Sunday, November 28, 2010

The origins of Melbourne

A good friend of mine recently stated that Cheam in the UK was the bit God created last - and by then He'd got a good bit of practice in so Cheam ended up perfect.

Well I'd like to put the theory that Melbourne was the bit God did first - not chronologically, but methodologically. Melbourne was God's sandbox, the system He used to try things out with. So for instance if He contracted Slartibartfast to design some fjords in Norway, He'd first try them out in Melbourne to see how they worked and to test for any ill effects. As often as not He'd recycle them afterwards - I believe the fjords ended up as the Yarra Valley, God just heaped all the rocky bits up and made the Dandenongs out of them, and the bits that were too small for mountains He put around Eltham and Hurstbridge. As it turned out the seawater didn't really fit with the whole theme so He made it a flood plain instead. Incidentally the flood plain idea worked so well He developed the theme significantly when it was time to do Egypt.

So anyway, I'll focus on the people because terrain quite frankly bores me to tears. God, like any good engineer, works clockwise so He started at Werribee. The train of thought went something like this:

Jesus: "OK, let's start... I reckon I'll put some bogans in here, I like bogans, they're a lot of fun and they can do all sorts of really clever stuff with their hands."

Holy Spirit: "Yes but what about after the fall? They'll all start stabbing each other and living off Centrelink instead of doing the cool stuff!"

Jesus: "Yeah I know, but let's face it, after the fall everything's up salt creek without a paddle anyway."

Holy Spirit: "I know that, but can't we put some old age pensioners there instead? At least then there'll be no blood running down the streets. I have to think of my crew of guardian angels you know, the workload on them will be pretty full on if you fill the place with bogans."

Jesus: "Hey, they're spirits, they're not subject to fatigue!"

Holy Spirit: "True, I forgot, carry on."

So Jesus grabbed a barrel full of bogans and started filling the suburbs, starting at Werribee. As He reached Point Cook He started thinking "Hey, there's some really nice people in here! I should probably sort them out a bit..." So the nice people got placed in Point Cook, Altona, Spotswood and Yarraville.

We really don't know what happened at Newport. It got filled with the absolute cream of the cream of nice-type bogans when it was created, but something must have happened to it afterwards to attract all those unsavoury gunzel types.

As for Julia Gillard, how she got to Altona is a complete mystery.

So anyway, as Jesus was going through Seddon the supply of nice bogans ran out and nothing was left but the dregs. He couldn't leave Footscray unpopulated so He just had to shove them in and hope for the best. Being a good engineer He tried all sorts of things to mitigate the problem - He made the place a railway junction and prompted the good Sir Rod Eddington to put a road tunnel through it, which would divide the place up and reduce the risk of an uncontrolled chain reaction, but even so, the dregs of the bogan supply have made Footscray what it is today.

So Jesus made a full report to His Father about the progress so far. "Yeah Dad, I'm pretty happy with the way things are turning out. There'll be some bugs after the fall of course, but We expected that."

"Ah yes, on that note, are you still prepared to go through with your massive plan to fix the after-effects of the fall?"

Jesus took a deep breath and replied "Yes Dad, it's going to be rough, but hey, no guts no glory, right?"

"You're the awesomest son ever, Jesus!"

"Ta Dad... anyway, do You mind if I try these nice bogans in Birmingham and Manchester?"

And so it was settled that Yarraville would be the prototype for thousands of industrial cities around the world.

So Jesus went back to Melbourne to have a go at the eastern suburbs. The supply of bogans had run out so He was left with office workers.

"These people aren't as interesting, I mean, what can I do with them? One works in finance and one works in IT but they're all pretty much the same really."

The Holy Spirit consoled Him. "You know, the fact that they're all the same means You could probably put one awesome railway line in. Look, just drive it straight out of the city to Ringwood, and put some express trains on it. That'll be pretty cool don't You think?"

That made all the difference and Jesus started cramming the middle class types in.

It still didn't look quite right so He decided to cram the place full of churches. "A bit of music will make the place really shine!"

"But what about after the fall?" the Holy Spirit objected. "They'll all be empty and some will even go liberal!"

Jesus shuddered at the thought but replied, "I know, but we already agreed that after the fall's going to be pretty gruesome didn't we?"

And so it went on. As a change from office workers Jesus decided to try out some overseas students. Ringwood was already full so He decided to go a bit further south and put them around Clayton.

"Actually we could put a lot of different people here, some Greeks, some Indians, some Orientals, some Vietnamese, some Africans - this place is going to be one culinary delight!"

"Do you like curry on your pizza Jesus?" the Holy Spirit asked.

"Just LOVE IT!"

And so Clayton, Springvale and Dandenong became the "melting pot of the nations", and were so successful that the Godhead decided to build New York the same way.

Stretching His fingers right to the bottom of the people sack Jesus found he had some upper class people left - lawyers, executives, governmental high flyers and the like. "Where should I put these?"

The archangel Michael had an idea. "Put them over there near the sea and call it Brahhhhhhhtown, doesn't that sound good?"

"Yes," Jesus objected, "but it's impossible to spell! Why don't I just make it something simple like Brighton?"

Even in heaven Rank Has Its Privileges and Jesus' spelling was what went on the official map. But you must realise that angels spend more time chatting to humans than Jesus does (apart from the earthly ministry, of course) so Michael's pronunciation took root among the natives. Non-Brightonians, of course, pronounce the place phonetically.

And so the process of creation went on. The city centre became the prototype for a modern race of hunter-gatherers who charmed foreigners with music to induce them to throw money with which they purchased food from overpriced commercial establishments run by the people in Brighton. Northcote was a trial for the island of Lesbos - an experiment which was halted after the initial results turned out to have some unwanted side-effects (some of which remain in the world today). Essendon was designed to try out fixed wing aviation on short runways, which was so successful that it became the transport mode of choice in many places in the world (South America, Africa, South East Asia, etc). Eltham was an experiment in miniaturisation, which worked well in Middle Earth and some parts of Africa but was so much fun that 7.25" railways were built all over the world.

And so God saw Melbourne, and it was very good. So He collated the results, picked out bits and developed them into the rest of the world. Last of all He took Mount Waverley, loosened the population density a bit, stabilised the weather patterns, and made Cheam.

The original God decided to preserve intact, as a showcase of the planet and the human race. Besides which, the variety gave it a character and charm of its own which it would be a shame to destroy.

6000 years later He put me there. He's so good to me!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Conservative, but not Ultra-Conservative

Private Willis tells us that in politics there are two kinds of people: liberals and conservatives. The Aussie bloke tells us that the liberals are the goodies, and the conservatives are only interested in money.

In the church there are the same two kinds of people. And again, the liberals are the goodies (the ones interested in social justice, defending women from cruel overbearing husbands, action against climate change before the poverty-stricken island nations are drowned, and helping teenagers cope with unplanned pregnancies) and the conservatives are only interested in proving their interpretation of the Bible is better than everyone else's.

I'd like to put forward the view that there are not two kinds of people in the church but three: liberals, conservatives, and ultra-conservatives. To properly define the conservatives we first have to know what extremes they lie between.

The word liberal literally means unconstrained - as in, liberation, or liberty. A liberal Christian is one who doesn't constrain themselves to the basic beliefs of the Christian faith. Of course, different groups of Christians have different views on exactly what are the basic beliefs of the faith and what matters are disputable (1 Cor 14:1).

The trouble with liberals is that once you take away the foundations of the faith the church is left to basically a majority-rules situation - and while that might work for a while (the majority want lots of social action and charitable work) there's no checks and balances against drifting. I've seen churches where they just listen to classical music. It's what the majority wants.

Ultra-conservatism is usually a reaction against liberalism. In a violent protest against the rejection of Christian principles the ultra-conservatives decide not only to keep the basics, but a long list of principles derived from those basics.

The trouble with that, of course, is that the derivation is made by fallible human beings - and while they might be good ideas, mindlessly imposing them on the whole body of Christ leaves the church open to ridicule - as irreverent cartoons such as the Simpsons and South Park have done many times.

Stuff ultra-conservatives like
Just a few examples so you can tell what I'm on about. After that you can extrapolate out the rest of the picture.
  • Teetotalism. Ultra-conservatives detest alcohol and will back any move to make things more difficult for those that sell it (even if the move itself is a completely useless one). While it's true that Proverbs and several of Paul's letters contain many warnings against drunkenness, there is no part of the Bible which forbids the consumption of any alcohol. In fact, Paul explicitly tells Timothy to drink wine rather than just water - and although the reason for this is unclear from the context and may not have been intended for all believers over all time, it very rightly gives ultra-conservatives a headache. Of course, there may be many good reasons (health, safety, etc) why it's a good idea not to drink - but equating a good idea with a divine command is blasphemy on a grand scale.
  • Solemnity. An ultra-conservative always behaves like they're in a funeral. It's true that some of what passes for humour in today's society is nothing but coarse joking (Ephesians 5:4). But as Pollyanna constantly told people, there are more than 800 sections of the Bible where we are told in so many words to enjoy ourselves and have a good time. And of course, on religious matters solemnity is doubly important. Anyone cracking a joke funnier than "Joseph served in the courts of Pharaoh" (surely everyone knows that one, don't make me tell it!) in an ultra-conservative church would be in danger of excommunication. An ultra-conservative church sermon lasts a minimum of an hour, and is delivered slowly and in a pious monotone.
  • Distrust of the modern world. Groups like the Amish take this to a fine art - horses and buggies instead of motor vehicles, no electronics, no labour saving devices, etc. That's an extreme example of course, but there are still plenty of other groups who still tend to stick with 19th-century hymns sung on an 18th-century pipe organ in 17th-century language, as if God wouldn't understand the way people communicate today. Paul didn't restrict himself to Egyptian papyrus ("Good enough for Moses, it's good enough for me") to write to the churches from his Roman cell though, did he?
  • Blind faith. "God put fossils in the ground to test men's faith" said an ultra-conservative minister after Darwin and Huxley popularised the idea that evolution disproved the Bible. "I will believe that the white that I see is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it" said another. While we have to accept that God's perspective is better than ours, which means He wins if there's any difference of opinion, we also know that God gave us senses which we should be able to trust to tell us the truth.
  • Lack of charity. Many ultra-conservatives see liberals focusing too much on fixing the ills of society (usually in well-meaning but misguided ways) and go too far the other way by totally ignoring Jesus' example of healing and evangelism. While it's true that the spiritual growth of believers is important, no legitimate church responsibility is so important that we should neglect another responsibility.
  • Exclusiveness. There are some ultra-conservative groups that refuse to socialise or even do business with non-Christians. While it's true that bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor 15:33) Jesus sent us to all the world to make disciples. Not all ultra-conservatives are way-out-there cults either - there are normal people in normal churches who simply choose to focus their lives around interaction with fellow-Christians. As a result they have no idea what non-Christians are like, the way they think or act - so how can they be effective in evangelism? Be shrewd as snakes, Jesus said - or as we might say today, forewarned is forearmed.
  • Sexual repression. Ultra-conservative parents won't let their children even talk to a member of the opposite sex alone once they turn 12. Anything that could be interpreted as showing off (for boys) or flirting (for girls) is forbidden. If the worst comes to the worst and there's an unplanned pregnancy to deal with, it's considered a mortal sin. While such occurrences have major consequences that last a lifetime, the Bible never refers to them as any worse than any other sin. Once again, there are many good reasons to repress the natural urges - but good reasons aren't the same thing as a divine command. That reminds me, one day I'm going to do a blog about teen pregnancy and all that... which will be a lot more shocking than this or any other blog post I've done so far.
  • Bipolarism. To the ultra-conservative, there are two kinds of people - the Christians and the enemy. Whenever an ultra-conservative is in a debate (especially one on religious matters) they are constantly on the attack and defence. There's no friendly banter - any light-hearted comment is interpreted as an attack and is repulsed in force. While it's true that Jesus said "Anyone who is not for you is against you", it's not exactly a good idea to attack the people we're trying to evangelise!
So as you see, there is an element of truth to each aspect of the failings of the ultra-conservatives. Everything they do stems from a correct principle - the problem is that they take it too far.

How many times did God tell the people of Israel "Don't turn aside from the law to the right or to the left"? It comes up many times. I'd like to put the idea that the right and the left are ultra-conservativeness and liberality - adding to and subtracting from the perfect law God gave us.

Friday, September 3, 2010

An Office suite that would really be sweet

I've watched word processors and spreadsheets develop over the last 20 years or so. Interestingly, they've grown closer together - features previously only available in one are now available in both. This is a Good Thing. Pity it hasn't gone any further in the last five years or so. Let's take a look under the hood.

The days when documents were a flat text file and spreadsheets were a simple database are (sadly for those of us who like to repair them by hand) long gone. The capabilities of the office programs have developed to the point where those storage algorithms are simply inadequate. We have object-oriented files now - a limitless stream of object definitions which are completely self-contained and can be listed in any order in the file.

Actually that helps us a lot. We don't have the fundamental difference between spreadsheets and documents at the file-type level. This object is a footnote frame with a page number in it. This object is a cell with a formula in it. Can they coexist? Of course they can, they're objects on an equal footing.

So let's examine the various types of office suite files and work out what is the fundamental difference between them. Let's use word processor documents as the baseline for comparison.
a) Emails - there are some predefined objects (To, cc, bcc, subject, etc) but no other difference.
b) Spreadsheets - they have formulas and constant re-evaluation, but that can easily be added to a word processor document.
c) Presentations - they usually go by screen sizes rather than paper sizes, but that's a very simple change. They also have options for animation - again, no problem adding that to a word processor.
d) Page layouts - even today there's practically no difference between a word processor and a page layout builder, the word processor is just a dumbed-down version.

So if we took our hypothetical page layout program and added a POP/SMTP gateway, a formula evaluator and a "full screen mode", we'd be half way there. Then all we'd have to do would be unify the five lists of object types (making sure there's no double-ups) and make some templates.

Yes, templates. You know about "letter", "resumé", "business proposal" etc - all we have to do is add "spreadsheet", "email" and "presentation".

That's really all there is to it. Oh, apart from recoding the whole thing and giving it some actual performance. How about it, guys?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Do true Christians back internet filtering?

(Cross-posted from a comment on Facebook)

In reply to a comment that Christians should back the proposed internet filter because opposition to porn is a Christian value, I wrote:

1) Backing the filter isn't opposing porn, it's opposing one method of obtaining porn, and opposing it in a way that's contrary to Christian values - end-justifies-the-means reasoning.

2) A web-based filter like the one currently proposed isn't going to work, anyone who's looking for it will very easily get around it (even non-computer literate people can easily use peer-to-peer file sharing, which won't be filtered).

3) The internet is by its nature almost impossible to censor - both URL-based and content-based filters can be bypassed with very little effort.

4) Once the government have the setup to ban porn they can easily ban anything else that suits them. We already have Racial and Religious Discrimination legislation which makes it potentially illegal to preach the Gospel. Any church web site which states that Jesus is the only way to heaven might find itself on the blacklist.

5) False positives (and false negatives) are almost guaranteed on any data pool as large as the internet. Judging from the length of time between versions of the blacklists (as publicly known) and the number of legitimate URLs included, corrections will take days, weeks or even months to be actioned.

6) Filtering will slow down internet access by a significant margin. (Don't believe what Senator Conroy says on the matter, he has proven many times that his knowledge of even simple matters is sketchy to say the least.)

7) The cost of maintaining the filter (eg paying a department full of people to process requests for blocking and appeals against false positives) will be huge, and naturally grow at the same pace as the internet grows.

8) A simple glance at the publicly available blacklist shows that the people operating it have a very poor knowledge of the way the web works, or else very little regard for either false positives or false negatives.

Filtering to combat porn is like swatting a fly with a wok - a lot of effort, a lot of collateral damage, and a high chance that the fly will survive due to the bowl shape of the weapon.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

North/East ring line?

This is really my Dad's hobby horse. He and I usually end up discussing it any time we talk about the freight task, port access, standard gauge lines, the Dandenong lines, spark capacity, etc. It’s a great idea but it looks very difficult to pull off.

In brief, the idea is to carve a new transport corridor from Craigieburn to Epping, Pakenham and Hastings. This will provide:
- A link to the national rail freight network for the Port of Hastings
- A standard gauge freight line to the major industrial areas around Dandenong and Pakenham
- Potentially, an independent path to the city for Gippsland trains
- A "distributed load" for Melbourne’s intermodal freight capacity, allowing the vast section of high value inner city geography currently known as Dynon to be levelled and achieve its ultimate destiny, high density housing.

Dad got this idea after following the various heavy industries (who are his customers) from Noble Park to Dandenong South, then Berwick, and now Pakenham as suburbia has expanded and started to encroach on them. Similarly on the other side of town, from Williamstown to Altona to Laverton, and from Sunshine to Somerton. This has happened over at least 30 years of course. But he’s watching as companies keep slowly building up their fleet of B-Doubles simply because they have grown past the range where it’s feasible to run small trucks to a railhead and use rail for linehaul.

If you’ll excuse the parenthesis, the use of rail for medium-haul journeys is certainly feasible. Regular, frequent, fast shuttle trains could run between transport interchanges and smaller trucks could do the "last half-mile". Four interchanges at Laverton, Somerton, Dandenong South and Pakenham plus the ports would do the job. If industries knew they could truck a 20' container of freight from their warehouse in Altona North to the Laverton terminal, that it would be on a train (releasing the truck for other duties) within 15 minutes, that the train would depart within two hours, that it would arrive in Somerton 20 minutes later, and that they could book a truck to take the container to their customer in Craigieburn and the cargo would be there ready for it – well, there would be a lot less traffic on the Western Ring Road. The key is how to achieve that sort of customer confidence.

How intermodal freight works
I count myself highly fortunate to have seen the transport industry from the inside – it’s subtly but significantly different from the rail industry, and the knowledge comes in very useful. Facilities at the major standard gauge freight terminals today are fairly good. Containers for transport are logged through a web interface, which takes the details of destination, size, weight etc and then gives back a numeric code. This is radioed to the truck driver, who enters it at a toll-booth-like gate at the terminal. The driver is then given instructions as to where to park the truck waiting for unloading, and is usually not kept waiting more than 20-30 minutes before the container is lifted and transferred to the waiting train.

I believe this operation could be further improved with better infrastructure. Gantry cranes rather than mobile container forks will speed up the lift operation itself, and more of them (relative to train length) will reduce waiting time for trucks.

The trains themselves should be short and (by Australian standards) overpowered, to allow them to accelerate and run at high speeds – as is the practice in Europe and North America. Of course this is only for the terminal-to-terminal trains – interstate Superfreighters would still run long and heavy to pick up economies of scale. Incidentally in the absence of Dynon it’s probably most logical to put down a major interstate freight terminal at either Somerton or Laverton.

The Ring line
And now to the infrastructure requirements to make this happen. Terminal design doesn’t need to change much from the type of terminals we already have – the only thing is to ensure there’s plenty of space and that there are enough tracks to give each destination its own road. Length is not a major consideration – we are not going to run 1.8km trains every two hours from Somerton to Hastings.

The track linking the terminals obviously has to be standard gauge, built for high speeds/axle loads, double track, wide and high loading gauge (suitable for double stacked containers and US-style wide vehicles) and signalled for plenty of capacity (without reducing speed limits). For energy efficiency it should probably be electrified.

From Laverton to Craigieburn the reservation already exists but some trackwork is needed (including duplication).

From Tottenham to Port Melbourne the obvious solution is Phin’s freight tunnel. The actual path, in the absence of Dynon, remains to be seen (eg it might be worth popping out on the south side of Footscray Road) but should be relatively simple.

From Craigieburn to Pakenham, the North/East Ring, a new corridor needs to be made. That doesn't come cheap but is vital. From Craigieburn to Epping is fairly easy, I suggest running parallel to either Craigieburn Road or Bridge Inn Road, with wide curves to avoid pockets of population where they exist.

Then we start to run into mountains… and really, your guess is as good as mine for what’s the best way through them. Interestingly from a geological perspective, Coldstream-Yarra Glen is a small patch of flat land in between two mountain ranges – a patch of dirt between two rocks. Whether this helps find a path to Pakenham is another question.

At Pakenham we would skirt around the populated area and build a rail freight terminal in the south, near the industries. Not where existing rail facilities are, that’s an easy trap to fall into but we want to be near the customers.

From there it’s a reasonably simple cross-country path through Casey and Cardinia, around the populated bits of Cranbourne South, past Pearcedale and down the Westernport Highway (either beside it or in its median) to the Port of Hastings.

In order to serve Dandenong South it would be advantageous to run a spur line up Westernport Highway and put another intermodal facility on the fringes of the industrial development.

Additional benefits
We know that mixing freight traffic with suburban passenger trains is a major problem. However if we converted the Gippsland line (beyond Pakenham) to standard gauge we could run all the logs and paper around the ring line, and totally avoid the Melbourne suburbs. 22 level crossings (as at 2010 – some are slated for removal) will benefit. Noise levels for houses backing the rail line will be reduced to just sparks. And we might even be able to resurrect the old Gippsland Intermodal Freight Terminal, which died a grim death of trans-shipping for any freight not destined for Melbourne.

Of course unless we dual-gauge (technically nasty) or lay separate standard gauge tracks (expensive) we’d have to run the Gippslander V/Line services on the Gauge too. Probably the best option would be to run them past the Dandenong South terminal and up a standard gauge line parallel to the Cranbourne line to Dandenong station, from which they could take an express suburban train to the city. Buses could run from Nar Nar Goon to Pakenham and Monash University Berwick Campus for convenience.

The transport companies have realised that in order to provide themselves with capacity, high quality facilities and operating economies in order to provide the service their customers want, it’s necessary to up stakes and move to the fringes of suburbia. The rail industry, a natural partner of the transport industry, needs to follow suit.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hooning is a man's God-given RIGHT!

OK, I've got your attention, now let's look at it.

It seems I can't open a newspaper without seeing at least a short piece about someone found driving at 213km/h in a 60km/h zone, doing burnouts in a crowded carpark, or some other such evil deed. Soon it will be more criminal to hoon with a car than steal one. If I can steal a non-trademarked slogan from a bygone era, why is it so?

It's quite true that hooning in public is incredibly dangerous to life. But if that's the only problem, why can't we just remove it to some safe place? Because as I will now demonstrate, hooning has a lot of beneficial side-effects.

Subjecting the body to G-forces builds up muscle
Men don't bear children, so their bodies don't naturally build up all the muscle they're going to need through life during their adolescent years like women's bodies do. That's why teenage boys are full of testosterone, the idea is that they'll work it out through their arms and legs and build up muscle. Unfortunately in these days of video games that doesn't happen much. So it's good for boys to compensate in other ways.

It's amazing how many muscles are brought into play when a person in a seated position tries to brace themselves in place while the apparent G force is not vertical. Every handbrake turn, while taking 5000km worth of wear out of the tyres, builds up muscles that will be invaluable in later life.

So, hooning while young helps prevent muscular atrophy and arthritis in old age.

Men need to know how to deal with adrenaline in case of an emergency
Again, men's and women's bodies react differently to emergency situations. Women rarely break down under pressure - the crisis brings out the best in them and they have been known to work without sleeping for three days straight. Men react differently - when faced with the seemingly impossible their first reaction is to make a frontal attack on the most visible part of the problem. This usually has devastating results.

Recovering from an uncontrolled skid, where the first reaction is to wrench the steering wheel off its bearings in the opposite direction of the skid, is a good way to introduce the concept of finesse into the masculine brain. Steer gently in the same direction as the skid, recover control of the wheels, and the car will recover almost of its own accord.

So, hooning while young gives the ability to take control of complicated situations.

Secondary forces need to be understood and managed
The popular sport of drifting, where the wheels point one direction and the car moves in another, is another highly effective way to reduce the value of a new set of tyres - but it also teaches our young testosterone-fuelled boy about the concept of secondary forces. What is it that pushes the car in the direction it's going? How can you influence its magnitude and direction? And can you do that in a split second when you notice the drift?

This knowledge comes useful in any endeavour that involves physical exertion in a confined space. Moving house and trying to stack as much as possible into the van? Climbing up on the load to put something right at the front? If your foot slips, you won't regret a bit of drifting experience.

A sense of awesome
Besides the actual benefits of hooning, there's the sheer enjoyment of it. I mean, what's creepier than a man who has no interest in airshows or Grand Prixes, and doesn't watch Mythbusters or Top Gear? We condemn anyone who has no sense of humour as completely sub-human. We should do the same for anyone with no sense of awesome.

The people with a sense of awesome are our firefighters, courier drivers, defence front liners, beef farmers and mechanical engineers. The ones without are our politicians, lawyers, bank administration staff, art gallery tour guides and insurance telemarketers.

The downside to hooning
Yes, it can be dangerous. In fact, if it wasn't, there'd be no incentive to get better at it and thereby gain all the skills I've outlined above. I guess that's why it's illegal...

But there's an easy solution to that. A really easy one - in fact I'm surprised even the politicians can't think this one up. Training. TRAINING. Learn it before you go out and do it. Get a car with a roll cage, a good instructor and a wide open paddock. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to do a doughnut without knocking over this tuft of grass I've spray painted blue. Do that and you get to move on.

And then when they've passed their hooning exams (actually I guess we'd better call it "emergency driving" or something a little more politically palatable) they can get a job as a firey or ambo driver. Emergency vehicles have to accelerate faster than normal, mount the occasional traffic island, and at all times stay safe despite all the other traffic. Hooning for a living is the best way to get the dangerous stuff out of their system, and hey, it helps the whole of society!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

You're weird. I like you.

Yes, dear listener, I'm talking to you. How do I know you're weird? You'd have to be to read my blog. How do I know I like you? Because you're about to click the Google Ads just up above and earn me 31c or so.

Now that I've got that over, let's work out exactly what kind of weird person you are. There's plenty - but I'm just going to talk about engineers, geeks, nerds and dorks.

For the sake of listeners in the American Colonies, I have draw a line between engineers and engine drivers. It's true that back in the 1830s engines were so complicated that only engineers could drive them. But that went out with the railway boom of the 1850s. Now, onwards.

An engineer is someone who applies known rules of physics to solve problems for which there is no known solution - for instance, building a bridge where nobody has built a bridge before. There's no answers in the back of the book to say how thick the steel and concrete have to be, engineers have to work that out for themselves. They can measure distance, simulate forces and test the strength of the materials, but nobody can tell them how to build the bridge, they have to work it out for themselves.

Or on a smaller scale, an engineer might be assigned to design a cheaper toaster - one with fewer and simpler parts, but still directing the heat towards the toast and not towards the hands of its operator. The convection of heat is a known concept and the engineer has to apply the rules to any design they think up. But thinking up the design is something the engineer has to do for themselves.

A true engineer can only be frustrated by one thing - a felt problem which they are unable to solve. For instance, most engineers are completely at a loss for anything to say when they visit an aged care facility. All the patients' bodies are full of felt problems, but nothing can be done about them. Sympathy isn't easy for them to express, only hope. The embarrassment is not so obvious in hospitals, where people can recover with careful treatment (surgery, while not allowing an engineer scope for as much imagination as bridge building or toaster design, is similarly precise and beneficial, and appeals to the engineering mind).

The frustration is especially felt when the problem is a solvable one which is only unsolvable due to some piece of red tape. This includes any excuse which involves the words "intellectual property", "privacy", "equal opportunity", "commercial in confidence" or any other such weasel words. To the engineer, information should be completely free and open, because only then can it be used for the good of humanity. The engineer lives to solve problems and make people's lives better, and the thought of using free and open information to harm people is completely foreign to them. The fact that there are people who will misuse information is the "elephant in the kitchen" that they try to ignore because paying it too much attention (like western society does today) will completely destroy their ability to do anything at all, leaving them a purposeless, and unemployed, existence.

Geeks and engineers overlap significantly. Many professional engineers have the characteristics of geeks, and many geeks do engineering work for fun. The reason is simple - engineers' lives are ruled by the rules (if you'll excuse the pun) - the laws of physics, the properties of the substances they work with, etc. Geeks' lives are dedicated to finding out what the rules are.

We normally associate the word geek with computing - a teenage boy might be described by his mother as "a real computer geek" when he spends his free time experimenting with various settings and programs on the computer. Let's look at that situation a bit closer.

We have to presume that the computer is a working system to start with. It does what the operator requires of it. What motivates the geek to start experimenting? It might be an engineering streak which wonders whether there's a better way of doing a task which is already being done - or it may be a geeky streak which just wants to know for the sake of knowing.

Geeks have an insatiable appetite for information. They want to know what can be done, how things work, how far something can be pushed without ill consequences - even if there's no possible prospect that the information would be useful to them personally at any time.

This can apply in any field at all. A domestic appliance geek might experiment with the operation of a heater unit and determine which design would do a better job of heating a room. An office equipment geek might spend a month of Sundays testing combinations of different brands of staples and staplers with various loads to see which gives the most trouble-free operation. A hardware geek might build a second tool shed to do scientifically rigorous testing to see whether high quality tools are worth the extra price, taking duty cycle and maintenance level into account.

Another significant trait of geeks is that once they know what the rules are, they set a value on them. If a rule is set by the laws of nature, it's of very high value, because you can't break them, they break you. If it's recommended by the manufacturer to avoid heat-related damage to a product, it's as valuable as the product (minus the margin for error the geek assumes the manufacturer has built in to the rule). If it's set by the PC brigade to avoid embarrassing a minority group, it's probably of very little value indeed - not that geeks disdain minority groups (hey, they ARE a minority group!), but they see no value in a tokenist rule which they understand to only entrench differences rather than smooth them over. And like engineers, geeks detest any rule that is made purely to protect an entrenched commercial interest or anything else that puts the good of a few above the good of everyone.

This is particularly true of social rules and conventions. Embarrassment is not an unknown concept to the geek, but they usually run it past the value test - the same as they do for rules. Most responsible adults be embarrassed to be found playing with Lego - why? Just because it's something kids do? Not a good enough reason. If there's something to be learned by it, the geek will play with Lego. Most people don't wear pocket protectors - why? It's more fashionable to replace a whole piece of clothing worth $100 than a pocket protector worth $10? Not a good enough reason either. And that brings us to the next category.

Nerds are an extreme and yet inferior form of geeks. They have all (and more) of the disregard for social rules and conventions, but much less of the intense logic that gives true geeks their strength.

What's unusual is that the logic is still there - in parts. The true nerd will harp on for hours about how some new move is illogical and fundamentally flawed. They will, however, totally ignore many glaring logical flaws in their own thinking and life.

They also have very little of the selflessness of the geek - rather than working for the good of the community (eg by seeking out rules and formulas and publishing them to save other people the trouble of finding them), they treat information as a badge of success, to be guarded jealously as a form of "cred". They will happily bore a non-nerd to death with an in-depth description of some obscure area which they have been researching, partially out of ignorance (to them, anything less than a slap in the face means the listener is completely rivetted by the conversation) but mainly to show off their knowledge and ability.

The other major difference is that a nerd is fairly lazy compared to a geek. Where a geek will be suddenly inspired to explore some new avenue of study at every stage of their life, a nerd will be content to do nothing outside the barest minimum to keep alive.

The nerd is, however, not completely unrecoverable. Social interaction, while detestable to them, is necessary for the cure. It should be administered gently - beginning with a very small group of geeks and engineers who are experts in their favourite subject. Once they have accepted a working relationship, a social one can be embarked upon. This should be taken in very easy stages, at all times returning to the safe haven of nerdy work-related interaction before any damage can be done. Gradual increases in the size of the nerd's circle of friends (assuming them to be carefully selected for suitability as role models) will eventually see them converted to a geek.

And now we descend to...

This is not a pleasant subject to examine closely. Just as the nerd is a flawed edition of the geek, the dork is an extreme nerd with all the remaining nice bits taken out and nothing remaining except laziness and social ineptitude.

A dork is usually unrecoverable once they have reached adulthood. The problem is really an indifference to the feelings of other people. The dork doesn't care that nobody wants to hear how he killed a fly with a rubber band after eight years of practice. To avoid raising dorky kids, instil in them the basic rules of consideration for others and give them lots of practice listening to people.

How to be an engineer
Obviously the best type of weirdo to be is the engineer. To be one, you will need a brain that can catalogue facts and recall them when required - this is something that can be learned but takes a lot of effort. You will also need a good imagination, and the ability to run a "sanity check" on every idea you come up with before publishing it. To be a really great engineer, you'll need to optimise this process to increase your throughput.

Of course we can't all be engineers, some of us can only be geeks. But that's nothing to be ashamed of - be a good geek. Study for the sake of knowing things. Contribute to the sum of human knowledge, in whatever small way you can. Don't forget, all knowledge comes useful at some point. Make the world a better place!

Friday, February 19, 2010

That would be delightful!

Well, I guess the dust has settled from the comments brought about by my thoughts on The Gondoliers, so I'm at it again. Flame away people!

Regular readers will remember Clippy's comment that we have high standards for Iolanthe around here. I have been in one and watched several others, and while most have been excellent, they have each been let down in one or two areas and cannot truly be said to be like the immortal MP of the title role's dreams. What follows is a pick-and-choose of the best features of each.

As I said before, believable acting is probably the one thing that makes a production go well. Can the audience really believe those people are what they're supposed to be portraying? Can they laugh at the peers, reel back in awe of the fairies, wish to pat Phyllis on the shoulder to comfort her in her dilemma, and tell Iolanthe she's a complete angel? If not, the show is a failure.

Let's go through the characters in order. The Lord Chancellor can be played as a pompous old ass, but remember he has to have enough substance for Iolanthe to love him dearly. Obviously he has an ego, we know that from "When I went to the bar", but he must have been quite something - even Phyllis felt herself possibly able to fall in love with him! Couple this with high morals and a strict regard for the law (the letter, not the spirit of the law - as we see when he decides to insert "not") and the leadership ability to command the respect of the entire House of Egotists, and you have your Lord C.

Lord Tollollarat - now here we have REAL pomposity and truly room temperature IQs. I guess it would be possible to play them as smart guys acting stupid in order to manipulate the LC to do things that benefit them, although I've never seen it done. Then again, their lack of success in getting a girl (specifically Phyllis) would tend to rule that out. Once again Gilbert is striking a blow at the old English institutions - what qualifies these men to lead the House of Lords and make decisions which affect millions of people? Nothing but the fact that one of their ancestors hundreds of years ago did something which convinced a monarch to bestow a favour. Strephon is quite right to work for the abolition of such a system.

Private Willis is something of a mystery. A director (for whom I yield to nobody in admiration for her private and professional ability) once confessed in my hearing to wrestling for some time with the direction of the character, before finally designating him Phyllis's protector - a kind of early Captain Fitzbattleaxe. This interpretation stands up to criticism, but I don't see it in the text. However, I don't see any other reason for him to exist (except to be a sort of mouthpiece with no bearing on the plot, like the Fiddler on the Roof - which I think is a rather crude device and unworthy of Gilbert's great and brave reputation) so that interpretation wins by forfeit.

Strephon - really just a classic theatrical lead tenor. The whole plot revolves around him, and yet he has very little influence on it. Everything is happening to him, outside of his control. A little confusion would not be misplaced. His love for Phyllis is of course 100% genuine, as is his love and respect for his mother. He has a lot of respect for the Lord Chancellor's authority, and it takes all his guts to marry Phyllis against his will. Unlike many tenors, his ego is somewhat smaller than a planet - merely the size of a medium sized comet or meteoroid. We know this because he is content to be a shepherd's lad instead of exercising his immortal brain as a high powered engineer on an unbelievable salary.

I've seen the Fairy Queen played as a fearsome dragon and as a loving mother of the fairy company who just happens to be incredibly powerful. (Fairy Queen, FQ, incredibly powerful... there must be something clever I can say there...) I think the latter interpretation is preferable - after all, she has enough feelings to show mercy to Iolanthe after she blots her copybook, and to still want her back 25 years later. As a bonus, it gives a bit of variety in the contralto roles across the canon - there's enough Ruth/Lady Jane/Katisha/Blanche characters to be going on with.

To properly interpret Iolanthe herself it's important to know what was going on in Sullivan's life at the time the opera was written. His own mother had just died, and the music he put inreflected the love he had for her and the complete admiration he held for her selflessness in helping him become what he became. On Strephon's first entry, she has the story of the century (or at least quarter century) to tell - but she doesn't push in, she lets him tell his story first. And of course, she comes within an inch of sacrificing her life for his happiness. Those incidents a keynote to her character supply.

The leaders of the fairies (C, L and F, another good locomotive pun), and indeed the entire chorus of fairies, are a bit of a paradox. Traditional stories of fairies indicate that although they look like teenage girls, they have wisdom and maturity beyond their years and are too haughty and powerful to even speak to mere mortals except in anger. But this doesn't really fit with the dialogue. For Fleta to be unaware that it's injudicious to marry a mortal indicates that she at least is fairly junior. And for her to be the first to jump in with a request for information about Iolanthe's handsome young son suggests that she has a heart and therefore she loves (to say the least). And of course we know that in the second act the entire company follows her example... All that aside, it makes for much better staging to have them act like young innocent children, full of fun and completely suited to stepping into The Mikado with no questions asked.

Phyllis is a mystery character. Like many leading sopranos she has her blonde moments, as one director I know often says, and yet she is capable of swift thought on occasion. Like Strephon she is genuinely head over ears in love, and has a great respect for the authority of her ersatz daddy and the House of Lords. She has a bit of the ambitious gold-digger in her, which is overcome by Strephon's immortal good looks and love for her but comes through when his influence is removed. On balance I'm fairly sure she's genuinely humble about her own appearance - it's possible to play her responses to "Have you ever looked in the glass" and "Why did five and twenty [liberal|conservative] peers come down" as fishing for a compliment or ironic humour, but that's not what I'd expect in their relationship. Similarly, when the entire House of Lords sings her praises, she could be either totally flummoxed by this unaccustomed attention, or just lapping it up. But if she's lapping it up, why put a stop to it with "Ah, my heart is given"? A compliment-fisher would string them along a lot further.

The chorus of peers are very important to the show. It's a much more difficult role to play (I should know!) than a simple red-blooded sailor, pirate or dragoon guard who just has to strut around on stage and show a bit of lust whenever someone of the female persuasion is present. They have to be fairly stupid, and yet so completely eligible that they can induce a bunch of fairies to abandon the laws they've been brought up with. And they have to make that entrance march believable too - as I said above, WSG is slinging a shot at the idea of hereditary peers, making the whole concept look ridiculous in the eyes of the audience. So it's vital for the peers to be so completely over the top in their combination of arrogance and incompetence that it becomes a farce.

As always, it's good to have each chorus act as a group of individuals rather than a homogenous lump. That way everyone can choose their own way of expressing the necessary emotions, which makes them more realistic.

Line by Line - acting and lighting
The show opens on a fairy ring. There are plenty of legends but no real ones, so each member of the audience will have their own idea (very vague only) as to how it should look. That makes it difficult. However, I'd be guessing that all the audience ideas would agree that it doesn't drizzle in fairyland, nor does it hail or thunderstorm (except when FQ is unhappy with somebody). So let's give the opening scene a fairly standard sunny day lighting state. I've seen several productions where the lighting comes up gradually and in very specific places to highlight bits of staging. No problem there, as long as it comes up to a sunny day at the end of all that.

Tripping Hither can be interpreted as the fairies having fun (which fades as soon as the song ends), or just doing their duty and not enjoying themselves. I think at least the section from "We can ride on lovers' sighs" should evoke a positive reaction - they're talking about the bare necessities of life, they can't be too downhearted. I've been in a production with two ballet dancers who illustrate the riding, after which the rest of the chorus act the warming, clothing, bathing, arming and hiding - this was a stunning effect visually (as were the young ladies in question - one of whom was my dancing partner in the finale) but obviously it's only one possible interpretation out of many.

The dialogue has to be fairly heartfelt. If they're still pining for their sister after 25 years they can't just speak her name with no emotion. Make it genuine of course - don't just put in an affected sigh after every mention of her like "The Tisroc-may-he-live-forever", that's quite the wrong idea.

The FQ's statement that Iolanthe taught her to do everything fairies naturally do is a somewhat anomalous one. How could she have become queen without already knowing all that - or if she rose through the ranks after learning, why didn't Iolanthe rise higher? This is one of WSG's weird ideas that we aren't supposed to delve too deeply into (like Ralph marrying his foster-brother's daughter). But that makes the rendition difficult. Probably the best way is to ignore that difficulty and make it a sort of soliloquy - Leila mentions her love for Iolanthe and it starts the Queen down memory lane. Then Fleta, who knows how to read the signs of the face even if she doesn't know all the fairy laws about what's injudicious and what's not, seizes the opportunity with both hands and tries to do fairyland a big favour.

The invocation obviously needs a check-down of the lights. For a simple show, just a basic dim. For a more ambitious one, have the Queen's mystic gestures echoed in the patches of light and dark on the stage. Cross-light and up-light give the idea of mystery and something unusual going on. A narrowly focused spot or special on each of the prinnies as they sing, with a bit of yellow in it, will give the audience the idea that they're sizzling with mystical energy. We don't want to bring the lights right up when the chorus start though, we have to save that for "Pardoned!". So we can just bring a bit of light onto them, emphasizing the social strata of prinnies vs chorus in fairy power.

Iolanthe's dramatic entrance covered with water weeds needs something effective out of the costume department. I have no idea aboiut that sort of thing, just make it look realisitic. Again we have the ridiculousness of having her live in the water. Don't fairies need to breathe or something? Be that as it may, she's been living down there and is sodden. Dripping clothes on stage are a safety hazard, but a slightly reflective material to indicate wetness and unkempt hair will give the impression that she has indeed spent 25 years under water. For lighting, a warm yellow special on her as she enters, slight build over the FQ's merciful statement, and a huge build on the chorus "Pardoned!" - every bird is singing in celebration of Iolanthe's safe return. The degree of checkdown for the invocation will dictate whether this state is the same as the opening, but I rather think it should be.

I've seen productions where they strip Iolanthe's wet clothes off her, give her a hot bath, rub her down with the anti-vapour rub, give her little feet a mustard bath and dress her during the following dialogue, but that's pretty cheesy really. Her exit isn't far off, she can reset her hair then.

I've always thought it a bit unusual that the Queen should launch straight into the business of the day instead of having 25 years of news to catch up on. But then, that was the purpose of the summoning. Maybe the chorus can indicate a lot of general catching-up-type chatter during "Welcome to our hearts again" - it only takes some fancy footwork, high speed hand gestures and well thought movements of the upper body to give that impression. As a matter of fact, that would be a better way of doing it than the usual thing of kisses all round and maybe the presentation of a bouquet.

From there the dialogue is fairly understandable. Just act it properly - always remembering to insert the necessary pauses to digest new information. FQ the actress knows Iolanthe has a son and isn't surprised, but FQ the character doesn't, and really should be at a loss to deal with this astounding piece of news. Congrats FQ, you're a grandmother!

(On that note, there's no actual statement in the dialogue that the FQ is the mother of the rest - only a hint when Strephon says "My grandmother looks quite as young as my mother". But I think it's a relatively safe assumption.)

"Good morrow, good mother" is usually played well. It's just a theme song, it doesn't need anything special in the way of lighting or acting apart from what's obvious from the words and music.

As I mentioned above, Iolanthe is showing her motherly unselfishness in pigeon-holing her own news until Strephon has had his turn. This can be hinted at in facial gestures ("Nothing easier, for here he comes, and boy don't I have a story to tell him!" changing to "With joy beyond tellingyour bosom is swelling? Tell on, I'm all ears!") although it's not easy to project that to the entire audience. Still, the 25% that do pick it up will enjoy the show so much more if it's included.

Iolanthe should be overjoyed at the news - her fondest hopes are to be crowned, the barriers to her son's complete happiness have been removed! She can hardly wait for the music to finish before expressing her delight at the happy result. And when she does, it's not a question requiring confirmation, it's a simple bubbling over of poetical emotion. And obviously when Strephon says "Not he, indeed!" the let-down should be obvious.

The following dialogue is a little bit unweildy. Strephon asks who the bevy of beautiful maidens might be, and in the course of explaining Iolanthe tells him the biggest news item since Victory in the Pacific. Usually it's done badly, with Iolanthe appearing to ignore his question and just spilling the news. Another way would be for her to say "My queen has pardoned me -" as if it's just background information and he cuts her off before she can add "- and these ladies are my beloved sisters". But she knows he's a good boy and would be delighted at the news, so I don't think that's right either. Probably the only way is for the sense to be "Who are these? That's the least of it my lad! Where shall I start? Biggest news first I guess. My queen has pardoned me! Digest that for a bit and then I'll give you the rest."

The rest is fairly straightforward, apart from the pause for thinking before the light bulb goes on above FQ's head and she says "I've a borough or two at my disposal, would you like to go to Parliament to see the longest escalators in the Southern Hemisphere?".

Strephon's reactions to the adoration of a bevy of beautiful maidens is a tough one. Any red blooded male would react strongly - and yet he's (provisionally) engaged to the most beautiful Ward in Chancery the world has ever known. It's unthinkable that he'd be anything but faithful to her, and besides, these are his aunts! So maybe a slight embarrassment as he seeks to keep his affections platonic.

Then in comes Phyllis. She's such a stunner that an entire House of Lords (some of whom are sixty-seven nearly, and that's putting it kindly) fall for her in a body. In real life there aren't any girls like that, so we need a good lighting change to stun the audience in support of her. There's the story (I'm told it's apocryphal, but that may be just a rumour) of the actress who had it written into her contract that whenever she entered the lights were to be brought up three points. Just enough to get people onto the edge of their seats. That's the sort of thing we need here. Strephon, of course, has to have the love light leap up in his eyes as if it's controlled from the board. I think we can patch that into channel 302? Thanks.

"Well, we're to be married" - this is not Phyllis casting aspersions on the state of holy wedlock, she adores him! She's just stirring him up and pricking his bubble of pompous poetry. You see, she doesn't know about his half fairyhood which compels him to be refined and poetic. "I suppose it is" is in the sense of "Do you know, I really think you're right! On consideration I have come to the firm conclusion that 2+2 DOES equal four!" Then there needs to be a happy pause before her conscience deals her a blow and she shares her anxious fears with her boyfriend.

"Have you ever looked in the glass?" - clearly a rhetorical question. He isn't fishing for useless information about her habits in past life, he's telling her that his passions will not be smothered, defy all attempts at extinction and break forth all the more eagerly for long restraint. When she says no, she doesn't really mean she has no idea what she looks like, she's just trying not to appear vain. If she had said "Yes dear, I quite understand that you can't wait to marry a girl of my beauty" we'd be sorely disappointed. Of course he keeps trying to pay her a compliment so he hands her the glass, and then she has no choice - like Rose Maybud she always tells the truth.

"You might fall in love with the LC himself" - Strephon should throw this line away like it's of no consequence - "You might emigrate to the moon by that time", "You might meet a wicked witch and be turned into a frog by that time", etc. Phyllis's response is another joke - oh yeah baby, I'll fall in love with the LC! And when I get tired of him I'll elope with Osama Bin Laden!

Strephon then tries to bring her back down to earth by the reference to the dangerous House of Lords. Specifically dangerous to them, I mean, not just generally dangerous to the nation like all politicians are. Think about it darling, what made them pay you a visit? It's not like they're so short of hunting and fishing that they came for the sport. Be realistic, they're after you.

And then we have that stunning duet, which always brought home to me the thorough beauty of the show as I watched from the wings. Give us a summer's day lighting state with a bit of pink or purple highlight.

(Here comes the good bit - this is where I come in!)

I alluded above to the peers' role being actually quite difficult, as their character has to be so extreme it's funny. Their entrance, of course, is vital for establishing their character. Depending on the size of the chorus it may be possible to have fairly simple choreography of the Lords arriving at work and sitting down to start their day's work of sitting. Personally I don't see the need for a long, heavily choreographed march, it doesn't add anything. But on the other hand, how else can a director fill the time available? The music lasts a long time. A happy medium would be to have a long, slow march but one that has purpose - in and out of the rows of benches, getting to where they're going. Purposeless choreography of the "four paces forward, then four paces back, then march on the spot for four counts, then forward again" type just highlights to the audience that this is not real. Bad idea.

The Lord Chancellor's song is a fairly simple one - it's not really plot, it's background characterisation and just needs to be played according to the words. The chorus just have to confirm that what he says is true, without calling too much attention to themselves.

The following dialogue is completely straightforward - just act it according to the character of your part. It's amazing how many times I've seen a bad job done of it though! A very important thing to remember is that this is the way these people naturally talk - it's not something they have to practice, it just flows naturally out of them. Take for instance Toll's comment "I desire on the part of this House to express its sincere sympathy with your Lordship's most painful position" - that's Peerish for "Poor fellow".

I like the idea of the chorus responding to the "Can he marry his ward without his own consent?" bit. These are professional hair-splitters about law and propriety - they each have an opinion (sic) and love discussing them. So of course they're over the moon that the LC has asked their opinion. It's obvious that it would be a conflict of interest to give his own consent to his own marriage with his own ward. It's equally obvious that it would be downright criminal to marry his own ward without his own consent. But committing himself for contempt of his own court, and appearing by counsel before himself are topics on which they could discourse for hours. LC, give them a bit of time to talk it over amongst themselves and then respond - don't go overboard though.

The party is broken up by the only possible means - a Non-Maskable Interrupt in the form of Lord Mount heralding the arrival of Phyllis. Again he is speaking his natural language - it shouldn't sound affected.

The peers immediately drop everything - almost like sailors/pirates/dragoons. In a dream-like state they gravitate towards the fair delicate creature and wax lyrical about her stunning features. Lord Tolloller puts their feelings into words, and then a sudden thought strikes him - she's a commoner! It would be highly unusual for any of them to marry her. And yet, he says, is not that vast social gap in itself a solution to the problem? Can not a man who is so far above average give a portion of his virtue to his humble wife, thus bringing her up to his own exalted level? This is idealism, House of Lords style, and the rest of the peers are so touched by his generosity (and by the fact that he's removed the barrier between them and Phyllis) that they immediately fall in with the sentiment.

Lord Mountararat, slightly miffed at his rival getting the upper hand, puts in some spadework by cracking a joke. On the spur of the moment he picks as a subject the only thing he knows anything about - the political system. Hey ha ha, I just thought of something! We all belong to parties, but - heehee - we belong to you much more than that! Waaaahahahaha! Careful you don't laugh your head off now!

As I said above, Phyllis's response to every young girl's fondest dream is a strong indication to her actual character. As soon as she can get a word in edgewise, she tries (kindly) to put them on ice by saying "Yes I know you're all eligible bachelors, but I'm not so worldly that I fall for that kind of thing. When I marry, I marry for virtue."

But these professional debaters are made of sterner stuff than that - getting a word in edgewise is like threading a sewing machine while it's running. Toll gets up and has an aria, and the peers give their assent to his sentiments. Ah, he really has a neat way of putting things. Spot on Toll old chap. For lighting I guess we need a spot, but not too strong because it will kill the thing dramatically.

After that the peers actually decide to let the girl have her say. She grabs the opportunity with both hands, and seeing that her gentle efforts had no effect, gives them the full benefit. I am engaged! Engaged! To a Strephon fair with bright brown hair and all that.

Let's have a lighting change on the peers' horror. Less yellow and more white - a chill has crept into the atmosphere and Bad Things are in store.

To me it always seems awkward for the LC to enter right on his dramatic line. What's his motivation? There isn't time for anyone to have gone and fetched him. Probably the best way is that he was about to enter anyway, and came in just in time to hear his dear (honorary) daughter committing sacrilege - rather like Sir Joe Porter on "Why damme it's too bad".

Pack 'em into the wings, because Strephon has to enter too. I rather like the dramatic entrance I've seen on several different productions - he leaps tall rostra in a single bound and takes centre stage just in time for his line. Hold off on the lighting state change - we're getting enough adrenaline from the action on stage, we're already on the edge of our seats so we don't need to overdo it. We'll have another cue in just a few more lines, can you wait until then?

"Neath this blow" has to be fairly heartfelt, in a peerish way. These people are unaccustomed to being refused when they urge their suit with this much eloquence. They're rushing off to their room to sulk! In the musical bridge between "Dignified and stately" and "Though our hearts" we get our long awaited lighting cue. Storm clouds have come up on the horizon and are approaching fast. No more yellow, it's mostly open white, with lots of darkish areas on the stage. A bit of cross light (but not too much), but up light is just gilding the lily.

As they exit, LC sends Phyllis to her room. It's the logical thing to do, I don't know if every production uses it but they should. With only two people on stage we can return to a more normal lighting state - without any of that highlight which says that Miss Universe is in the room of course. Do the change over a long time as the peers' exit music is finishing, that way we don't notice it and it just helps change our mood without us knowing.

Strephon's longish speech about bees, breeze, seas and the expression "if you please" doesn't need any serious work - just act it, believe it and the innate ridiculousness of the text will carry you through. The only thing is to speed up noticeably (subject to Strephon's dictional abilities) and then have an obvious let-down before "Sir, you are England's large hadron collider". The sense is, he's bubbling over with poetical emotion and there's so much to say that he chokes on it. So he comes down to earth and tries another, more prosaic tack. Even so he can't resist getting fairly poetical at the end of the sentence.

And then obviously the LC should be puzzled by this. This is the first time in at least five years he's been stumped by a question of legality - and he certainly hasn't been thwarted by a higher power for a while. "But my difficulty..." is his attempt to get the conversation back where he wants it - in his own area of expertise. "You mustn't tell us what she told you" is the coup de grace, control is firmly back within his grasp. He's so happy to have it back that he skates right over Strephon's last attempt to reintroduce poetry to the discussion.

This whole episode leaves Strephon feeling numb - he knows his last hope has been crushed, and yet it hasn't hit him properly yet. The LC's song slowly removes the cotton wool from his brain and he gives vent to his feelings. Luckily Mum's there, and responds perfectly. It's all straightforward character acting here folks, nothing too complicated. The only thing I want to highlight is "If he did but know!" - the two have to work out between them how they're going to do this. Make it believable, but don't forget this is an important plot point, don't skate over it too quick.

And so to the Finale. The audience need to see the Earls bringing Phyllis in to see the spectacle of Strephon making out with a particularly young lady, so we can't have utter blackness on stage, but we want it fairly close to that. It creates the impression that Strephon and Iolanthe see nothing but each other.

I think the usual method of having the Peers hiding behind bits of scenery and popping their heads out for their lines is a bit corny - they're not eight year olds playing hide and seek, for goodness sake! It would be better if they were just out for an evening stroll and are turning up their noses at the plebeian spectacle before them. They don't do anything about it because it's beneath their contempt, but somehow they can't bring themselves to just walk on.

Obviously when Phyllis cuts loose we need the lights up so we can see what's happening. Normally it's done as a night scene, which fits OK but we have to wonder why dusk is so short. No location is specified, Strephon could easily have wandered miserably from the House of Lords out into whatever district of London his mother's fairy ring is located in. If not, we have to wonder why Iolanthe was visiting the House... never communicate with him again, that's the rule, remember? But then, Phyllis and the peers are nearby - maybe it's just a London park and Iolanthe happened to be in town shopping for dancing shoes for the troupe or something. She seems to be the sort who'd do that.

As a good boy myself, and playing the part of a gentleman, I always felt awkward making fun of Iolanthe after Strephon's mother line. I wouldn't be that rude about anyone, let alone a lady! But that's what Gilbert wrote, and plot-wise we need it to stay in order to justify the FQ's wrath.

Keeping the laugh going over the LC's intro music is not easy, can we have the MD speed things up slightly? We need more than the scored (Ha)^9 to make the headmaster come in to see what the racket is about, even though it seems to go against the peers' dignity.

The way Toll and Mount alternate on the explanation can be played as the LC asking one, not getting any satisfaction and going on to the other - I have known it done. Or it could be done as one-upmanship, hey I'LL tell this joke! I think that would work better, as long as the musical gap can be covered.

Strephon's ballad about his childhood and Iolanthe's views on the vexed topic of breast vs bottle feeding is another classic example of music soothing the savage breast - similar to Katisha being won over by Tit-Willow. Moriarty, plan B - I'll play the sopping violin. (Incidentally, that's one more correlation between Gilbertism and Goonism - the two best forms of humour ever written!) Then Mount brings things back to earth by pointing out that Strephon hasn't actually submitted any actual evidence.

The reality finally hits Phyllis and she's madder than a wet hen in a hornet's nest. Her eyes flash, her lips curl, her breast protrudes, her cheeks flame - hey Phyllis, you're beautiful when you're angry. OK, I'm going.

Phyllis's aria is a bit difficult to stage. She's just given a couple of dozen guys a chance to get in her ear, and whoever hangs back loses. But she can't sing an aria with them all crowding around her! And it would be in conflict with the character of the peers (to say nothing of distracting the audience from the aria, which is what makes lead sops murder stage directors) to have them all fighting each other off to be first in line. That can be made slightly less of a distraction to the audience by pulling the lights down a fraction and putting on a spot. See if you can cross fade it guys, to keep the total amount of light on stage constant.

On the other hand, something must stop the chorus from hearing the aria, because they join in the eager "ME! ME! PICK ME!" questions when she comes down off her soapbox, even though she clearly said "you two" several times.

Then Strephon comes back in, and gets a frosty reception. In victory, malice. In defeat, revenge. They can't even be nice to Strephon to make up for stealing his girl!

Then we have the entrance of the fairies. I still know nothing at all about costume stuff, but I have to say I've never seen anything like the visual effect of our 2006 production. The peers were all in white with coloured robes, the LC in black of course, and the fairies were all in yellow. They entered from both wings and it looked like an explosion of yellow on the stage. That helped bolster up the idea that the peers were totally cowed by the fairies (not that our brilliant acting needed bolstering, of course). Nice one. Oh, I nearly forgot - can we have the lights up a bit too. The audience won't notice it as a light change because of the movement, and it will get them on the edge of their seats.

On the same note, one of the several Iolanthes I saw in the past 12 months ran "The lady of my love" at a fairly cracking pace - I forget what Iolanthe, but so the pace goes. I liked. The audience are now leaning forward from the edge of their seat, risking their equilibrium - which, if we're careful, we can make them lose right on "beGONE!!!!", recovering just in time for "Chancellor unwary". The lighting for this has to be VERY simple - no cross-light, just a straight daylight colour wash.

We can take it down a few points when the peers sing "We never knew we were talking to an influential fairy". What remains of their egos after the Explosion of Fairies has just been dismantled. And now The FQ delivers the coup de grace - punishment. She doesn't forget what the punishment is for compassing the insult of a Fairy Queen, either. CLF join in - which means that either the FQ is not omnipotent and needs some backup for tricky spells like this, or CLF just want a piece of the action. Bless you, it all depends on your interpretation of the FQ.

From there, it's all straight character acting until the curtain comes in. Keep up the movement (dancing and choreo are other things I know nothing about) but keep the lights fairly steady. Do it well and the audience will have very sore hands as they file out to prop up the economy of the wine industry.

OK, on to act 2! Private Willis has the inestimable privilege of opening the thing with what I have to say is the finest single example of WS Gilbert's skill with the English language. Every rhyme is polysyllabic and not a single line feels forced. A good Willis needs to understand that the goal of a rhyme is to divert attention away from itself. If the audience notice the rhymes (without specifically trying to, of course) it can only be because they're imperfect or absent. So don't emphasise them - that would be gilding the lily. Let the audience see the lily in all its natural beauty and they'll enjoy it better.

As with all arias, it's not easy to know what stage business to put on the song. Standing downstage centre like it's an opera concert is uninspiring. Pointless choreography is pointless. I have seen it done as Willis noticing that his superior officers aren't looking so he can sit down and take his hat off and make a cup of tea, but I think he's more conscientious than that.

For lighting we don't need anything special - just a fairly normal daytime wash with enough highlight to cast natural-looking shadows from the paraphernalia on stage. Also, for future reference, Willis has a little dark corner to hide in while the choruses are doing their stuff.

Then on come the chicks again, gee they're cute. And misbehaving like teenagers again, what are this generation coming to? And those are precisely the thoughts of the peers as they enter a few moments later. These maddening beings are making sport of us! It's not RIGHT!

The song and dialogue are fairly straightforward. The thing to watch is the Pickford line. I have no idea why, but it always gets a laugh - even though Allied Pickfords are far from the most prominent courier in today's society and have dropped the "We carry everything" slogan. Just skate right over it Mounty old boy, if it gets a laugh that's good, but don't plan for one.

The brains line also needs careful treatment. "I often wish I had some myself" must be thrown away - it's a rhetorical statement, a ploy Mounty has often used with great effect in the House, which makes a speech sounding natural. It's pure babble intended to keep the listener interested while he sharpens the real point of his speech and draws back his arm to thrust it home. With a good orator playing the good Lord M, the audience will miss the line the first time, then their brains will revisit it half a sentence later and the laugh will be bigger.

Women interfering in politics was, of course, a hot issue at the time (to the point where WSG wrote a whole show about it not too many years later) and is still understood now. It can be delivered as a minor prophet denouncing the sins of the people, with appropriate murmurs of consent from the chorus of converted, or another throw-away line for the audience to see the humour of, a sort of "Well I don't want to say I told you so, but if you look up Hansard for the 12th of September 1854 when we were discussing this very issue..."

"When Britain really ruled the waves" can more or less carry itself, as long as the Mount keeps up the acting. Believe it and all will be well.

Just in time for "In vain to us you plead" we need our first lighting cue for Act 2. The fairies are trying to make the world believe that everything is fine, fine, fine and they're just playing fairy rings again. So let's go back to that state (with the addition of Willis's little dark corner). And they can assume the same attitudes they did - except when they say "Don't go!" which should be acted as the line is written. Actually, every production I've seen renders this song very well, and the dialogue leading into it. Keep her as she goes.

Then FQ comes in. Let's have a very subtle lighting change here - we have come down off the ecstasy of the fairy ring and there's a bit of sheet lightning on the far western horizon because Her Majesty is angry. The scene is fairly easy to stage, it all explains itself pretty much. Just don't forget to have Willis step out of his little dark corner.

The Captain Shaw reference is a sort of problem. Some companies put an explanatory note in the program, but that doesn't really work - the punters either read it beforehand and wonder where it's going to come up, or read it after they've forgotten the passing reference. Better just to skip lightly over the difficulty and let those that wonder, wonder.

The next scene is one of my favourites. All through our 2006 season I was standing in the wings watching the pathos unfold, and thinking once more that a good Phyllis is worth her weight in precision cut binding machine blades. All potential Phyllises reading this, please extract every ounce of feeling you can out of this scene. You're on the verge of tears at every moment. And of course you know this already - when you say you hate Strephon, you're not only trying to convince any passing lamp-posts of the fact but yourself as well. For once let's leave out the Miss Universe lighting state - she's feeling miserable so let's keep it down.

When the two earls enter and start making passes, act naturally - always assuming you're a fairly spirited girl (that cuts out 0% of lead sops I've worked with or heard of) but not quite so spirited that we'd need a new pair of earls for each performance. Be reasonably apologetic when you realise the awful truth, and make up by being as kind as you can without actually compromising yourself.

The rest of the scene actually explains itself quite easily, remembering what I said above about this being the natural way these people talk. "My existence would be hopelessly embittered" is to them as normal as "I wouldn't like it a bit".

And then in comes the Chancellor, for what is probably the best patter song in the canon. There are lots of different ways to render it, but the only course open to the director is to get the best possible patter man and let him run it himself. If he gets stuck and needs a hint, go for it, but the last thing you should do is choreograph it rigidly. Light it as a night scene, preferably with a hint of haunted house pale blue. Drop it at the end of the song with a slow return to the daylight state we had before.

Then those pompous sounding earls come back and speak in their natural tongue for a bit and we get what is probably my favourite song of the whole canon. Sir Arthur, you were absolutely inspired when you wrote this. A more upbeat song I have not heard! Back it with a slight boost to the lights and the audience will be on their feet.

Right, that's that scene gone, now for the penultimate. We still have a loose end in the form of our lead couple who are not yet a couple. Of course we know they have to end up together, but we want to see how it's done. Strephon comes in and talks to the brick wall (which I never see done in real life, despite the number of times I heard it threatened back in my school days) and then Phyllis overhears her name and reveals (to herself and everyone else) that she was really pining for him to the point where she sought him out in his private office. Once more, it's simple dialogue that just needs to be understood and acted.

And so everything is patched up and we're back to the beginning of the show - the only difficulty is Daddy Chancellor. Iolanthe tells her darling boy the secret of his origins, Phyllis sees the implications of this (don't forget to think a bit first, Phyllis - there's no rehearsals for releasing-shocking-information sessions), Iolanthe refuses to play ball and we all exit.

LC comes in with a reasonable slab of dialogue which (all together now!) just needs to be acted, and then Iolanthe decides to play ball after all. As the music starts bring the lights down and put in a bit of mystical uplight. Our chief weapon is fairy eloquence, but the Jedi hand waving trick plays a part too. This is not the wife you are looking for, husband dear.

Drop the uplight when she finishes her speech, but leave in the dark state. Make it even darker as she decides to sell her soul to the devil in order to buy happiness for him, her and thee, and if we're ambitious give us a lightning bolt as she says "I am thy wife".

As the Fairy Queen comes on (finding her duty hard to do today) give us a stark white - the blood has drained from everyone's faces as the horror of it all falls upon us.

As British Law saves the day and the Fairy Queen changes both the letter and the spirit of the law with the stroke of a pencil, bring us back to the happy fairy ring state. It can be a bit noticeable - in one fell swoop every problem has been solved and the characters can pair up like it's a musical comedy. Oh wait, it is.

And on to the finale! Sing up, look carefree and happy, don't forget to sing to the audience even though you have eyes for nobody but the hot girl you have your arms around, and mind out for the curtain calls.

Great show everyone, well done!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

It's just like deja vu all over again!

"This time, ah'm really going to fahnd out where that ghostly music comes frahm!"
"You'll never do it Jethro, sure as anything someone'll come t'the door!"
"How did you know that Uncle Jed?"

Jed Clampett can predict the future!

[tic... tic... Klunk-tic... tic... thud-tic... tic... tic... tic... tictictictictictictic!]
"Ah here we go, train in two minutes."
"How did you know that?"

I can predict the future too, when I'm at Kooyong.

Rosuav: "Hey, what was that?"
Minigeek: "What was what?"
Stanley: [BZZZZZZZZZZ GROAN TICTICTICTICTIC TIC TIC TIC tic tic tic tic... tic... tic... tic-thump... silence]
Minigeek: "Hey, my database session has frozen!"
Rosuav: "Does that answer your question then?"

The Rosuav can predict the future too! What's going on here?

Depending on your culture and non-religious views on matters spiritual, you might call it Deja Vu (listeners are requested to add accent marks above letters according to taste), Extra-Sensory Perception or ESP, advance warnings from departed relatives who have been sent to protect you, or any of a mind boggling number of weird and wacky options.

If you have views of that kind, please do humanity a favour and throw them out the window. There's a much more plausible explanation for it all.

I'd like to put the proposition that the brain (even while its owner is sleeping) receives and processes a lot more information than it presents to the conscious mind. It filters out everything it deems unimportant, but it takes past experiences into account when deciding what's important and what isn't.

Let's go through some examples. I'll skip Jed Clampett's musical doorbell because I think we all know what happens when the lead-up circumstances are presented to the conscious mind.

Kooyong late at night
It's dark and cold, I've done a day's work and an evening's rehearsal, and I want to go home. I'm passing the time productively by either watching Traal play Spider Solitaire or reading Savoynet on my phone. But my subconscious brain is ticking down the time until the train is due, and as it gets closer it starts looking for the very faint buzz of activity from the control box, the pedestrian crossing opening for business, and the distant hum of the rails which indicate that a train is coming into range and will be here shortly. The signs gradually get stronger and more certain, and my brain alerts me just a few seconds before the level crossing bells and station PA start (the final and most certain signals).

What's curious is when they come early. My brain alerts me at an earlier stage in the proceedings - a nod to its knowledge that getting ready to gunzel (ie to record the details of an unusual train movement) takes longer than getting ready to travel.

I am loathe to contradict the BOFH himself, but I don't think it's a gene. It's another case of the brain knowing what's normal (and sorting out a myriad of sounds, smells, temperatures, forces etc to define what normal is) and alerting its owner when something is wrong.

One of the comments on the BOFH page I just linked to was very telling - "My head turns at the sound of only 4 beeps rather than 5 and it takes me a couple of seconds before I even know why my head's pointing down that particular corridor." So we can now say that, independently of its owner's consciousness, the brain will:
a) know what "normal" is
b) realise the current situation is abnormal
c) determine that the abnormality is a problem requiring attention, and
d) work out the location of the device which is having trouble, and direct the eyes that way to pick up additional information.

All this in the space of a few seconds - or usually less.

Waking at a determined time
I have often noticed that I wake up about 30 seconds before my alarm goes off. I have also noticed that even if my alarm is switched off, I wake up about ten minutes after the time I set it for. Why?

We can see from the examples above that the brain doesn't need conscious thought to detect the signs of an upcoming event requiring attention. I'd like to extend this to cover sleeping as well as thinking about something else.

Minor changes in temperature, light level, sound patterns etc will alert the brain to the fact that the world is starting to wake up. Therefore it must be about six o'clock. And hey, it was 1:21 when I went to bed and I feel like I've slept for about four and a half hours. All that adds up to - WAKE HIM UP!

Ooooh, I'd better go and get the washing in!
Just in case you think it's the stereotypical male 80s computer nerd brain that does all this, I can prove the stereotypical female 50s housewife brain does it too.

Clouds start to form, and the level of light changes. Some people just shift their position or turn on a light and go on with the newspaper. Others look up suddenly to see what exactly the weather might be doing. Temperature, humidity and air pressure change too - sometimes imperceptibly (to the conscious mind). Birds start making different sounds. All this, to the brain that Needs to Know, says that it's going to rain and the washing on the line will get wet.

Of course as everyone knows women and specifically mothers are really good at multitasking so this sort of thing is almost expected. But I say it just because I can.

Crackly packets!
In our family we have a theory that the sound of a plastic packet (as in, one full of jelly beans, mixed nuts, or anything else that tastes good and can be shared) being opened is louder than all other noises, no matter what the environment. Somehow when the sound starts the vultures gather in milliseconds.

Of course as everyone who has been reading this far knows, it's simply another case of the conscious mind telling the brain's base operating system "this sound matters a lot to me, let me know if you ever hear it".

So to conclude (this must be the shortest post for a very long time!), I can only say - I have the greatest respect for brains.