Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No Such Thing As Stupid Questions: What If? by Randall Munroe

“Do not try any of this at home. The author of this book is an Internet cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind. The publisher and author disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects resulting, directly or indirectly, from information contained in this book.”
– Disclaimer, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What if everyone on earth jumped up and down at exactly the same time? No, seriously – what would really happen? What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at nearly the speed of light? What if you tried to build a periodic table of the elements out of the actual elements comprising it? I don’t know. Of course I don’t know. But I know who you can ask.

Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist and now full-time self-employed internet cartoonist, spends a great deal of time putting his well-honed scientific mind to work on the What If blog section of his wildly popular site, xkcd.com, where users submit strange hypothetical questions that he does his best to answer as scientifically as possible. Munroe has kept this blog active for so long that he has now collected enough material to fill a book – one that proves both insightful and hilarious to read.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Old Man and the Old Moon: Small-Time Charmer

Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ryan Melia, Curtis Gillen in The PigPen Theatre Co.'s The Old Man and the Old Moon

The PigPen Theatre Co. has been touring around its musical fairy tale, The Old Man and the Old Moon; I missed it at Williamstown last summer but caught up with it in the ArtsEmerson series in Boston. PigPen consists of seven men who got together as freshmen drama students at Carnegie Mellon in 2007, which makes them around twenty-five. And indeed the spirit of the piece, which they devised in collaboration with their director, Stuart Carden, is undergraduate in the best sense: it feels freshly minted, and it’s devoid of even the smallest taint of cynicism or smugness.

The narrative is a shaggy-dog fable about how the phases of the moon evolved. An old man (Ryan Melia) is tasked with filling up the moon every night with liquid light. Then one day his wife (Alex Falberg), stirred by a familiar piece of music she hears on the wind, sails off to follow it, and the old man, distraught, abandons his post to try to find her. He has a series of adventures on the way:  he gets a ride on a war ship and replaces its captain when he’s killed in battle, he gets swallowed up by an enormous fish, and so on. Meanwhile the moon wanes and finally fades out entirely; the nighttime sky is sunk in darkness, there’s nothing to control the tides, and chaos ensues.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Very Human Princess: Louise J. Wilkinson's Eleanor de Montfort

My first entrĂ©e to the adult section of the public library where I grew up was Queen Elizabeth I. I don't remember how I first encountered Good Queen Bess – doubtless it was some reference in another book, probably a novel. But when I grew frustrated with the books available in the children's section (a brightly lit annex attached to the main building full of primary colors), most of which featured cartoon illustrations of the Spanish Armada, the kindly library suggested (somewhat doubtfully) that I should check the grown-up books. I still remember climbing the staircase that connected the children's annex with the main library – I had to climb the carpeted steps, past the posters for Laura Bush's literacy campaign, to get to the marble and wood chamber of treasures. The big-people librarian wouldn't give me an adult card (I was ten or eleven, and the circulation desk came up to my nose) but my mother arranged for me to have access on my children's card. It was a small library – to get to the non-fiction and history you went up a circular staircase to a balcony with carved wood railings that circled the entire room. I still remember where the Elizabeth books were – right across from the entrance, on a top shelf that I needed a footstool to reach. And there I plopped my small self to read about Elizabeth, her tragic mother Anne Boleyn, her insane sister Mary and the treacheries of her cousin, Jane Gray.

Eventually I burned out on the Tudors, and somehow – probably at the suggestion of the librarians, bless their souls – I moved on to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Elizabeth I is an easy hero for a young girl. After all, she was a Queen in her own right! Eleanor of Aquitaine was slightly more complicated. She also exercised power in her own right, but often had to use the sort of 'soft power' available to women in the medieval period. I still love both Elizabeth and Eleanor, but I have learned in the intervening twenty years how unusual they both were. Most women in the pre-Modern period didn't wield great international influence, or even much autonomous domestic influence. But that doesn't mean that they were not important and influential in both international and domestic spheres. As Louise J. Wilkinson demonstrates in Eleanor de Montfort: A Rebel Countess in Medieval England (2012) powerful women abound. But unlike Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine, it takes dedication to learn about these influential, flawed, and fascinating women  of the Middle Ages. This is certainly the case for Eleanor de Montfort, granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and an absolutely spectacular character in her own right.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Sense of Wonder: Circa's Opus

Circa's Opus at the Brisbane Festival (photo by Michel Cavalca)

The circus recently came to town. But instead of lions and tigers and bears (oh my), 15 aerial-born Australian gymnasts and four barefoot musicians, all members of France’s acclaimed Debussy String Quartet, wowed the eyeballs of everyone packed into Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre of the Arts. The occasion was the North American debut of Circa, a troupe of gravity-defying wonders currently on a world tour. The Brisbane-based company was in Toronto from Nov. 12 through 16, presented by Canadian Stage, and tonight and through Nov. 26 is in Montreal performing at La Tohu, the circus theatre on Jarry St. E. The show there is the same as was recently seen here – Opus, an 85-minute non-stop piece of acrobatic dance theatre that that is a truly one-of-a-kind theatrical experience: equal parts brute strength and soul-tingling poetry. It shouldn't be missed.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ghosts and the City: Hulu's Deadbeat

Andrew T. Jackson and Tyler Labine star in Hulu's Deadbeat

Hulu may have been one of the first streaming services available online (and still offers some of the widest selections of rebroadcast television content from American network and cable sources), but Hulu Plus, its subscription-based younger brother, is still lagging behind the other streamcasters (Netflix, Amazon Prime) for original scripted programming. Hulu Plus has garnered some well-deserved praise for bringing some exclusive UK exports to its American viewers: not only the delightful Moone Boy (Chris O'Dowd's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy set in small-town Ireland in the late 80s) and Showcase's Endgame, the cancelled-too-soon Canadian cult hit, but also co-producing The Wrong Mans, starring Gavin & Stacey's and soon-to-be CBS's Late Late Show host James Corden, with the BBC. (I'll save the details of my unabashed enthusiasm for Corden and the comically intense Wrong Mans for when its much-anticipated second season airs in 2015.) Last spring however Hulu Plus stepped firmly into new and exclusive original programming with the low-key, under the radar, paranormal comedy Deadbeat, which demonstrated the potential for Hulu to play with the big boys.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sly Fox: The Phil Silvers Show

Billy Sands, Phil Silvers, and Paul Ford in The Phil Silvers Show

Last summer, one of The New York Times’ fourth-string film reviewers wrote a blunt little screed complaining about how many old TV shows are now readily available for viewing thanks to home video, streaming sites, and “classic TV” cable channels such as MeTV, Antenna, and Cozi (whose appeal is probably based on nostalgia for the golden years of Nick at Nite and TV Land as much as it’s based on the days when the shows on such channels were actually new). Some of the writer’s objections to specific shows were based on political correctness: surely those who appreciate Mad Men for its glacial pace, lavishly furnished period anomie, and tsk-tsking attitude toward the male chauvinism of our fathers and grandfathers must view the marriage of Ralph and Alice Kramden as “more sad than funny,” Gilligan’s Island is chock-full of “dismaying stereotypes,” and watching Green Acres can make you feel that rural people in the red states are a bunch of rubes, which is an unacceptable message for a TV show to be peddling unless it’s The Daily Show. Mainly, though, the Times seemed to be concerned that too many people are pissing their lives away binge-watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis when they could be doing something constructive, like organizing a recycling drive or watching Rectify.

I’m not sure that the ready availability of fifty-year-old sitcoms is the major societal problem that the Times thinks it is. When it comes to popular culture, I’m of the Libertarian persuasion: the stuff should be out there where anyone who wants it can get their hands on it, and if that makes it easier for those with a tendency toward substance abuse to get a hold of the hard stuff, that’s their cross to bear. From the censorious tone of the Times article, it’s not clear that its author—who I prefer not to refer to by name, because I have a theory that he might really be Candyman—knows that the best comedy of the early years of TV is less faded now than the first season of True Detective, and that some of it is still hard to find. In the case of the great early work of Sid Caesar and the Your Show of Shows crew, Ernie Kovacs, and Steve Allen, we’re dependent on the efforts of cultural archeologists digging through private collections of kinescopes, since much of that material predates the network practice of archiving programs that were originally thought to have no long-term financial value.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Price of Truth: Kill the Messenger

Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in Kill the Messenger

If last summer’s scenes from Ferguson, M.O.– the corpse of black man lying in the street; cops armoured up like special forces; residents rioting in a failed neighborhood – drew our outrage, they didn’t earn our surprise. The whole affair was just yet another installment of the forces of law and order versus America’s poor and marginalized – those pictures could have been L.A. in the wake of Rodney King, or the whole country after the killing of Dr. King. With Kill the Messenger, director Michael Cuesta shines the spotlight on a particularly appalling chapter of this saga, telling the story of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. America’s “War on Drugs” ranks as one of its most self-destructive and inept policies in history; through it, criminal law has led to social engineering, as entire urban enclaves have crumbled due to the cycling of its young men of color in and out of prison on possession charges. Through Webb, Cuesta revisits an even darker wrinkle in this narrative. But what starts out as a moderately compelling investigative thriller turns into an even more thoughtful, ruminative portrait of a crusading reporter, his private battles, and what it means to have integrity.