Two near-misses: Sci-Filosophy at Sacred Fools and ICT

Courtesy: Sacred Fools Theatre Courtesy: International City Theatre

“Sirens of Titan” and “Uncanny Valley” at the triple point of science, philosophy, and fiction are currently on stage at The Sacred Fools and International City Theatre, respectively. “Sirens,” adapted from Vonnegut’s 1959 novel, is sci-fi a la Bradbury: Mars-centric on the outside, fully optional physics, and Earth-facing at its core. Wealthy Winston Rumfoord and his large dog travel space for the hell of it and get caught in a dimensional swirly that puts them everywhere at once and localized on Earth  on occasion. Rumfoord’s role is to make the lives of his wife Beatrice, sybarite Malachi Constant, and thousands of other dispensable earthlings a living hell. He press-gangs this lot into forced military servitude on Mars and dispatches most of them back to Earth to be annihilated in an intentionally futile war. A united and victorious Earth then congeals around a faith where God is entirely apathetic and humankind does what it can with itself. Beatrice, Malachi, and their son Chrono are interplanetary Jobs suffering torments at Rumfoord’s hands through a fixed and unalterable timeline, ending up on the largest moon of Saturn. Vonnegut has issues with free will and everyone is more-or-less along for a nasty ride in an uncaring Universe where Earth exists as a spare-parts depot for an Extremely Advanced Civilization from Far Far Away™.

Meanwhile, “Uncanny Valley,” a much more recent effort by Thomas Gibbons, looks at a mid-21st century  where the very sick and staggeringly wealthy can offload their memories and essence into a robot body. It’s immortality of the kind that throws wrenches into the family machinery, especially when children are seeking their share of a giant inheritance. Asimov’s “I Robot” explored synthetic evolution through Susan Calvin, crusty robopsychologist to fifty years of U.S. Robots products. Her counterpart here is far less crusty but a psychologist all the same – Clare Hillis’s job is to oversee the commissioning of Julian, a ‘non-biological human,’  whose emergent personality will soon be subsumed by the tycoon who funded his creation to the tune of $240 million dollars.

“Sirens of Titan” the novel is relatively easy-to-read and occasionally engaging thanks to Vonnegut’s dry, cynical prose and gimlet eye on religion.  The threads are hard to braid without periodic revisits to past chapters – who did what to whom and when?  We can safely abandon ‘why’ because it is never satisfactorily addressed.  A theatrical adaptation can’t offer flashbacks on demand and it is difficult to follow let alone decode the underlying philosophical argument – if it exists – linking the vignettes.  “Sirens” may have influenced Douglas Adams with prescient references to infinite improbabilities and hyperintelligent pandimensional beings running a planet-sized simulation for their own ends.  The excellent stagecraft and mostly solid performances, staples of The Sacred Fools and carrying well into their new space, can’t fully frame the meandering story which caps off with a One Tin Soldier ending.

Vonnegut unfortunately can’t compete with a future he helped to create,  Gibbons has to compete with  exceptionally fine prior art in android sentience.   The first act of “Uncanny Valley” is  low-conflict set up.  Clare and Julian flip  Pygmalion  as she teaches him the fine points of being a convincing gentleman while realizing that true societal acceptance may never come.  Act two has  Julian, imprinted with the past and the DNA of a now-dead man, visiting Clare on the eve of her retirement.  He dredges Clare’s own painfully buried  memories of an estranged daughter as his son asserts  legal claims to his fortune and  questions his continued existence.  This all fizzes up towards the last quarter of the play and comes off as a contrived end to justify the beginning and the middle.  Julian is now blessed with eternal life and eternal youth.  Tithonus and the Struldbrugs would be jealous.  There’s a fascinating question of whether he should merely continue as before or  renounce the past, strike out in new directions, fully embracing his rebirth.  Unfortunately, it comes too late  to explore.  Asimov and Dick, among others, have taken this general idea a lot farther.  The second season of then fledgling Star Trek: The Next Generation  had a dying genius impose his consciousness onto  the android LCdr.  Data (“Schizoid Man”).  Three episodes later, Data had his status and rights as a sentient being legally challenged by an ambitious Starfleet officer with ulterior motives (“The Measure of a Man”).  ICT’s stagecraft and cast are also reliably attractive although we are asked to believe that people in 2042 dress, talk, and use smartphone technology as they do today.  In the end, Gibbons has dug himself a hole with his premise and can’t quite climb out of it.

But, one man’s miss can be another’s bulls-eye.  Vonnegut devotees will undoubtedly appreciate a no-holds-barred attempt to stage a foundational story.  Similarly those not fully co-opted by Star Trek and other science fiction staples may be able to engage with Gibbons on the offered terms.

Sirens of Titan
adapted by Stuart Gordon from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
directed by Ben Rock

March 31 – May 6, 2017 at The Sacred Fools Theatre
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
plus Sundays, April 23 & 30 @ 7pm
Purchase tickets online

Uncanny Valley
by Thomas Gibbons
Directed by caryn desai

April 19 – May 7, 2017 at International City Theatre, Long Beach
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Purchase tickets online
or call the Box Office at 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am to 5pm)


Pianoses then and now

“At an evening party, Mozart bet a case of champagne that Haydn could not play at sight a piece he had composed that afternoon. Haydn accepted the bet and proceeded to play it on harpsichord only to stop short after first few bars. It was impossible to continue because the composition required him to simultaneously strike notes at two ends of the keyboard and a note in the very center. Haydn exclaimed, ‘Nobody can play this with only two hands.’

‘I can,’ Mozart said, and took his place at the keyboard. When he reached that problematic portion of his piece, Mozart bent forward and struck the central note with his nose.

Haydn conceded saying: ‘With a nose like yours, it becomes easier.'”

–E. Van de Velde, Anecdotes Musicales; N. Slonimsky, Slonimsky’s Book

David Rakowski‘s ‘Schnozzage’ brings this bit of technique into the modern era. Amy Briggs performs.

Elbphilhamonie opens

Congratulations and Big Ups to the City of Hamburg.  Ten years after groundbreaking, the striking Elbphilharmonie opens for concerts in a hall designed by Yasuhisa Toyota and appropriate fanfare.

It’s an impressive construction project.  Partial reality and full animations below.

About halfway: Youtube channel MKTimelapse

The grand conception: Youtube channel Elbphilharmonie Hamburg

A different time you understand: Woodward on B12

Chemist Robert Burns Woodward – Courtesy Harvard Archives

Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979) is as well known to chemists as his namesakes are to poets and journalists. His contributions to the synthesis of organic compounds cannot be overstated and a staggering number of now-famous professors passed through his labs at Harvard.

Chemistry was and is a huge field but the part that most people see is beakers, retorts, and churning solutions cooking up complex molecules. This is where Woodward became a legend at an early age. His unshared 1965 Nobel Prize was for “for his outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis” and not for any specific synthetic accomplishment. Interestingly, he felt that he deserved a share of the 1973 Nobel to Fischer and Wilkinson and would certainly have shared in the 1981 prize to Fukui and Hoffman, had he lived long enough.

My education was in physical chemistry, far removed from organic synthesis. I scarcely recall seeing any of faculty members from that area when I was in graduate school – the field is that fragmented. Unlike many others of my stripe, I enjoyed my undergraduate organic chemistry classes although I struggled in them. Legions of students have been told that the subject is to be endured, not enjoyed, and requires only memorization. This is utter claptrap. If taught well, and Berkeley did (at least back then), it is like learning a language; alphabet to words to grammar, sentences, literature, and interpretation. Those with an artistic bent also find a lot of fun in the complex three-dimensional structures that are represented out of necessity in two-dimensional drawings. You can’t speak this or any other language by memorizing a dictionary. Organic’s problem is that the material has to be presented and assimilated in such a short time.

Woodward’s generation of chemists didn’t have the modern arsenal of apparatus to determine the composition and structure of what they had made. In fact, they helped develop – or at least drive the need to develop – x-ray crystallography, magnetic resonance, optical and mass spectroscopy, and a variety of other methods closer to physics and physical chemistry. Deduction and inference played a starring role. E.J. Corey, only a few years younger than Woodward, later developed retrosynthetic analysis into a fine art leading to his own unshared Nobel in 1990. Corey looks at complex molecules as assemblies of successively smaller molecular fragments. Some of these might exist as stable compounds, others as hypothetical fragments that could be prepared with the right hooks for further use. Any molecule may be disconnected in several ways and the chemist has to use physical laws, experience, and intuition to decide which approach makes the most sense. Repeat recursively and it is usually possible to get to a relatively simple path from a desired product to commonly available starting materials – a common examination question and a standard tool in the modern chemist’s repertoire.

Some thirty two years after my undergraduate degree, I find myself using the retrosynthetic approach far from its original use. I try to look at problems as a nested collection of subproblems, going down the tree until they become relatively tractable. At the end of this, I have a plan that has traded off time, cost, and risk ending up with a list of materials, procedures, checks and crosschecks, time and personnel estimates, and a good idea of which step or steps pace the effort. In engineering, these map to schedules, risk analyses, bills of materials, assembly, test, and reporting plans, quality control, critical path analyses, and cost although in no particular order. People who do this are called System Engineers in my industry and many companies have claimed to have invented the concept.

Looking backward is how organic chemistry students are encouraged to approach problems if they want to succeed in their courses. The temptation is of course to apply it everywhere and that’s not quite so appropriate. It works if there’s a clear idea of what needs to be done. What sets Woodward, Corey, and their equivalents in other fields is knowing what to go after and what to set aside. That can be done many ways but it helps to be brilliant. If the computers can be taught to do that as they have been taught to do systematic decomposition, it’s over for us. A second temptation is to over-romanticize. These accomplishments in synthesis are usually the result of large research groups implementing a plan and doing the long, often tedious bench work which, when complete, is associated with the group leader’s name. This is where chemistry and high-energy physics intersect. This method of chemical training is imperfect and is periodically questioned when things go horribly wrong at the human level. The scientific and artistic merits of the work have to be assessed in that light.

There are not many films or recordings of Woodward and his equally legendary multi-hour lectures. He transcended his field and his institution, given leeway to do what he liked how he liked it. Dylan Stiles has unearthed a gem from the Harvard archives – a rare departmental seminar from 1972 where Woodward presents the 15-year collaborative effort between his group and Albert Eschenmoser’s lab resulting in the total synthesis of the large, unwieldy, and beautiful Vitamin B12. The introduction by Prof. David Dolphin is itself thirty minutes long with insights into the departmental culture of that time. The main event is a brutally clear and patrician exposition while the speaker chainsmokes in-between sips of his daiquiri. The grainy black-and-white visuals are charming but somewhat hard to read. Nathan Werner’s slides from a 2010 seminar are a very useful supplement.

Via the Youtube Channel of Dylan Stiles:


Monolith Monograph: The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey

A young filmmaker dives deeply in five parts into the technical and artistic innards of his (and one of my) favorite movies. One wishes that he spoke a little slower and left some breathing room in his edits but it is an earnest, meticulous, and illuminating effort. The engineering alone that went into 2001 is awe-inspiring. Did Kubrick sleep during the two years it took to make?

Via Channel CinemaTyler