a grown-ass adult man, but that doesn’t mean that I’m still not a huge fan of LEGO, and I know a lot of other grown-ass adults who are as well. Hell, (pun intended), you can even read the Bible in LEGO.

Personally, when I was in the hospital for a weekend in 2016, watching The LEGO Movie on cable from my room really lifted my spirits. Everything is awesome, although it did suck that Juan Gabriel, el divo de Juarez, died the same Saturday night I was in there.

But for us kids of many generations, one of our fondest childhood playthings were those LEGO Building System sets that might start out as some generic 120 piece kit for building a car or an airplane or a rocket, and then would grow.

LEGO is basically Minecraft IRL Well, to be fair, Minecraft is basically LEGO online. And, as I’m sure many LEGO kids experienced, you didn’t have to build what was on the box, and once you’d combined two or more kits, the sky was the limit.

Flying submarine! Rocket house! Awesome castle!

Having grown up as an only child with just half-siblings who were all old enough to be gone by the time I was born, LEGO was one of my best friends. I could spend hours alone in my room making stuff out of them.

I kept this up probably until early high school, but then as I moved into my later teens and twenties, I was “too cool” for LEGO, so they were left behind as I moved out and into young adulthood.

Kind of a shame, too, because I had one opportunity to reclaim that big cardboard box of LEGO from my childhood home in my late 20s, but the asshole boyfriend I was living with at the time basically scoffed and asked — nah, told me, “Why would you want to bring that shit here?”

What? I used to be way too submissive.

So… I told the evil half-sister “No thanks,” and that piece of my childhood probably went into a landfill after she (the half-human Scarlet Witch) cheated me out of the home I grew up in and which was supposed to have been mine.

But I’m not bitter, I’m… No. Screw it. I’m very bitter. She can burn in hell. But I do digress.

It wasn’t until after I ejected asshole boyfriend and started working in TV that I got my hands on LEGO again, and this was in my very early 30s.

I regularly shopped at the Target down the street from the offices. This is where I discovered that they had buckets of 1,200 or more LEGO pieces on sale for about $20, and since I was making TV money, over the course of a couple of years I bought… I don’t know how many of them, but I wound up combining them all into one super stuffed bucket, and had all kinds of fun.

With my last move, they wound up in my closet, but that changed recently. Necessity is the Mother of invention. Being locked inside is the Dad. I couldn’t find my tripod, so in order to have my camera at a better angle for chats and not shooting up my nose for Zoom sessions, I finally had the need for something to hold my phone the right way.

LEGO 01

That’s why I dragged out the LEGO to build this thing.

The process of building it was very therapeutic. I started with solving the engineering problem of creating the mount, with a way to secure the camera without having it fall out or over.

LEGO 05

After making this part, the next challenge was creating a base that would be sturdy and steady, and which wouldn’t be pulled over by the weight of the camera.

In a way, it was also a proxy connection to my long-dead father, who was an engineer and architect, so making this thing was doing what he did for realsies, except on my  (physical) desktop.

LEGO 06

I essentially constructed from the top down, and couldn’t resist adding the non-essential elements, like the operator’s cabin, and the door at the bottom, pictured at the top of this article.

LEGO 07

And when it came to the show time it was created for, it worked perfectly. The phone stayed in place, the thing didn’t fall over, and it just looked beautiful in place to boot.

I think that LEGO is going to help me make it through this lockdown.

Theatre Thursday: Theatre is the original VR

Something I’ve said for a long time is that live theatre is the original virtual reality, and the only shows you can see in 3D without special glasses.

Also, unlike their recorded and edited cousins — audio, film, video, and streaming — each live theatrical performance is a unique moment in time that will only be experienced by one audience ever, and will be experienced by each audience member (and each performer) in a completely different way.

In a way, I feel sorry for actors who do recorded and edited media, because they really don’t know which performance it’s ultimately going to be. They might do 23 takes of a scene in front of a green screen, have no idea that the director will ultimately settle on number 17, although maybe with a little tweak and morph so that the last beat or two of take 13 actually takes over.

And if it’s a two shot with another actor, the final shot you see on screen may actually use performances from two different takes, seamlessly woven together. It’s the film version of Photoshopping a group picture from multiple shots to make sure everyone’s eyes are open.

And that’s before all of the effects and whatnot are added, and maybe the actor was in a mocap suit anyway, because they’re really only providing the physical movement and overall kinesthetic emotion and facial movement to a performance that will turn into a twelve foot tall purple alien with big yellow eyes.

Meanwhile, a stage actor could play that same character with clever costuming, props and choreography — a couple of cast members lift them for height, a little light change and lots of fabric create the big purple body, and a pair of grapefruit with big black circles on them held Pale Man style become the eyes.

Not to say that one is better than the other. They’re just different. But the game kind of changes when all of the venues are shuttered because of a plague. No more movie theatres at the moment. No more live shows.

All we’re left with is streaming, and the question: Is this the end of both the cinema and live theatre?

Well, don’t bet on it. In 1606, theaters in London were shut down because of the plague, and this was in the middle of runs of three big hits that are still famous now: King Lear, Macbeth and Volpone.

This year, Broadway lost shows like Moulin Rouge: The Musical, Six, Company, Mrs. Doubtfire, Caroline, or Change and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, among many others. Some may be rescheduled. Others may never happen. And it’s the same in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle… everywhere.

In L.A., Center Theatre Group had to close The Book of Mormon revival tour early, for example.

This hasn’t stopped many of those performers from performing, and a number of Broadway stars have taken to singing to their fans from home via social media. In a way, this actually makes live theater even more intimate, because every single viewer has their own personal front row center seat — and they get to see the same show that everyone else does.

Can you imagine? Going to see the original staging of Evita on Broadway, and Patti Lupone sings every number right to you? Okay, except without all of that stagecraft, because she’s singing it to you solo and a capella from her living room. Still… rather intimate and impressive either way.

London certainly has a number of previously saved streaming performances to watch. And while it’s anecdotal because I can’t share the link here, two friends of mine managed to do live streaming improv, cell phone to cell phone, with the performance between the two phones put up via another friend’s third phone.

It was a very impressive and clever use of technology. And Zoom isn’t just for meetings. I’ve seen colleagues in theatre now use it for company meetings, as well as group practices.

Is it still theatre in this form, though? Yes. I happen to think that all performing arts are ultimately theatre, whether they happen on a stage or a screen. In 2012, I performed in a number of pieces around the city that took place in public spaces as part of Playwrights Arena’s Flash Theatre L.A.

We performed everywhere from a pet store parking lot to a cemetery in South Los Angeles; in a nearly dark public courtyard with only the uplights illuminating the walls to shine on us when we needed them, in Union Station downtown, and so on.

The cemetery performance and Union Station were two of my favorites — the first because we created a long and elaborate, intricately choreographer Danse Macabre in which I started out as a disgruntled grave digger, then snuck behind a tombstone to change into the guise of a skull-faced pope.

We also had La Llorna and a lot of Día de los Muertos style face-painting in a collision of Medieval Europe and modern Latin America, taking place in a cemetery with a large proportion of black residents, since for a long time in the city’s history it was one of the few places open to them.

What I loved about Union Station was how the show started and ended. We quietly came in and took our places as if we were people waiting for a train, but then slowly stepped out and joined the performance, which involved a twelve-foot tall puppet.

When it was over, after we read out a bunch of real-time tweets we had solicited beforehand, each of us then strode off into the crowd to make our exit by becoming “normal” people again.

We were never on an actual stage for those shows, but it was still theatre. It’s still theatre no matter how big the CGI effects are.

But it’s not only the film and TV people who can forget this. The theatre people can too, in the opposite direction, and sometimes ignore the concept that media and tech can work onstage — or that theatre can happen onscreen in real time — as well.

Back in about 2012, I saw a wonderful production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, which is basically his fictional biopic and guilty confessional about the death of Marilyn Monroe. Oh… he’s not confessing to killing her directly. He’s feeling guilty over not doing enough to save her life, seeing as how he was married to her at the time.

That’s right — the blonde bombshell dumped the jock (Joe DiMaggio) and married the smart nebbish. Nerds of the world, take heart! That would be like Scarlett Johansson dumping Ryan Reynolds for John Green.

Oh, wait. She did dump Ryan. Just not for John.

Anyway, as originally staged, when characters aren’t onstage, they sit in high backed chairs upstage. Occasionally, one of them will have a flashback monologue, which they deliver by standing in place.

The twist on this the director pulled was having everyone backstage, but when their monologues came, live ghostly video of the actor backstage would be projected on the two side walls of the actual stage. (It was performed on a partial thrust stage.)

Miller was probably borrowing from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which was the first major play to be performed without an actual set — in the days when Broadway was all about realism — and with the entire cast seated onstage when not performing.

This production of After the Fall just took the original concept and modernized it.

But long before video and high tech, tech has always been a part of theatre, from Grand Guignol’s elaborate illusions used to create shock and horror, to the elaborate stage machinery of 18th century opera and earlier.

The opening of the film The Devils by Ken Russell does a pretty good recreation of 17th century French theatrical staging and mechanics:

The interesting question, really, is which media are going to survive this modern plague? If our entertainment venues are limited for long enough — at least, as long as they really need to be to help us survive this — then this just may be the end of the cinema as we know it.

Sorry, Marty, and David. To paraphrase Norma Desmond: “Films are big! It’s the screens that got small.”

People may become too accustomed to just watching at home, and thanks to all of their online hanging out with friends, they may finally remember what the important part is. So expect streaming parties, either as virtual hangouts or IRL, to become the new norm.

Also expect an end to the blockbuster spectacle once people have been reminded through all of the scaled-down-to-mobile shows and performances what theatre is really about: the interactions between characters that happen because of an inciting event.

Notice, by the way, that in any online discussion of the latest hit streaming show, people aren’t talking about the effects or the spectacle or any of that. They are talking about the characters, what they do, and why people like it or don’t like it.

As for theatre, it will survive because, after all, it has for thousands of years and through many difficulties. Plus, when it’s not some overblown Broadway show with a ridiculous budget and inflated ticket prices, it can be cheap to do, easy to stage, and affordable for everyone.

It just may be that “too big to fail” turns into “too big to stay.” Movies and TV turn into intimate events at home or maybe in small clubs. Meanwhile, all of that small theatre that’s always been there goes on. Only, this time, people will have a renewed appreciation of it.

Think about this for a moment. What genre do escape rooms fall into? Not film, and not TV. Nope. They are a type of immersive theatre in which the audience is also part of the cast.

Image (CC0 1.0)

Theatre Thursday: The house is dark tonight

As of now, Los Angeles is six days into the lockdown, it has been eighteen days since I last worked box office for ComedySportz L.A., and seventeen days since I’ve done improv on stage, and I have to tell you that the last two have been the hardest part of the whole social distancing and isolation process.

Not that I’m complaining, because shutting down all of the theaters, bars, clubs, sporting events, and other large gatherings, as well as limiting restaurants to take-out only, are all good things. Yes, it does cost people jobs — I’m one of the affected myself, and dog knows I have a ton of friends who are servers or bartenders — but California has also stepped up in making unemployment and disability benefits much more readily available.

And maybe we’ll all get $1,000 from the Federal government, maybe not. The down the road side benefit of this human disaster is that it may just finally break our two-party system in the U.S. and wreak havoc with entrenched power structures elsewhere. And, remember, quite a lot of our so-called lawmakers also happen to belong to the most at-risk group: Senior citizens. So there’s that.

But what is really hurting right now is not the loss of the extra money I made working CSz box office (although if you want to hit that tip jar, feel free — blatant hint.)

Nope. The real loss is in not being able to see and hang out with my family regularly: the Main Company, College League, and Sunday Team; as well as doing improv with the Rec League every Monday night.

And with every week that passes when I don’t get to take to that stage, I feel a bit more separated from the outside world, a bit less creative, a bit less inspired.

I know that I shouldn’t, but honestly, improv in general and Rec League in particular has added so much to my life for the last two and a half years that having to do without it is tantamount to asking me to deal with having no lungs. And no heart.

185 coronaviruses walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry, we’re closed.”

The coronaviruses say, “As you should be.”

And no one laughs. It’s not a time for laughter, but it is a time for support. And while I can’t do improv in real life with this wonderful funny family of mine, I can at least reach out to them all and say, “Hey. How are you doing?” I can also reach out to my loyal readers here and ask the same question.

It’s been amazing, because several of my improviser pals have started doing podcasts or the like. I can’t name names or link here, but I’ve got at least one improv friend who has been doing virtual shows in which he somehow manages to broadcast phone-to-phone routines through what must be a third phone.

Another friend of mine has been reading various scripts, screenplays, or fan fiction live online while also getting twisted on various intoxicating substances, and it’s been hilarious. Then again, he’s hilarious, and although he’s fairly new to the company, he quickly became one of my favorite players.

Okay, so the upside is that I’m now free Friday through Monday evenings again. Yay?

Maybe. The downside? I still don’t know who, out of all my friends and loved ones, is going to die. And that includes me.

But when you have fiscal conservatives like Mitt Romney suddenly advocating for what is pretty much the Universal Basic Income idea supported by (but not created by) Andrew Yang, you can easily come to realize that what we are going through right now, in real time, is an enormous paradigm shift.

More vernacularly, that’s what’s known as a game-changer.

The current crisis has the clear potential to change the way society does things. It may accelerate the race that had already been happening to make all of our shopping virtual, as well delivering everything with autonomous vehicles or drones. In the brick and mortar places that do remain, you may be seeing a lot fewer actual cashiers and a lot more automated kiosks.

This is particularly true in fast food places. McDonald’s alone has been on a push to add kiosks to 1,000 stores per quarter since mid-2018. Compare that to Wendy’s, which the year before set a goal of putting the machines in only 1,000 stores total.

They’re even developing the technology to let AI make recommendations based on various factors, like the weather, or how busy the location is.

But as these jobs go away, ideas like Universal Basic Income and cranking up the minimum wage become much more important — especially because people in these minimum wage jobs are, in fact, not the mythical high schooler making extra cash. Quite a lot of them are adults, many of them with children and families to support.

We are also already seeing immediate and positive effects on the environment due to massive shutdowns of transportation and industry. Scientists had already shown how airline travel contributes to global warming because the shutdown of flights for three days after September 11 gave them a unique living lab to study it in.

And remember: That was pretty much a limit on foreign flights coming into the U.S. What’s happening now is on a very global scale. We’re suddenly dumping fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, using less fossil fuel, and generating lower levels of greenhouse gases — and it already has been for longer than three days, and is going to be for a lot longer than that.

One of the must sublime effects, though, has been in one of the hardest-hit countries. In Italy, the waters in the canals of Venice are running clear for the first time in anyone’s memory, although this didn’t bring the dolphins to them nor make the swans return to Burano. The dolphins were in the port at Sardinia and the swans are regulars.

While a lot of the specific environmental recoveries are true, a lot of them are not. Even NBC was taken in by the hoax that National Geographic debunked.

There’s something poetic in the irony that, as humans have been forced to shut themselves inside, animals do have opportunity to come back into the niches we displaced them from, even if only temporarily.

It’s not always a good thing, though. In Bangkok, the lack of tourists — an abundant source of free food — led to an all-out monkey war between two different tribes.

All of this is just a reminder that all of us — human, animal, and plant alike — live on and share the same planet, and what one does affects all of the others.

The ultimate example of that, of course, is a pandemic. It now seems likely it all began with patient zero, a 55 year-old man from Hubei in Wuhan province, who was the first confirmed case, back on November 17, 2019. But the most likely reservoir from which the virus jumped to humans was probably the pangolin — just more proof that it’s the cute ones you always have to beware of.

It may seem strange to start on the topic of theatre and veer hard into science via politics, but like everything else on the planet, it’s all interconnected. Art, politics, and science are opposite faces of an icosahedral die that never stops being thrown by the hand of fate.

Or by completely random forces. Or it’s a conspiracy. Or it’s all predictable if you have enough data.

Stay safe out there by staying in, wherever you are. See you on the other side but I hope to keep seeing you through it on a daily basis. I’m not going anywhere, dammit.

Image Source: Fairmont Theater, (CC BY-ND 2.0) 2009 Jon Dawson. Used unchanged.

Friday Free-for-All #6

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.

Is there any art or artist you are really into?

Oh, there are a lot, and it depends on the medium. I’ll start with a link to an artist I’m a big fan of because I’ve been a close personal friend of his for pushing two decades, and that’s Michael Lightsey.

And I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I also happen to think that he is one hell of a talented artist, and I envy his abilities. I have two of his works hanging in my home — one a large abstract canvas and the other one of his amazing pencil portraits of me that is so accurate in its depiction that it’s uncanny, and which  was a Christmas gift at the end of the year in which I almost died.

Other visual artists I’m really into are a nice example in contrasts. I’m a big fan of Salvador Dalí, for example, for his surrealist works, but I’m also a huge fan of Michelangelo, mainly because he focused on the representation of human beings, and did it so well. Of course, he’s tied in this category with Da Vinci and Caravaggio. And yes, the homoeroticism of the works of the latter three have a lot to do with my interest in them.

If we’re going for pure modern kitsch, then yes, I have a soft spot for Norman Rockwell, but he could also be quite politically progressive.

Moving from visual media, let’s go to music. My three “classical” influences (although that just means “stuff before the 1950s” nowadays) would be Beethoven, actually classical composer who created romanticism; Gustav Mahler, a late romantic composer who ushered in modernism; and Dmitri Shostakovich, a modernist who has had more influence on modern Hollywood film scores than you’d think. Hint: Everything John Williams has ever written came out of a blender loaded with Shostakovich, Gustav Holst, and Carl Orff.

Moving into the truly modern and post-modern age, I’d have to give you Pink Floyd, Godley & Crème (who created the idea of morphing long before CGI in their video for Cry), and OK Go, who just blew the socks off of the idea of what could be done in music videos over a decade ago and haven’t stopped since. Not to mention that they are all just the nicest guys ever.

As for movies, give me my quartet of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Russell, and Gilliam, each of whom made pretty much nothing but perfect films, and three of whom are, sadly, dead.

All four of them had a huge influence on my creative life. Hitchcock taught me how to build suspense and raise the stakes while also subverting the usual tropes by playing into them and then making a big left turn. For example, one of his most suspenseful chase scenes doesn’t happen in a claustrophobic space. It happens in a wide open field in North by Northwest. And in what is probably his most well-known work, Psycho (spoiler alert for a 60 year-old film) he kills off the heroine played by the big-name actress in the first thirty minutes.

As for Kubrick, he taught me that films and all art should always be about big ideas, and that every story was more than the sum of its apparent parts. A lot of critics accuse him of being cold, but I never saw that. In fact, my favorite work of his is 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it spans the course of hundreds of thousands of years, doesn’t have a single protagonist, and asks really, really big questions while attempting to give answers.

Plus it created my love of science and science fiction. I didn’t really get into his other works until I was an adult, and by which point he’d created all but one of them before dying, but I devoured them all and could find no wrong in any of them. And each one is about something much bigger than the apparent genre.

Ken Russell, meanwhile, taught me to take no subject seriously, and just have fun with it. One of the things he frequently did were biopics, and he loved to do them out of order, or in the style of the art of the artist he was portraying. Go figure. Again, as with Kubrick, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Russell movie I didn’t love. Well… theatrical release. The stuff he started to shoot once he retired to his estate and thought he discovered green screen and social media is, well… kind of bad. But we don’t speak of that.

Otherwise… he banged off a series of solid hits that I devoured on the revival circuit (because, for some reason, most of his stuff never hit home media, and still hasn’t) He managed to turn a really shitty rock opera by The Who into a fairly decent movie called Tommy (although Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Alan Parker’s adaptation of it in the early 80s would blow Tommy out of the water), as well as create brilliant adaptations of the Weekend at Byron’s during which Frankenstein and Dracula were conceived (Gothic) and a mostly exacting staging of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome as a play-within-the movie Salome’s Last Dance, in which the conceit is that Oscar’s banned play is being staged in a Cleveland Street brothel (i.e., gay boy whorehouse in an area that the law was about to come down on hard because several politicians had been indiscrete.)

Finally, there’s Terry Gilliam, who started out with a silly comedy troupe you might have heard of, but then he went on to direct some really amazing shit. Where he really caught my attention was with Brazil, the best version of 1984 ever made, but he just kept getting better. 12 Monkeys knocked it out of the park, plus it proved that Brad Pitt could act and Bruce Willis could play more than Bruce Willis on screen.

Then again, Gilliam has always had a knack for actors. After all, he cast Uma Thurman in one of her earliest roles, and likewise cast Jonathan Pryce, and Andrew Garfield as leads. He also cast Heath Ledger in the lead before Brokeback Mountain and long before The Dark Knight, but also had the distinction of having directed Ledger’s last film. Oops.

And the only remainders, who were influences on my playwriting, you can look up: Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and Joe Orton.

The Saturday Morning Post #4

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 4. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. Oh yeah.. there was also that whole earthquake thing earlier in the day…

Incidentally… This happens to be my 200th post. Wow. 

DANCING ON THE EDGE

“All the best boys are gay.”

That’s what she said after I’d taken her in my arms and mentioned my boyfriend, and it made me really happy to be rescuing her from her wrecked post-quake apartment. It got even better when my landlord, Madam Wei, invited her in as permanent second house mother. This had been a really interesting week, and also kind of difficult for me and Tony. I mean, even though we lived in a basic dorm situation, we had also managed to arrange a totally gay room, so that “sexin’ the BF” (or anyone else) was not at all weird. Plus we’re performers, so having an audience also wasn’t weird.

It was probably our artsy schedule in the weeks before the quake more than anything that had kept us from banging, but the second after the quake, the only thing we could think of was consolation fucking, and hard. Not that we did it right after, but once we’d all come back home after playing rescue squad up and down the street and giving the naybs a free (non-sexual) show on the street, you bet your ass that Tony and I finally got down to it. It was after midnight, the place still had no lights or electricity, or anything else, but we both hopped up onto my top bunk, and I railed his ass like there was no tomorrow. Which, honestly, there might not have been, since we’d kind of lived through a mini-apocalypse today.

The following dawn, I woke up with my morning wood pressed up against his hot ass, and shortly thereafter, in it. Lather, rinse, repeat before starting our day, and then in the evening I let him rail me long into the night (we’re both vers), and nobody in our room objected.

The whole thing with Cindy had really kind of affected me, and by the time we’d made it through the aftershocks and Tony and I were done cumming all over, on, and in each other, all I could think about was the shape of her apartment when Madam Wei and I went in to get her out.

See, I’m from L.A., but I was born in ’06, so this was my first major earthquake. The last big one was a little over thirty-five years ago, although I’d heard Madam Wei talk about that one a few times. Anyway, it means I’ve got no reference for things like what we saw in that building. I’m used to rooms having level floors and all the walls are at right angles — or at least some sort of normal angle.

This had been like walking into a Dali painting, although to hear Madam Wei describe it, she does exaggerate a bit. She makes it sound like the entire apartment was on its side, but if that had been the case I never could have gotten Cindy out of there without a harness, rope, and pulley. Yes, one side was definitely lower than the other, but it was more of a natural ramp than a precipice. The real reason she couldn’t get out is that she just couldn’t get a grip on the floor. Luckily, the shoes I was wearing had really rough soles.

Apparently, a major feature of disasters like this is that it’s the only time neighbors in L.A. actually meet and talk to each other — another lesson from Madam Wei — and it was pretty amazing to watch. By Friday, the third day after the quake, Cindy figured out where we had come from. She’d been staying in a six‑person tent one of her neighbors had pitched in front of their building, and so she was also in the loop when, on the day after, she and the other tenants were given one hour to go in, with fire department escorts, to retrieve whatever valuables, documents, and clothing they could. After that, the building was red-tagged, meaning that no one was allowed to enter. It would probably be torn down eventually.

“I remember when there were red and yellow tags all over the city,” Madam Wei had explained to us at dinner that evening. “After Northridge — that was the quake in the 90s — a lot of places were condemned. At least there is a good side to it. Every time after, there are fewer places that are destroyed because we learn how to build better.”

She looked a little pensive but then went on. “Because of their history with my country, I have no love for the Japanese,” she added. “But one thing they have done is learn from their earthquakes, which China has not done. Every year, their buildings and cities get safer. Ours… well, my homeland’s…” She sighed and trailed off.

Cindy retrieved what little she could, mostly clothes, a few sentimental items, and a small, metal lockbox that presumably contained either documents, valuables, or a combination of both.

On Friday afternoon, as I helped her bring her stuff up to her new quarters, she told me, “You know, it’s funny. Not all that long ago, like around the turn of the century, if you asked someone what one inanimate thing they’d save if their house was on fire, they’d always answer, ‘My photo albums.’ Nowadays, no need, because all of our photos are on our phones or in the cloud. Hell, so are most of our vital documents. Does this place have a safe?” she abruptly asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. It was an office building once. Madam Wei would know.”

“Madam… oh, you mean Alice?”

“Yeah, her.”

“I’ll have to ask.” Her tone suddenly became playful. “So, when do I get to meet your boyfriend?”

“Uh… you kind of already did. Tony, down in the lobby?”

“The real hot blond one with the sexy smile?”

“Yeah, but he’s not really blond,” I explained. People think he is because of that platinum streak he dyes in his hair, but he’s actually brunet.”

“Wow,” she exclaimed. “You’re right. He does have very blond skin, though, if that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I guess, if you’re thinking more surfer-blond than Nordic-blond.”

“Is he Scandinavian or something?”

“No. Italian.”

“Really? He hardly looks Italian.”

“Northern. That’s where all the fair-skinned, sometimes blond Italians are.”

“I had no idea,” she replied. “Learn something new every day. Are you Italian?”

“Nah. Mexican. Well, Mexican-American… Fourth generation Angeleno.” I always had to pause to count in my head back to the right number of tatarabuelos to the ones that were born during the Mexican Revolution and brought to El Norte by their parents when they were children. Their children were the first native generation, born in the 1930s. So my great-great-grandparents came here. My great-grandparents were born here.

“That’s impressive,” she said. “Most people I know weren’t born here. I’m from Minnesota, but only second generation. My grandparents were all from Israel.”

“And yet, you’re blonde,” I said, teasingly.

“Well, they weren’t born there since they were born in the late 30s. Their grandparents were Ashkenazi Jews from Germany who hid from the Nazis in Belgium during the war, then immigrated in 1948 when Israel became a country.”

“Wait… you’re old enough to be only two generations from the Holocaust?” I asked.

“Honey, I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”

“You know, funny thing, my mom’s grandma is still alive. She’s 93, out in Rowland Heights.”

“Have you checked in on her?” she asked, clutching my forearm and showing utter concern.

“You kidding? Abuelita Ramona texted me five minutes after the quake. She’s old, but she’s really on it.”

I didn’t even realized it until we finish our conversation and I head back to my room that, well, we had a conversation, and it had been easy and spontaneous, and the thing is, that’s not something I generally do with strangers. It takes me time to break the ice. But with Cindy, she just created a natural trust in me, and an ability to share everything. I’m really going to like having her as our second house mother, which Madam Alice had already explained to me and Tony was going to be her new function.

Oh — and seeing her with the dogs and cats is inspiring. She clearly loves all animals and they love her. Even our white German shepherd Dan-xiao, whose name means “timid,” took to her immediately.

Friday night is another street show for the crowd, this time starting with the dance before moving to a second-act long-form improv show and ending up with a bunch of scripted comedy scenes. At the same time, our visual artists deploy themselves up and down the streets to do paintings, sketches, caricatures, and sculptures of willing subjects, collecting small donations for their efforts, which are all going to go to the Red Cross.

Oh yeah. They finally move in on Friday and set up their tents and shelters, and at long last people are getting hot food and “new” used clothes. One of the best things they bring are free phone-charging stations that are fast. Since we’re all going on well over 48 hours without electricity, a lot of people’s phones are either dead or in severe power-saver mode. A lot of us, like me, are realizing that while they’d be important later, taking lots of pictures now is not the best use of our batteries. They also have apparently set up functioning and open WiFi. There are rows of porta-potties, as well as shower tents, and various government field offices providing everything from EBT sign-ups to vouchers to outright cash disbursements.

Some of the guys in my room quickly dub it “Federal Row,” and the waggier ones among them jokingly say things like “Oh noes — we’re getting the socialisms!” even though most of us are hardcore socialists to begin with.

They’ve also set up OLED displays everywhere, and they’re showing the news, although a lot of it is being streamed in from outlets in other cities or international sites. This is when we all finally get the three bits of information that every native Angeleno starts asking themselves at the first sign of shaking: How big? How far? And does it get a name?

We finally get the answer. 7.3 Roughly fifty miles east and slightly south of Downtown L.A. And it’s now being called the Riverside Quake. We also get news that communities like San Bernardino, Redlands, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga, among others, have been severely damaged. The Moreno Valley has been particularly hard hit, with fires everywhere. If you’re not from L.A., you won’t quite get it, but these are places that most Angelenos only normally think of as things they see on freeway signs on the way to somewhere else, like Palm Springs or Vegas.

Suddenly, everyone does seem to care.