It’s been a while and I’ve been accumulating links. You’ll have to forgive me if I ramble on a bit.
Archive for the ‘‘Culture’’ Category
I said below that Shakespeare had a fascination with fallen characters and villains. Henry V is an exception. He is presented a full-throated heroic figure — a military genius, a just and wise ruler, a man with a touch for the common folk. Of course, this comes after his redemption over the course of Henry IV. But Henry is the rare memorable Shakespeare character is pure hero.
I’ve said before that I don’t think Shakespeare is as subtle as some people like to pretend he is. There’s a school of thought that claims that Henry V is actually an anti-war play, especially given some of the vivid descriptions Henry gives of the horrors of war. I don’t think this is the case. Shakespeare can acknowledge the horrors of war while still making it out to be glorious. There’s a common refrain out there that war-mongers are necessarily “chicken-hawks” who do not understand the horror they contemplate. I find that attitude amusing. Some of the most aggressive warlike leaders in history were themselves veterans. They knew how awful war was. It either didn’t bother them or it pleased them.
There are a few interesting issues with some of the scenes in the play. Branagh’s film version played the comedy bit straight, which was an interesting choice. I like them better as comedy myself to balanced out Henry’s seriousness. But the final scene — in which Henry “woos” Katherine — is a bit problematic. It is played straight in Branagh’s film but I read that many consider it comical or satirical. I must admit I lean a little bit toward the latter as the scene doesn’t really work as romance for me.
Next Up: Henry VI Part 1. Probably be a while before I get to it.
It’s amazing how fast I can go through these things when I’m on vacation.
I would have to say that 2 Henry IV is a bit of a letdown after Part 1. Oh, it’s still very good. But it suffers a bit from “middle chapter syndrome” between the outstanding Part 1 and the epic Henry V. Some plot threads from Part 1 are wrapped up too quickly and not much groundwork is laid for the next installment.
Part 1 struck an excellent balance with the low comedy of the Falstaff scenes and the high drama of the politics. It featured an fantastic counterpart to Prince Harry in Hotspur and built to an exciting battle. Part 2 doesn’t quite balance as well, with the low comedy being a bit much and the high drama not working as well. Northumberland’s waffling and selling out of allies is dropped too early. York is never made into a great villain. The conflict is resolved hastily (and, to my mind, dishonorably). It only reaches a real high point when Henry IV is dying and immediately thereafter, as Harry assumed the mantle of leadership.
Falstaff is wonderful, although I feel he played better off Prince Hal, who was his equal in verbal gymnastics, than he does off Lively or Doll. Henry’s rejection of him is heart-breaking, although not milked the way it should be (and indeed many, including Branagh, add this missing touch in their productions of Henry V).
In any case, I’m loving the histories. Maybe it’s because Shakespeare was bound by actual events, which makes the plot more linear and less dependent on twists. Maybe it’s because it combines the best elements of comedy and tragedy instead of being hamstrung by the conventions of either. Maybe it’s just because I love history. Whatever, the case, don’t expect a long wait before my next update.
Next Up: Henry V, of course. One of my favorites.
So that’s what everyone was on about.
One of the reasons I started this project was the realization that my only encounter with Falstaff was his brief (but poignant) cameo in Branagh’s Henry V. And until two days ago, my only real experience was from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff is fun in Wives, but nothing like what he is in this one. Whenever the action moved to Hotspur or Henry IV, I found myself wondering when they were going to get back to Falstaff. As noted by many, his recounting of the attack by the robbers, the way he turns the conversation when Hal reveals his own involvement, his verbal outfoxing of Quickly … all of it is pure joy. And the counterpoint of his relatively harmless shenanigans to the devastating wars of the honorable characters is unmissable.
Would this play be as good without Falstaff? Yeah, I guess. Prince Harry and Prince Hostpsur are good characters and I’m fascinated by the history. I suspect without Falstaff, we would get more of the sub rosa politics of Richard II. But it’s clearly Falstaff and Harry who elevate this play to great.
Next up: Well, I guess it’s Henry IV, Part 2. My goal is to complete the Henry tetralogy by the time I head back to the states.
LIke many authors, Shakespeare seems much more fascinated with fallen characters and villains than with heroes. Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Prospero, Prince Hal before he becomes Henry V, etc. Just as his comedy centers around common people, his tragedy and drama center around those who have fallen from grace in some way, whether it is Hal’s antics or Iago’s treachery or Prospero’s vengeance.
Richard II, as a character, is one of the better examples of this. When the play starts out, he is king and not terribly interesting. But as he loses power (and possibly his mind) his character becomes stronger and stronger, getting some of the bet speeches in the play. His melancholy dialogues in Act III are a highlight and he dominates Act IV, talking rings around everyone else.
The thing I liked most about Richard II was that so much was sub rosa. The past conspiracy to kill Duke of Gloucester, Henry’s gradual rebellion even as he proclaims his loyalty, his evident relief at Richard’s death — these all are belied by the words that come out of the character’s mouths. Very rarely in Richard II does anyone say what they really mean; they always dance around it. And it is a demonstration of Shakespeare’s skill that I, five centuries later and having to read about the War of the Roses on Wikipedia, can grasp this, even incompletely.
Next Up: Henry IV, Part I
Shortly after I graduated from college, I was on a kick to try to get healthy and lose weight. It still hasn’t worked, 19 years la- … holy crap, 19 years?! … let me see … 1994 .. good God, I’m old … anyway, it still hasn’t worked 19 year later.
At one point, I tried Herbalife. This was not something I came to of my own accord. A friend’s husband was into it on the lowest tier of their multi-level marketing. I was too young and stupid to know just how idiotic herbal supplements were, so I figured “what the hell” and jumped.
It was a big mistake. The compound contained ephedra and it caused my first incident of Premature Ventricular Contractions — a common harmless arrhythmia that nevertheless is scary as hell. Some time later I tried a prescription weight loss pill that also caused PVC’s. They went away after I stopped, mostly. I still get them occasionally, most notably right after my wedding and when I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I had a full cardio workup six years ago and everything looks fine. But I still wonder if the ephedra did any permanent damage.
The thing is that I’m not normally into that sort of thing. But it was sold to me because I wasn’t terribly familiar with high-pressure marketing techniques and certainly didn’t expect them from a friend’s husband. I’ve since … well not wised up, exactly. I’ve gotten confident enough to tell people to fuck off. In fact, high pressure sales pitches are the surest way to drive me away. When we bought our first home, I literally walked out on people who tried to get me to buy right then with “if you buy right now” incentives. The home we bought was sold in a low-pressure way. We felt — correctly as it happened — that this reflected the salesman’s confidence in his product.
I’m rambling. Let me get to the point. Part of the sales pitch I got for Herbalife went like this:
Mike, I’m telling you, I’ve investigated all kinds of supplements. I’ve looked into everything. And I’ve researched this product really thoroughly. I wouldn’t take anything I didn’t know everything about. So trust me: this is the real deal.
Standard stuff, right? But hidden within that is something I’ve come to recognize as the mark of a shyster. If someone spends an inordinate amount of time telling you, in a vague sense, how much experience they have and how much expertise they have and how they’ve really researched this and they’ve looked at everything out there, they are, to be blunt, full of shit.
This instinct has served me well. When Neal Boortz began flogging the Fair Tax, he talked about how much research had been done and how he’d looked at every plan out there (really? every plan?). That pinged my radar and I did some research and found out that the Fair Tax had giant gaping problems (documented here). When a contractor came by and gave me a pitch about how he’d tried everything and he was the best expert, I went with someone else.
And you see this constantly in the alternative medicine crowd. Sellers and promoters will constantly tell you how extensively they’ve surveyed things, how much research they’ve done, how much experience they have and, inevitably, it turns out not to be the case.
So, in my roundabout way, here is Mike’s Rule of Expertise: Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data.
Let cite some good examples from my blogroll: Radley Balko doesn’t talk about what an expert he is on criminal justice matters; he tells you specifically what he’s learned, seen and read. The Bad Astronomer doesn’t talk about how much experience he has in astrophysics; he points you at research and researchers who’ve done the work. Maggie McNeill doesn’t pontificate about her extensive background in the sex industry; she links every study and opinion piece she can find. Joe Posnanski doesn’t talk about how many athletes he’s interviewed or how much Bill James likes him; he crunches the numbers, gets the quotes and presents the facts.
I’ve been to hundreds of science talks. Not one has centered around the speaker’s credentials and how they’ve explored every alternate theory. They present hypothesis, data and conclusion. The best ones acknowledge their limitations and possible alternate theories. The kind of dead certainty you will encounter in, say, a homeopathy practitioner, is minimal in any good scientist and absent in the best ones.
This is how real experts do it. Experts want you to trust the facts; con men want you to trust them.
(In a related note, I, like most astronomers, rarely affix “Ph.D.” to the end of my name unless I’m applying for a grant where the credential is required. I also only refer to myself as “Dr. Siegel” when yelling at the cable company. And the only time I’m called that at work is either as part of a running gag or when being addressed formally (grant correspondence, for example; and I usually encourage them to call me Mike). This is partially because astronomers are an informal bunch. It is also related to my time at UVa, where everyone except Ed School professors and medical doctors takes the moniker of “Mr.” and “Ms.” as a sign of respect to Mr. Jefferson.
But I also I think this flows from the same skepticism of over-credentialing. A real scientist wants you to trust the data, not them. The only academics I know who use the Ph.D. suffix or the Doctor prefix are either a) pretentious; b) medical doctors, where I think it’s appropriate, and c) women or minorities in disciplines where they have trouble being taken seriously and it’s hard to begrudge them. And anyone who refers to themselves as “Dr. Smith, Ph.D.” is almost certainly full of it.)
What brought this to my frontal lobe was a re-eruption (a few months ago now) of controversy over Sex at Dawn. I find the premise of Sex at Dawn — that humans are naturally polyamorous — interesting if flawed. But what has long bothered me is the certainty with which this supposedly scientific premise is discussed. Every time I hear Christopher Ryan speak, I feel like he’s about to sell me herbal supplements. He’s not quite as bad as my friend’s now ex-husband. He actually does know some stuff. But he seems stunningly unaware of what he doesn’t know or of what facts are inconsistent with his thesis. Is he right? Dammit, if this comes down to me reading his book, I give up.
Anyway, there is some controversy over Christopher Ryan’s credentials. I took a look at his wikipedia page and this is what I found:
He received a BA in English and American literature in 1984 and an MA and Ph.D. in psychology from Saybrook University, in San Francisco, CA twenty years later. He spent the intervening decades traveling around the world, living in unexpected places working odd jobs (e.g., gutting salmon in Alaska, teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok and self-defense to land-reform activists in Mexico, managing commercial real-estate in New York’s Diamond District, helping Spanish physicians publish their research). Drawing upon his multi-cultural experience, Ryan’s academic research focused on trying to distinguish the human from the cultural. His doctoral dissertation analyzes the prehistoric roots of human sexuality, and was guided by the psychologist, Stanley Krippner.
Ryan has guest lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical School, consulted at various hospitals, contributed to publications ranging from Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Cambridge University Press) to a textbook used in medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout Spain and Latin America and makes frequent mass media appearances. Ryan contributes to both Psychology Today and Huffington Post.[
I read that and I heard, “I’m telling you, I’ve been all over the world and met all kinds of people and read all the papers. And this polyamory thing; this is the real deal.” Maybe Ryan is right. I’ve got an 80-book backlog right now, but I’m hoping to get to his at some point. But a Wikipedia entry filled with such a wide array of credentials combined with his “I’m such an expert” public statements make me suspect the work has flaws. And what I’ve read indicates this perception is correct. If and when I get to his book, I’ll know for sure.
(I wrote the above a couple of months ago. When I went to it today, I was reminded of a recent post at Popehat that mocked a legal spammer for doing the same thing: talking himself up as some modern-day renaissance man. Ken has a lot more experience in dealing with shyster lawyers, obviously. His approach to this is different because he gets a lot of legal spamming. But the basic tenet is the same: a real hot shot lawyer doesn’t try to wow you with his credentials.)
So, I finally got a new pair of headphones today. That in itself is a story. When I was in grad school, I bought a pair of heavy earphones that were fantastic. Long cord, covered the ears, good balance. I used the hell out of them. One day someone broke into my UT-Austin office through the ceiling and stole my monitor and my headphones. We recovered the monitor; they’d stashed it for later retrieval and I got it back after the police fingerprinted it. But the headphones were never seen again. Why they would want my old, torn-up, earwax-encrusted headphones mystifies me a bit. But, as Robert Heinlein said, thieves will steal anything that isn’t nailed down whether it’s valuable or not.
When I get new electronics, one of my little quirks is to figure out the perfect media with which to break them in with. When I got my first DVD player, it was Saving Private Ryan. When I got my blu-ray player, it was Lord of the Rings (DVD). So what do you break a new pair of headphones in with?
If you’re me, you break them in with the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. And since it is Christmas, it becomes doubly apropos.
Other writers have written more eloquently than I can about the 9th Symphony, which is simply the pinacle of musical achievement. Listened to on its own, it’s powerful, beautiful and overwhelming. But when you think about the circumstances: the most joyous uplifting music in history written by a man who was deaf and had an awful personal life … well, let me just say that I couldn’t get through typing that sentence without choking up.
As amazing as the 9th is on audio, it’s simply stunning in person. I’ve been privileged to see it live, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. And I don’t think any media — digital, analog or telepathic — can convey just how special it is to watch it performed live. There’s something about seeing the hundred pieces of an orchestra and chorus working together that a recording simply can not convey.
What’s even more amazing is the response. I’ve been to many classical concerts and classical audiences tend to be a bit reserved. For a great performance, you’ll get a standing ovation. But it’s usually just politely attentive applause. When the last note of the 9th fell, however, I heard a sound I’d never heard from a classical audience before. There was a roar as the audience lept to their feet, clapping cheering and whistling. The ASO got five ovations the night I saw them. It was like we didn’t want that glorious music to end.
I think I’m going to like the histories.
I say this not because King John is a great play. It’s not. It’s narrative is very straight-forward. Many of its character, particularly John himself, are bland. I don’t recall grinning like a baboon at any particularly excellent dialogue.
However, it has one advantage over the comedies: it’s easy to follow. The comedies rely a great deal on clever dialogue, phrasing and references that often go over the heads of even an educated contemporary reader (Love’s Labours Lost especially). It’s very difficult to get into a play when I’m touching every third word to find out what it means. John, by contrast, and I suspect the histories in general, are less cumbersome to the Brocca’s Area.
John has some big weaknesses: the seemingly arbitrary shifts in loyalty among the barons (probably reflective of reality, but not very accessible); the shrewish sparring between Lady Constance and Queen Eleanor; and Arthur’s pleading for his life doesn’t really work for me. But things liven up every time the Bastard is on stage. I found myself hoping he would succeed John to the throne.
Not a bad start, actually, despite its reputation as the weakest of the histories.
Next Up: Richard II
Scholars suggest that the first two acts of this play were written by George Wilkins while the last three were written by Shakespeare. I have to say this sound imminently plausible. The first two acts are boring, running through several locations and a cast of characters with little flavor, drama or humor. You could cut them out of the play entirely with almost no loss.
The last three acts work much better and have more of the plot twists and court shenanigans that we know and love. It’s still not one of the Bard’s best efforts. But there’s some humor in how Marina fends off her potential clients and the reunion scene between Pericles and Marina is genuinely moving. But I’ve really not much to say about this play because there’s very little to it. It lacks the fire, humor or insight of the other comedies. It’s not really a problem play or one that flirts with tragedy. It’s just … kind of … there.
So I’m not going to waste much time digging into Pericles. Nor, for now, will I read Two Noble Kinsmen, which is supposedly even worse and is in neither my Kindle nor my bound edition. Instead, I’ll give a quick overview of what I thought of the comedies.
Reading through all the comedies was an illustration of just how important performance is for comedy. The best comedies do work on the page. But I found that the bulk of the comedies occasionally dragged on the page. Comedy — even just light drama or fantasy — is highly dependent on subtlety and on an actor bringing you in. There are a number of passages where the lines read almost like an instruction manual — setting up the actors to carry the show. The combination of language and lack of stage direction often made the action difficult to follow.
If I were to rate them, I would say the best were A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest, although the latter is poorly described as a comedy. Three of those I was familiar with but Twelfth Night was a genuine surprise and a pure delight. It’s no accident that these are the most familiar comedies as they stand head and shoulders above the others. Not a phrase is wasted, not a humorous opportunity lost. The dialogue, especially, is so crisp, one is easily drawn into the plays. You don’t need a dictionary and stage directions to follow along and grin with every clever line or plot twist.
The remainder are eminently readable and have some fine moments. And having seen one or two in performance, I can say that are enjoyable on stage, when the actors can add their own flourishes. But they all have some slow passages, some pointless characters or some flaw that denies them the pinnacle of the top four: Merchant‘s absurd idea of justice, Two Gentlemen‘s tedium, Labours slow pace and sudden ending. I am very glad that I have now read them. And if I get an opportunity to see them in performance, I will. But I can’t see myself reading through them again.
Well, it’s on to the histories. And we’ll dive right in with King John.
Just to knock this out with the last five days so I can stop thinking about it:
Day 26: Favorite Doctor gadget
I’m not a big fan of the Whatever Device. I was somewhat fond of Bessie in the old series. But nothing really can compete with the sonic, can it?
Day 27: Favorite interview
It’s not quite an interview, but the extra part of Martha’s instructions from Human Nature, where David Tennant says some amazingly silly things, is a great.
Day 28: Favorite gif
Uh, no. I hate animated gifs.
Day 29: Favorite guest star
Most of the guest stars were already covered in villains and companions and so on. But I would like to highlight two little cameos that brought a grin: John Cleese in City of Death and Bill Nighy in Vincent and the Doctor.
Day 30: When you became a Doctor Who fan
It was the mid-80’s. My friend Adam (name changed to protect the innocent) was very into Doctor Who. I had watched a couple of episodes — Pyramids of Mars and Four to Doomsday. But I wasn’t really into it.
Then I watched an episode with him called Mawdryn Undead. Although I have seen it many times since, I can still remember the mindset of watching it off and on, becoming intrigued but being confused about what was going on. I an still remember it as some half-understood mix of images. While the effects were notoriously lousy, the ideas, the writing the acting drew me in.
I was intrigued enough that I decided to watch Terminus on my own the next week. And, after that, I was hooked. I realize that Terminus is no one’s idea of a great episode. But I found it intriguing. And when it was followed by Davison’s great last season and then Pertwee’s run, I became an addict.
What followed was a wonderful time as I discovered the series. There was so much to look forward to – 20+ seasons! I can still remember eagerly anticipating each week’s episode, breaking out the newspaper and seeing what was on.
The American experience of Doctor Who is very different from the British one, especially before the new series became popular. Doctor Who was … well, not exactly obscure. Most people had seen an episode on PBS. But it was so weird for someone to be a fan of the show. Being a Trekkie was bad enough, but a Whovian? That was a real freak show.
(Hell, my dad use to get on me about it. Funny story: frustrated with my lack of a dating life, he used to say, “What, are you going to marry Doctor Shmoo? Ironically, 30 years later, I did. My wife is named Sue, some friends call her Shmoo and she has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. And Doctor Who is probably the only TV show we watch these days.
My mother, however, embracing anything that got me out of the house, sneaked into a fan club meeting and found someone who knitted Tom Baker scarves. It was the most shocking birthday present I ever got.)
Sad to say, I did not have a lot of friends in high school. But Adam, before we had a falling out, introduced me to Terminus Tardis, a Doctor Who fan club (Terminus is one of Atlanta’s three previous names). I would go about once a month to watch old episodes or the newest episodes, neither of which were being shown on TV. But I would also socialize. I met a couple of people from my high school who were into it (I was frantically reading the novelizations and developed a reputation — and not a good one — for always having a Doctor Who book on me). I would go down to the PBS station to answer phones when they were raising money during Doctor Who. And … well, that was my social life, such as it was.
Without Doctor Who, I might have been even lonelier in high school. But I don’t look back on that time with any shame. When I watch old episodes, it takes me back to those old days of adjusting my rabbit ears to pick up a clear signal and eagerly discussing the latest discovery with my few friends. And now that Doctor who is cool, I can legitimately say I was into Doctor Who before it was cool (way, way, waaaay before it was cool). And I’m sure that scarf makes me look like some kind of … well, maybe not a hipster … but something not entirely uncool.
Anyway, those paragraphs above tell you a lot about why I love the show so much and I would devoted several thousand words to a silly tumblr exercise. Now it’s out of my head and into yours. Back to our regularly scheduled program.