Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In the style of John Cage

So I was going to do something else today, but instead I got this great idea for a novel:

In a post-apocalyptic one-way spaceflight, a wisecracking mercenary stumbles across an encrypted data-feed, which spurs him into conflict with his own insecurity vis-a-vis girls, with the help of a leather clad female in shades and her wacky pet, culminating in a philosophical argument punctuated by violence.  The title is: "The Chronobots."

I have had a couple story ideas before but I haven't really taken them anywhere yet.  Deep down, I feel that this one has real possibility.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Virtuosity, or, how I came to understand both jazz and tap dancing in a particularly productive and enjoyable evening

I barely managed to squeak into NYC in time to go see two dance companies perform in a double-bill* at the Joyce Theater last friday.  Very few people in my acquaintance actually believe in the existence of Luck as a fundamental substrate in the universe; perhaps I just have a way with transportation methods, that makes them nice to me.

The first company was choreographed by and bore the name of Jason Samuels Smith, a ferocious tap-dancer with a surprisingly small number of feet**.  This was the first professional tap concert I've ever seen live; my past encounters have been limited to student groups of varying caliber and enthusiasm (uncorrelated), and a handful of Hollywood musicals.

From seat #B3, two rows from the stage and all the way to the left, I was closer to the dancers feet than the dancers themselves - and those feet were performing activities I could barely follow.  The first piece, "A.C.G.I.: Anybody Can Get It" (2009) provided a smorgasbord of dynamism and staccato athleticism as the five** dancers slid from perfect and insanely complex rhythmic unison in and out of teetering solos, to the accompaniment of an on-stage 3-piece jazz band.

Choreographically, though, there's not much to it.  The tap dancers tapdance.  If they're in unison, they're in formation; if they're soloing, the other four are in a line behind them, keeping time.  Occasionally the formations pulsate, rotate, or invert.  In fact other than their feet, they seem to pretty much do whatever they want to do (or, occasionally, need to do to stay upright).  To one of my companions, this freeformness was downright irritating; their arms were flying all over the place, lacking both rhyme AND reason!  No modern dance choreographer (let alone Ballet) would leave the visual aspect of a dance looking so unfinished.  Alas for optimistic titles.

I think it was actually the next piece really helped me to G.I..  This was "Chasing the Bird" (2009, Excerpts) and ode to Jazz great Charlie Parker, in which three women each took on the role of an instrument in Charlie's songs and learned to play its part with her tap shoes - rhythm, pitch, inflection, as much as could possibly be translated into an entirely separate medium.  The first part introduced this idea by dancing through one complete song: riffs, solos, harmonies, musical conversations.  In the second, the music carried through about halfway and then, slowly, faded away.  And my sensation of listening to music transferred, smoothly, to the sensations of watching the Tap.  The whole skeleton of the music was still there, the bones of rhythm and tendons of conversation, and attached to it like a halo was the physical dynamism and personality of the dancers themselves.

Tap dance has the same relationship to other kinds of dance as jazz has with the rest of music: half its soul is in the pursuit of the mercurial, fractal, and baroque virtuosity that the other half of its soul, the pure personality of the performer, shines through.  The goal isn't to put on a character or transport the audience to another world.  The world of tap and jazz is right here, right now, and these amazing talented people can do incredible things before your eyes, pouring their being into a instantaneous and fleeting bit of magic.  That's really exciting!  If you know enough to understand what's going on.

I wouldn't say I really understand either form, and each separately washes over me like a foreign language.  But I do speak a little dance, and a little music - and the slow, steady reveal of their holographic connection in Jason Samuels Smith's work gave me a taste of that world.


"I would imagine that if you could understand Morse code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy."
-Mitch Hedberg

* The second company is Trey McIntyre Project, and they're also worth talking about: but they're kind of off-topic for this post.  Next time I'll do something that's more standard dance-criticism.
** He had two feet.  It sounded like a lot more to me.
*** ethnically- and gender-diverse

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Problems with Solar

Happy 2012, everybody!  I hope you're already planning your End-Of-The-Conversations-About-the-Mayan-Civilization party (I sure am) and making wild and exuberant statements about your actions in the New Year.  I, for one, pledge to think one unprecedented thought every day.  Today's thought: feet could maintain mirror symmetry both across the body and across the foot if the big toe were in the middle.  Shoe production could cost half as much!*

Having painted an optimistic portrait of the Solar Revolution, lets take off the rose-colored sunglasses for a closer examination of the difficulties with solar power.

And the beginning of a new year is a good time to do this!  For the sun has just turned around its decreasing presence of the fall, and is beginning to rise moments earlier and stay up seconds longer.  Last year, on the shortest day our sun was in the sky for only 9 hours, 4 minutes and 33 seconds** in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Of course, the Sun plans to make up for it in the summer, with the longest day in 2012 planned for 15 hours, 17 minutes and 6 seconds on June 20th.

This annual variability seasonally aggravates the primary difficulty with solar power: NIGHT.

Yes, unlike Kalgash the Earth has but a single star and a high (365:1) rotation to revolution ratio, implying that for about half the time we receive (almost) no light from our primary star.  From a solar power perspective, this is a real pain.  The electrical grid was designed around fossil fuels, and requires 24-hour-a-day electricity generation as a necessary component: whenever someone somewhere plugs in a toaster, an electric company has a power station online burning the midnight oil.  And while on average there's enough luminous energy from the sun to power everyone's ovens and iPhones, all of it is concentrated in just one-half of the day (and less in the winter).  Plus people tend to use the most energy in the mornings and evenings, not during the middle of the day.

The solution to the day/night quandary will necessitate as big a change to the grid as installing the solar panels themselves.  We'll need to store the energy when the sun's up, so we can use it when the sun is down.  The proponents of renewable energy know this, and everything from batteries with liquid-metal or nanotech to flywheels to giant capacitor banks are being researched.  While small-scale electricity storage has undergone a couple revolutions recently (any of you reading this on a phone may be aware), large-scale electricity storage is actually kind of difficult.  I'll come back to that point sometime and discuss it in a bit more detail.

What about the seasons, though?  Remember there's a six-hour swing in the length of the day during a Boston year, and that'll get bigger the further north you go.  And unfortunately, those shorter days are also when energy use goes up, as people break out the space heaters and take long hot showers.  Storing electricity from day into night is eminently doable, but it's unclear how electricity could be effectively stocked up in the summer months for use in the winter.  Maybe some chemical storage process would work best if such storage duration became necessary (like making hydrogen fuel from water using electrolysis).

Alternatively the more regularly-cooked southern states could become major electricity exporters in the wintertime.  There's plenty of space in (say) Texas to manage giant solar farms.

The other big problem of course is weather.  We also enjoy rotisserie chicken on rainy days; to say nothing of snowy ones!  Shoveling the driveway is enough of a pain without having to shovel the solar panels as well.  To this, I suppose there are two solutions.  Solution the first: build giant solar facilities in deserts.  The Mojave desert (as I stated before) could theoretically provide enough solar electricity to power the entire US, and they have the nice dry air that lets the sunlight through.

Solution the second is that solution to so many of life's problems: zeppelins.  Or space lasers.

It's unfair, really.  The sun is trying so hard to keep us warm and happy and able to use power tools, and the Earth just won't cooperate, all spinny and tilted and weatherish.  Well, the spinny part is probably a good thing.  And the weather, come to think about it.  Maybe we could do something about the tilt***.  In the meantime, it's just as important to work on electricity storage as on solar generation.

Happy New Year!


"Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations." - Alan Watts

* Don't worry, I won't subject you to the rest of these.
** December 22nd, the Winter Solstice.  See this rather impressive site to calculate the length of day in your city, for arbitrary dates going back and forward 20 years!
*** incidentally, this too is most likely a really bad idea.