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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Thursday (9/24/15) 9:39pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[As usual, I'm missing weeks all over the place.]
Books:  A Little History of Philosophy, You Don't Know JavaScript: Async and Performance
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Community [season 2]
Other: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (National Theater), Much Ado About Nothing (The Globe)

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton
This is a brief overview of the history of philosophy by one of the hosts of the excellent Philosophy Bites podcast.

Specifically, it's forty short chapters, each of which summarizes the work of a significant philosopher, presented in chronological order: it starts in the fourth century B.C. with Socrates and ends in the present day with Peter Singer.  And the chapters, though brief, bespeak a deep, deep understanding of the subject.  Anyone who can construct something meaningful about, say, Kant within the span of ten or twenty pages obviously knows what he's doing.

For all its scope, the book is limited in its ambitions -- it just wants to give you a quick notion of what each philosopher was about, presented (as befits a host of Philosophy Bites) in a way that rarely feels removed from everyday life.  Even Kant (yes, I harp on Kant, because he's damn near incomprehensible) is shown in a light that feels relevant to the things we actually think about.

It goes no further than this limited goal.  The book draws few conclusions about the broad sweep of intellectual history as it presents its little, carefully-crafted vignettes.  But it does its job well for all that.


You Don't Know JavaScript: Async and Performance by Kyle Simpson
This is Simpson's latest book in his series about the myriad obscure and hard-to-understand aspects of the JavaScript programming language.  This one covers running JavaScript asynchronously -- that is, running some code now, and setting up some other code to run at some later point -- and writing faster JavaScript code via careful profiling and optimization.

These days, Mr. Simpson is my favorite writer about computer programming, full stop.  He's unmatched for carefully breaking down complicated topics and presenting them at a slow, comprehensible rate.  (His breakdown of JavaScript type coercion in the Types and Grammar volume is a masterpiece.)

But I feel like this may be the book where the topic was too byzantine even for him.  It's still well worth reading for its crystal-clear explanation of Promises, the traditional (and ES6-included) means of elegantly handling asynchrony in JavaScript.  He also has a fine explanation of generators.  Simply put, promises let you write code like "doThis().then(doThat).then(doAnotherThing)", while generators introduce a "yield" statement that can temporarily halt program execution.

But then, beyond that, he goes into "how to combine promises and generators".  And it's possible here that I'm just not smart enough to follow this.  And I'm sure that a second or third reading might finally untangle it for me.  All I can say is, I've been programming a fair number of years, and I'm thought pretty good at this, and this topic completely got away from me -- which leads me to suspect that it got away from its author a bit as well.

The section covering performance seemed more clear but less useful.  When you're trying to make general statements about JavaScript performance, you kind of fall between two stools.  There are plenty of general things to say about computer-programming performance: wise maxims like "avoid premature optimization" and "keep time complexity low if you can".  There are lots of very specific things you can say about JavaScript performance: lots of tools that are available this month, lots of current details about exactly how different browsers optimize different types of code.

But the general statements are true about all programming languages, and are better suited to a more general programming text, and the specific statements are so specific that they're likely to be out of date in a month or two.  The JavaScript language changes fairly slowly -- the implentations, and their various idiosyncrasies for optimizing code, are much more fluid.

Still, though, the book has a great summary of generators, and the best rundown of promises I've yet seen.  So all in all it's still worthwhile.


Community [season 2]
This is the second season of Dan Harmon's cult favorite about a study group at a community college.

This is as close to flawless as a season of television gets.  I'll grant that Community isn't for everybody.  Some people think it's cold, so in love with its metatextual take on genre that it loses sight of its relationships and its storytelling -- and while I don't share that opinion, it's not incomprehensible.  But I would still happily put season two of Community with the best of the best -- on that shelf with, say, season two of Arrested Development, or season three of The Simpsons, or season four of The Wire.  It's that good, and a re-watch only confirmed it.

Strangely, I think it's greatest strength is that same thing that some people cite as its greatest weakness.  As far as I can tell, Community at its best -- and season 2 *is* its best -- is unmatched for balancing its bravura genre exercises and structural games against real, emotional stories with clear, relatable characters.  It's like the old Buffy-writers' game of starting the writing process with two questions: "what's the show about?" and "what's the show *really* about?"  The flourishes, and the melody.  The plot, and the story.  The mind, and the heart.

It's that simple.  But, as with go, or Fermat's last theorem, or friends picking out where to go for dinner, simple doesn't mean easy.

They were ballsy enough to return to paintball, fercrissakes, and try to outdo arguably the best-loved episode from season one.  And they patiently built up one of their most solid genre exercises -- not just westerns, but classic, Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns -- and revealed, with a flourish, that it was *really* about deciding whether to keep Pierce in the group.

It capped off a season with one memorable hit after another.  The clips episode with nonexistent clips.  The mockumentary that was alternately as funny as Christopher Guest and as raw as an HBO drama.  The lengthy, meticulously precise riff on My Dinner with Andre.  Basically, the only two criticisms I can level against this season is "a couple of the episodes were just okay" and "it didn't have 'Remedial Chaos Theory'."

Maybe the saddest thing about Community is that it feels like a developmental dead-end.  You watch some shows and you feel like others could grab that ball and run with it.  Sure, nobody will out-David-Chase David Chase after The Sopranos, but surely other showrunners could explore different facets of the Troubled Male Antihero.[1]  But after Community... what?  The thing that it's doing -- the knowing parody of television conventions, the exhaustive, deftly deployed pop-cultural knowledge, the simple, heartbreaking character arcs -- doing all of this at once has a nearly impossible degree of difficulty.  It should never have succeeded once, and I can't imagine anything like it succeeding again.[2]

So enjoy what they made, and feel lucky.


(While we were in England, Lindsey and I saw several plays.  I'll keep my comments about them brief -- I don't feel that qualified to analyze them in detail, and I doubt my American friends will ever get to see these productions.)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (National Theater)
This is the stage adaptation of the Mark Haddon novel about an autistic teenager who tries to solve the murder of a neighborhood dog.

The presentation expertly combines two strong traditions (I am told) in British theater.  The first is the classic kitchen-sink drama, such as Look Back in Anger, which details the harsh, uncomfortable conflicts in (usually) lower-class families in painful, closely-observed detail.  The second is the world of avant-garde, expressionist theater, where all the tools of movement, sound, and lighting design come together to put you in a unique and (usually) unsettling headspace.

This is the most elaborate stage production I've seen since The Lion King.  Only instead of recreating the African savannah, they're using every tool a theater has to explain that this is what it's like to be autistic.  There have been some criticisms of the novel as having minor misrepresentations of the autism spectrum, and I'm sure many of those hold for the stage play as well, but it's still staggeringly convincing in its execution.  Someone touches xxxx, and klieglights flicker and an ear-splitting buzzing static roars out of the speakers.  Ah.  That's what it's like when you're completely set-off by touch.

As the title implies, all of this is in service of a mystery story.  But oddly it's a mystery that the book, and the play, ensure that any neurotypical viewer can puzzle out quickly and easily.  So instead of "what is the answer?", we're instead asking, "How on earth could you sort out this problem when all you have at your disposal is logic, patience, and almost superhuman determination?"  Christopher can't draw conclusions based on what's implied between the lines, because, for Christopher, the lines are all that he gets.

The whole story becomes a series of challenges that would be, for neurotypicals, a simple and regular part of your day -- but for someone with autism can be excruciatingly difficult, or even life-threatening.  Imagine what could go wrong with "take the subway to the next station" if you don't instinctively 'get' what's wrong with stepping out onto the subway tracks.

Sometimes, just doing those simple tasks -- or rather, those tasks that are simple for other people -- is triumph enough.  And sometimes, moving from a life of awful family conflict to a life of relative hope is a categorical win.  That's the kind of story that this is.


Much Ado About Nothing (The Globe)
This was a midnight matinée performance of the classic Shakespearean comedy that everyone thinks is about two charmingbickering, hyperintelligent bickering nobles who are deftly tricked into falling in love, but is really about an insufferable douche who somehow wins a girl he mistreats almost to the point of death.

At the risk of courting a pun, I feel like there really isn't much to do with Much Ado any more.  Of all of Shakespeare's plays, this play feels the most like what it is on the surface: a straightforward tale of very funny people who are tricked into romance.  You can set it in different time periods, or you can use different silly voices for Dogberry, or you can tweak the exact relationship between Benedick and Beatrice at the start of the play, but you're not going to pull a radically different take on this out of your hat.

Really, the only big question with a Much Ado production is this: how are you going to address the Claudio problem?  If you're in Shakespearean times, living in that society and (perhaps equally importantly) watching its typical theater, then the typical old story of 'boy meets girl, boy thinks he sees girl being unfaithful, boy on scant evidence murders girl' is a tale as old as time.  But in these dare I say more enlightened times, 'boy' suddenly looks less like your clean-scrubbed hero and more like a murderous, possessive, paranoiac cretin.

So what do you do about Claudio?  Brannagh dealt with it by making Claudio look as young as possible and by actually showing the Borrachio/Margaret gettin'-it-on onscreen.  Whedon seemed to play it out more as an adherence to courtly codes of honor.  The production we saw went the more typical route: they dealt with the problem by not dealing with it, and sort of shuttling the A-story into the background so we could focus on the Beatrice-and-Benedick tale that we showed up for.

And on those terms, the play was a success.  Perhaps their Benedick played a bit too close to Brannagh, but their Don John was delightfully non-Keanu-like, choosing to play up the character's self-indulgent emo qualities.  The production flagged in the second half -- if Dogberry isn't categorically, un-reflectively proud of being Dogberry, those scenes become less comic and more "hmm, there's a weird dude here who won't leave" -- but the fooling scenes were effervescent and fun.

And it was delightful to watch this with a midnight audience.  Granted, it was still a London audience, which meant that when the cast struck up  on thumping, rollicking settings of Shakespeare's songs, NO ONE ANYWHERE MOVED AT ALL.[3]  But there was a good give-and-take on the monologs, and everyone adorably booed and hissed when Don John got up to all his evil.

And of course it's fascinating to watch how they stage Shakespeare at the Globe -- how they play out so hard to the audience, how lively they have to play it just to project to the back rows, and how they use the multiple exits to make the scenes come at you fast and fluidly.  They seemed to strike a good balance between modern acting -- where you mutter a few words and do all your acting *between* the lines[4] -- and traditional Shakespearean practice -- where someone is always delivering a line, and your acting is all done *through* the words.  They picked their moments to indulge in pauses, and those moments were usually good.


For next week: I'm watching season 2 of Good Eats and Last Week Tonight while exercising.  Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale.  Next week I'll catch up on writing about Nell Gwynn (which we saw in London) and Kingsman: The Secret Service (which I watched on the plane ride home).

_______
[1] ... and so they did, for about fifteen years.  Are they done yet?  Dear god, are they done yet?
[2] Indeed, later seasons saw diminishing, though still strong, returns.
[3] N.B. I hope I'm misjudging London audiences here.  But the groundlings all standing stock-still and refusing to betray any sign of rhythm did match up with some of my stereotypes about the UK. Perhaps we just had a lot of stodgy German tourists in our crowd?
[4] (I exaggerate for comic effect.)

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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