Category Archives: Technology

A Shaft of Gold When All Around is Dark: JWST is operational

One last glorious gasp from a decayed and dead civilization.  JWST’s Mid Infrared Instrument observes Stephan’s Quintet.   What else will it be allowed to do before the American Taliban takeover?

JWST’s MIRI looks at Stephan’s Quintet. Courtesy NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute

Engineered Myths: ‘Metamorphoses’ at A Noise Within

Clockwise from center: Erika Soto, Trisha Miller, Rafael Goldstein, Cassandra Marie Murphy.
Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy A Noise Within Theatre and Lucy Pollak Public Relations

ANW’s tribute to myth, art, and engineering is both visually dazzling and a chutzponic choice for this temporary breather from the pandemic.  Water is everywhere – onstage and on the audience – as a gifted cast seamlessly weaves eight stories  and a coda from Ovid  to impressive stagecraft.  The play is sufficiently well-known that there’s no point in recapping the fables-for-grownups  by Mary Zimmerman,  a brand unto herself.   Locally, Stephen Legawiec’s long-departed and much lamented Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble did exceptional service to myth.  The Sacred Fools and Coeurage also deliver technical miracles on a budget.  Zimmerman ups the ante requiring an onstage pool central to her theme.  ANW has built the resources over the years to afford the rights, the engineering, and the resident ensemble to pull it all off.  The costs must be astronomical especially for a barely four week run, an oddly appropriate leap-of-faith in art over economics.

Nicole Javier (top) and Rafael Goldstein (bottom).
Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy A Noise Within Theatre and Lucy Pollak Public Relations

On top of the usual artistic concerns and choices, director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has to see to the safety of her performers who are feet, knees, and backs in the water as much as they are out of it.  This is no mean feat given costumes (Garry Lennon), props (Shen Heckel),  walking continuously on a wet stage, and a disease spread by droplets.   The company has hewn to its resident artist model (six of the nine performers) although it seems to have gone away from its roots in repertory.  It is interesting to note the changing of the guard having followed the company closely in the 90s to mid 2000s and sporadically thereafter.  Geoff Elliott remains a constant of the motion with Rafael Goldstein and Erika Soto now regular members along with unfamiliar faces with extensive company and classical credits.  That Shakesperean training pays off handsomely with uniformly rich, resonant, and nuanced voices inhabiting instead of reciting the text.  It’s a heady mix of comedy, drama, pathos, and bathos.  Trisha Miller is excellent as Alcyone,  Sydney A. Mason as a nasty Aphrodite, and DeJuan Christopher as Ceyx.  Elliott is all the fathers; Pythonesque as Helios negotiating with Phaeton (Kasey Mahaffy) as well as  Midas and Cinyras navigating daughter problems.  The physical demands are great as the cast have to carry one another in and out of the water throughout the piece where one slip could end many careers.  The level of trust engendered by long and close collaboration must be off the charts and hard to conceive with a team assembled for one production.

But, oh, that engineering – Francois-Pierre Couture (design), Ken Booth (lighting), and Robert Oriol (sound) – deserves a loud, two-syllable, “Damn!”  Even if we take the pool  for granted, electricity, water, and people don’t mix.  This constrains the high powered lights to surround the stage and there again from safe a distance – yet nothing essential is in shadow.   Glowing orbs are undoubtedly enabled by LEDs.  Their collective play off the water and onto the walls are a splendid touch – carrying the audience along waves of action floating on Oriol’s effective yet unobtrusive soundscape.  And we should not take any of this for granted.  Going from page to stage is a tough artistic job but no easier than taking a technical concept through design, build, test, and delivery.  ANW’s timelapse shows the large uncredited crew that made it happen and glimpses the kind of backstage preparation area accessible to very few of the city’s theatremakers.  Yes, there are a couple of songs but … what are you going to do?  Barring extension, only five performances remain so act accordingly.

Note bene: While there are no bad seats at ANW, the raised stage does obscure the water’s surface from the front rows.  There is a benefit (and certainly no harm) in going to the middle or even the back of the house.  Those up front will get splashed.

Youtube Channel: A Noise Within

Metamorphoses
Based on the Myths of Ovid
Written and originally directed by Mary Zimmerman

Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
for A Noise Within Theatre Company
3352 E Foothill Blvd. 
Pasadena, CA 91107

Thursdays through Sundays, closing 5 June 2022
Two performances Saturdays
Running time: Ninety minutes without intermission
Performance times vary, see the theatre’s website for details

Proof of vaccination/booster required, Masks must be worn inside the theatre

Tickets through the ANW Online Box Office
or
626.356.3100

He who keeps cool will collect (photons): Christian Ready on the JWST instrument package

Sports Illustrated quoted this Japanese proverb back in 1975 in conjunction with Cal’s championship men’s gymnastic team of that era.  The adage abides with the James Webb Space Telescope now in its halo orbit around the Sun-Earth L2 point, its optics and instruments slowly cooling to their ultimate cryogenic temperatures, the better to collect the faint signs of heat from the early universe.  Little has been said to the public about the instruments nestled in the big box behind the 6.5-m primary mirror.  This is perhaps not surprising.  There are no secrets here, just that the real science goals and the optical engineering to meet them are fiendishly complex.  Friendly Neighborhood Astronomer Christian Ready tackles the challenge, explaining where the precious photons will go and what will happen to them once they arrive.  The comment section clamors for more detail on the MIRI cryocooler which will take the mid-Infrared Instrument’s focal plane array below 7K.  Here’s to hoping for a full video on this beast, built across the hall from me, and on which I spent a couple of weeks when the team was shorthanded.

Youtube Channel: Launchpad Astronomy

 

Bird Up: JWST completes major deployments

As the man said after the Eagle landed: “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

The James Webb Space Telescope, largely designed, built, and tested at Space Park in Redondo Beach, has launched, raised itself from the spacecraft, deployed its 5 layer sunshield, and put its primary and secondary mirrors into place.  It will take another few months for the telescope to cool in the shade and then to commission the instruments before science measurements can begin.

It has been a long and contentious wait but the magnitude of this accomplishment is worth celebrating.

Youtube Channel: Northrop Grumman

Piece of the Action: The crazy engineering of the piano key

Playing the piano is damnably hard. I have accepted that I will never practice consistently or wisely enough to reach my original wildly unrealistic goals of competence and am contenting myself with slow progress and occasional discoveries.   Coaxing a good sound requires talent, coordination, flexibility, and freedom of movement.  There’s nothing that can be done about the first item but occasionally something in the joints unsticks enabling a small improvement in the rest.   I feel kinship with weekend athletes who get that occasional moment of grace amid hours of futility.

One of the many frustrations is pressing a key in the same place with the same pressure five times in a row and hearing no sound two of those times.  The hammer misses the strings by a fraction of a millimeter and flops back with a click and a dull thud.  This makes any kind of phrasing next to impossible for the duffer.  He either settles for good enough or goes nuts trying to adapt as the instrument itself changes with the time of day and the weather.  It never bothers the professionals who figure it out on the fly.

The piano action itself is a bizarre marvel of wood, felt, physics, and prayer.  It is surprising that it works at all and there are eighty eight of the bloody things that have to work consistently.  It is a lot to ask, perhaps too much.  Robert Grijalva of the University of Michigan explains it in painstaking detail  using a model of his own invention.  For those with less time, a Dutch animator posting as Hoe Ishetmoegelijk (hoe is het moegelijk = how is it possible) has a concise summary.

Youtube Channel: Robert Grijalva

Youtube Channel: Hoe Ishetmoegelijk

Machineries of Gioia: A Poet Laureate on Ray Bradbury

Look at The Martian Chronicles. At the height of American optimism, Bradbury wrote a bittersweet novel about the failures of science, technology, and progress. Humanity makes it to Mars, but the triumph is illusory. Mars becomes a landscape of ghost towns. The novel was an extraordinarily fertile moment in American imagination. He suggested the notion of unlimited positive progress was an illusion. His wasn’t the dystopian vision of Orwell or Zamyatin but something gentler and more elegiac. H. G. Wells could write about the end of civilization from a global perspective. Bradbury made the vision personal and lyric.
Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury

I’ve read a lot of Bradbury recently, that is to the extent that I can focus long enough to read much of anything. The Illustrated Man was better than the The Illustrated Woman contained in the uniformly depressing Machineries of Joy which I am struggling to finish. There can be no question though that The Martian Chronicles deserves the accolades and adaptations.

I struggle with Bradbury’s categorization as a science fiction writer. Chronicles aside, he is a breed apart from Asimov and Clarke who briskly get down to business peddling a bright future for one and all enabled by the latest in vacuum tubes and servomotors. Bradbury doesn’t fit that mold and through his thick glasses he saw a grimy  future broken by the ones who people it. He is lyrical, almost to excess in fact, and it takes a special frame of mind to deal with his unusual rhythms and devices. His observations on technology are profoundly gloomy.   Not for him the boundless optimism and things coming out well in the wash. Long before Sputnik, Gagarin, or their American counterparts, he saw that a future world, a spacefaring one, would eventually have to send the worst of the species after the best had paved the way. The Chronicles are full of careerists, louts, and brutes going not to explore but to exploit.

In recognition of the Bradbury centennial,  Hawthorne expat and recent state Poet Laureate Dana Gioia speaks to Bradbury’s wide and ongoing cultural impact in dialogue with his biographer. The discussion does locate Bradbury firmly as a Los Angeles writer, a thing that still surprises many as that which does not, can not, or at least ought not to exist in the heart of the entertainment industry.  Gioia acknowledges that “major mainstream journals published [Bradbury’s] fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV.” He leaves out the stage apart from a brief mention in another list and more’s the pity. The lyricism, the elegiac odes to humanity’s perpetual folly  is what allowed the Pandemonium Theatre Company to bring so many of those stories to life with humans speaking to humans and not through effects in post-production.   Pandemonium was another Bradbury creation nurtured by others until its demise in the early 2000s. The Falcon hosted an uneven Fahrenheit 451 in 2002 with other, more successful productions at Theatre West and the lovely yet now defunct Court Theatre. He often appeared in the audience and, when asked, would say a few words before curtain to an appreciative audience sufficiently steeped in LA etiquette to applaud yet keep a respectful distance.

It is trivial to hang present day realities on deceased authors but there is no doubt that it is the pessimistic futures Bradbury foresaw decades ago that have played out and not those of his compatriots. We don’t have energy too cheap to meter, we aren’t in control of our robots, and ubiquitous telecommunications has served to narrow, divide, and power the slide into darkness.  We are the same desperate creatures that came out of the caves only with flashier and deadlier toys.

Here are two sobering stories adapted in 1950 for the Dimension X radio series.

Youtube Channel: Old Time Radio Researchers

 

Backyard history: Southern California’s impact on astronomy

Silicon Valley has reshaped the earth, Hollywood has driven our perceptions of it, and not always for the better.  Less well known is the outsized role California has played in understanding our universe.   Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar, and their astronomers have had a Copernican impact on where we stand in the grand scheme of things.  The word ‘vision’ gets bandied about a lot these days but George Ellery Hale had it in spades.  Here’s how the two observatories that housed Hubble, Humason, ShapleyZwicky, Baade, Rubin, and Schmidt came to be.

The third video from Corning’s Museum of Glass shows that the path to science is not always smooth and that learning from mistakes is the norm.  The original 200 inch pyrex disk for the Palomar primary did not go according to plan and had to be recast.  The second attempt succeeded and even so, it took ten years of painstaking grinding and polishing at Caltech before it was ready for use.

Youtube Channel: Palomar Observatory

Youtube Channel: Irish Astronomy

Youtube Channel: Corning Museum of Glass

 

Fella of the Royal Society: Q&A with Keith Moore

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library
— J.L. Borges

No, I haven’t read any Borges but this is one of those quotes that is very popular with my ilk.  But, libraries are indeed wonderful things and I remember hanging out a lot – and later volunteering – at the old Albany (California) Public Library on Solano Avenue in the late 1970s.  Don’t look for it there now, it is a youth center affiliated with the YMCA.  I spent as much time at the Doe and Bancroft as any science major at Cal could.  The specialty books and journals were in Hildebrand Hall but the atmosphere in the general purpose stacks was unbeatable.  The Internet has obliterated what little attention span I once had so sitting down and reading a physical book is next to impossible and yet the lure, the promise, and the perfume of endless shelves of books is still strong.

“Objectivity” is one of Brady Haran‘s strongest and most addicting channels.  Most of the episodes are filmed at the Royal Society‘s Library in London and feature Keith Moore, the hypnotic and wildly popular head librarian who pulls from a bottomless collection of manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, and  instruments from Newton to the present.  The Brits were pieces of work for several hundred years but there can be no denying that they made a few positive contributions to somewhat offset their spherical bastardy.

Visiting the Society’s collections may just be sufficient to deal with the rigors of travel in whatever a post-COVID landscape may look like as well as London’s notoriously high prices.

Enjoy the long-requested Q&A with The Man which includes a very candid answer to a probing viewer question.  Be sure to check out the rest of the channel – some selections below.

Youtube Channel: Objectivity

Spectral response: The science and emotion of color

The web’s archive of older industrial films is a recurring delight.  Jam Handy, Coronet, and other firms crafted these with an attention to detail, calm explanation, and rigorous science that is harder(*) to find today when most equivalents are about sales rather than fundamentals.  Jeff Quitney has uploaded a wonderful 1954 cleaned-up film to his Vimeo page on color theory and practice by the Interchemical Corporation.  It begins with the importance of color to society – especially in packaging goods and people – and then gives a marvelous account of the optics involved.   I’ve worked in the field for years but I learned to see things (pun intended) differently thanks to it.

The second film from 2016 looks at color in packaging through its emotional impact and its influence on design and designers.  ‘Color In Sight’  resembles like Hustwit’s ‘Helvetica.’  A number of prominent designers talk about how they use and think about color in order to evoke a response, surface a memory, or reveal a part of the spectrum to the color-blind.   I have no idea what I’d say to a nail-polish maker but Suzi Weiss-Fischmann (8m18s in) comes off  as a fun seatmate on a long plane trip.  I had a similar feeling about  Helvetica’s Paula Scher.   Interestingly, it is produced by TeaLeaves, a Canadian company specializing in very high-end teas for hotels.  Judging by their Youtube page, they must spend a fortune on short films – many of which have little outward bearing on their products.  I’ve never understood the appeal of tea but the videos are well worth a look.

(*) But not impossible by any means.

Vimeo Channel: Jeff Quitney

 

Youtube Channel: TeaLeaves

 

Proposing a Toaster: Technology Connections on a Sunbeam classic

I’ve owned and/or used many toasters and toaster ovens.  All have been crap.  It doesn’t matter how much it costs, it all comes from some noname as cheap as possible factory, doesn’t work as advertised, and falls apart quickly after making marginal at best toast.   Paying for quality is no longer an option. Alec from Technology Connections profiles a 1948 Sunbeam classic that still works due to a brilliant, timeless design.   His channel and Techmoan both delve deeply into our electromechanical past finding, explaining, and often resurrecting devices we’ve forgotten.

Youtube Channel: Technology Connections

He even offers a video on his second channel that shows how to fix and update one of these from the second-hand market.  Tempting, tempting.

Youtube Channel: Technology Connections 2