Monday, December 26, 2011

A risible simile

I saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol yesterday with my brothers. All three of us liked it a lot. Every frame -- particularly those with Tom Cruise -- indicated that the thing cost a king's ransom to make, but those dollars were put to great use. This thing was a masterpiece of spectacle for its own sake.

It was fascinating to note how prominently the star figured in the credits, more than just for his role: After the words "A Bad Robot Production" appeared on the screen, the words "Bad Robot" faded out and were replaced with "Tom Cruise". This makes it seem almost like a king's ransom worth of a vanity project, a monument to Tom Cruise's own glory; but that doesn't diminish the movie's virtues.

Before I present the titular analogy, it's worth noting that the director, whom I credit most for turning money into beauty here, had never done a live action film before. Brad Bird was an acknowledged master of animation, having done the sublime The Iron Giant and some Pixar films like The Incredibles. How the producers came to trust him with such a mammoth project as a live-action debut is beyond me. As my brother pointed out, Bird has an illustrious precedent: apparently Michelangelo had done almost no painting prior to the Sistine Chapel, despite having made a name in sculpture.

In conclusion: Ghost Protocol is a modern-day Sistine Chapel, with the religious iconography replaced by car crashes and ludicrous nonsense.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Inventing a Tradition

An ambitious premise, and its beautiful but flawed execution

Mythology, according to Guy Maddin, is not a strong suit of his native Canada. Inspired by the patriotic mythology of the U.S. and by the long cultural memory of his Icelandic forebears -- whose language remains by his account essentially the same, even readable, after 1,000 years -- Maddin set out to create a uniquely Canadian lore; the result, "Tales from the Gimli Hospital" (1988), depicts the experience of the earliest Icelandic settlers at Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, circa 1876-8. "Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed", an augmented version of the film presented in mid-November at Performa 11, reflected Maddin's further intent to add two decades’ worth of the cultural building, or "layering" as he put it, that a myth usually acquires over a century or more.

Is the Canadian mythos really so absent? Doesn't some of Canada's folk-tinged rock music, e.g. The Band, Neil Young, Arcade Fire, perhaps fill a small part of that hole? More importantly, does "Gimli" live up to its ambition? Having been to Canada just once, I can only guess. Also, a legend is properly absorbed by long and continuous exposure, e.g. the aura of the Founding Fathers in American dialogue; if "Gimli" wants to be a statement of Canadian identity, a single overwhelming 65-minute performance isn't quite enough to read it as such. (It’s a partial testament of success along that line that I want to see it again.) "Gimli" did at least achieve the right tone for its aims, mixing spontaneous gaiety and deep tragedy with fascinating details of time and place. Within a small-scale narrative, these formed an origin story in miniature for the New Icelandic community.

The film tells the story of the smallpox epidemic of 1876-1877 and is named after the real hospital that cared for some of its victims. It focuses on a fictional patient, "Einar the Lonely", whose story is told to small children next to their mother’s sickbed; Einar and his fellow patients pass the time recalling and recounting their pasts, forming a recursive structure of memories within a memory. (In one of the funniest recollections, a patient describes his marriage: the minister, afraid of the plague, refused to cross the river, so the bride and groom shouted their vows to the opposite bank. In his opening remarks, Mr. Maddin claimed to have taken inspiration from stories his older Icelandic-Canadian relatives told, and it seems likely this was one of them.) The hospital setting is densely realized, from the leaking thatch ceiling to the sweaty bedsheets, and the flashbacks show in detail the fishing and gutting that would have been the settlement's first concern. There are also several long sequences depicting fever dreams, which are as amusing, entrancing and occasionally confusing as they should be. Throughout, Mr. Maddin uses the language of silent-era films, with actors whose faces (and makeup) tell stories themselves, and playing with light and dark, with at least two action scenes depicted entirely via shadow.

This presentation also featured a new soundtrack, performed in the front of the theater as the movie played onscreen behind the musicians. Aono Jikken Ensemble, a small group featuring strings, percussion, and a singer, provided sound effects, dialogue, and an achingly beautiful score that they composed. The performance had a few unfortunate problems. Syncing foley effects and vocals is a delicate process, and it's no mark against the performers that they didn't always nail it on stage, but every missed cue jarred noticeably against the carefully crafted atmosphere of sound and image. Besides that issue, a live performance tends to draw attention from the rest of the film, and the bright lighting on the performers didn't help matters. I missed some of "Gimli", for instance, distracted by the work of singer Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, whose expressive voice and expert use of effects pedals sold a challenging performance of narration, dialogue, and occasional background chatter. But what really stuck with me was the sustained, longing yet cold tones of the strings, which gave voice to the long-remembered suffering that the film seeks to enshrine as myth.

"Gimli" aspires to be a statement of cultural identity, a kind of "Fargo" for New Iceland. Whether it does credibly is not really for me to say. It makes a strong impression, at least, and is worth seeing for that reason. I hope the "reframed" version and its score become available soon, but for now I'm looking forward to renting the 1988 original.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


This deeply stupid routine took place at least three times over Thanksgiving; now I can't get it out of my head. I share it here, in paraphrase. Note that I am one of Brothers 2 and 3; which one I am is left to the reader as an exercise.

Brother 1: Guys, how did I manage to get four hours of rest in a two hour nap?
Brother 2: What if he took ...
Brother 3: a nap ...
Brother 2: inside of a nap?
Brothers 2 and 3: INCEPTION!!!
Brother 3: Dum dum dum dum dum dum
Brother 1: You guys are really weird.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A different sort of wish list

It's time for my family to exchange Christmas lists. I'm not sure I'm digging it this year. It feels inappropriately transactional, particularly at a time when the flaws in a transaction-driven society are staring us in the face. I find myself thinking about alternatives that respect the spirit of giving but that maybe make blind consumption a less prominent part of the season.

There is a meme I've come across in several essays/blog posts/articles: the really valuable things we do with our money and our time are experiences, rather than things. I've found this to be true for myself. A concert, a great book, or even simply a fun night of nothing more than (moderate) intoxication or walking around does wonders for my state of mind and my short-to-middle-term happiness, far more so than spending the same money on shirts. Not that material things are unimportant, but currently my wants are either too trivial to ask anybody for (more socks), or too expensive to bring into conversation (a hammered dulcimer, a new place to live).

My perspective on this may not be shared by a majority of your Christmas-present targets. In my circle alone, I know at least a few people with very specific, generally reasonable, and well-articulated material requests. If you know a new parent, they've probably got a list of needs as long as your leg. I'm sure I'll be very desirous of gifts when I finally move and require new furniture, board games, et alia. But more broadly, aren't there already enough things in our lives? You probably know somebody who doesn't need or want a new hat as much as they want meaningful tokens of human connection.

I present to you, therefore, a few concrete suggestions for a less material gift strategy, colored heavily by my personal preferences, and organized by how much they would cost.

Looking to spend:

Big-to-medium money?

Buy a ticket to something cool: an opera, a concert, a dance or stage performance, an art show. Ideally, go with them - this excuses the old fallacy of gifting as if for yourself.

Small money?

Take your gift target to a movie. Find a super-cheap show of the sorts described above. Get a paperback or a CD (smaller money: get it used on Amazon or Ebay). Or just buy your friend a coffee and talk! I don't drink coffee but I'll come to a coffee shop with you.

No money?

Recommend a book that's affected you, or a band that's gotten in your head. If they've expressed curiosity about something you know, like Brahms or British comedy, give them a well thought out, perhaps forceful, recommendation of where to start. (By forceful, I imagine a winking threat: "If you don't listen to Kind of Blue, I'll have to rethink this friendship!")

Or, if you are so inclined and able, make something. A poem or story, a drawing or a doodle, a gimmicky or referential computer program or Android app, a song that your friend can sing or play (or a decent recording of yourself or your band doing it), a short film or a thoughtful montage or photoessay. This is far from cheap no matter how you value your own time and effort, but I'm reasonably sure someone on your list will remember and cherish such a thing far better than any store-bought object.

(End suggestions.)

I probably won't stick to this strictly in all my gift-getting this year. It requires enough though that it can get exhausting, for one thing, and also a minimal understanding of what your friend wants or enjoys that I don't in all cases enjoy. Moreover, some also have compelling material requests or unstated needs. But as an experiment, I'd like to use this strategy as widely as I reasonably can, in the hope that it will be more rewarding both for me and for those recipients with whom I can pull it off.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

weird day!

Mostly for my own posterity, I wanted to record some of the things I encountered this weekend:
  • A very satisfactory score on the Putnam
  • The GRE Math Subject test (I think I did all right)
  • A bike ride, including:
    • Approx. 20 miles including round-trip
    • Sunburn
    • A small yellow-bellied bird with a striking melodic chirp and a remarkable ability to hide in grass
    • Said birds hiding in a stunning plain of the greenest grass (approx. ankle length) I've ever seen
    • Inspiration for a song from a passing train (clich├ęd, I know, but no less compelling)
    • From a long distance, a grass fire
    • Nearly a dozen of some bird of prey all soaring together over (what passes around here for) a mountain
    • The most intense exhaustion I've had in about five years
  • A very interesting bit of sci-fi: Arthur Clarke's The Lost Worlds of 2001. In a word: Did you think the novel 2001: a space odyssey was a lot more prosaic than the movie? Wait till you see the early drafts! (The computer is not evil.) It's great stuff, and I think some of it was reused in Rendezvouz With Rama years later.

Monday, February 21, 2011

From the front lines of monkey research

what a cutie!I am breaking my rule against writing about the news for the second time now. Maybe it's time to give that rule up? Even if it is a sound rule, I couldn't help breaking it this once: this little story is just too good.

The story, linked below, involves computer tests for monkeys. They were asked to label a box of pixels "sparse" or "dense" -- big letters S and D on the screen -- and got a treat for a correct answer. Incorrect answers caused the program to hang, and apparently the only punishment was visible frustration at having to wait for another treat. The catch was that there was a third option that would skip immediately to the next problem, without any treat but without any pause either.

The new discovery is that for this particular game, macaque monkeys turned out to interpret that third option the same way that humans would, as a "pass" without penalty. For the researchers, this amounts to an assessment of their own knowledge, something close to the Socratic admonition to know your limits. By contrast, so-called New World monkeys like capuchin monkeys (as opposed to the macaques, which are Old World monkeys) did not choose "I don't know" at all, instead risking a pause in hopes of getting a treat even on tricky questions. They suggest that this introspection may have evolved only in the one line of apes and monkeys, which happens to be the same one that gave rise to humans. To put more fine a point on it, these creatures' introspective insight could provide us one of our own.

This is, pretty literally, fantastic, exciting stuff. It's almost on the level with 2001: a space odyssey. Sure, that's the actual conception of fundamental leaps, and here we have the mere discovery of traits that presumably developed millenia in the past; still, I figure it for kind of a big deal. If you ask me, that combination of lofty S.F. themes with the heartwarming image of a monkey munching on a cookie is a template for an excellent, shareable news story.

You can read the story here:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Nixon in China" in the Met in a movie theater

Truth be told, I had no idea what to expect walking into Nixon in China. For one thing, opera in a movie theater seemed to leave room for doubt. I also doubted my own taste: though I'd heard good things about the composer John Adams from respectable listeners, it had been a while since I had listened to anything more adventurous than Pandora suggestions, and I half feared I'd become boring enough to be intimidated like everybody I mentioned it to — and apparently like the person in my row who chuckled "Well, it was enteresting!" — or that to avoid the appearance of philistinism, I would overrate the opera.

(To pre-empt the "TL;DR" response, I'll summarize by saying it was a wonderful experience. If you're in New York and able to catch the last shows at the Met this weekend, or elsewhere and able to catch the cinematic encore on March 2, I hope you will consider it. For a more elaborate form of that exhortation, read on.)

The latter two concerns turned out to be unfounded: I managed to clear anxiety from my head and thoroughly enjoy the show. Music, libretto and staging were all both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I don't have much substantial to add to this review, except perhaps that the flimsy story is not such a fault as the reviewer seems to think. However, I formed so many impressions about the piece that I had to try to articulate some of them here.

The classical Orientalist tonal vocabulary (think "Kung Fu Fighting") was conspicuously and thankfully absent from the score, but the handling of race still raised some questions. All but three of the characters (the Nixons and Henry Kissinger) are Chinese, yet scarcely ten percent of the faces on stage, and only one of the leads, were Asian. In interviews, the creative staff struck me as sensitive so I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this issue: maybe for economic or contractual reasons, it was out of their hands. Whatever the reason for the problem, I felt the crew faced it respectfully and directly — though perhaps as a middle-class white male my judgment is suspect — but it is still deeply sad that a story about China should be told with so few Chinese voices involved.

The cinematic presentation mostly met my expectation that I wouldn't notice it. Of the emcee, I'll only share this telling anecdote: at the end of an intermission interview with Mr. Adams (who conducted), he turned to the camera so abruptly that for a full minute neither he nor his crew noticed Mr. Adams trying to hand off his microphone. More seriously, the camerawork overtly aimed not to bore, and at times this approached distracting and condescending excess. During one scene change, for example, the camera switched from facing the lowered curtain to looking behind it, showing stagehands setting the scene and dancers practicing their steps, effectively forcing the audience from narrative into meta-narrative. In retrospect, I'll admit my annoyance with the form reflected my desire to be at the Met rather than watching a facsimile, and as such may not have been totally fair: the broadcast setting for an opera is obviously in its infancy, and these apparent missteps may simply be well-advised departures from tradition, even to become unremarkable custom with time. (This defense of 3D movies, for instance, boils down to "I got used to it.") Nevertheless, I felt the producers needlessly assumed the worst of our patience: if it continues, that assumption may become self-fulfilling truth.

NiC begins with an intriguing chorus and a breathtaking set piece. The lyrics are unmistakably Communist propaganda, but their substance seems uncontroversial: the singers exhort us against exploitation, to "pay a fair price for what you buy", to "respect women, for it is their due", and above all to venerate workers. It's hard to miss that these lyrics are being sung by only half of the 40 or so singers, namely the half wearing uniforms. The rest, presumably "venerable" workers, are seen rather than heard. In fact, toward the end of the number, they leave formation, walk to the back and face away from the audience: the choreography suggests that under communism, the proletariat are symbols (but still workhorses, as we see in the second act), as powerless as in any society.

As the chorus ends, the egalitarian pretense crumbles: the commoners disappear and the various officials and dignitaries form ranks, while the tall and commanding Chou En-lai (Robert Braun) stands on his own to greet an arriving airplane. The music, previously a rousing anthem, builds to a deafening and terrifying fanfare as Air Force One descends: when Richard Nixon (James Maddelena) steps out, the music is totally overpowering, making for a headbanging moment that rivals anything in Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi (a score to which this one owes a lot).

This immense drama continues well into Nixon's diplomatic pleasantries, segueing into an aria/soliloquy where he sings of his paralyzing awareness of scrutiny from the world and from posterity. As he sings, a line of dignitaries files past, and what little reaction Nixon shows us as he goes through the motions with them is surprise and even horror; we get the sense that he is not an agent in his own actions, and perhaps even his presence in China results from forces beyond his control. Here the fatalistic theme of the opera is first made plain: we are parties to events rather than agents of them. It's hard to imagine a stronger fatalist statement than one with Richard Nixon as the subject.

The second act begins with Pat Nixon's (Janis Kelly) tour of Chinese culture and industry. She meets factory workers who joyfully present her a gift, and tours the countryside; even if the people she meets seem genuinely honored by the moment, there is no small amount of showmanship as officials whisk her from one occasion to the next, even announcing obedient students with the words "Here are some children having fun!" The artifice is barely disguised, but Ms. Nixon appears oblivious: reacting to the egalitarian idyll being sold so aggressively, she recalls her own idyllic Americana cliches in an aria that seems to depict her drifting into a reverie: e.g. "Let passersby glance into the window as the quiet family dines". As she returns to the real world, she tries to discuss this with some workers nearby: they respond with haunting hints of a darker reality, images of cruel suffering and men digging their own graves, before retreating with a brief "we've said too much," a deeply troubling statement to which Pat cannot possibly respond.

After the distracting backstage glimpse mentioned earlier, we move to a dance/theatrical production, an "opera-within-the-opera" (OWTO) as one cast member called it. It is based on an actual production that was performed for Nixon, but here it is portrayed with a surrealism that I found genuinely confusing. As the inner production progressed, its fourth wall blurred and eventually disappeared: first Kissinger, then Pat Nixon and Chou En-lai also join in the increasingly chaotic action, and at its climax Chairman Mao's wife, Chian Ch'ing (Kathleen Kim), rises to command the storm. I recall a sense of closure at this point, accepting Chian's outburst and subsequent aria as a deep point for which the entire surreal OWTO had been mere preparation. This seems inadequate in retrospect, but that I found it plausible at the time testifies to Ms. Kim's magnetic stage presence: of the whole show, only her number induced applause from my comatose theatermates.

The third and final act takes place after the conclusion of official events: all the characters are resting, and the Americans are preparing to fly home in the morning. As Pat and Richard get ready for bed, Nixon starts reminiscing about his service in World War II. As he remembers the terror of a particularly brutal bombing, emotions seem to spill out. Mr. Maddelena was extraordinary in this scene: his Nixon is no small man in any sense, and yet the decades-old memory alone causes him to scream, shake, and curl up into a ball. I shook and cried myself at the sight, reminded of many nights spent replaying my own memories, which though far less traumatic can leave me just as powerless as Nixon in this scene. Chou En-lai, Chairman Mao and his wife also dwell on the past, remembering powerful moments and second guessing their decisions (Braun's Chou beautifully delivers the line "How much of what we did was good?"). As they recall the past, the libretto seems to dwell on its fixed indelible nature, much as the opening showed Nixon transfixed and unable to act on his own as history relentlessly continued.

It would be naive to suggest my fatalistic reading is at all objective. Days after digesting the opera (and editing out some of the more egregious bullshit here), it's very clear that I've at least partly projected fatalism into the story, and I'd love to hear about something against it in the opera that I failed to notice. Nonetheless, I think fatalism is certainly at least one among a few prominent themes, and it's obviously one that spoke deeply to me.

In sum, please consider seeing Nixon in China while it's out, as it's hard to guess when you'll get another chance.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ripped from the headlines crap movie

A piece of sadly predictable news: the FBI overstated their anthrax case against a dead man. At risk of disrespecting the guy, who is a mildly credible suspect but still dead, maybe there's a crap suspense movie to be found here:

FBI lead investigator stalls investigation, pins crime on innocent man, because all the real evidence points to .... HIS SON! A heartrending choice between family and the justice he's served his whole career! The pressure tears his marriage apart! One (beautiful!) crusading journalist is getting close to the truth, and now he has to make his most serious decision yet! Will he come clean and give up his son, or will he add more sins and coverups to his conscience?

I see Nic Cage for the investigator, Joshua Jackson for the (former environmentalist, current coward) son, maybe Tom Wilkinson for the patsy, with the journalist played by Elizabeth Banks or that girl from Zoolander. (Incidentally, if there is any doubt that this is crap, the hostile journalist will also be a love interest.) Who for the wife, maybe Cameron Diaz?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

By way of introduction

Welcome to my little blog! I haven't kept one in a while, nor a relatively serious one ever, so apologies if it comes off as rough around the edges. The impulse is more or less this: I have a bunch of free time and a nagging desire to improve my writing, two birds that suggest the single stone-throw of writing on a semi-regular basis.

About me: I am a recent bachelor of math from the public university in my hometown New York, and currently working as a programmer for a genetics lab in Lawrence, Kansas. (If you are curious: my math interests include algebra and topology, in which I have the most formal-to-quasi-formal training, as well as geometry, combinatorics, number theory, and logic.) I also half consider myself a musician, which includes some barely competent playing on various instruments, some half-capable singing, and some dabbling in composition.

About the blog: The name Riemann Summary is a bad pun on Riemann sums.* I hope to write once or twice a week. Subjects might include math that I'm doing, music theory that's on my mind, perhaps a bit of both at once, programming tidbits, or whatever show/song/movie is on my radar. I hope to avoid trendy or newsy topics, since there's typically so much talk already that I won't add anything useful. In that and other respects, I'll take "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should be silent" as a guiding principle.

There should be a first non-housekeeping post up in a few hours. Hope to see you there!

* There's no connection between Riemann sums and this blog. Not that I couldn't fabricate one! Informally---very informally---Riemann sums can be described as the combining of many tiny, almost-zero things to form a large non-zero object, just as I could characterize my (hypothetical so far) posts here as tiny things that may, together, form a larger picture or idea. Predictably, this elaborate nonsense masks a deeply boring truth: in searching for a title, I tried puns, and Riemann Summary was the first non-awful one I could think of. You won't hear the ones I discarded.