“The Man Who Knew Infinity” parallels some of my own narrative issues

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Name: The Man Who Knew Infinity
Director, writer:  Matt Brown, Robert Kanigel
Released: 2016
Format: film, 2.35:1
When and how viewed: AMC Shirlington, Arlington VA, light audience, late 2016/5/14
Companies: IFC
Link: website

The Man Who Knew Infinity”, directed and screen-written by Matt Brown (adapted from the book of that name by Robert Kanigel) is an engaging British biographical drama about Indian-born mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel, star of “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)).

Ramanujan (1887-1920)  is known for his work on number theory and infinite series.  He developed many identities (the bane of trigonometry students) my “intuition” before he could prove them.  Generally, this is uncommon in academic mathematics, although it happens with cosmology and physics;  some of his work now relates to black holes.  His life was tragically shorted by aggressive tuberculosis (the “white plague”), which could not be well treated when he lived.

The film tells a story with some striking parallels with my own personal narrative, and deals with some issues on which I have focuses a lot.  As a young adult, he is nudged into an arranged marriage (in India), after which he goes begging for an accounting job to support his wife despite having no formal degrees.  He tries to be attentive as a husband, but is not very physical, and his wife even says he is more interested in his numbers than people (or was my father once said, in “seeing people as people”).  He contacts Cambridge University Hardy (Jeremy Irons) at first with a desire just for assistance in getting published (another issue of mine)!  It’s determined that he needs to pursue a degree and attend classes like everybody else.  But his outspoken and perhaps boorish behavior in a lecture (the professor asks why he doesn’t take notes, when he responds by putting his infinite series expansion converging to “2/pi” (or 2/π ).

Then World War I starts (with some foreshadowing newspaper headlines).  Unbelievably, wounded soldiers are treated in tents right on campus.  A white soldier bullies Ramanujan as a privileged freeloader, living a shelter life in academia while his peers go out and fight – very much anticipating our own student deferment controversy during our own Vietnam War. But Ramanujan starts getting sick during the hardships from the rationing (the students cook in fireplaces with coal their own rooms).  Later he survives a zeppelin bomb attack on the campus. He would be denied his fellowship but eventually regain it and get his degrees.

He finally returns to India, partially recovered but soon deteriorates and passes away, almost like someone with AIDS. His illness may have also been related so some poorly done surgery mentioned in Wikipedia.

The screenwriting makes a lot of the personality crises (following the tenets of keeping audience rooting interest) and is sometimes a little “over the top” compared to what probably really happened.  The discussions about the need to do mathematical proofs, though, are interesting to me.  Hardy is atheist, by Ramanujan  was religious, saying every equation comes from God, and is shown praying in his room with incense.  Dev Patel makes his character personally appealing despite churlishness, and except in the illness scenes, seems more vigorous physically than he probably really was.  A comparison could be made with the early scenes of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (2014).  A more distant comparison (psychologically) would be Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” (2014).

My own background includes an M.A. in Mathematics from the University of Kansas (1968), right before going into the Army as a draftee.  In the movie, a cohort, Littlewood (Toby Jones) gets “drafted” and serves doing ballistics calculations, but actually lives in tents in combat.  In my Army tour, I had an MOS “Mathematician” (“01E20”) and spent the two years at the Pentagon and Fort Eustis, sheltered from combat.   Most of the course work involves proving theorems, as are most of the exam questions. I remember very few of the problems, except proving Liouville’s Theorem on the master’s orals (and stumbling)  with implies the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra.  My Master’s Thesis (“Minimax Rational Function Approximation“) has already been described online.

But compared to any genius mathematician, I was spread too thin, across too many areas, to have the kind of intensity to do this kind of math.  In 1971, I did help a colleague in a civilian job in the Navy Department get a paper on matrices in military computing published.

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Wikipedia attribution link for Trinity College Picture, by Stanley Howe, under CCSA 2.0.

“The Second Machine Age” probes the economic and social dislocations associated with technology, globalization

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Authors: Erik Brunjolfsson, Andrew McAfee
Title, Subtitle: “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies”
Publication date 2014
ISBN 978-0-393-35064-7 paper
Publication details: WW Norton, 306 pages, indexed, endnotes, 15 chapters
Link: Amazon


The Second Machine Age”, recommended by Fareed Zakaria on his Global Public Square program on CNN two months ago, looks at the transformation of technology since the 1980s through now, as it continues, and at the long term social and economic effects on how people actually live.

One could talk about the industrial revolution and all the advances (from steam engines to electricity, to factory automation, to cars, air travel, modern appliances, space travel beginnings and personal mobility) from about the 1850s until about 1980, and then realize that during the time of Reagan (maybe with the help of Ronnie’s somewhat libertarian streak, and the development of solid state) miniaturization exploded with a revolution in communication, both peer-peer and in self-publication.  A major sub-inflection occurred around 1992 with the release of the public Internet, even though precursors had been in use for a long time.  The rapid changes followed the expansion of computing power stated by Moore’s Law enabling the digitalizing of almost all information.

In the 1990s, one of the most revolutionary changes was the nosediving cost in (digital) reproduction of published materials.  Not only did this drive down the cost of traditional desktop self-publishing but, in conjunction with search engines,  it also enabled speakers to reach a very wide audience through the web with almost no incremental cost.  This opportunity benefited me, as I embarked on self-publishing when taking on the issue of gays in the military (and “don’t ask don’t tell”).  I have gotten flak for not doing enough to sell “instances” of my books (physical copies and perhaps Kindle) rather than let people read it online, because my doing so can disrupt other people’s way to make a living.

The authors point out that the digital revolution benefited consumers, who did not have to pay much for new access to convenience.  Even though people might earn less in wages or other compensation, in terms of real wealth people were often better off.  But this is true whenever there is a rise in the standard of living through technology. The authors ask, are you better off with 2016 goods and services at 2016 prices and incomes, or with 1986 goods, prices and incomes.  For many people, earning relatively less, the answer is the former.  So my own “self-publishing” was arguably adding real wealth, even if it could exacerbate hidden social conflicts regarding inherited privilege or shielding from the risks that others (less fortunate on the economic ladder) must take to earn a living at all. Modern social media (most of all Facebook) replaced the earlier chaotic “dot-com” bubble by expanding mere publication and broadcast and embedding it into the process of social networking, representing online. While social media represented new opportunities for abuse, it probably settled the question that social media was here to stay along with user-generated content, despite the conflicts that “amateurism” with UGC could cause.

But technology also seemed to increase income inequality, largely through globalization, and through replacing some kinds of jobs with computers and automation. Indirect effects made weaker competitors in many businesses drop out, and tended to result in consolidation, with relatively fewer jobs at the top and more concentration of high earnings among the few. The “winner take all” economy developed, with stars earning orders of magnitude more than ordinary people.  Income averages tended to exceed medians, which tended to mean that “ordinary people” had less chance to advance out of mediocrity. While the standard of living for the poor and less well off improved in some areas, like ownership of smartphones and mobile devices, in the big items like housing, health care and education, the poor usually got worse off.

Actually, this seems to be a cyclical process.  Middle class incomes did rise after WWII as old patterns of “extraction” of wealth from labor (from the class societies of the past, so much the target of communist ideology of the past) broke down to democratization (labor unions and civil rights), but this improvement in middle class lives, as experienced in the 50s and 60s, started to reverse with the hyperindividualism associated with the growth of digital technology.

To deal with inequality, the authors recommend a mixture of measures for both individuals and policy makers.  The authors start out by using a great analogy of human conflict – the game of chess. Although super computers can normally beat grandmasters now, in team chess, where both sides have access to computing and database, human grasp of positional strategy still trumps.  The experiments of Garry Kasparov are discussed.  I’d mention that it would seem possible for computers to generate paths of optimal opening preparation strategy for tournaments.  For example, any chess computer system would know that White’s prospects are far better with “1. D4 d5 2. C4” than with the mirror image of “1. E4 e5 2. F4”.  (But, given 1. D4 Nf6 2. C4 e6 it is much harder to say if 3 Nc3 or 3 Nf3 is stronger.)

The authors talk about “ideation” as a needed skill, getting beyond the obvious.  But superior ideation is still likely to reward the few best ideas with billions (Mark Zuckerberg – whether or not he really did invent Facebook one night in his dorm room after a fight with a girl friend, as in “The Social Network”,)

The authors talk about improving education, but with a mash of ideas.  They praise Salman Kahn and his online academy.  They would probably like AOPS and the problem solving videos by robust young math grad students like Deven Ware.  They’re all for improvement of teaching as a profession, but would they go as far as Finland?  What about the homework controversy?

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Their most important ideas seem to be in recognizing the value of various kinds of work.  Many kinds of labor, many of them trade skills involving complex tools, or involving taking care of other human beings, a skill that gets more important as more people live longer with some disability.  The authors talk about libertarian Charles Murray’s 2012 book “Coming Apart”, which sounds like a surprising call for eusociality.  The authors mention Murray’s comparison of “Belmont” with “Fishtown” (Philadelphia working class area), but disagree that it is just about social norms, the problem is that not as many people in Fishtown have jobs, or good jobs, as in the past.  The authors also get into tax policy, and seem to concur with Thomas Piketty (“Capital in the Twenty-First Century”) somewhat that the lazy rentier class tends to be abusive. There may something to my own father’s past moral opprobrium about “learning to work.”

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The authors seem, in fact, to think that structured work is a key to dealing with the social disruptions of globalization.  I don’t see that they have taken up the low wage (like the minimum) much, or Barbara Ehrenreich’s setting an example by paying her dues (“Nickel and Dimed”, 2001). Arguably, it could be important somehow to make what I do in retirement really pay (without cheesy ads or pimping copies of books), because “It’s Free” (Reid Ewing’s little 2012 short film about the public library that sets up this whole issue) can become socially disruptive to the businesses models that provide income for others.  One idea could be that more steady volunteer positions could be funded or paid.  A progressive idea is connecting volunteer projects to retiring student loans, as in this Huffington piece or this Take Part article.

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The authors, however, examine some other progressive ideas, like guaranteed income, or the negative income tax, that can also help (Vox Media has supported these repeatedly).

The authors do discuss the evolution of the sharing economy (ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft;  renting out your house, like Airnbn), as something concomitant with sustainability, and moving away from the idea of personal identity by “collecting things” (in my case, classical records and CD’s earlier in my life). Shared housing is coming to for, as in the New Yorker article by Lizzie Widdiecombie, “Happy Together” (the antethis of “Alone Together“, Sherry Turkle. 2011) by or “dorm life forever”, May 16, 2016.

Finally, the ask whether we could really approach a singularity someday, where robots become conscious of themselves and reproduce.  That may be only way to travel the galaxy.

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It would be well to compare this book to the new “Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business” , by Rana Faroohar, summarized in her article “Saving Capitalism” on p. 26 of the May 23, 2016 issue of Time Magazine  (paywall link). The villain is “finanicialization”, where Wall Street designs financial products for short term gain rather than infrastructure or “real wealth” investment, because of perverse personal incentives (mentioned criticially by the authors of the main book in this review, above, relating to extracting wealth by debt instruments and derivatives).  But these incentives are somewhat tied to way globalization and digitization affects the value of labors and commodities, while at the same time, as Charles Murray points out, social fabric unstrings itself. Edmunk Contoski had self-pubbed a libertarian, Ayn Rand-like book with the “Makers and Takers: How Wealth and Progress Are Made and How They Are Taken away or Prevented” title (American Liberty Publishers) back in 1997 (also the sci-fi novel “The Trojan Project” filled with constitutional amendment proposals like mine, and a pre-malware telephone virus that is more like a telepathy manipulation and a Windows executable.

(Published: Saturday, May 14, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)

Sir James MacMillan conducts his own works, as well as Elgar and Vaughn Williams at Kennedy Center

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Name: The Sacrifice” (interludes); “Miserere“; also a cello concerto and Symphony 4
Author: MacMillan, Elgar, Vaugn Williams
Released: 2006, 1919, 1034
Format: concert
When and how viewed: Kennedy Center, 2016/5/12

On Thursday, May 12, 2016, the Kennedy Center offered a concert by Scottish conductor Sir James MacMillan.

The program opened with Three Interludes from his 2006 opera “The Sacrifice”, to a libretto by Michael Simmons Roberts based on a Welsh myth (maybe epic poetry) called Mabinogion.  Probably English departments know this stuff.  Following a Romeo and Juliet like plot, lovers Sian and Evan must part and accept arranged marriages in a heavily tribal world.  Conflict leads to tragedy, in a somewhat complicated plot.  My own father used to say, “To obey is better than to sacrifice”, and maybe this opera proves the point.  Does the movie 1973 “The Wicker Man” come to mind?

The three interludes follow the example of Britten (“Peter Grimes”) with a passacaglia for the second movement. The outer movements are called “The Parting” (of the lovers) and “The Investiture” ( a ceremony that confers rank, maybe related to the historical “Investiture Controversy” of the Church in European history). The music is more dissonant than Britten, although similar in spirit.  The ending of the last piece is violent.

The second work was the Cello Concerto in E Minor of Sir Edward Elgar, Op. 95 (1919), with cellist Alban Gerhardt. The work is in four continuous movements, starting with a Moderato stating a unifying theme. The scherzo may be the most familiar part.  There is a brief Adagio, and the finale tends to wind down before a brisk ending in a minor key. At one point, it seems to quote the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor.

The main course, after the intermission (and reason I attended) was the Symphony #4 in F Minor by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1934).  The work is notorious for a case of Vaughn Williams “being mean”.  The four note motive suggests Shostakovich, maybe, and also Scriabin in using the minor ninth and half-step dissonances – but in this work the orchestral color will enable the composer to bring the dissonance into balance with his normally pastoral style.  There are four short movements, totally 30 minutes, the last two connected, working up to a violent fugue on the 4-note motive, and ending abruptly on one loud minor chord. It’s interesting that Scriabin’s “Black Mass” piano sonata is based on some of the same harmonics, and is centered on the same tonality (F).

There was a post-program.  I was taking notes on my cell phone because the printed supplement had not been included with my copy of the Playbill.  There was a panel discussion, with MacMillian and Gerhardt, and a “choral postlude” with the University of Maryland Concert Choir.  The group sung four a cappella works by MacMillan.  These were Two Strathclyde Motets: “Factus Est Repente” (“Suddenly a Sound Came”), for Pentecost, and “O Radiant Dawn”, for Christmas.  There followed a complete mass “Miserere” (or “Missa Verde” or “Green Mass”), 15 minutes, with a little more dissonance than in the motets.  Then there was the song “The Gallant Weaver”, which would remind us of “Silas Marner” from high school English literature (but based on a poem by Robert Burns).

In the QA, the cellist said he plays with earplugs, because the sound from the other players is very loud.

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There was a pre-show on the Millennium Stage, where the Washington National Opera presented the “Ring” singers in a concert with piano.  One of the arias was from Rossini’s “Italian in Algiers” with humorous lyrics about women taming men, and even whether women prefer “smooth” men (“thmooth”) to hunks or brutes (“hairy”).  Later there was some Sondheim, as well as Offenbach, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Verdi.

(Published: Thursday night May 12, 2016, 12:45 AM after midnight EDT (Friday)).

“Sitka: A Piano Documentary” shows the rebuilding of a Steinway by master craftsmen

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Name: “Sitka: A Piano Documentary”
Director, writer:  H . Paul Moon
Released:  2010
Format:  Vimeo
When and how viewed:  Vimeo
Companies: Zen Violence
Link: link

The movers (rather burly, like out of Wagner’s Ring) take the piano to a workshop lab in Gaithersburg, MD, where they rebuild and replace the wood sound board and pin blocks.  The company involved is called Pianocraft.The Phillips Collection offers a 30-minute documentary “Sitka: A Piano Documentary”, directed by H. Paul Moon, showing the labor required to rebuild the Steinway Concert D 542016 piano used in the Music Room.

Then French pianist Olivier Cave tries it out.

During the film, music by Scarlatti and from a Piano Sonata in D by Haydn is played.

The technicians are, among other things, master carpenters.  This is indeed a “trade”.  The value of “trade” work gets mentioned in the next-to-last story in my own “Do Ask Do Tell III” book, the story called “Expedition”.

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As a supplementary short film, watch “What If Money Did Not Exist?” (Jared Lee, 2014, Malaysia, 7 min, Grim Film).  There are plenty of proletarian values as the lives of an auto mechanic and a doctor are traced.  In the end, the mechanic does the work for nothing but “gratitude” and gets his girl.  The premise sounds fir game for science fiction, for a scenario about an alien abduction and fitting in to another civilization.

(Published: Thursday, May 12, 2016, 12:34 PM EDT)

Below: Me at the piano, age 10

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“Das Rheingold”: a mammoth “prequel” to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at Kennedy Center; is Wotan a proxy for Donald Trump?

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Name: Das Rheingold” from “Der Ring des Nibelingen”
Author: Richard Wagner
Released: 1869
Format: stage opera
When and how viewed: 2016/5/10, Kennedy Center in Washington DC

As I picked up a will-call ticket for Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” (or “The Rhinegold”) at the Kennedy Center later Tuesday afternoon, I said that this was like an airline ticket.  The host said, “no, more expensive than an airline trip”.  Indeed, $334, including “convenience fees”, for an orchestra seat on the right side, totally sold out.

I then went to the 5:15 lecture on the Millennium Stage by a member of the San Francisco opera (don’t have the name).  The presentation showed the musical excerpts, which are often based on simple triadic intervals with their mathematical relationships.  The rising and descending triads, in various keys (starting in E-flat) would become a leitmotif for the opera.  The lecture also notes that Wagner wrote his own librettos, and that he worked backwards as he composed.  The Ring cycle would introduce the idea of the darkened audience hall.

The opera is, of course, the “prequel” for the entire Ring cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”).  It is the shortest of the operas, in one continuous act and four scenes, running 2-1/2 hours.  The performance offered no intermissions and no late or return seating. (The other three operas all have two intermissions).  It started at 7:30;  a 7 PM start would sound in order, but then, the café upstairs was so crowded after the lecture.

The plot of the entire cycle seems to anticipate Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”, including the New Line film franchise directed by Peter Jackson.  Is Siegfried more or less comparable to Frodo?  Maybe, but Frodo lives on, even after screaming “The Ring is mine” near the end of the third film, over a volcano pit.

I could even mention one more allusion, which is Clive Barker’s “Imajica”, which may become a sci-fi series soon.  There is a connection here even to the concept of Wagner’s cycle. But let’s get back to the opera.

The first scene starts with the famous “drone” prelude based on E-flat major triads depicting the Rhine River in Germany (or in a parallel world). The content seems simple at first, as river maidens tease the dwarf Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) about his (sexual) unattractiveness and oafishness. We could moralize on this right away.

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The rest of the opera happens in Wotan’s (Alan Held) castle and in the gold mines.  It seems that gods have business contracts just like humans, and that hit men or debt collectors will come by if they don’t pay.  So there is human collateral from kidnapping and a near live burial (Freia, Melody Moore).  There is the hope to mine some more gold (read, bitcoins) to challenge Alberich, holding the ring that can rule the world or the universe.

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Toward the end, Wotan realizes if he gives up the ring, he can make his enemies fight over it – a concept known not just to Tolkien and Clive Barker, but also to Donald Trump.  Given the current state of US presidential election politics, the airing of the opera cycle in Washington this year seems particularly appropriate and prescient. Maybe Donald Trump will attend.

The “giants” (I thought, the New York Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl a couple years back) are interesting; their artificial hooks for hands suggest disfigurement.  But when I see a familiar face (from the Blade) of someone almost 80 inches tall (and fit) reading a college philosophy text on the DC Metro (before recent fiascos) I’m intrigued.  Or likewise by another similar person outside a concert in NYC Lincoln Center of the Bruckner Eighth some months back.

The background scenery, while often shown alpine views, gets interesting, sometimes looking like an alien planet surface, in one place with appearance colorful hurricanes.  Is this Titan?

The conductor was Philippe Auguin.

The opera ends with a triumphant coda based on the triad theme.  By contrast, “Twilight of the Gods” (with the sunrise following Armageddon) ends with a sweet theme that finally concludes on one huge D-flat Major chord that swells and subsides.  That same theme would get reworked in Scriabin’s “Divine Poem” which turns the desolation into final triumph.

It’s only fair to say that some people consider the concepts behind the Ring to be anti-Semitic.

 

The video above from YouTube shows a performance by Rattle at Baden Baden.

Wikipedia attribution link for photo of Markgafliches Opera House in Bayreuth, Germany, by Avda, under CCSA 3.0.

(Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2016, at 1 PM EDT)

“Untouchable” documents a socially unmentionable issue

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Name: Untouchable
Director, writer:  David Feige, Jary Arthur Sterrenberg
Released:  2016
Format:  movie, 1.85:1, 106 minutes
When and how viewed:  In MICA theater, at Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore, 2016/5/7, nearly sold out
Companies: Racing Horse, Blue Lawn, Meerkat Media
Link: Official site  (includes Vimeo trailer)

Untouchable” documents a nearly unmentionable subject, the misapplication of sex offender laws and registries.

The film traces the lives of several registrants.  One man is forced to move out of his own Miami home when distance-laws are tightened and gets assigned a tent shelter underneath an outdoor bridge (albeit in a warm climate), banished into homelessness.  When he is late returning from curfew because his bus from work is late, he is thrown back into prison on a “technical violation” of probation. A woman in Oklahoma is severely restricted for the rest of her life for sleeping with a 15 year old boy when a teen herself. Another man, also in Oklahoma, actually disordered with pedophilia since boyhood, lives in a trailer and describes his treatment.

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The film documents the public hysteria, fueled by demonstrations (and sometimes counter demonstrations) in Florida, spurned by the activism of local attorney and legislator Ron Book, whose daughter Lauren was abused as a child.  Toward the end, Ron and Lauren have a big booksigning party event in New York for Lauren’s book “Lauren’s Kingdom” as well as the earlier “It’s OK to Tell: A Story of Hope and Recovery”.

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The film does mention the excesses in the use of these laws, as for cell phone sexting (as in the documentary “Addicted to Sexting” (2015) by Joseph Tosconi), and for teens close in age (when there are no applicable “Romeo and Juliet’ laws in a particular state), as with a recent case in Michigan where a 17 year old was convicted and forced to register when a 14 year old girl lied about her age online, and that was no excuse (link ) ; the sentences has since been reduced and registry removed, according to more recent news reports, such as this one from Elkart, IN).

The film doesn’t cover some critical areas, like the spate of cases surrounding chat rooms covered by NBC’s TV series “To Catch a Predator” with Chris Hansen, along with his book. It also doesn’t cover the possibility of child pornography possession prosecutions for owners of computers or sites deliberately infected by malware inserted by other criminals or possibly enemies.  These cases haven’t happened often yet, but could become dangerous in the future.  There was some media attention to this grim possibility in 2013  and one horrible case in Arizona as far back as 2006.

The film was followed by a brisk with the director David Feige, co-producer Adam Pogoff and one other filmmaker.

The film won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at Tribeca in 2016.  Feige is the former Trial Chief of The Bronx Defenders and a former public defender himself.

On the whole subject matter, Reason has 2011 a piece by Jacob Sullum “Perverted Justice: sex offender laws represent the triumph of outrage over reason” (which Ron Book certainly shows in the film).  In fact, “Perverted Justice” or “Peej” was the name of the civilian “vigilante” group that helped NBC set up the stings on “To Catch a Predator”.  And Slate refers to this article in its own 2011 piece by Emily Yoffe, “Reform ‘child porn’ laws”.  In a real world, few state-level politicians can afford “reason” when faced with real parents.

Q and A clips (each < 1 min)

Clip 1


Clip 2

Clip 3

Clip 4  In this clip, Feige describes Ron Book’s attitude, that someone who didn’t have kids doesn’t understand and has no say in pleas for “rationality” in the use of the law.  Being a parent calls for outrage, I guess.

Clip 5  In this clip, Feige describes the difficulty of funding the film, for which most support came from one donor;  most people didn’t want to touch this subject matter.

This is a good place to mention the film “L.I.E.” (“Long Island Expressway”), 2001, by Michael Cuesta.  I saw this film at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis on 9/11/2001, and met the director at a bar afterward as he was stranded by 9/11.  The film tells the story of a somewhat naive pedophile played by Brian Cox.  Subsequent editing before the DVD came out removed the shots of the WTC in the distance.  The film was actually used in a screenwriting class in Arlington VA in 2004.

Pictures:  Tampa, FL, mine, 2015;  Arbuckle Mountains, OK, mine, 2011.

(Published: Tuesday, May 10, 2016, at 10:30 PM EDT)

Phillips Collection offers unusual concert that involves walking through museum as music plays in different rooms (Ciupinksi, Cerrone, Matthusen)

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Name: Brownstone“, “Memory Place“, “Between the Smell of Dust and Moonlight“:
Director, writer:   Jakob Ciupinski, Christopher Cerrone, Paula Matthusen; Metropolis Ensemble directed by Andrew Cyr
Released:  2014 through 2016
Format: live music concert, unusual museum walthrough experience simultaneous with music
When and how viewed:  Phillips Collection, 2016/5/8
Companies: NA
Link: M.E.

The Phillips Collection in Washington DC (near Dupont Circle) offered a penultimate concert event for its 75th season Sunday afternoon, May 8 (Mother’s Day), a concert from the visiting Metropolis Ensemble (say, this is “New York Mets at Washington”, with the Mets winning) in which, for two of the three compositions, the musicians played semi-solo in various rooms in the museum easily accessed by patrons from the Music Room. On the way to the rooms, patrons could pass a painting of old Griffith Stadium with the old Washington Senators hosting the New York Yankees in 1953, when Mickey Mantle hit his record shattering home run.

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In fact, when we were seated, most of the places were seat cushions.  All of the “seats” were reserved, but as an elder, I was seated near a corner.  The various percussion groups, which included wood slats and burned beer bottles, were laid out around the room.  Photography seemed to be permitted (no flash, please, as oil paintings abound).

The first piece was “Brownstone” (2010, 15 minutes) by Jakob Ciupinski (b. 1981  ), composed to simulated the lifestyle of a Brooklyn Heights (or maybe regentrified “Bed-Stuy”)  brownstone townhome. The music tended to comprise little descending fragments, especially in strings and harp and maybe xylophone, that accumulated into a theme that somewhat suggested the opening toccata of my own third Sonata (unpublished but discussed openly online), a curious experience for me.  There were little chamber snippets that vaguely suggested a motif from the finale of Mahler’s Fifth.  It finally accumulated into a climax before we went back downstairs. The woman next to me said that the piece suggested John Cage to her.

The piece was commisioned by the Metropolis Ensemble.

The second composition was performed in the music room and seemed to be the most substantial and organized of the three.  That piece was “Memory Place” (2012), by Christopher Cerrone (b. 1984), winner of a Samuel Barber Rome Prize and a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer.  The percussion groups, arranged around the room, included wooden slats (sawed precisely in something like my own father’s old workshop), glockenspiel and a restrung guitar, and various electronic gear.  The 22-minute piece has five movements, each evocative of a major public issue or perhaps of a movie, as well as a place.  The first is “Harriman” (a mountain park north of NYC – the piece opens with bird chirping sounds, almost evocative of David Lynch and “Blue Velvet”); then follows “Power Lines” (that is to say, Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out” or the fusion work of Taylor Wilson), then “Foxhurst” (to recall the “Foxchase” movies and Du Pont tragedy, maybe), then “L.I.E.” (a notorious film set around the Long Island Expressway that I’ll cover again soon) and “Claremont”.  For me, that’s the name of a street in Montclair, NJ where I worked for Univac back in 1972, and somehow the title (and music) brings to mind the hand-held horror film “Cloverfield” (2009).

This piece was commissioned by the American Composers Forum.

Cerrone’s other recent work needs noting here.  One is the opera “Invisible Cities” which has an unusual way of being staged (like in the Los Angeles Union Station). Another is “The Pieces that Fall to Earth”, which would remind me of Nicholas Roeg’s sci-fi film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), with David Bowie as the gentle alien and business entrepreneur.  Another piece that says something socially important is “I Will Learn to Love a Person” (2015), video below.

The last piece was “between the smell of dust and moonlight” (2016, caps off, deliberately, about 25 minutes), by Paula Matthusen (b. 1978), a world premiere, commissioned by Phillips. The violinists started playing in the Music Room, and I couldn’t be sure that Cerrone’s piece had ended (except for musical context). Then we did another tour of even more rooms. The overall compositional ambience to my ear sounded like Jakob’s and was not as distinguished to my ear as Cerrone’s – but I may be biased, having become familiar with Cerrone’s work in the past so my ear is already trained for him. Matthusen added some other percussive devices, to recall our use of older technology, such as 78-rpm vinyl records. The title of the piece reminds me of Reid Ewing’s song for “Modern Family”, “In the Moonlight (Do Me)”, but then that refers back to Beethoven’s famous Piano Sonata #14 in c# Minor, “Moonlight”.

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The performers include director Andrew Cyr, Kristin Lee (concertmaster, violin), Ian Rosenbaum (solo percussion), Siwoo Kim (violin), Karen Kim (violin), Michael Katz (cello), Jessica Han (flute), James Riggs (oboe), Brad Balliett (bassoon), Britton Matthews (percussion), Sean Statser (percussion), Jacqui Kerrod (harp).  The group has performed on Jimmy Fallon in NYC before.  If it gets another chance, maybe I should try to go.

Does this compositional style exemplify “Gebrauchsmusik”  a term associated with German composer Paul Hindemith?  Today young composers get commissions to write music that seems clever and depictive (like program music) or modern life and even modern social or policy issues (like, here, the power grid, for one thing). But a lot of times it is less “expressive” emotionally, and less “thematic” than the classical music I grew up with and compose myself.

The whole experience reminds me of the 2002 film “Russian Ark” by Alexsandr Sokurov.

I first visited the Phillips Collection for a couple piano concerts (Chopin and the like) in the fall of 1962, when I was a “patient” at N.I.H. in Bethesda, MD, and going too GWU, a narrative I cover in detail elsewhere.

(Published: Monday, May 9, 2016 at 12 Noon EDT)

 

 

Salero: a stunning journey to the salt flats and industry in the Bolivian Andes

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Name: Salero
Director, writer:  Mike Plunkett
Released:  2016
Format:  M (1.85:1)
When and how viewed:  At Maryland Film Festival, Baltimore, 2016/5/7, at Single Carrot Theater, show sold out
Companies: Cinereach
Link: Site

The word “Salero” literally means “salt shaker”. The documentary by Mike Plunkett, in 76 minutes, gives us a visit to what looks like the surface of an alien planet.  That is, the salt plains among the Andes (part of the “Alteplano”) at 12000 feet in Bolivia.  The famous Lake Titicaca is a few hundred miles away.

The film traces the changes in life there through the eyes of Moises Chmabi Yucra and his family. Moises has worked the salt flats his entire life.  Salt, as an industry, is left over from the colonial Spaniards. But the discovery of lithium ore underneath the salt (and apparently in nearby mountains) will change everything.  This will be Bolivia’s own industry, making it a “Persian Gulf” for the whole worldwide tech industry for a few hundred years.  It will also affect how Moises earns a living (now his work has more to do with constructing new hotels and homes) in Uyuho or toward Cochabama), as well as his daughter’s future.  She will get to go to college and work in tech.

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This film would have been a good candidate for Imax 3-D.  There are many shots of the plains, with the salt almost as white as snow, but chunkier and more textured.  The mountains are distant. In some shots, irrigation water (as land use changes to farming) mixes in to produce a surreal effect, truly alien in look.

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The director said that the film crew had to wait out protestors to get to the filming site in one case.

Wikipedia attribution link for Travel and Stuff, under CCSA 2.0.  typical salt picture.

There was a QA at the Maryland Film Festival with the director Mike Plunkett.  A particularly interesting comment concerned the demonstrations which hindered getting to the site and filming for a while. A previous demonstration had taken 90 days.  It took 10 hours from La Paz by bus to get there, but now there is a small airport.

A few short QA clips (each < 1 min):

Clip 1

Clip 2

Clip 3

Clip 4

(Published: Sunday, May 7, 2016, at 12:30 PM EDT)

“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba”: great storytelling, but a naive view of authors

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Name: Papa: Hemingway in Cuba
Director, writer:  Bob Yari
Released:  2016
Format:  M, 2.35:1
When and how viewed:  theater, Cinema Arts, Fairfax VA, sparse audience, late night
Companies:  Yari Group
Link: Facebook

“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba: A True Story” brings back the Yari Group into film distribution, as Bob Yari himself directed this engaging film.

It seems like simple storytelling. The protagonist, a twenty-something Miami Herald reporter Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi) starts the narrative by telling how his father suddenly abandoned him on the streets during the Great Depression.  He grew up wanting to be a “writer”.  What sounds hokey is that on his first job he couldn’t spell, and even got temporarily fired.  Later, working in Miami, he admires Ernest Hemingway and keeps struggling with a typewritten letter.  His girl friend (Minka Kelly) mails it behind his back, and Hemingway calls.  It’s the best personal letter ever typed.

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So Ed makes repeated visits to Cub, as Papa Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) takes Ed under his wing as a substitute daddy, forming a family with a latter-day wife (Joely Richardson).  Castro’s rebels are beginning to make progress, and the film dutifully makes Batista’s forces into villains.  Myers, who has covered the Korean War as a correspondent, doesn’t flinch at running with Ernest in the gunfire.  Later, a Mafia-type contacts Myers (inviting him to the notorious Hotel Ambos Mundos ), enlisting Myers as almost a double agent, telling Myers about J. Edgar’s plan to get Hemingway for (Communist-supporting) gun running because Hemingway was in a position to expose J. Edgar Hoover’s covert homosexuality with Clyde Tolson. It’s ironic that the Cuban Missile Crisis, threatening all of western civilization, would occur in just three more years.

Yari’s work brings to mind several other films. One reference is through Hemingway’s playing the song “Je ne regretted rien”, used in the closing credits of the soundtrack of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (2010). Another would be Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” (2011).  And, of course, there is Andy Garcia’s “The Lost City” (2005).

The film makes effective use of locations in Cuba, including the famous coast of Havana, and Hemingway’s actual estate.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Havana by Crisjuan0

(Published: Saturday, May 7, 2016, at 9 AM EDT)

“All Work, All Play”: how geeky gamers can play in the big leagues

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Name: “All Work, All Play”
Director, writer:  Patrick Creadon
Released:  2015
Format: M, 1.85:1  M, 1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant, also available on Amazon
Companies: O’Malley Creadon, Filmbuff
Official site: Facebook

All Work, All Play” certainly educated me on the idea that computer gamers have their own pro circuits. The best gamers can make over $1 million a year.

And they live together in team houses, mostly around places like San Jose, before and during the tournaments.  Players, largely young white men (some clean cut, some with tattoos) interact like programmers in the crash houses in the early days of Facebook in Palo Alto.  Entire ice arenas are rented and set up with holograms to show the audiences the progress of the games (rather like “The Hunger Games” in appearance, maybe?)

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In fact, a good deal of the footage if this 93-minute film shows the insides of the fantasy world of these lacrosse-like battles, often in medieval-looking settings.

The whole idea of big gamer tournaments makes me think of chess championships (all over the world, but especially in big East Coast cities), and also of poker “world series” events in Las Vegas (which sounds like a good place to hold a gamer event).

One thing that’s interesting is that now, it seems that games – and an interesting in designing game characters with personalities – have been around for a long time, since the 80s.  Remember the film “Pixels” (Chris Columbus)?

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So, you don’t have to be Bryce Harper or Jake Arietta to be a star in a “sports” world. Geeks can do it too.  Remember that the hero of NBC’s “The Event”, Sean (played by Jason Ritter) is a gamer whose geek skills help him become a clean cut super-hero of the series – and Sean doesn’t even know that he is an extraterrestrial alien, destined to live a millennium himself. OK, maybe Mark Zuckerberg really is an alien himself.