Author Archives: Ravi Narasimhan

All roads lead to (Mental) home – ‘The Physicists’ at the Hollywood Fringe Festival

Courtesy last tape productions

 

“In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
— J. Robert Oppenheimer (1947)

Physics has been unreasonably effective over the centuries in periodically overturning life as people know it. Newton and Einstein loom large in this history along with Galileo. Less well-known but no less important are Carnot, Maxwell, and Planck. Their work, driven by curiosity,  led to inventions of their own and others devising of substantial practical importance and lasting consequence. Most of us are thankful on balance for the engines and electricity, satellites and semiconductors spawned by these discoveries while we fret about the disasters, bombs, and savagery equally enabled by them.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s darkly comic ‘The Physicists’ trenchantly looks for the lines separating the pure from the applied, the moral from the immoral, and, not finding them, shows they never existed in the first place. Knowledge always comes at a price. Three physicists are interned in a posh asylum. Beutner thinks he is Einstein, Ernesti claims to be Newton. Möbius, brightest of all three, thinks he is himself but his frightening discoveries are inspired by visions of King Solomon. The game is to find, in a series of one-on-ones, Möbius’s  secrets and extract them from him.

The production under Ye’ela Rosenfeld’s direction is unexpectedly well-mounted with a large cast, set, costumes, and plotted lights. Surprising because Fringe shows share their space with others and each has to set up before and break down after every performance. The setting may be a posh Swiss sanatorium but some actors mumble in American accents, others stomp in German ones, and the rest interpolate, favoring the comic over the tragic. A two-piece band accompanies entrances and exits with guitar, percussion, recorder, and kazoo but crucial sound cues of Kreisler and Kreutzer are barely audible. A few of the play’s punches land but the overall impact is wildly uneven.

‘The Physicists’ can’t help but be timely – its subject is timeless. As creatures of Prometheus and children of Daedalus the blessings  and the curses of discovery have confronted us for centuries. Dürrenmatt’s deftly voices different aspects of the scientific (and artistic?) process – reason for some, revelation for others – while never taking his jaundiced eye off of the results. What happens once a discovery has been made? Not the workaday findings of workaday minds but the once-in-a-generation revolutions that change the world at a stroke. Can the discoverer hoard the knowledge, direct it, or withhold it at will? History says no. Once started, a fire can’t be unburnt.  Möbius, horrified by his findings, institutionalizes himself, impoverishes his wife, abandons his children, and murders – all for naught.

Fortunately in this instance, Josh Mann as Möbius and Cecily Glouchevitch as Nurse Stettler stand out, especially at the crucial moment when he tosses plausible deniability aside and traps himself forever in the web of the institution’s authentically crazy director.  Jacque Lynn Colton is fine in a Strangelovian turn as Fräulein Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd. While the variability in style and pacing doesn’t affect the dark comedy it takes a toll on tension and menace, the latter appearing suddenly toward the end of both acts rather than building up in stages to them.

And yet the play is worth a visit as much for place as for time. Los Angeles County is home to three major research universities, a passel of defense contractors, two Federal R&D centers, and an Air Force base. These are dwarfed by the so-called creative industries. The pursuit of art or science for its own sake, however, is in full retreat with the artists and scientists increasingly pressured for practical, commercially viable results and the attendant profits.  A cursory search shows that ‘The Physicists’ is seldom performed here. The European sensibility, European popularity, overtly political themes, and theatrical possibilities are all in City Garage‘s wheelhouse yet that company has never staged Dürrenmatt.

So, we return to the intractable problem of reaping the benefits of scientific discovery without the remorse. The easy out is to claim that where there is no solution, there is no problem. This is a false simplicity. It is not possible to work in science without a great deal of optimism, it is the only way to survive the constant setbacks. Good scientists are generally their own harshest critics, examining and re-examining the assumptions underlying their theories, experiments, models, and conclusions. In that sense, periodically examining one’s assumptions about the impact of one’s work is equally part of good science.   It can be dangerous (it sank Oppenheimer) but it is nevertheless the right thing to do.  The production deserves  thanks for the reminder.

The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
directed by Ye’ela Rosenfeld
at the Sacred Fools Theatre (Mainstage) /Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017
1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA 90038
Final Performance: Friday June 23 2017, 7:00 PM
Visit http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4624 for tickets

Orchestre de Chambre Pelléas
Benjamin Levy, conductor
via the Green Room Creatives channel

Wayfarers rest

Wayfarers Chapel – Rancho Palos Verdes

First Movement from Mahler’s First Symphony. Reinhold Behringer and the Virtual Philharmonic Orchestra (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mr. Behringer’s has been doing MIDI adaptations of classical scores for nearly 25 years.  Visit About the Virtual Philharmonic for details. The MIDI world has come a long way from bloopity origins. The synthesized orchestral instrument samples are eerily impressive.

Art from compromise: pyCustoms inspects Python packages

Consider technical computing.  Matlab is expensive but simple: One function per .m file – send a function inputs, get outputs.  Python’s adherents claim that it can supplant Matlab for most scientific purposes.  Reality, as usual, is more nuanced.  Since Python supports objects, classes, namespaces, and a lot of other funky features, Python tools are chock full of them.  Pick a package – numpy, scipy, matplotlib, or any of the ‘batteries included’ standard library.  It is difficult to figure out how to pass inputs to something and get outputs, assuming that thing is a function and not an object with methods, a class, a module,  or something else.  Documentation is often lacking so there will be multiple visits to StackOverflow, Usenet and Google Groups, and mailing lists.

I wrote some experimental Python spaghetti code to take a Python package, figure out which of its modules connect to which other modules, and then to recursively list each module’s builtins, classes, functions, submodules, and a bunch of stuff falling into ‘none of the above.’  I also sent the results into graphviz to visualize the results and perhaps gain some insight.  It was one compromise after another, figuring out ‘good enough’ when ‘ideal’ wasn’t convenient or  possible.  The firework-like graphviz output was fun to look at although not practically useful due to the large amount of zooming and panning needed to see details – what you see is all you’ve got.  I may use the plain text output from the pyCustoms algorithm in the future to figure out the lay of the land before studying a package in any detail.

The pyCustoms code is on Github in a Jupyter Notebook.  Here are the graphviz outputs for numpy and matplotlib.  Each image links to a PDF.  Zooming and panning works better in a standalone PDF reader than in a typical browser PDF plugin.  Right-clicking should permit downloading the files.  I normally use the Skim PDF reader for Macs but was surprised to find that Acrobat DC did a better job for these graphics intensive files.

matplotlib

numpy

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
(Source: http://kalvos.org/creshess2.html)

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