peteg's blog

The Godfather: Part II

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Hadn't seen it for almost five years.

Happiness, Ten years of n+1.

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... as selected by the (nameless) editors of n+1 magazine, or so they say. I somehow heard about this lit crit rag aroundabout when it started, but never dug into it before now. Having skipped perhaps a third of this lot, I'm sure they ran more pieces to my liking than what's here. Some casual googling suggests a revolving-door with New York magazine.

Let's get some nits out of the way. The intro is horribly incestuous and lit-crit, presumably written by a prof who shepherded some of the editors through their lit-crit courses at college. The lit-crit pieces are similar: uniformly horrible. What's best here is the small-scale journalism and rants, roughly as follows:

  • Marco Roth: Torture and Parenting.
  • Mark Greif: Afternoon of the Sex Children, about the narrow spread of ages between sex-in-ads and pedophilia. A tad too tendentious.
  • Mark Greif: Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution, about mincomes, unsullied by empiricals. Think of it as Quantity Theory for writers who haven't heard of Will Self.
  • The Editors: The intellectual situation (death is not the end). Starts promising a critique of the analytic tradition that has colonised American philosophy departments, but soon flails about uninterestingly. This proves that it takes someone in the tradition to properly roast it. Is lit-crit / theory good for much? I think we all agree that it should be.
  • Chad Harbach: An Interruption, on climate change. He observes that the Pentagon has a policy for it, which is to draw the obvious conclusion about those who do, those who talk, those who need to get re-elected, etc.
  • Emily Witt: What do you desire? is a New Yorker sex-touring San Francisco. It's a car crash.
  • Wesley Yang: The Face of Seung-Hui Cho. Incendiary observations about (gay) Asian men in the U.S.A. or mere self-aggrandizement? The critics are split. Certainly the most provocative piece in the ensemble.
  • Lawrence Jackson's Slickheads was opaque to this foreigner. Slang city.
  • Keith Gessen (and not Martin Amis's): Money. He wrings his hands while teaching writing at an expensive college. Formulaic. Write what you know, people want specifics and not generalities. Perhaps that's why these types loathe mathematics / empiricism: it just doesn't feel real.
  • Kristin Dombek: How to Quit took Gessen's advice and stuck to the winning formula: what she knows, enough colour to make it real, not so much that you can stalk her in the present tense. Trainspotting for Gen X-Y, for those who are too cool to cite Irvine Welsh.

I don't think I'm going to chase up any of these New Yorkers.

Review at the New York Times.

The Ruffians: Burning Bluebeard at Theater Wit.

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$36.00, bought on 2014-12-14. Another beautiful winter's day in Chicago, almost hot at 12+ degrees. I spent the afternoon up that way, around up-market Belmont, firstly at Heritage Bicycles for coffee and wifi, and then dinner at a Turkish / Central Asian place further north on Lincoln.

Burning Bluebeard is another Christmas panto, this time with more audience interaction. Apparently it has been drawing capacity audiences for a few years now. The game is to recount the fire in the Iroquois Theatre of 1903, and as such it is a bit navel-gazingly-meta, like Season on the Line, but more provincial. Therefore things worked best in the last movement, where the events of that evening are replayed in some of the tightest theatre I've seen here. The only downside is how much is said rather than shown before this; in retrospect much of the first 80 minutes is mere flaffing about, setting things up for that. At no point did I want to hear more about Mr Bluebeard, but such is dramatic necessity.

The opening held a lot of promise for me, evoking Summertime in the Garden of Eden with clowns artfully shedding their chrysalises (body bags). I struggled with some of the threads, partly due to not really following pop culture anymore, not having a TV, and not really grasping the relevance. I enjoyed the mashup of Teen Spirit and Europe's The Final Countdown. I may have been the only one in the crowd to recognise a very slow variant of Lamb's Gorecki. The adulteration of Lennon's sacrosanct Imagine piano riff by a winking playwright / building manager (?) Jay Torrence lip syncing to Amy Winehouse's Rehab (?) meant something to most of the crowd. A kid sitting in the middle was infectiously amused by many of the comedic pauses. I got handed the last of the Mason jars full of small white LEDs by Ryan Walters (playing Eddie Foy). Pam Chermansky is new this year (the remainder of the cast are back for a third run). The performers clearly enjoyed themselves immensely. With deft timing (after an ending like that!) Torrence convinced me to blow $20 on a donation / t-shirt. The ride home was quite pleasant.

Jacob Davis got right into it. A review from last year with more production history, and another by Tony Adler. Justin Hayford tries to be realistic but ultimately rolls with the crowd. Chris Jones. etc.

The Sins

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A gift from Dave. Short TV series made by the BBC in 2000. There is some good dialogue in the small, and some equally horrendous stuff elsewhere. The many story arcs are hackneyed, and the reprieves all-too-sudden; each eposide predictably reverts to the status quo ante, which robs the series of the possibility of growth. The producers realised this too late, for the last episode goes out in a big (but not flawless) way. Pete Postlethwaite is dependably solid. Frank Finlay demonstrates the otherwise downward trajectory of these BBC miniseries by showing up all the younguns. I think Geraldine James's character was supposed to be credibly incoherent. Let's not talk about the children.

Mr Turner

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$12, Landmark at 2828 Clark, 4.45pm. There's nowhere to wait near where they check your tickets, so I sat on the floor next to the cleaning equipment and chugged some n+1 triumphalism. The cycle up was OK (the weather is quite mild), back not so much (stiff southerly, a tad cold). I'd guess this session was half-full on their busiest day of the year.

The pull of this long movie is director/writer Mike Leigh. I knew this wasn't going to be Naked, and I always have my doubts about artist biopics. They make some sense for people like Oscar Wilde, whose art and life were continguous, and not much at all for visual artists, where artifact and individual can be quite disjoint. I'd make an exception for Brett Whiteley though, and along the same lines, writers Patrick White (no thanks) and Tim Winton. I went in cold about J.M.W. Turner, who was born around the time Australia was getting started as a replacement for the restive America. Timothy Spall makes him into a low-class man who takes his pleasure by sketching the extreme, ribbing the pretentious, and never being in any doubt as to his abilities and stature. I don't know how this squares with his apparent wealth; his father was a barber, deepening the mystery. Spall is totally natural and excellent if that is what he set out to achieve, and Dorothy Atkinson as his long-suffering servant is perfect. I enjoyed the science experiment in the middle, featuring a luminous Lesley Manville with a Scots accent as Mary Somerville. The emphasis on the mysteries of light is wonderful, and the cinematography glorious. Ditto for when Robert Stephenson's locomotive steams into view, and the skepticism about art surviving the new technology (daguerreotypes). Dick Pope has photographed much of Leigh's work, including Naked. I can't recall having seen Leigh express wonder about natural philosophy before; dare I hope for an Isaac Newtown biopic from him?

A bloke at the Guardian gestures at more scenes and found it a bit dull. Dana Stevens loved it; I concur with her that this is a homage from one great English artist to another. She reminds me that Leigh always makes period films, that the entire cast was excellent, and that Turner is shown to have a broad appreciation of beauty including music and poetry. A. O. Scott must have been relieved that he (finally) had something worth writing about. ("Lust for life" indeed.) One could go on.

Strawdog Theatre Company: Desperate Dolls

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Goldstar ticket: $7.50 + $3.00 service fee = $10.50. I walked in the rain with Christian-from-work down to Lake and got totally lost on the way to the Red Line platform at State and Lake; the signage in the Chicago pedway leaves a bit to be desired. It was totally packed, as was the train until the Fullerton stop, where people switch to the long-haul Purple. I schlepped from Sheridan down to the theatre on Broadway, stopping for dinner at the pleasantly downmarket Asian Mix Cafe. Their Thai-style laksa (yellow curry and maggi noodles) was tasty.

I got to Strawdog ridiculously early, thinking that it was a 7.30pm show. Over another Revolution Eugene Porter (in a can) and a Guinness-brewed Irish Ale (in a bottle), I kept ploughing through Emily Witt's piece in n+1's ten-year compilation, of which, more later. It, like this play, was long on exploitation and somewhat dubiously proud of being so. The actresses here were quite game and at times it took on a sort-of guilty pleasure aspect with many bum notes. Joe Mack as Sunny Jack had some funny bits, not the least being his Burt Reynolds-inspired coiffure. The ladies were valliant L.A. women, and Jim Poole was quite creepy. Being almost closed, it was standing room only, with people leaning against the bar at the back.

Reviews are plentiful: Nina Metz, Tony Adler at the Reader, a couple at Chicago Stage Standard, Amien Essif at Gaper's Block. Jacob Davis got into it less than anyone. Despite his assessment, I think there's enough desire and raw material for a Russ Meyer revival proper, with a theatrical release. It's a shame Ebert isn't around etc.

Getting home was a fiasco. Some earlier fiasco led to some ambiguity about whether the Addison Red Line station was functioning. (The CTA has monitors all along the platform there, but the PSAs are shown for about two seconds between endless advertisements.) The train, when it came, skipped us, but after a few minutes reversed back to the platform. Much cheering ensued. I walked home from Clybourn/North in the drizzle. Somehow it is still not properly cold, unlike Halloween.

Haven Theatre: Hot Georgia Sunday at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar: $15.00 + $4.50 service fee = $19.50. Walked over from neo-home past the never-finished roadworks on Division/Goose Island. It doesn't look like there's much left to do, and I figured they'd want to be done by the first snowfall. Had a pad thai at Pot Pan Thai on Milwaukee, opposite Filter Café, which I'd seen many times but never previously contemplated. Pretty good; with some tofu and capsicum it may even have been Tum's in Randwick. I'll be back to try their penang presently.

This play was billed as a Southern Gothic, so how could I resist? Despite being less inventive than Summertime in the Garden of Eden, and sticking to very worn transgressions, it was quite fun in the small. The characters are centered on the local Baptist church: youth groups, the liturgical dance, trashiness, predation, booziness. Yeah. The acting was solid: each take it in turns to tell their part of the story, which are often peppered with laugh-out-loud detail that unfortunately does not add up to a super-interesting narrative arc. The accents had me spellbound. About half full, I'd say. Apparently Julie Schroll was in Season on the Line. I liked Emily Woods as the wide-eyed ingenue. I'm keen to see what they do next.

The young bargirl sold me a Three Floyds Robert-the-Bruce Red Scottish Ale as a substitute for the Samuel Smith Taddy Porter of which I've gotten bored. It wasn't stellar. The Wyder's pear cider from Vancouver I had at halftime was a bit too sweet for me.

Justin Hayford is on the money.

The Gambler (James Caan, 1974)

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I liked Caan's decade-later Thief and hoped for a similar neon wonderland here. Instead I got something of a morality fable with a fudged ending. I never found him particularly convincing here, apart, perhaps, from when he calls forth a three at a blackjack table. Paul Sorvino is the canonical standover man.

Saadat Hasan Manto: Kingdom's End, translated by Khalid Hasan.

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I found this one by myself at the Chicago Public Library. There is some overlap with Bombay Stories; a cursory comparison suggests that this is the superior translation, perhaps because Khalid Hasan was a Pakistani who lived through those times, and also that he had a keener ear for Manto's language and what would fly with Westerners. Once again the stories are quite bleak, being tales of Partition set around Kashmir and Bombay. That's enough Manto for me, but I'll be looking for more from Hasan.

LAMPO: Tristan Perich: Noise Patterns at the Logan Center for the Arts

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After lunch at the local downmarket Chinese (Empire Restaurant on Division, precisely what you'd expect; their Singapore noodles was solid), I took the red line down to Garfield and schlepped across to the University of Chicago. There is much urban blight and a sense of emptiness on that route; Hyde Park is a gentrified pocket in an undeveloped / boarded-up area. Turns out it was winter (exam?) break and almost entirely closed; I stumbled over some performance thing for parents and children while searching for the feted Hallowed Grounds. I ended up at the Plein Air Cafe, near the Oriental museum. Electricity, decent coffee, croissant, no wifi. A place to take your children for a snack if you're an early-career academic. Later on I grabbed a cheap and quick Pad Thai from Noodles etc., nearby.

The Logan Center for the Arts is a swank building on the edge of a swank campus, which reminded me most of Washington University in St. Louis. It is predictably huge, especially given that Google claims only about 15,000 students study there. Perich's "1-Bit" branding underplays the complexity of his mechanism: in the after talk he threw around probability distributions, duty cycles, and more in a general geek-out. I enjoyed some of his sound, but found it overly harsh for the most part; it is of the sort that people have been getting from their microchip projects on initial startup since 1974. I grant that he's put a lot of effort into composition, though it still felt like a formless, centreless kind of work that is far more alienating than Ben Frost's modulated noise. I was half hoping that he'd momentarily break into something mindblowingly coherent. Perich seemed to understand this as he introduced a solid beat somewhere after the midpoint. The whole thing went for an hour and I didn't find it was something to relax to, in contrast to most improv; perhaps the view out of the 9th floor windows was too captivating. I'm certainly keen to head back.

Their blurb:

The great Tristan Perich returns to Lampo to present "Noise Patterns," his new composition for sequenced 1-bit patterns of white noise, programmed for and performed by microchip. The work expands on his "1-Bit Symphony" and tonal pieces for electronic circuits and acoustic instruments.

N.B. the code in "Noise Patterns" outputs random sequences of 1s and 0s. The "notes" of his "score" are then varying probabilities of randomness, ranging from the sound of white noise to sporadic, instantaneous pops, which Perich composes into rhythmic patterns. In a wave of 1-bit noise, the music is an investigation into the foundational limits of computation.

Artist and composer Tristan Perich (b. 1982, New York, N.Y.) is inspired by the aesthetic simplicity of math, physics and code. Best known for his constructions that explore the physicality of sound and the polyphonic potential of 1-bit audio, his "1-Bit Music" (2004-05) and "1-Bit Symphony" (2010) celebrate the virtuosity of electricity. Neither release is a traditional recording. Instead, each is a music-generating circuit, housed in a CD jewel case with a headphone jack. Perich also has composed several works for musicians with 1-bit music accompaniment, and is in the music group the Loud Objects (with Kunal Gupta and Katie Shima), which performs by soldering its own noise-making circuits live in front of the audience. His award winning work coupling 1-bit electronics with traditional forms in both music ("Active Field," "Observations") and visual art ("Machine Drawings," "Microtonal Wall)" has been presented around the world, from Sonar and Ars Electronica to the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art.

Tristan Perich first appeared at Lampo in October 2010, performing his "1-Bit Symphony."

Presented in partnership with the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.

Irish Theatre of Chicago: Shining City at Den Theatre.

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Goldstar, $13.00 + $4.00 service fee = $17.00. Walked home after taking the #37 bus this morning due to a timing accident (the bus was waiting for me when I got to the stop). I had some dinner at home and raced over to the Den in about fifteen minutes, straight down Division. I also figured out that I'd been parking my bicycle in the wrong carspace, oops.

I picked up a Toddy Porter on the way in, despite it being on the crapper end of porters; time to investigate the lighter-coloured beers perhaps. This piece was by Conor McPherson, as was The Night Alive. Again the acting and accent work was solid, but the dialogue this time was more extended monologue, and the putative transgressions were cringeworthy. Perhaps I've spent too long in liberal cities. Chicago Stage Standard gave it 3.5/4. They're right that Brad Armacost was great. Tony Adler at the Reader is (as always) far harsher. I don't think we got the "transition music".

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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$11 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 6.30pm, Japanese with subtitles. They no longer have cheap Mondays (sniff). This is certainly the most beautiful hand-animation I can remember seeing. There are some awesome sequences, especially around the two-thirds mark. The flying scene at the end is pure Douglas Adams, Arthur and Fenchurch; I never considered that he may have also been big in Japan. The story itself is a bit too much of conservative-hokum folk story flim-flam to be bothered with. Motivated by a review in the Reader.

Saadat Hasan Manto: Bombay Stories

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According to some, Manto "has a good claim to be considered the greatest South Asian writer of the 20th century". Digging this book out of the Chicago Public Library took some doing: the super-helpful girl on level 7 of the Harold Washington found it somewhere I would never have thought to look. I heard about the author from Pankaj Mishra, and I guess I was hoping to read something more like what he described than a series of almost still-low-lifes in Bombay. Shades of Charles Bukowski. I did manage to plough through it in double-time, and for that I am thankful.

City Lit Theatre: Holmes and Watson

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Stool on bicycle, Milwaukee Avenue, 4.20pm.

Another Goldstar ticket: $14.50 + $4.25 service fee = $18.75. I unexpectedly bought a stool at a discount furniture shop on Milwaukee, and after walking it back to the flat, I got lazy and took the Red Line up to Berwyn, mistaking it for Bryn Mawr. The El at peak-hour in winter is not fun as everyone's dressed up to the max, so the carriage quickly becomes stuffy and I overheat. Layers are all well and good if you can shed them when you need to. I do wish I'd bought the stool a week ago; like the speakers it makes the space far more livable. At Bryn Mawr (a cute little strip of shops), I had dinner at The Little India: a combo, tikka chicken, a tikka masala chicken (really a butter chicken), vegies (aloo matar?), rice, naan. Decent, but no heat at all.

There were quite a few more people at the church than last time. I'm guessing about half of the audience was blind (literally; it was some kind of social outing), and this style of theatre accommodated that perfectly, being mostly spoken word with some suggestive mime. I was the youngest there by about a decade. We got two stories: A Scandal in Bohemia (featuring Irene Adler) and The Final Problem (featuring Professor Moriarty). I enjoyed Adam Bitterman's deft accent work as Watson and sundry characters, which glued the whole thing together, and James Sparling was quite fine as Holmes and Moriarty. Adrienne Matzen has a brief turn as Irene.

This is a somehow old-fashioned kind of entertainment; arch language, and unconflicted characters, with a moral clarity that only Batman and ghee have now.

The Chicago Stage Standard gave it a decent review, as did the Reader.

Haskell Apostasy #1: now where did they hide the higher-ranked polymorphism?

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About fifteen years after it was cool (to type systems people), I figured it was time for me to try ocaml, or more broadly, to make my peace with this call-by-value thing. One motivation was because I work with a Frenchman, and another was that I want more space- and time-efficiency than Haskell allows. No, I'm not listening to you talk asymptotics or microbenchmarks or parallelism. So, where else to start than by trying to port Bird and Paterson's de Bruijn encoding? (Edward Kmett's recent work places this scheme in the vast terrain of representations of higher-order languages and sets the bar for type insanity / wizardry.)

Here's what I ended up with:

You'll see that I ran out of patience / interest in working out a full showE function for the efficient representation. I think you're supposed to normalise it first and use showT. As I observe in the file, Yallop and White have thought about how to massage the syntactic overhead of higher-ranked polymorphism (think Haskell's functors, monads, traversables, this crazy nested datatype stuff, etc.).

I came to think that ocaml's module and object systems (really row polymorphism) give Haskell's baroque combination of features some solid competition. I like being able to define lightweight namespaces that actually do encapsulate things. The uniformity of ocaml's type declarations (just say type) is awesome, and would be even more awesome if they'd wired row polymorphism in there too, rather than adding a whole pile of constructs for an object-oriented style that is foreign to just about everyone. I don't care about the fine details of syntax but would observe that its treatment of user-defined operators frankly sucks. *shrug*

Note that Bird and Paterson's scheme is a non-starter in Standard ML due to the latter not supporting polymorphic recursion.

I also tried to test this representation using an ad hoc QuickCheck-alike, using Pierre Lescanne's ideas about generating λ-terms. As Oleg shows, it takes some doing to generate interesting ones. More on this later perhaps.

Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know

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I picked this up on the strength of James Wood's fawning review in the New Yorker, and, of course, that the author is Bangladeshi and was going to say something about the 1971 civil war / war for independence / revolution / genocide. Oh, and finance. Wood is right: it wears its knowledge heavily, and oftentimes my eyes glazed over, wishing that the editor had eradicated the prevarications over adjectives, reduced the number of balls concurrently in the air, tied up all loose ends. Who wants to read an author's bleatings about the difficulties of writing? That's right, other writers. It also struck me that if the book is good, you read it fast because it sucks you in, and if it is no good, then you read it fast so you can get to the next one. So you read it fast, and in the case of these almost-500 page beasts, it can lead to a loss of cabin pressure. In any case I wasn't going to pore over it as I would a Francis Spufford.

Rahman is a sucker for epistemic jokes, just like me, though few can best Rumsfeld in the public domain and it's been a while since he vacated the pitch. He is often not careful with Gödel, whose famous theorem is about truth and proof, and not just truth ala Tarski. It is intuition that gives us a handle on truth, but as we don't trust ours or other people's, we demand proof, i.e., a justification rooted in what we take to be more self-evident. The theorem is difficult and slippery, and experts like Raymond Smullyan tend to carefully separate their commentary on it from their humanistic works. Wading in where angels fear to tread, indeed.

The plot is so very A Quiet American (and probably all the other things Wood gestures at, of which I know aught), with some splintering of characters and switcheroo of the cultural identities of the villains. I found Emily to be underwritten; she is no more than her sex and class, and I found her to be entirely resistable. Her mother, Penelope, is a flake, her father a cypher; shades of Gone Girl? The portrayal of working-class Englishmen as, well, workman-like pragmatists is unoriginal and unsurprising. These parts perhaps spoke more to the compatibility of caste and class, and race as a mediator, and I for one benefited from a longer exploration from elsewhere. One could imagine Ishiguro telling the same story more epically in about fifty pages.

The whole thing is overstuffed with novelty informational detritus of the kind easily found across the entire internet these days. A couple I liked (Rahman doesn't give references for his in-text factoids). Firstly, page 71:

Time appears to slow down, said Zafar [protagonist, authorial voice, often narrator], at moments of crisis, stress, or anxiety. Time slows down, we think, during a car crash or when a person falls from a great height into a net, the latter being the setting for certain scientific experiments conducted to explore this experience of the slowing of time. The experience of time slowing down is now understood as a function of the creation of memories. According to the science, it now seems that during stress, groups of neurons known as amygdalae are engaged in activity. Associated with this is a spiked increase in the number of memories recorded by the brain in every tiny interval of time — in every instant, you might say. The sensation of how much time passed during an event is dependent on the number of memories associated with the event by the brain; the more memories, however instantaneous, the greater the length of time that is perceived to have passed. That is why we think time slowed down, when in fact we captured an album of photographs in the blink of an eye.

Secondly page 309, an excerpt from Liberty or Death by Patrick French (authorized biographer of V.S. Naipaul):

I can remember at one official function [in West Pakistan] where there was a group of women, wives of members of the elite, and I overheard one laughing to the others, "What does it matter if women in Bengal are being raped by our soldiers? At least the next generation of Bengalis will be better looking." That was the kind of attitude you found there in 1971, and it is still around today.

This book garnered reviews from all corners. Amitava Kumar at the New York Times. Louise Adler at the Smage. Sameer Rahim at the Telegraph is more sceptical. etc. etc. It is eminently quotable, and to be a little unfair, good at making people think they are thinking. I'm glad Rahman took the time to write this, but I had hopes he'd make it denser.