Fun Home At The Millbrook Playhouse

On August 3rd, 2017 I saw my third show at the Millbrook Playhouse in Mill Hall. This show was a musical based on the graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. The interesting thing about this show is that the story is set in the same county as Mill Hall, Clinton County. Alison Bechdel grew up in the small town of Beech Creek. As it turns out, I have driven through Beech Creek on my way to Bald Eagle State Park. There is a quaint little restaurant in Beech Creek, Furst Corner Restaurant where I stopped for lunch once. Fun Home was a celebrated musical on Broadway. I saw it advertised at the Circle in the Square Theatre but neglected to see the show on Broadway.

There were a few aspects of the show which made reference to Central Pennsylvania. The song Flying Away actually uses the word “Pennsylvania” in the lyrics. The dialogue in the musical mentions Lock Haven, Danville, and Route 150. The  mention of Route 150 was very ironic for me because I actually took the wrong exit on the way to the theater, the Avis exit, and wound up on Route 150.

I don’t care that much for musicals but I enjoyed Fun Home because it was a serious drama which tackles some heavy issues. I don’t think this kind of show would normally be done at a summer stock theater, but obviously an exception was made for a celebrated Broadway show with a local connection. The dramatic content of the show concerned homosexuality which would normally be a taboo subject in Pennsyltucky. I have to admit that I’m getting a little peeved with the social justice agenda that is taking over the theater community. I think politics is beginning to outweigh the art. But I found nothing to object to in Fun Home since it was very high brow while containing many pop culture references I could relate to. This is as close as I will ever get to seeing a musical which reflects life in Central Pennsylvania during my approximate era of growing up. For this reason I was really taken with the show. I really regret not seeing it on Broadway when I had a chance.

I felt a little bit of jealousy as a playwright. I doubt that I will ever see one of my plays on Broadway. Nevertheless, as I was driving home I reflected on the blessing of my imagination which can so easily encompass the magic of live theater and expand upon it. I even came up with a new idea for the play I am working on. The protagonist ought to express his yearning for a devastatingly beautiful nightmare. There is something dark in his imagination but it has more to do with being serious or profound than being morbid.

Posted in General, Theater, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

NYC Trip To See The Play That Goes Wrong

Yesterday I made a trip to New York City to see the Broadway comedy “The Play That Goes Wrong” at the Lyceum Theatre. My first goal on this trip was to visit the Society of Illustrators’ Museum of American Illustration or the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) which I did not have time to visit on my previous trip. But while I was in midtown I took photos of the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street, the BookOff book store also on West 45th Street, and the Lambs Club restaurant simply because I recently added it to my custom travel guide.

Lyceum Theatre

Lyceum Theatre

I walked to Bryant Park and entered the 42nd Street – Bryant Park Station to take an uptown F train to the Lexington Avenue – 63rd Street Station. The exit at the Lexington Avenue – 63rd Street Station was so close to the Society of Illustrators entrance that I didn’t even have to look for it and I went there immediately since they seemed to be open. I arrived only ten minutes after they opened. They were showing an exhibit of illustrations of imaginative literature from the Korshak Collection. This included a lot of fantasy illustrations and science fiction magazine cover art. I saw many genuinely fantastic and visionary images which made me glad that I decided to check out this small museum. Unfortunately most books published today are not illustrated but this exhibit reminded me that many old books were lavishly illustrated with incredible pen and ink drawings. It is a shame that this practice went out of style in book publishing. I saw a Frank Frazetta painting for an Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars book cover which reminded me of the Frazetta Art Museum. Upstairs I saw an exhibition of original Spider-Man comic book artwork which was probably inspired by the latest Spider-Man film. Even the rest room had some art work including a poster for a Eugene O’Neill play. On the third floor there was a dining room with more Spider-Man comic book artwork. I only spent a half hour at this museum because it was fairly small but I thought it was inspiring and worthwhile. I did not buy anything in the museum bookstore because I didn’t want to carry around a heavy book for the rest of the day. While I was in this area of the Upper East Side I also took photos of the Barbizon Hotel where Sylvia Plath stayed on her trip to New York City and the Park Avenue Armory which is now a non-profit cultural institution.

Society of Illustrators

Society of Illustrators

I think I took a F train for the return trip downtown. I also think this counted as a transfer since swiping my Metrocard did not indicate a fare reduction. I got out at the 42nd Street – Bryant Park Station and walked to West 45 Street. Fifth Avenue was blocked off for a huge street fair. I went to the BookOff book store which I added to my custom travel guide in 2013 but had neglected to visit until now. This book store is owned by a Japanese used-media market. They sell lots of Japanese books and anime DVDs. Their selection of used English books wasn’t very good but I did find a copy of Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays by Tina Howe which was on my wish list. I think Tina Howe is now teaching playwriting at Hunter College in New York City. Some of the announcements in the BookOff book store are made in Japanese.

The street fair on Fifth Avenue provided me with a convenient way to get a bite to eat before the play began at 2:00 p.m. I got a can of coke and a Turkish sausage which was like a hot dog in Russian salad (chopped vegetables in mayonnaise). I found a nearby public seating area with tables where I could eat my meal.

At 1:30 p.m. I got in the line at the Lyceum Theatre to see The Play That Goes Wrong. It only cost me $30.00 to see this Broadway play because I bought a seat for the balcony. This proved to be a bit of a mistake since the view of the stage wasn’t good and I couldn’t hear everything too well. The first thing that went wrong was finding my seat, B 108. It took me two tries to find the right seat because they didn’t all have numbers. Getting up to the balcony required climbing a seemingly endless flight of winding stairs. For some reason, nobody was seated in the front row of the balcony, the A seats.

Strangely, what caught my eye was a large Neo-Baroque piece of bronze statuary over the proscenium. This was a statue of three figures, maybe the Gods of Theater. The figures seemed to be based on classical Greek statues. The central figure was definitely Athena Parthenos with her distinctive helmet, spear, and a winged statue of Victory in her right hand. The figure to her left was holding a lyre. This stature loomed large right in front of me but it was buried in the shadows like the forgotten gods of the arts.

The play was a murder mystery in which everything that could go wrong did. The corpse periodically came to life when his hand was stepped on or his body was sat on. Parts of the set fell off the wall and had to be held up by the actors. I think they overdid it a little since something was constantly going wrong. But it was cute when one of the actors would clap with the audience when something went wrong, mistaking this for applause for a good performance. A scene was repeated three times and at one point two actresses were trying to perform the same part at the same time, fighting each other on stage for the spotlight. It was non stop mayhem and definitely one the funniest plays I’ve ever seen. Some of the action actually took place in one of the side balconies which was set up as the theater sound booth. I mistook this as an actual work area of the Lyceum Theatre and was wondering about the Duran Duran posters. Duran Duran was the favorite band of the sound technician for the pretend mystery play. The actor playing this part came up to the balcony and entertained us during intermission with some inspired improvisation. He claimed we could avoid seeing the awful second act by going to another Broadway theater to see the second act of some other show. There were many jokes about this show not being Hamilton.

Chelsea Market

Chelsea Market

After the show my next goal was to visit the Chelsea Market. Although I’ve seen the Chelsea Market on previous visits and photographed the exterior, for some reason it never occurred to me to actually go inside. But there is a book store in the Chelsea Market and various places to eat. To get there I walked to 42nd Street and entered the subway entrance across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I took a downtown C train to the 14th Street Station. I took several photos of the subway entrances on 8th Avenue and West 14th Street because this is an useful stop if you are visiting the High Line or Whitney Museum of American Art. I’ve definitely been there before but did not have any good photos to use in my custom travel guide. I found the Chelsea Market extremely crowded. Eventually I located Posman Books way in the back. This small book store was also extremely crowded. They had a very small selection of plays and poetry. I could not find any books on my shopping list but I finally found the bookshelf for science fiction where I found the book The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, one of his famous Culture novels. I had diner at Friedman’s Lunch where I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and a lemonade. The grilled cheese sandwich was one of the best such sandwiches I’ve ever had. I found it on an online menu; Grilled Cheese Sandwich Lunch Bacon, aged Gruyere, white cheddar and caramelized onions on grilled ciabatta. Ciabatta is a form of Italian white bread with large holes. It is crunchier than soft white bread. This was a fancy grilled cheese sandwich!

I had no other plans beyond Chelsea Market so I wandered up Eighth Avenue and located the Atlantic Theater Company and Joyce Theater to take photos of their exteriors. Then I walked all the way uptown along 8th Avenue just to see what was on this one street. I passed Madison Square Garden and eventually found an Art Deco building on 8th Avenue and West 38th Street which I photographed extensively because it is of some architectural interest according to a web site of obscure NYC attractions.

This trip to New York City was more inspiring than my last trip. I needed some inspiration after a disappointing rejection of my AI play which I was so sure would have been accepted. I was considering taking a new track to literary fame, maybe concentrating on the sonnet. But this just brings me back to an essential problem. Nothing I could create would really satisfy me. Getting a sonnet published would strike me as a minor accomplishment, yet how much time would  it take to achieve that? On every trip to New York City I hope to discover something that will change my life but nothing ever does. But maybe reading the books I bought or finding out more about the artists who created the illustrations I saw will lead to something.

Posted in General, Theater, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Second Trip to Gettysburg

Yesterday I made my second trip to Gettysburg, just one week after my first trip. On this trip my goal was to see the Gettysburg National Military Park and more of the battlefield.

I left later than I intended after 8:00 a.m. and did not reach Gettysburg until 11:30 a.m. Along the way I stopped at a Sheetz near Duncannon for a restroom break and an used bookstore in Enola PA. Enola is a suburb of Harrisburg near Marysville on Route 15. Most drivers avoid this part of Route 15 but I follow it just to keep my driving directions simple. Norfolk Southern operates a large rail yard and locomotive shop in Enola. The used book store was Cupboard Maker Books. I think I remember visiting this book store on one of my previous trips to Harrisburg. I looked for some science fiction books but I could not remember the names of the authors I’m interested in so I have to add them to my shopping list on my smartphone. But I did find a copy of The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein which was on my shopping list. I wasn’t sure if anything was going to make this trip particularly worthwhile so I was pleased to have at least found a book I was looking for.

Cupboard Maker Books

Cupboard Maker Books

When I reached Gettysburg I took the Baltimore Street exit to go directly to Gettysburg National Military Park instead of going through town. I parked in Parking Lot 3 as recommended by a digital sign which told visitors which lot to use. Parking Lot 3 was almost full of cars but I beat somebody to a parking spot. I was surprised to find the Gettysburg National Military Park so crowded since it was a cloudy day and not an ideal time to visit the battlefield. Fortunately it was only a short walk to the museum and visitor center.

I bought a combo ticket to the film “A New Birth of Freedom”, the Gettysburg Cyclorama, and the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War for $12.25 and a Battlefield Bus Tour ticket for $30.00 but my sales receipt shows a total of only $42.00 for some reason. I accidentally dropped my bus tour ticket near the rifle display case while tying my shoe but fortunately I noticed it was missing in the line for the film and managed to retrieve it before anyone picked it up off the floor. Good save! I only had time to see the film and the cyclorama before it was time for the bus tour. Actually I had a half hour to kill before the bus tour. It was not enough time to go through the museum so I went to the book store to see what sort of books they had for sale. I located a few books I might want to buy but I didn’t buy anything then because I didn’t want to be carrying anything around the battlefield.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg National Military Park

I almost missed the bus tour because I was waiting outside the book store. That is where the buses drop you back off. There is a bus shelter in Parking Lot 2 where the buses depart from, not far from the main entrance kiosk slash message board. I think the Battlefield Bus Tour does not have a set route. What you will see is determined by the professional battlefield guide. Our guide was a Gettysburg former history teacher so she really knew her stuff. She took us to McPherson Ridge where the battle began, the Virginia Memorial with a huge equestrian monument to General Robert E. Lee, Little Round Top where it began to rain a bit, and the Peach Orchard where she talked about General Sickles. We did not leave the bus for photo taking opportunities at every stop; only at McPherson Ridge, the Virginia Monument, and Little Round Top. I was disappointed that we only drove by the Pennsylvania State Memorial and The Angle but I noted how close those sites were to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery parking lot.

After being dropped off outside the Gettysburg National Military Park book store I went back inside to see the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War. I had a little trouble finding my ticket but nobody was checking for tickets anyway. I saw many display cases of Civil War artifacts but I did not bother to watch most of the videos. The museum was ridiculously crowded. It took me almost an hour to get through the museum. After that I went back to the book store and bought the book The Civil War by Bruce Catton. This is a single volume general history of the entire Civil War. I figured this was a good book to read next because I’m still vague on the causes for the war and how it continued after the Battle of Gettysburg.

I left the Gettysburg National Military Park visitor center and museum around 4:00 p.m. which left me two hours to possibly drive around the battlefield. I was particularly interested in seeing the Pennsylvania State Memorial and The Angle and had a good idea where to find them after the Battlefield Bus Tour. However many of the battlefield roads are one way so it proved to be a little tricky to get there. I think I drove up Taneytown Road from the visitor center and drove through the Soldiers’ National Cemetery parking lot expecting to turn left onto Hancock Avenue. But Hancock Avenue is one way and you can’t go down that way. So I had to drive down Steinwehr Avenue which becomes Emmitsburg Road to United States Avenue. Then I made to mistake of taking Sickles Avenue which only led me back to Emmitsburg Road. I made a left onto United States Avenue again and went further to Hancock Avenue. I did see a large group of Confederate soldier re-enactors along United States Avenue. By driving north on Hancock Avenue I was finally able to reach the Pennsylvania State Memorial, one of the largest monuments on the battlefield. There is an observation deck in this monument but you need to climb a narrow flight of curving stairs to reach it. There was barely enough space for someone going up to pass another person going down. There were a lot of people there so I had to squeeze past several people before reaching the observation deck. After seeing the Pennsylvania State Memorial I proceeded to The Angle which is the furthest point that Pickett’s Charge reached, aka the High Water Mark. This is where Brigadier General Lewis Armistead fell in battle. Lewis Armistead was played by Richard Jordan in the 1993 film Gettysburg. He was one of my favorite characters. I took some photos of the monument which marks where he was mortally wounded.

Pennsylvania State Memorial

Pennsylvania State Memorial

I did not attempt to explore more of the battlefield because it was getting late. You aren’t supposed to be on the battlefield after 6:00 p.m. and it was 5:00 p.m. by then. Clearly I need to study the maps and roads before my next trip on August 5th and 6th. I still want to see Little Round Top, the Devil’s Den, and maybe the Virginia Memorial in better light.

Gettysburg Battlefield Monument

Gettysburg Battlefield Monument

I drove to the end of Hancock Avenue and turned right to park in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery parking lot. This parking lot is far from downtown Gettysburg but it is  convenient for free parking if you don’t mind walking. I walked down Taneytown Road to Steinwehr Avenue looking for a place to eat. I was thinking maybe O’Rorke’s Family Eatery but then I saw Gettysburg Eddie’s on Steinwehr Avenue and decided to give that restaurant a try even though it was not in my notes. This proved to be a good choice. Their food was excellent and reasonably priced. The portions were unexpectedly large so you definitely don’t want to order too much. I had the Supreme Nachos and the Deep Dish Apple Crisp. The Supreme Nachos was a huge pile of taco meat, lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers on nachos. It was too much for me to finish even though I was famished. The Deep Dish Apple Crisp came in a huge glass and could have been a meal in itself. But the entire meal cost me less than $25.00. I saw a group of Civil War re-enactors at this restaurant. There were several men dressed as Union generals and one women wearing a dress with a huge hoop skirt. Their costumes were very high quality and looked totally authentic. I like to joke that these people are just more tourists, time travelers. After that heavy meal I went to the souvenir shop next door and bought a Union kepi hat for $20.00.

I then walked all the way to Lincoln Square in downtown Gettysburg and entered the Gallery 30 store on York Street. I was tempted to buy another book but I figured I had spent enough this day. I am also buying more books that I could ever read. On the way back to the car I had to enter the Soldier’s National Cemetery to use the restroom because that heavy meal was running right though me. As long as I was there, I took the opportunity to photograph all the monuments in Soldier’s National Cemetery in the dying sunlight. In particular I saw the Soldiers National Monument gleaming white in the slanting rays of the setting sun.

Instead of driving though town, I went down Taneytown Road until I was able to get on Route 15 North. I stopped off at the Sheetz in Duncannon to fill up on gas but mostly just to get a receipt that showed where it was located. There was supposed to be a thunderstorm that day but it really didn’t rain much until late in the evening as I was a driving home and even that wasn’t much of a storm. But I did not get home until 9:40 p.m. Still, I was pleased that I managed to spend as much time in Gettysburg as possible on a day trip. On my overnight trip in two weeks I will now have more time to drive around the battlefield. I will also have more time to check out the retail establishments and minor museums.

Posted in General, Pennsylvania, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trip To Gettysburg

On Saturday, July 15, 2017 I made my first trip to Gettysburg PA. Gettysburg is two and a half hours from Williamsport so it is not that far away but I don’t like driving south on Route 15. That highway along the Susquehanna River is very boring with few landmarks. I left Williamsport around 7:00 a.m. and arrived in Gettysburg by 9:30 a.m. I parked in the Racehorse Alley Parking Garage. It cost me $10.00 to park there for the day. I parked in the spot numbered 340 which I then had to input into the electronic parking meter near the pedestrian exit. It would not accept cash.

My goal on this trip was to explore the town. I did not visit the battlefield because I plan to make an overnight trip to Gettysburg on August 5th, leaving August 6th. I will have more time to explore the Gettysburg Battlefield on that trip. I am still in the process of creating a custom travel guide for Gettysburg so this was like a scouting party trip to gather intelligence. I took lots of photos to use in my travel guide. The first things I saw were the Lincoln Diner and the Majestic Theater. After walking to Lincoln Square I went down Chambersburg Street where I found the Garryowen Irish Pub. After crossing the street I photographed The Parrot and the James Gettys Hotel.

Chambersburg Street

Chambersburg Street

I then walked far down Baltimore Street. There were several establishments I wanted to photograph along this street because the retail stores are not well documented online. I found The Antique Center of Gettysburg and Ping’s Cafe and many other establishments which I haven’t even added to my notes yet. Eventually I made it all the way to where Baltimore Street branches off to Steinwehr Avenue. This area was of particular interest since I have a reservation at the 1863 Inn Of Gettysburg for my overnight trip. I made sure to photograph the Irish Brigade Gift Shop, the Blue and Gray Gift Shop, and Rita’s Ice Custard Happiness which are all located near the hotel. I think I tried to visit the Jennie Wade House at this point but they did not appear to be open even though they should have been open since 9:00 a.m.

The third substantial retail street in Gettysburg is Steinwehr Avenue so I walked far down that street next. I passed the Sunset Ice Cream Parlor which was of some interest since they are based in Williamsport. I also saw the Dobbin House Tavern. I went pass Tommy’s Pizza and the Gettysburg Diorama History Center. I walked as far as the Lincoln Train Museum next to the Best Western hotel before crossing the street to visit the Gettysburg Heritage Center.

Gettysburg Heritage Center

Gettysburg Heritage Center

The Gettysburg Heritage Center was the first establishment I entered during my trip. It was a small museum with very few artifacts or exhibits. But it did have several videos to watch with some 3D photos and 3D videos. Admission was only $8.95 and that was reasonable given how little there was to see. I saw a short film in their movie theater which played before a sunken area filled with dummies of Civil War soldiers in a battle scene. The gift shop had an impressive collection of books on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. I bought the book Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg: Second Edition, Revised and Expanded which is actually a guide to the Gettysburg National Military Park. I’m not terribly interested in the Civil War but I did see the 1993 film Gettysburg and found it strangely inspiring.

After leaving the Gettysburg Heritage Center I found my way to the nearby Soldier’s National Cemetery where there were a few huge monuments to see. I also found the Lincoln Address Memorial. I hadn’t actually researched this cemetery so I was pleased that I managed to just stumble across what was to be seen there. I walked back up Steinwehr Avenue and stopped off at Sunset Ice Cream Parlor where I ordered two scoops of coffee ice cream in a cup.

I then walked all the way back to Lincoln Square and dropped off the book in my car which was stilled parked in the Racehorse Alley Parking Garage. I stopped in at the Gettysburg Railroad Station which has a small museum and a tiny gift shop. I was then ready for lunch so I went to The Parrot on Chambersburg Street where I ordered a Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwich. It came with a small cup of coleslaw, some potato chips, and a dill pickle. The potato chips were  small but surprisingly good so I ate all of them first.

Return Visit Lincoln Statue

Return Visit Lincoln Statue

After lunch I circled Lincoln Square and found the cheesy Return Visit sculpture of Abraham Lincoln guiding a tourist. But my major objective was to walk along York Street and photograph all the establishments to be found there. I was surprised to come across the Gettysburg Community Theatre because I had not come across any references to it in my research. It is possible that this is not a genuine community theater. The sidewalk sandwich board was advertising Civil War Voices which sounds like a permanent show intended as a tourist attraction. But after looking at their web site it appears to be a legitimate community theater.

My stroll along York Street concluded my exploration of the downtown area so I ventured to enter a few more establishments. First I tried the Antique Center of Gettysburg, one of those antique malls with glass cases for various antique vendors. Most of the antiques were military memorabilia but there was also a good selection of military books. I’m not really into military stuff so I didn’t find anything I was tempted to buy. I went upstairs but I only found one room with a small amount of goods for sale. It was like an empty apartment up there and not worth climbing the steep steps.

Next I visited the Gettysburg Museum of History which was a free museum on Baltimore Street. This museum was essentially a residential house jam packed with some surprisingly high quality artifacts. Most of the artifacts were military in nature but not exclusively from the Civil War. I also saw plenty of Nazi and World War II artifacts. There was even an Egyptian mummy’s head and a room of John F. Kennedy memorabilia. I had to wonder if all this stuff was authentic but it looked pretty real. I put $5.00 in the donation box since this free museum did not disappoint. It was definitely worth visiting.

The final museum I went to was the Shriver House Museum. This was a private house where Confederate sharpshooters holed up during the Battle of Gettysburg. In the gift shop I paid $8.95 for a tour of the house led by an elderly woman in period costume. She led a large group of tourists through the rooms of the house. It was a little crowded. We visited the parlor, the bedrooms, the sitting room, the attic, and the basement saloon. After the tour was over I went back to the gift shop and bought a small metal replica of a Civil War rifle which made for a good souvenir.

After that I walked way up Baltimore Street and entered the Blue and Gray Gift Shop. They were mostly selling t-shirts although I saw a few swords which may have made a nice gift, but they were a bit expensive. I didn’t really find anything to buy there. So I walked even further along Baltimore Street until I reached the Soldier’s National Cemetery. There I noticed many Civil War monuments across the street on Cemetery Hill. I crossed the street and checked out the canons and monuments on Cemetery Hill. This was the only part of the Gettysburg Battlefield I actually saw on this trip. I also noticed the Evergreen Cemetery across the street where I quickly found Jennie Wade’s grave because there was a family of tourists around it. I was quite pleased to have found that without having done the necessary research to locate it. I wandered around Evergreen Cemetery a bit because it had many fancy tombstones and interesting graves. It was quite similar to many other Pennsylvania cemeteries which I have visited. Most of them have at least one Civil War monument. I used the rest room in the nearby Soldier’s National Cemetery.

Cemetery Hill

Cemetery Hill

By this time I was getting very hot so I went back up Baltimore Street and bought an Italian Ice at Rita’s Ice Custard Happiness across from the 1863 Inn Of Gettysburg. I then slowly walked back to Lincoln Square and returned to my car. There I discovered that I had left my car window down the entire time I was exploring Gettysburg. I wasn’t sure if I had actually left my driver side window down, but I suppose I did, expecting to get a parking ticket like they issue in Williamsport’s Church Street Garage.

Overall Gettysburg is a great little town for the tourist. I would put it with Jim Thorpe and New Hope as one of the best tourist destinations in Pennsylvania. Like those towns it was a bit too crowded with tourists to qualify as a typical small Pennsylvanian town, but the advantage is that there is more to do there.

I plan to concentrate on the Gettysburg Battlefield during my overnight trip in August. I will head straight to the Gettysburg National Military Park and maybe take a bus tour. Maybe I will be able to find something to do Saturday evening. Meanwhile I am reading the novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara at work during my lunch breaks. I can read a chapter a day. The novel is virtually a novelization of the 1993 film Gettysburg because the film used all of the dialogue and even some text which is not dialogue in the book.

Posted in General, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trip To Altoona Pennsylvania

Yesterday I made a day trip to another city in Pennsylvania, Altoona. Altoona is most famous as a railroad town. But is also has a connection with Williamsport as being the birthplace of the science fiction writer H. Beam Piper who eventually moved to Williamsport. Although Altoona is only a two hour drive from Williamsport, I have never visited this city before because I have concentrated more on exploring the eastern half of the state.

I recently bought a dashcam to get some video of the road signs but I didn’t actually record any video because I didn’t study how to use it. I was hoping to get some screen captures to update my driving direction notes. Fortunately I didn’t have too much trouble finding my way around on this trip. I did drive past State College and appreciated the scenic views of the Bald Eagle Valley at the foot of the Bald Eagle Mountain ridge.

I arrived in Altoona at 9:00 a.m., the opening time for the Railroaders Memorial Museum. I saw a short film on the Horseshoe Curve and then saw the exhibits on all three floors of the museum. I also went outside to see the Harry Bennett Memorial Roundhouse. It started to rain then but fortunately it was just a few sprinkles. I found the exit to the walkway around the turntable and bridge. There were many railroad cars in the rolling stock area, some of them badly deteriorating. The Railroaders Memorial Museum reminded me of Steamtown in Scranton. I spent almost an hour and a half at the museum and then drove out to the Horseshoe Curve. I followed the directions on a sheet of paper the museum provides instead of my own directions. The directions were a little complicated but there were some small signs pointing in the right direction at key intersections. It took me approximately 15 minutes to drive out to the Horseshoe Curve. There was some road work going on which reduced traffic to one lane.

Horseshoe Curve was awesome! It was definitely the highlight of my trip. The trackside observation park affords a great view of the valley and mountains. I thought it was very scenic and you would almost want to visit the park just for the view. But the main attraction is the freight trains which go around the curve. There seems to be a train every half hour so you might have a bit of a wait. I should have brought a book along to read. There was a locomotive parked alongside the tracks in its own little fenced in piece of railroad track. I stayed at the Horseshoe Curve for about an hour and only saw two trains; two attached locomotives running alone and a long freight train. You can take the funicular or the steps up to the observation park from the visitor center. I took the funicular to get up there but I took the steps to get back down. The visitor center has a gift shop and a small exhibit area. I did notice one tour bus drop off a load of tourists so some bus companies must include the Horseshoe Curve on their trips.

Horseshoe Curve

Horseshoe Curve

After leaving the Horseshoe Curve I drove back to downtown Altoona but it was a little difficult to find my way. I wasn’t quite sure where to park without getting towed but eventually I parked near the foot bridge across the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks that run south of the downtown area. I left my Railroaders Memorial Museum guidebook visible on my dashboard to make it clear that I was a tourist. While walking across the foot bridge I managed to take a few photos of trains going through the city. Apparently these railroad tracks still get a lot of traffic.

Altoona Mural

Altoona Mural

I wandered around downtown Altoona taking photos of everything in sight because this city is poorly documented in photos on the Internet. The downtown did show signs of economic distress with many boarded up storefronts and empty lots. There was not much retail and few restaurants. It was also fairly deserted, like a ghost town. But I took photos of many landmarks like the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, the Mishler Theatre, the Altoona Community Theatre building next to Tom and Joe’s Diner, and the Texas Hot Dogs restaurant which was closed because the owners were on vacation.

Eventually I walked up 12th Street to 16th Avenue, an steep uphill climb. It started to rain as I was climbing the hill and I got slightly drenched but fortunately it did not last long. I forgot to bring my umbrella. After reaching 16th Avenue I walked downhill on 16th Avenue to reach Fairview Cemetery behind the UPMC Altoona hospital. I guess it is kind of convenient having a cemetery right behind a hospital for the patients who don’t make it. Fairview Cemetery is where the science fiction writer H. Beam Piper is buried. Fortunately I did not have to search the entire cemetery for his tombstone because I found a clue to its exact location online and you can even see it using Google Street View. It is in the front of the cemetery closer to the intersection of Willow Avenue and 5th Street, so basically on the far right corner of the cemetery facing the hospital. The Fairview Cemetery was a bit creepy even in the bright sunshine and seemed a bit neglected. The grass was not cut and H. Beam Piper’s tombstone was obscured by wild flowers. I had to tramp then down a little to take photos. Somebody had placed one of his Ace SciFi paperback books beside his tombstone. It was missing its cover and was soggy and deteriorating. I thought it was a  fitting symbol of what time does to an author’s work. I have only read one of his novels, The Cosmic Computer, and quite frankly I did not care for it. It seemed very dated and focused too much on mundane world building based closely on the contemporary economic and political systems. I was amused by the term “computerman” as a variation of “spaceman”. The author also predicted a computer which achieves artificial intelligence would still be using punched tape as its output. Well technically H. Beam Piper’s grave was visited by a computerman from the future, the year 2017,  since I work as a computer programmer.

H. Beam Piper Tombstone

H. Beam Piper Tombstone

I took some photos of the UPMC Altoona hospital after walking down 4th Street back to Chestnut Avenue. I had lunch at Dickey’s Barbeque Pit. I thought this was a local restaurant but it is actually part of a national chain based in Dallas Texas. I think there was some confusion over what I was ordering because I only got a Just the Pork sandwich and a Big Yellow Cup when I thought I ordered the Classic Sandwich Plate. Fortunately they had some sandwich fixings so I could add special sauce, onions, and pickles to my sandwich. I used the restroom before I left because the sandwich was very greasy.

After finding 11th Avenue I stopped in at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art where I saw three exhibits; Kim Williams: View to the Soul, Tim Boyles: Celebrity Status, and William H. Rau: Openings – Urban, Rural, Rail. It was mostly celebrity photos and old railroad photos. According to Wikipedia, William Herman Rau was an American photographer best known for his panoramic photographs of sites along the Pennsylvania Railroad. These photos were in a darkened gallery whose lights only went on if you entered the galley, possibly a novel way to cut down on light damage.

Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art

Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art

Upon leaving the art museum I wandered around downtown which was mostly deserted. There were some signs of attempted urban renewal along with indications of urban decay. I saw a fancy Veterns Mall and a great mural of the city’s heyday as a major railroad city. I might have wandered a bit further but the sky had darkened and there was a clear threat of a thunderstorm. I did get some final photos of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament which was brilliantly light by the sun against a background of dark clouds. I got at least one great shot before scurrying to my car to beat the rain.

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament

Before heading home I did drive to the Logan Town Centre shopping plaza to visit Barnes & Noble. This is practically the only book store in the entire Altoona metropolitan area. I had to wait until a heavy downpour from the thunderstorm had passed before going inside. I bought the book The Children of Odin: Nordic Gods and Heroes by Padraic Colum because I’m not very familiar with Scandanavian mythology.

There does not appear to be enough attractions in the Altoona area to justify another visit but I should probably return to State College after doing more research.


Posted in General, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of Sweat by Lynn Nottage

On Saturday, June 24, 2017 I saw the Broadway production of Sweat by Lynn Nottage at Studio 54. Although Studio 54 was an infamous disco nightclub in the late 1970s, it is now a Broadway theater managed by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Studio 54

Studio 54

Sweat is most significant play I have ever seen. It is the only play which directly addresses the most important concern of my life, which has been finding decent employment. The play was set in Reading PA, a rust belt city in Pennsylvania which is probably very similar to Williamsport PA. I’ve never been to Reading PA but it is on my list of cities in the state that I plan to visit. Reading PA has a bad reputation for being one of the worst cities in the state. Apparently the city has such a terrible reputation that it attracted the attention of the playwright, Lynn Nottage, who wanted to write a play about industrial decline and its effects upon the working class. Reading PA is just one of many cities in Pennsylvania which have been economically distressed for decades.

The play is essentially a documentary on how NAFTA caused the factories to close down as production moved to Mexico. This also occurred in Williamsport and caused my younger brother to lose his factory job. I have personally never worked in a factory. I eventually found a decent job as a computer programmer and web developer.

Sweat is definitely the sort of play I should have written. I’m a bit jealous that somebody else wrote the definitive play on union busting and factory closings, but we should be grateful that such a play exists at all. It will be very interesting to see if any regional theaters choose to do this play now that its Broadway run has ended. Typically we could expect the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Philadelphia to do this play since they always include last year’s Pulitzer Prize play in their season. I was looking at the list of Pulitzer Prize plays and noticed that it was identical to the performance history of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. That is one way to play it safe!

However, this play addresses some controversial issues like union busting, racism, and economic inequality. Sweat will put the commitment of Pennsylvania’s regional theaters to their community to the test. In Williamsport it would definitely require some bravery to include this play in a season because there is a lot of hostility towards unions and working class radicalism even though most of the town’s conservatives are mired in hopeless poverty and bitch endlessly about how there are no decent jobs. These people simply aren’t interested in giving any serious thought to the root of their problems.

But technically this play merely holds up a mirror to the working class and tells us that it sucks to be you. This is the problem with the documentary approach to playwriting. I think there are three possible approaches that a political play can take; the documentary approach, the entertainment approach which merely distracts or comforts us, and the visionary approach. The visionary approach is the one I favor because I think stories should suggest solutions to our problems. The only purpose for our imagination is to run through scenarios, to think about how things could change for us, to dream about how things could be better. Ultimately we will not value any story which does not show us how to handle difficult situations. I think this is why stories about overcoming obstacles without cheating are so popular. There has been a considerable amount of research into the psychology of story in narrative and cognitive theory which suggests that this is why we are “wired for story” as Lisa Cron puts it in her book on writing, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Our brains have evolved to appreciate stories because it allows us to learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Stories actually have significant value for our survival. Certainly an instructive story on how to meet the challenges of a bad economy would have survival value.

Sweat doesn’t give you any useful suggestions about what to do when your factory closes. It does show the effects this has on a community. It drives many people into drug addiction which we can certainly see with the opioid epidemic that has reached a crisis point. And it drives other people into a life of crime although the only crime committed in this play was the beating of a Latino scab. The play did do an excellent job of demonstrating how people from different ethnic backgrounds were being pitted against each other. The Latino community was being excluded from factory work until the bosses used them to replace the more highly paid, long term workers.

Some of the characters seem a little responsible for their own plight. The play does not try to avoid these character flaws. One worker dismisses the idea of returning to school to learn new skills and another admits to not having any imagination. These are people who have seen factories as the only kind of work to get into for their entire lives. When the factories close down they just don’t know what else to do. Information Technology offers high paying jobs in an office environment but many people have trouble seeing themselves doing this kind of work. This is why I think the visionary mindset is key to dealing with fundamental changes to your ecosystem. When your circumstance change significantly you need to change yourself significantly. You need to transcend your tired and worn out patterns of thinking and see yourself doing something radically different. And this is why we need visionary theater to entice us with dreams of a better outcome.

Posted in General, Theater, Travel, Writing | Leave a comment

Sweating In New York City

I made yet another trip to New York City yesterday to see a play on Broadway. I was a bit surprised to find the Susquehanna Buses in bright new colors with advertising for Bucknell University. It must be part of a new business relationship. On the bus ride to New York City I read the science fiction novel “More Than Human” by Theodore Sturgeon on my Kindle. I finally finished reading it on the ride home. On this trip the bus did leave us off in the vicinity of 51st Street and 8th Avenue like it was supposed to. It left us off directly across from One Worldwide Plaza on West 50th Street and 8th Avenue. I decided to walk north to West 54th Street to take some photos of Studio 54 since that was the theater where I would see the play Sweat, by Lynn Nottage. While I was in the area I also located a few establishments of minor interest. I took photos of Uncle Vanya Cafe, a Russian restaurant, and Old Castle Pub and Restaurant, also on West 54th Street. I was not particularly interested in these restaurants, but they make good landmarks along the street. Uncle Vanya Cafe was closed and shuttered so I had to go back later to take some decent photos of the place. I imagine this is where Donald Trump’s Russian contacts pass along information.

My first goal was to visit the Met Breuer. This is a contemporary art museum located in the same building that used to be the home of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Met Breuer is associated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and shows work from their contemporary art collections. I was aware of the fact that the Whitney Museum of American Art was no longer located there, but I did not realize the building had been re-purposed.

Met Breuer is located on the Upper East Side and getting there required a more efficient use of the subway system. First I walked to the 57 Street Station of the N line. These stations are located in the vicinity of Carnegie Hall. I took a N train up to the 59th Street Station Lexington Avenue station where I transferred to the 6 train. This shows a more sophisticated use of the subway system since my previous way of doing things would have required walking many blocks east to a 6 line station. I was a little bit thrown by the Astoria Ditmars reference which is the last stop in Queens. I took the 6 train to 77 Street Station near Lenox Hill Hospital. I’m still a little confused by the streets in the Upper East Side but fortunately I struck off in the right direction, walking past the Lenox Hill Hospital and crossed Park Avenue to reach Madison Avenue.

I paid $20.00 admission for the Met Breuer even though the suggested admission is $25.00. But I do not regret that because half the museum was closed. By rights, I should have only paid $10.00, $5.00 for each floor, because only two floors of exhibits were open. The Met Breuer has got to be one of the worst art museums I have ever wasted good money on. Only the American Folk Art Museum is possibly as bad. Most of the art work I saw was incredibly bad. The sort of thing you could produce yourself. I’m talking grids penciled onto a sheet of paper using a ruler and pictures of one or two squares and black lines. I’ve seen better artwork done by high school students. But to be precise, the two exhibits I saw were The Body Politic, art house videos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms. The videos were all dreadfully boring loops except for Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows (2015) which was very surreal and compelling.  Set in China, the film shows dominatrix Bunny Glamazon riding a scooter past endless beige apartment towers. She walks through an office building where large soap bubbles float mysteriously in the air until she arrives at her workstation where she appears to work smelling flower arrangements for fragrance quality control. After that, things get even weirder. This video runs for 22 minutes but I only watched part of it.

Met Breuer

Met Breuer

Lygia Pape was a Brazilian artist active in the Concrete and Neo-Concrete Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Talk about an obscure artist! Still I would have been more curious about this example of international art if it had been any good. But the only interesting thing I saw was TtEias (1979), nine semi-transparent prisms, which were created using gold thread. I thought this was an enchanting work which seemed to capture the beauty of rays of light shining from the heavens, like when you see rays from the sun reach down to the earth from a cloudy sky. You might say I got something from my visit to Met Breuer, but I was so disappointed that I didn’t buy anything from the museum store, which didn’t have a very good selection of art books or merchandise anyway.

I retraced my previous steps on the subway system to get back downtown. I did have to put another $20 on my Metrocard. I took the N train all the way to 42nd Street – Times Square because I wanted to visit the Drama Book Shop before seeing the play. The Drama Book Shop was coming up a lot in my continuing research on New York City because it plays a big part in the life of playwrights in the city. I bought two books there; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht and Dionysian Magazine 003. Dionysian Magazine is a literary magazine devoted to playwrights. It appears to have been founded by a somewhat successful actor as an ingenious bit of marketing. I don’t have all the details so it seems a little strange that an actor would want to promote playwriting in its literary form.

After doing that little bit of shopping I wanted to get back to the vicinity of West 54th Street so I would be on time for the play. I took the C train to the 50th Street Station. It seemed like I waited an unusually long time for a C train to show up at the 42nd Street – Times Square station. It may have been one of those frequent delays that everyone is complaining about. I had time to sign onto the free WiFi and download the Weekender MTA app. I made it uptown a little before 1:00 p.m. I know the time because I tried to get a bite to eat at Merilu Pizza Al Metro but I was a little early. They don’t open until 1:00 p.m. and I had to walk around the neighborhood for awhile. This is when I went back to Uncle Vanya Cafe to take a better photo. At Merilu Pizza Al Metro I ordered a slice of white pizza, actually two square slices, and a can of coke for $6.00. This is now my go to place for an inexpensive meal.

Soon it was time for the main attraction of my trip, the Broadway play Sweat by Lynn Nottage st Studio 54. This play was so significant that I will write a more detailed review in my next blog post. I want to give this play a detailed analysis and give my thoughts on what the play represents in the history of great theater. But I will describe the experience of seeing another Broadway production. The set design was rather impressive and featured some video projection and a revolving stage set which did not require many set changes for new scenes. A very realistic bar was the main set for most of the action. This reminded me of the play Daphne’s Dive by Quiara Alegría Hudes which also took place in a neighborhood bar. Both plays featured a multiracial cast and there was similar dancing and political content. I’m beginning to notice a peculiar Broadway acting style with feet braced far apart and rapid fire dialogue projected towards the audience. This makes the character seem unnaturally self-assertive. I grabbed my Playbill program from a pile at the head of the aisle since I didn’t see anyone handing them out. I always keep my theater programs and add them to my collection. Some of the audience members behind me got to talking to each other during the 15 minute intermission and I learned that one was from Reading PA, her home town, and the other was a young black woman from Boston who was an aspiring playwright. She made a special trip to see this play because she found it inspirational that a black woman could get a play done on Broadway. I have to admit that I had trouble keeping myself from dozing off. I had already read the play so I didn’t need to pay close attention. As I mentioned previously, I will review the play later because it deserves a considerable amount of commentary.

Studio 54

Studio 54

After the play was over I was planning on visiting the Society of Illustrators, a museum dedicated to cartoonists, comic book artists, and other illustrators. But unfortunately the play ran longer than I expected so I did not have time for that. The play ended at 4:15 p.m. and the Society of Illustrators closes at 5:00 p.m. so I really didn’t have time considering I would have to take the subway up to the Upper East Side again. I also had a reservation for a Greek restaurant at 5:30 p.m. So instead of visiting that museum I walked to Central Park and explored West 59th Street. I didn’t actually go into Central Park. I did see the restored Sherman Memorial which now appears bright gold. And I saw the Paris Can Wait movie theater which had a long line. I guess it is movie goers and not Paris which can wait there. Nearby I saw Joan Miro’s “Moonbird” sculpture (1966), located on the plaza of the Solow Building. While wandering around the neighborhood, waiting for Molyvos to open, I walked past Trump Tower. I could see some heavily armed police officers inside but 5th Avenue did not appear to be blocked off.

For dinner, I went to a Greek restaurant, Molyvos, located on the ground floor of Hotel Wellington. This restaurant is very close to Carnegie Hall. I ordered the Moussaka and a glass of wine. Moussaka is a dish of eggplant and spice ground lamb with a top layer made of milk-based sauce thickened with egg. I was expecting a large dish based on some photos I found online but in fact the serving pan was only the size of a soup bowl. So for $29.00 this was a very expensive dish. But I must admit that Molyvos’ Moussaka was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in New York City. It was exotic and flavorful, just the sort of dish you hope to find at an ethnic restaurant. I’m thinking it may be worthwhile to find a less fancy Greek restaurant and try its Moussaka.



After dinner I took the N train back downtown to the 42nd Street – Times Square station. My only goal was to photograph 311 West 43rd Street. This particular address is significant because it is the building that houses the Lark Play Development Center, the Mint Theater Company, and Theatre East’s offices. It is not much to look at so nobody has ever bothered to take a photo of the entrance, but this is the place you have to find for a lot of theater doings so I made a special point of finding it. I have seen a play at the Mint Theater Company. For the rest of the evening I just wandered around the theater district taking photos. I did try to concentrate more on the east side of Times Square because I rarely go in that direction. I did have a drink at O’Lunney’s Times Square Pub. My recent exploration of Irish theater has made me slightly interested in Irish culture. I drank a glass of Magners Irish Cider which cost $7.00. I thought this was some kind of beer but I guess it really is just apple cider with some alcoholic content. I really liked it because it is not bitter like beer. I drank it so fast that I was out the door in under two minutes.

311 West 43rd Street

311 West 43rd Street

I will be going on another trip to New York City next month. I will probably see another play, but I don’t know what that will be yet. I was also make the Society of Illustrators the first item on my itinerary.





Posted in General, Theater, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Studying Dramatic Writing

I recently bought the book Into The Woods: a Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke. I found this book recommended in a video Lauren Gunderson: On Structure. This proved to be a book for screenwriters by a British television show producer. Ordinarily I don’t buy screenwriting books because I’m a snob, but I have to confess that I’m very impressed with this book so far. You should not consider playwriting to be separate from other forms of dramatic writing like television script writing or screenwriting. Clearly the writers working in those fields think of themselves as artists and they write well enough to command respect.  I’ve also started to read Story by Robert McKee, one of the most famous books on screenwriting. Robert McKee also strikes me as being a real artist and not somebody who has much patience for formulaic writing.

Although these books do a good job of explaining story structure and make good arguments for the significance of story, I still think you need to develop an even deeper understanding of the psychology of story and narrative structures. It is all very well and good to point out that a character needs to grow as a person to make the story more satisfying, but without a good understanding of psychology and some genuine wisdom you aren’t going to know how to do this. Sure you can copy how it is done in countless films and plays but that is not going to seem very original or insightful.

There is a lot more to learning how to tell a great story than meets the eye. You are not going to learn how from reading just one book on creative writing. Fortunately I have developed procedures for learning a subject which serve me well. When a subject of study is extremely important to me I devote far more time, money, and effort than most people probably do. I never try to learn something in 24 hours, 7 days, or using whatever other shortcut is being peddled.

Here is how I go about studying something. First, I don’t try to memorize anything through rote repetition. Instead, I will buy multiple books on the same subject and rely on the natural repetition to be found between the books to cause memorization to occur naturally. This also has the advantage of giving me different viewpoints on the subject. Secondly, I follow up on a lot of the other works referenced in the books I am reading. This tends to expand the field of inquiry endlessly, but it does mean that I get exposure to all the great ideas that lead to the concepts the scholar came up with. This often has the effect of giving me a more comprehensive understanding of the concepts than you would get simply from the ultimate expression of the concept. In other words, it allows you to follow the development of the thought.

Students don’t seem to realize that most courses are just introductory courses. You aren’t meant to take just one course and take away all you need to know from that. If you have the time and the money, you should do an exhaustive study. The problem with a lot of writing classes is the instructor is trying to be entertaining rather than informative and he often does not give enough examples to really drive home the point. By reading multiple books on story structure and narrative I am accumulating more insights and examples than can be found in a single source. Because of this I’m really starting to develop a profound understanding of why dramatic stories mean so much to us.

Part of the reason why writers are encouraged to read a lot is so that they will form deep knowledge of how the language works and how stories are developed. It is a long and involved process. All learning should be a long and involved process when your goal is to gain real expertise. This is the same methodology I have used to learn technology.

Posted in General, Theater, Writing | Leave a comment

Sensory Deprivation In New York City

Yesterday I made yet another trip to New York City to explore the heights of human achievement, which is what the skyscraper symbolically represents. And to a certain extent, cultural centers like New York City do attract talent from all over the country and world. This eventually makes such cities seem like the centers of human achievement, and its highest expression. This may be somewhat debatable, but New York City is well worth exploring and for this trip I ventured into the great unknown.

My major goal on this trip was to try a new experience, sensory deprivation, using a specially designed floatation spa at Blue Light Floatation. You may be familiar with sensory deprivation floatation tanks from the 1980 science fiction film Altered States. The floatation spa was located in an apartment building in the Chelsea neighborhood.

The bus left us off at the side of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I was planning on taking the 1 Line train from the 50th Street Station down to the 23rd Street Station but it made more sense to use the Times Square 42nd Street station. Unfortunately weekend maintenance was being done on the tracks so the 1 train going downtown was an express train. It took me to the 14th Street Union Square station and I had to transfer to an uptown train to get back up to the 23rd Street Station.

I arrived about an hour early in Chelsea so I wandered around to take photographs. I took lots of photos of subway station entrances because I still find it difficult to find decent photos on the Internet. A tourist definitely needs help locating the subway entrances. For this trip I researched several subway stations I have not used before and I made a special effort to photograph every subway station entrance I saw. While I was in Chelsea I also located the Irish Repertory Theatre and the Cell Theatre performance space which were added to my notes long after my previous trips to the Chelsea neighborhood. Chelsea Hotel was completely covered in scaffolding for renovations so I did not bother to take any photos of it.

Irish Repertory Theatre

Irish Repertory Theatre

My float at Blue Light Floatation went better than expected at least in terms of the procedure. However it did prove to be a little disappointing since I did not experience an altered state of consciousness. First I will describe the physical process of floating and then I will get into the mental aspects. The floatation spa is located in a private apartment but the apartment building reception desk seemed quite familiar with the business being run there. The apartment itself featured an office filled with books and artwork associated with Eastern philosophy. The floatation spa was located in a specially designed room with  a filtration unit and other equipment. Essentially you are just floating in a wide tub with some climate control. I had to take a shower in a bathroom across the hallway before getting into the floatation spa. The water is saturated with Epsom salt to help you to float. The big concern is to not to get any of that into your eyes, mouth, or nostrils and this proved to be pretty easy. It did burn my scalp for awhile due to my scalp psoriasis but eventually the pain faded away. The air was little muggy from the body temperature water which I didn’t like but it probably prevented me from going to sleep.

I can’t say that floating made me feel weightless. It actually felt like I was lying on something hard since I could still feel the water pressing on my body’s underside. It was an interesting physical sensation which eases all the tension from your body except for the upper back and shoulders. But for me it seemed to be an entirely physical experience centered on the body. Mentally I got bored after getting used to floating. After about an hour I lost interest in boredom and became a bit more insensate. I lost track of time and felt like I had been in there forever. I had an hour and a half session which may have been too long.  At one point it felt like my left leg had gone numb. My mind may have been freed from processing physical sensations, but it did not find anything else to do. I did not experience any hallucinations or even a feeling of transcendence. This was quite disappointing since I pride myself on being a great visionary, someone who can easily explore his psyche. So I was expecting a fantastic trip. Part of the problem may be that the mind is very alert when you enter into new situations. The mind does not want to let go when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory. Instead, survival dictates that you become even more alert. You can’t really afford to let your mind wander until you are extremely comfortable with your surroundings. Since floating is a radically new physical experience I suspect the mind wants to focus on what is happening.

I knew my time was up when the music began to play, although I did not hear it at first because my ears where under water. I took another shower to wash away the Epsom salt. I did forget to rinse out my ears and found them crusted with salt later on in the day. After getting dressed I sat in the office and drank an entire glass of herbal tea because I was a little dehydrated from walking around Chelsea and maybe from being in what felt like a hot sauna. I made some awkward small talk with the owner before paying him in cash and leaving.

Floating may not be my thing since it seems to be more associated with relaxation and meditation. The goal would be to still the mind and transcend consciousness. But I’m actually more interested in altered states of consciousness which are visionary, but not hallucinatory. A different set of spiritual practices are required for that. Merely transcending consciousness does not compare to genuinely transforming consciousness. Visionary consciousness actually seems to transform your entire world and frees you from social consciousness and self consciousness. But it is apparently very difficult for the average person to experience visionary consciousness and I don’t know of any method to bring it about in somebody who is not inclined to experience it.

Upon leaving Blue Light Floatation I walked east to the Flatiron Building. I took a lot of photos of that since it is an iconic building but I was also interesting in documenting the subway station entrances around the area. I took a R train heading downtown to reach the Cortlandt Street Station. The subway stations in downtown Manhattan are now interconnected to two major transportation hubs; the Fulton Center and the World Trade Center Station. There are many long passageways between them and it is even more confusing than the Times Square transportation hub. Although I intended to come out at a Cortlandt Street Station entrance I somehow wound up at the Fulton Center which was all right since my goal was to check out the entire area.

The Fulton Center is a very futuristic transit center and retail complex with an oculus, the Sky Reflector-Net. I took lots of photos but I didn’t actually go into any stores. Eventually I found a street exit and quickly found St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway. I took lots of photos of the facade facing Broadway because I don’t think I took any photos of that side of the church on  previous trips. Next I photographed the Cortlandt Street Station entrances outside Century 21. This part of my trip was all about taking photos and seeing the new development around Ground Zero. I entered the World Trade Center Station which is also known as the Westfield World Trade Center. The entire structure is sometimes referred to as the Oculus. It looks like the backbone and soaring rib cage of a strange, gigantic creature. It houses a shopping mall,  Westfield World Trade Center, and a transit center, World Trade Center Station. That is a little confusing but not as confusing as what you find in the interior which is a vast hallway that leads to numerous passageways. It is easy to get lost in this sprawling public space. The Oculus has clearly become a tourist attraction in itself. I saw lots of people crowding the balconies where you can take the best photos. I forgot to mention that this was the Memorial Day weekend so everything was very crowded. For example, I tried to get a few photos of the 9/11 Memorial reflecting pool but there was a solid line of people all along all four sides. I did manage to find the restrooms in the Westfield World Trade Center shopping complex but I’m not sure I could find them again. I only entered the Apple store in the Westfield World Trade Center because I’m a bit interested in new devices. The only Apple product I now own is an ancient iBook laptop.



I had a 4:00 p.m. ticket to the One World Observatory. I had a little time left even after wandering throughout the Westfield World Trade Center so I went across West Street and explored the Brookfield Place, yet another shopping complex in the area. I don’t know why downtown Manhattan needs so many high end shopping complexes. And none of them have a single store I would be interested in since I only like a nice bookstore. The Brookfield Place has a Winter Garden, a glass-enclosed hall like a greenhouse with a stand of palm trees. I walked through the Winter Garden to the Hudson River marina where you find excellent views of the Jersey City skyline. There seems to be a lot of construction going on in Jersey City. I saw a new skyscraper in the Jenga style. The Jenga style skyscraper has each floor jutting out from the building core at different lengths so the skyscraper looks staggered. Tribeca also has a Jenga style skyscraper, 56 Leonard Street, which I photographed from the One World Observatory.

Getting into the One World Observatory required waiting in a long line. Fortunately I bought a ticket online so I wasn’t in the longest line. But you should still give yourself a good thirty minutes just to get up there. I had to go through security which was annoying. All you had to do was go through a metal detector but it was fairly strict. I had to take off my belt and empty all my pockets. I did leave my watch, my glasses, and some metal cuff links on. Then there was a long process of being herded like cattle through a series of guest experiences of no real interest to a bank of five elevators. The elevator ride was amazingly short and featured a brief multimedia presentation on all four walls. Even the Observation Deck  itself required going through some up-sell hoops until I finally came to the windows. Every window was being hogged by other tourists making for a bit of a wait to take some photos. The only thing that made this worthwhile was the aerial views of downtown Manhattan which are actually quite enlightening if you have been studying the urban geography as I have. It is pretty cool to look down a skyscraper canyon from an interior vantage point. I saw several buildings under construction.

56 Leonard Street

56 Leonard Street

I only spent a half hour at the One World Observatory because I had a reservation at Chumley’s in Greenwich Village for 5:30 p.m. I gave myself an hour to get there because I needed to walk to the Chambers Street Station and then take the 1 train uptown to Christopher Street Station. This actually only took me thirty minutes so I had some time to kill in Greenwich Village. Greenwich Village is probably one of my most frequently visited neighborhoods so I just saw many establishments I’m already familiar with. I did stop in at Three Lives & Company which happened to be open. Unfortunately I was dead set on buying drama books and this book store does not seem to have a book shelf for drama. They had a lot of poetry which tempted me but I’m not too keen on poetry right now. Eventually I walked out without buying anything which was a shame because Chumley’s is a good place to show up at with a book. Chumley’s is a famous literary haunt where hundreds of writers used to drink and write. It is not far from the Cherry Lane Theater so I took even more photos of that before it was time for my reservation.



Chumley’s is now a pretty upscale sort of place which probably appeals to literary types, but not struggling writers. Struggling writers won’t be found writing at such an expensive restaurant. The walls are covered in framed photos of famous writers and celebrities associated with Chumley’s. There is also a row of book jackets from the literary works that may have been written in part at Chumley’s. The place is a shrine to literary glory so I could not resist basking in it. I was shown to a table facing a large photo of the poet Dylan Thomas. Nearby I saw an old book jacket for one of his books, Quite Early One Morning, published by New Directions. This book was unknown to me. Apparently it is a collection of stories, poems, and essays written by Dylan Thomas shortly before his death. Since Dylan Thomas died in New York City at the White Horse Tavern, it makes sense that he would have been writing and drinking at other establishments like Chumley’s. In honor of Dylan Thomas I ordered a glass of Guinness beer. But just one glass because I wasn’t aiming to drink myself to death. I also ordered John’s Terrine, not knowing what the hell that was. And what exactly is terrine? Terrine is a French forcemeat loaf similar to a pâté with a large amount of fat as well as pork. Basically it was a small square of greasy meat of various types served cold. I also got two pieces of bruschetta bread and a smear of some kind of jelly I used with the bread.  This wasn’t much of a meal so I also had a dessert, the tiny cherry chocolate ice cream sandwich. All this cost me an astounding $52.27. This is a pretty steep price tag just to bask in some reflected literary glory, but perhaps that is a testament to how highly we value literary excellence. Or maybe not.

I’m pretty sure I saw Victoria Blamey, Chumley’s chef, working in the kitchen which I could see from my table.

Chumley’s is on Bedford Street, not far from the Edna St. Vincent Millay House, the  narrowest apartment building in New York City at just 9.5 feet wide. Supposedly Edna St. Vincent Millay would occasionally tend bar for Chumley when he was away, back when Chumley’s was a Prohibition Era speakeasy. I’ve read a biography of the poet, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and even used this in a play which ponders if poetic beauty can will its own existence even given the resistance of a selfish visionary. Long before I developed any interest in Edna St. Vincent Millay I probably read some of her translations of Charles Baudelaire’s poems in a New Directions paperback book. All of which is to say that something brought me to Chumley’s and my presence there should be respected. It wasn’t just a matter of being a tourist, no matter what Chumley’s has become.

I had no other firm plans for this trip. But I did want to do a little shopping. Drama Book Shop closes at 7:00 p.m. so I could have gone there but for some reason I thought they closed at 6:00 p.m. so I went to Barnes & Noble at Fifth Avenue instead. At Barnes & Noble I bought three books I found in their Drama section; Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare, Oresteia by Aeschylus translated by Robert Fagles, and Playwrights and Power: The Making of the Dramatists Guild by Thomas J. Walsh. I didn’t know there was a book on the history of the Dramatists Guild so this was a significant find. I used to be a member of the Dramatists Guild before I got completely discouraged with my playwriting. Now I have resumed this ambition with more serious intent but I’m hesitant to rejoin the Dramatists Guild because it seems like an exclusive club that has nothing to offer me. But it might be interesting to learn why the guild exists.

On the long bus ride back home, without a comfort stop I might add, I did some intense brooding on my frustrated literary ambitions. Everything I really need can be found within myself, because I yearn for something which does not exist in the world. I can only be satisfied if I create it myself. Therefore there is nothing I need to be given. But I do think I need to be a little more focused and intent. The next play I intend to write really gets into this matter of being driven to greatness even when it risks your comfortable life. The protagonist will actually be a fairly successful artist and satisfied with his career choices until he meets somebody who reminds him that he still has not reached his full potential. And that is what shakes up his world. Essentially I am taking a concept that emerged from my last play further, that savage beauty makes its own destiny. Determination to be brought into existence is what makes beauty so savage. This is possibly a misinterpretation of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, but it is an interesting idea.


Posted in General, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Victim Mentality In The Arts

Writing about the victim mentality could get me in a lot of trouble on a web site like Howl Round which attracts a large number of Social Justice Warriors. But it is probably safe to share my thoughts here since nobody is reading my blog. As a liberal, I am inclined to feel a sense of injustice and therefore side with the Social Justice Warriors. But the victim mentality is very problematic in the arts. I’ve done a lot of thinking on this subject and I’ve come to the conclusion that the victim mentality does you more harm than good when you are an artist.

It is difficult to think clearly on this subject since one is emotionally invested in one’s creative work. It is very upsetting to imagine you won’t be successful due to discrimination. But in order to think through this problem (which you think you have) it is necessary to put your feelings aside and try to be objective. Allowing yourself to get emotional about it only ensures that you will think irrationally. Although I am a computer programmer, I don’t pride myself on my ability to think logically and dispassionately. I rarely tackle a problem that needs to be thought thru to any great length. But dealing with computers all day does teach you to be a little more philosophical about things. For instance, it allows you to accept the fact that you might be wrong, since the compiler gives you an error without any negativity.

When conservatives argue against the victim mentality they are almost always scornful. Their nasty tone inclines you to be deaf to their message. But if you can listen to their reasoning without getting very, very angry, you will find they have a point. But I would rather express this point in my own way.

My major objection with the victim mentality is that it encourages you to internalize a sense of helplessness. This can prove to be very discouraging. When you feel like a hapless victim the easiest thing to do is to give up. Many conservatives also object to viewing oneself as a victim. They stress the need to push forward regardless of the obstacles you think stand in your way. This is an admirable position. They just get a little too vicious in their attempt to goad you into showing greater determination.

A creative artist should never feel helpless because the artist has one great super power, the ability to create something out of nothing. For example, a playwright can create a great work of dramatic writing without getting anyone’s permission. True, his play won’t appear on a stage until it gets past the cultural gatekeepers, the literary department of a theater company, but just writing a full length play which isn’t half bad is a major accomplishment. If you genuinely appreciate dramatic writing then you should almost be satisfied with that. An actor has less ability to create his characters when he is never given the ability to perform, but even actors are encouraged to make opportunities for themselves.

As a white, middle class, male I should not feel discriminated against. Yet even I can feel like a victim when I rationalize my lack of success. I can complain that my plays aren’t being done because I’m too spiritual and the theater doesn’t want to treat the stage as a sacred place. Or I could complain that you absolutely need a Master of Fine Arts degree if you want to become a playwright. That is certainly true! But that shouldn’t stop me if I genuinely feel a burning desire to bring something great into being. There is really nothing stopping me from writing a play like The Glass Menagerie if I have it in me. Maybe it won’t be that good and will never be seen on a stage but I could still give form to my vision. However if I allow myself to get discouraged by assumptions about how unfair it all is then I will have defeated myself through my irrational worries. I’ve even been guilty of preemptive bitterness where I’ve been bitter over the rejection of my talent when I haven’t even written anything! You most certainly don’t have the right to be bitter over failure when you haven’t even made the attempt to be successful! Yet this is the sort of irrational behavior you can be subject to when you allow your emotions to guide your actions.

Conservatives do go too far when they try to deny that any discrimination takes place. If there were only a handful of women playwrights, virtually no black playwrights, and absolutely no Latino actors then you know something is wrong with the world. In my own profession, in the field of Information Technology, there is almost a perfect meritocracy until you come to the major technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon. These companies interview prospective candidates in a very questionable manner that only serves as an ordeal for anyone trying to gain entry. The discriminatory hiring practices of the major technology companies serves as a handy example of the sort of nonsense that is really going on in the world. Given enough demand for positions any industry will turn their selection process into a hazing ritual designed to keep the top echelons a very exclusive club. But just like artists, programmers are free to create applications without getting anyone’s approval and without any real encouragement. The key is to find all the encouragement you need within yourself.

In conclusion, the victim mentality can be very dis-empowering. The victim mentality becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy when it prevents you from even making the effort. The creative artist should always remember that he or she has the power to bring something of great beauty into being. If you fail to do that then failure is just the logical outcome.

Posted in General, Programming, Theater, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Recommender Systems And Their Significance

Recently I bought an expensive book, Recommender Systems: An Introduction, by Dietmar Jannach, Markus Zanker, Alexander Felfernig, Gerhard Friedrich. This book could be used as a textbook for a class which may explain why it was so expensive. I bought it anyway because I think recommendation systems are the most important application of artificial intelligence technology. The purpose of this blog post is to explain my reasoning.

According to Wikipedia, a recommender system or a recommendation system (sometimes replacing “system” with a synonym such as platform or engine) is a subclass of information filtering system that seeks to predict the “rating” or “preference” that a user would give to an item.

Undoubtedly the recommendation system which I have had the most exposure to is the Amazon recommendation system, now powered by artificial intelligence technology. I buy a lot of books on Amazon and I’m always interested in the related titles that show up on a book’s product page. There are two separate lists of books which are recommended; Customers who bought this item also bought and Inspired by your browsing history. Now we can assume that Customers who bought this item also bought is a form of the wisdom of the crowd. What other books readers (who have read the book I am buying) have also chosen to read is a good indication that I might want to read those other books too. Therefore my intellectual development is given the benefit of the wisdom of hundreds or thousands of other readers who have gone on to read various related books. But Inspired by your browsing history is a curious secondary list. Where is this inspiration coming from? We know that Amazon is using an open source artificial intelligence framework that Amazon developed, Deep Scalable Sparse Tensor Network Engine, DSSTNE, pronounced “destiny”. We also know that this software is used for building Deep Learning models. This means it could be weighing thousands or millions of factors to decide whether a book should be recommended to me. You can think of artificial intelligence as a sophisticated probability calculator which is used to boil down many deterministic factors into one probability, is it probable that I would buy this book?

Amazon’s recommendation system is a black box. We cannot know exactly how all these probability factors are being calculated to determine whether a book appears on that Inspired by your browsing history list. There are two reasons this is going to be a mystery to us. First, Amazon cannot share the exact nature of its production algorithm because this would allow writers and publishers to game the system. Publishers would love to know how Amazon’s recommendation system works because then they could tweak a book’s title, keywords, and blurb to give the book an unfair advantage in the marketplace. Writers could even write their books to give themselves a little boost in the marketplace. But the second reason we can’t know exactly why a book shows up on that list is because the computations performed by the artificial intelligence are so complex that they cannot be back traced. In other words, we cannot know how all those probability factors came together to output the result. Sure, you could look at raw numbers but there could be thousands or millions of numbers, depending upon just how deep the deep learning goes.

This raises interesting questions. Presumably my intellectual development may now be influenced by the computation of an unknown number of probability factors. Yes, there is no guarantee that I will buy and read a book just because it is suggested by Amazon. If Amazon is showing me Harlequin Romance novels while I’m looking at computer science textbooks then I will certainly disregard those suggestions for further reading. But of course Amazon is not going to do that. They will tweak their system until there is a high probability that I won’t disregard the other books they are recommending. Remember, that is the whole point of a recommendation system. A recommendation system is designed to over-determine an outcome. It is all about probabilities.

I’ve sometimes dreamed about a supercomputer which would consider every book that has ever been written. This supercomputer would actually read all those books and inter-relate their content until it had discovered the mysteries of the universe, at least as far as man has been able to figure it out and put it into writing. Then, taking into consideration my interests and goals, this supercomputer would recommend a book for me to read which would completely change my life. This book would provide me with the answers to all the questions which I have ever asked. Well now it seems like my dream may have become a reality. There is a now a supercomputer which will direct my intellectual development along a path that is optimized for maximum wisdom!

Is that a fantasy or is that the reality? It is actually hard to say. It is quite possible for a recommendation system to take content into consideration. It is far more simple to rely on user ratings but when you are dealing with obscure books it may be necessary to actually parse the content and do some textual analysis. A recommendation system can be very simple or very sophisticated. I think we can assume that Amazon’s recommendation system will be mind boggling in its complexity. Amazon could devote so many resources to their system that you could literally be assigned your very own artificial intelligence instance tasked just with dealing with you as a customer.

There are many factors which could lead you to reading a book. You could walk into a book store or a library and just randomly pick a book. But writers and publishers obviously put a lot of effort into ensuring that there will be a greater probability that you will be reading their book. In the vast marketplace of ideas there is fierce competition for the attention of the reader. Every aspiring writer would do well to consider the criteria used to make a selection of reading material. Every aspiring writer must now face the fact that there is a black box in this equation, a recommendation system powered by artificial intelligence, a black box which you cannot peer into.

As an intellectual, I am most curious about what drives a person’s intellectual development. What affect will artificial intelligence have on my intellectual development? Will it make me smarter? Or will it divert me down a path I did not intend to go down? One factor which often determines how often a book will appear in search results is the number of other books citing that work. The more frequently a book is cited by other scholars, the more frequently it will be referred to in other texts. This is why the most authoritative work will be the book that ranks at the top of search engine results. But lets say you just want to sell the most expensive book no matter what. The most expensive book will likely be a textbook and it will probably be the thickest textbook available. The thickest textbook is the one most likely to fully develop a concept so that is all well and good for your intellectual development.

One of the reasons that I decided to devote serious study to recommendation systems is because this branch of computer science is actually exploring the factors that determine the outcome of cultural work. Every creative writer needs to get his work past the cultural gatekeepers. In the future, creative writers are going to be faced with digital cultural gatekeepers. Today your work is read by a human literary agent but in the future it could be read by an artificial intelligence literary agent. Even if the artificial intelligence isn’t good enough to be relied upon to make human aesthetic decisions it could still be used to winnow out the thousands of incoming manuscripts. And of course every published book’s fate is already determined by where it appears in search results.

There are many deep, philosophical questions at play here. For example, consider affinity. Affinity is the probability that you will like something based on something else that you like. But what is responsible for this affinity? Affinity is based on the relationships between ideas, concepts, or stories. There is a web site of TV Tropes. TV Tropes is the all-devouring pop-culture wiki which catalogs and cross-references recurrent plot devices, archetypes, and tropes in all forms of media. This web site serves as an unintentional recommendation system because it is inter-relating content in such a way that you are likely to stumble upon stories which are similar to the stories you like. The relationships have been established by thousands of users but you could plug this information into your recommendation system to get the benefit of all that human evaluation. Creative writers already use this technology to develop their stories within their favorite genre. Creative writers frequently get additional ideas for their stories based on the most popular tropes, or they decide to mash up tropes to appeal to two sets of readers. Basically what you have here is a database of story ideas combined with an index of how story ideas are related to other story ideas.

What all this technology appears to be doing is increasing the probability that cultural works or even intellectual concepts which have affinity will be brought together. This serves to reinforce ideas and increases cross-fertilization of ideas within a narrow domain. It may have the negative effect of discouraging the cross-fertilization of ideas without strong affinity. In other words, it significantly reduces random factors. Random connections become increasingly unlikely as our world becomes increasingly over-determined by meaningful inter-connectivity.




Posted in Business, Databases, General, Programming, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Information Is Not Knowledge

Technology is drowning us in information but this information is often of little use to us. It might be worthwhile to ponder the fundamental nature of information. Although I work in Information Technology as a knowledge worker, I have given little thought to the theory behind information, or information science, if there is such a thing. I just checked on Amazon and Information Science is a field of study, with textbooks.

Edit: Information Science is actually associated with libraries. I am more interested in the philosophy of information so I bought this book:

Let’s take New York City for example. As a major metropolis, New York City is a huge resource and presents a wealth of information to the curious traveler. You can buy dozens of travel guides on New York City or visit dozens of web sites devoted to helping you to explore the city. But unfortunately you are overwhelmed with information and it is difficult to search for the information that meets your particular needs. Let’s say you buy a travel guide and stick it in your back pocket so you will have all that information readily at hand when you are in the city. Chances are that you will find yourself in Times Square, wondering where to go next, because you have not actually read your travel guide. This brings up an important point. Information is not knowledge. In order to really know New York City you need to read that entire travel guide, from cover to cover. In order to form some ideas on where you might like to go while you are in New York City, you will need to read that entire travel guide, from front to back. In other words, all that information has to be reviewed and evaluated. It is worthless to you in that book.

I waste a whole lot of time working on a custom travel guide for New York City which I compile into a help file. I can copy this help file to my smart phone and have access to a wealth of information on the city even if I don’t have a WiFi connection. It has occurred to me that this is a colossal waste of my time. But on the other hand it has proven essential to conducting extremely productive and effective trips to the city. I usually take a bus to New York City for just one day and only have ten hours in the city. Therefore I cannot waste a lot of my time just wandering around hoping to see something interesting. Although I’m tempted to stop wasting so much damn time on this travel guide, I do enjoy working on it. The fact is I learn a lot about New York City and this knowledge translates into definite advantages. I have discovered a lot of great resources in the city. I have found stores that sell international magazines so I can learn a new language for my international trips. And I have found online classes and opportunities in the theater community which may advance my playwriting ambitions. The point is that knowledge is power. Information itself is not power because you have not digested it. You have not evaluated the information. You will not be able to put the pieces of information together to come up with new insights or a plan of action.

A wealth of information is actually a poverty of knowledge if no effort has been made to ingest this information. Converting information into knowledge requires effort in the form of actions; reading, searching, exploring, etc. When you fail to perform these actions you fail to acquire any knowledge. This is probably a fundamental law of cognition and may explain why consciousness will never arise from the information itself as an emergent property. Knowledge requires agency and self-knowledge must also arise from agency.

But is it really necessary for you, personally, to review and evaluate all the information available on New York City. Why not trust the judgement of local experts? Why not use the services of a curator, a content specialist, who has selected the best establishments in the city? I would argue that you actually do need to do the process yourself. You cannot depend upon someone else to go through this process because they will not know your special interests. Even if you give them a lot of information on your preferences, they still won’t be able to evaluate your potential interest in something that would be entirely new to you. In other words, you lose a lot of potential to pursue new avenues of inquiry when you rely on an external agent to guide you through a wealth of information. You run the risk of not finding the precious jewels in that wealth of information. In other words, information must be processed and the greatest value lies in doing the processing yourself.

In developing web applications I am often guilty of not making the application very informative to the end user. As a developer, I have access to a lot of data and information about the computer system, but this information is often hidden from the end user. Lately it has been occurring to me that I should make my applications more informative. This is often very easy. For example, I can add a record count so the end user knows how many objects are currently being stored in the system. These objects can be clients or products. You definitely want to know how many clients have been entered into the system or how many products are in your online store.

There is a wealth of information available on the Internet and a great deal of potential in converting this information into informative knowledge. One of my most successful web applications is just a page that exports some YouTube data to a spreadsheet. It is really nothing more than a data export but it has sufficient value to bring many visitors to my web site. Imagine how many visitors I could get by building a web application that actually provided some insight on that data!

There is actually a science to converting information to knowledge and informative applications. There are fundamental theoretical considerations like how information should be categorized. I’ve come across some references to advanced theories on how data becomes information and information becomes knowledge. I think it could be well worth my while to study these advanced theories and then apply that knowledge to my existing skills. I should be able to craft some really powerful solutions that will make me a lot of money. And this would be the result of adding a little theory to my work, bringing my intellectual genius into play in my field. Something long overdue.

Posted in General, Programming, Travel, Writing | Leave a comment

The Gaspipe One-Act Play Festival

Last evening I attended the Gaspipe One-Act Play Festival at the Greenspace Center in Lewisburg. This play festival was offered by the RiverStage Community Theatre. Lewisburg is south of Williamsport on Route 15. It takes around 40 minutes to drive down there. Although this places Lewisburg beyond the Williamsport area, Central Pennsylvania is so sparsely populated that Lewisburg is considered to be a close neighbor so there was heavy involvement with Williamsport’s theater community. In other words, this is the only one-act play festival in the region so I wanted to check it out.

Gaspipe One-Act Festival Sign

Gaspipe One-Act Festival Sign

The Greenspace Center is the Old Lewisburg High School which has been re-purposed as a community center. It is located right at the intersection of Route 15 and Market Street so it is easy to find, as you have to pass it to get to the center of the town.

Greenspace Center

Greenspace Center

According to the presenters, they only received 20 plays for this festival, a shockingly low number of submissions. From this 20 they selected 7 plays which means you have an almost 50/50 chance of getting your play done if you submit one. I think I will keep that a secret because that is damn good odds! Now ordinarily you would expect to see some really terrible plays given the limited pool of material from which to work with. But surprisingly all seven plays were well written, featured clever ideas, and were well executed in performance.

I will briefly mention what stood out in each play. The (Un)Solvable Crime by Jacob Tanner was a comedy with a dummy corpse that gets manhandled by several amateur detectives. This short play was hysterical. Eurekas by Eoin Carney was another comedy about Greek inventors. The concept was clever. Enter Daisy Buchanan by Patti Cassidy was about Zelda Fitzgerald. This play made clever use of a mirror without any glass and an actress in an elaborate flapper costume. Part of the success of these plays may have been due to the great care in the presentation. The Improvisation Game by Jove Graham was based on a very clever idea of a woman waiting at a bus stop being roped into scene work with a few actors. The helping hands scene was hilarious. Virescent by Rosalind Elise Parenzan featured an actress posing like a statue. They used street performance techniques to make her look just like a statue. I recognized the actor playing the sculptor from The Boatwright. Jesus Feeds The 4,999 by Kay Phillips was hilarious but also a little sacrilegious so I’m surprised they allowed it. Deception, written and directed by Ben Hartman, was a fine example of a farce.

I will definitely submit one of my one act plays to the next Gaspipe One-Act Play Festival. The odds are greatly in my favor and they obviously put a lot of effort into giving each play a well-thought out performance even with their limited resources. There were almost 25 actors performing in these 7 plays which is a lot of people to be involved. I have two new one act plays which have been sent out. Wits In Dialogue was submitted to the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. And Stolen Academic Valor was submitted to Shawnee Playhouse. If either of those plays are rejected I could submit it for consideration by the Gaspipe One-Act Play Festival. Or I could write the play about the shaman entering the life of the office worker, a new play I’ve been thinking about. I’m trying to write more full length plays but writing an one act play is an excellent way to get one started.

I almost forgot to mention that David Mamet is giving an online class on playwriting and I was able to sign up for this class. I think he will have a lot of students and won’t give anyone any individual attention, but this is still a great opportunity. David Mamet is probably the greatest living American playwright. The very first Broadway play I saw was Race at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Before going home I stopped in at Burger King to reward myself for making the effort to attend this event. I probably should have tried one of the restaurants in downtown Lewisburg but it was pretty late at might.

Posted in General, Theater, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How Amazon’s Recommendation Engine May Shape Your Destiny

I have recently discovered that Amazon’s recommendation engine is powered by an open source artificial intelligence framework called Deep Scalable Sparse Tensor Network Engine (DSSTNE), pronounced “destiny”.

I have tried to figure out how the Deep Scalable Sparse Tensor Network Engine works but it is very complicated. Essentially it is a narrow AI and uses a neural network for machine learning or deep learning. Let’s just say that DSSTNE is a black box performing very complicated math on a massive amount of input and outputting a list of recommended products.

The input is the wisdom of the crowd, a vast amount of data on what books the entire customer base of Amazon has bought. You can surmise that the books containing the best ideas will have bubbled to the top of the ranking system in narrow domains of knowledge. DSSTNE is not conscious and does not do any thinking. It only does calculations. However, human intentions are added to the system in the form of weighted factors. For example, lets say Amazon wanted to sell you the most expensive book. This intention is mathematically expressed as a weighting factor, emphasizing the contribution of some aspects of a phenomenon (or of a set of data) to a final effect or result, giving them more weight in the analysis. Various other probability factors are added to the input in order to increase the probability that you will be reading the most expensive book available.

Let us say for the sake of argument, that the most expensive book will be the thickest book and therefore the fullest expression of the very best ideas published in the narrow domain of knowledge that is most relevant to your area of interest. What Amazon has done with its “destiny engine” is to increase the probability that you will be reading this book. Their only real intention was to get you to buy more expensive products, but the effect was far more profound.

What sort of books might this lead you to read? Let’s say some expensive, thick books, so dense with meaning that they interrelate with thousands of other books. Let’s start with Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief by Jordan B. Peterson, a book on how deep meaning comes to express itself in myths and stories. This might lead you to read Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron, a book on related topics. Next you may be lead to read Divine Fury: A History of Genius by Darrin M. McMahon, a book on genius, the power to divine the secrets of the universe. And maybe you would even be lead to read The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson, a book on the Demiurgic consciousness shaped in Late Antiquity that is emerging anew to re-divinize the human as artists. At this point you might begin to wonder how you came to be reading all these particular books. A terrible suspicion might form in your mind and when you investigate, your suspicion proves correct. There is something fishy and uncanny about Amazon’s recommendation engine. Maybe even something highly improbable unless a whole lot of calculations were done.

What can we guess about the shape of your destiny when it is influenced by artificial intelligence? It will most likely be an emergence of your hidden potential and the emergence of a hidden meaning that is implicit in massive amounts of information.



Posted in books, Databases, General, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Heights – Mapping The Territory

Yesterday I made my first bus trip for 2017 to New York City. My goal was to explore more neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Although I only intended to explore Brooklyn Heights, I had time to wander around Dumbo too. Exploring new territory has deep psychological meaning because it is an exploration of the unknown to discover new resources. This is precisely what my trip accomplished. Your brain rewards you when you travel, expand your horizons, and conquer the unknown. In other words, there is a reason travel is so pleasurable.

The Susquehanna Trailways bus dropped us off at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, right were the Port Authority Bus Terminal is located. However, it did not leave us off in the terminal. I found this a little troubling since the Port Authority Bus Terminal is considered to be a bad area that you should avoid.

My plan was to take the C train to Brooklyn’s High Street station in Brooklyn Heights. I was still able to take the C train from the Times Square station but the C train was rerouted to the F train line for weekend maintenance. So I had to get off the C Train at the York Station. The conductor’s announcements suggested I could transfer to a train for the High Street station but she did not say which train. Eventually I got on an A train and got off at the Jay Street – MetroTech station. That seemed to be as close as I was going to get to Brooklyn Heights. The point is that I need to improve my knowledge of the NYC subway system so I can more effectively handle unexpected service changes.

The MetroTech Center is a large complex of office buildings and skyscrapers in Downtown Brooklyn. I spent a lot of time just figuring out the layout of this urban academic-industrial research park. The subway exit I took brought me out at the Myrtle Promenade where I immediately saw the New York University Tandon School of Engineering and its Balanced Cylinders sculpture. I probably should have spent more time in the MetroTech Center but I was eager to get to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade so I headed west. I knew how to head west because I knew the layout of the MetroTech Center. Along the way I came across the Henry Ward Beecher Monument. I took several photos of this monument and even experimented with my camera’s digital zoom after noticing how some photos I found of the monument used a long-focus lens to make the Manhattan Bridge appear much closer in the background than it should be. But I don’t think digital zoom alone can produce this effect.

Next I walked down Columbus Park to see the Brooklyn Borough Hall. I photographed the Borough Hall Station entrances, the fountain, and the Christopher Columbus Statue in front of the Kings County Supreme Court. There was a farmer’s market taking place in Columbus Park.

After that I walked west on Pierrepont Street and passed the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Arthur Miller Residence at 102 Pierrepont Street. Arthur Miller is not one of my favorite playwrights because I tend to associate him with high school English class, but I was interested in the literary associations of the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.

Eventually I found the Brooklyn Heights Promenade where I took many photos of the Manhattan skyline. I even found the Sentinel Apartment, an apartment building used in the 1977 horror film, The Sentinel. In this film, the gateway to hell is located in this building. I suppose it makes sense that the gateway to hell would be located in Brooklyn! The gateway is watched over by the sentinel, a blind priest or nun, who can be seen in the third floor window. I didn’t see anyone in the third floor window so I guess the gateway to hell isn’t being guarded.

Brooklyn Heights Promenade

Brooklyn Heights Promenade

My next goal was to find the Willow Place Chapel which is the home of the Heights Players, a community theater company. I was unable to find any decent photos of this chapel online so I took a few myself. After that I walked to Hicks Street and found the Heights Cafe where I had lunch. I ordered their omelette special which contained caramelized onions, grilled artichokes, and Gruyere cheese. I noticed a few tourists at the next table speaking French. Brooklyn is very popular with the French.

After lunch, my next objective was to find the Truman Capote Residence on Willow Street. This looked much different than it does in the photos I’ve seen. The new owner had its facade covered in brick. I continued to walk around Brooklyn Heights and eventually walked along Henry Street where I located Henry’s End Restaurant, Noodle Pudding, and the Gristedes supermarket.

Since it was now past Noon, I was able to visit the Brooklyn Historical Society which does not open until then. This museum has three floors of exhibits but it is a relatively small museum without much of interest. The Othmer Library wasn’t open but I did look through the glass doors to see the stacks of books. Of the four current exhibits; Until Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy, Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: The Lost Photographs of David Attie, Brooklyn Abolitionists/In Pursuit of Freedom, and The Emancipation Proclamation, I only found the David Attie photos interesting. But this did prompt me to buy the book Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote with the lost photographs of David Attie in the gift shop. This was a pretty expensive little book, $29.95, but I decided to buy it because it made the perfect souvenir for my trip and I was taking lots of photos of the very same things, only fifty years later.

I didn’t spend much time at the Brooklyn Historical Society. After that I went to the New York Transit Museum which took me pass the Brooklyn Borough Hall again. The New York Transit Museum is located in an abandoned subway station so the entrance is actually a subway entrance. I paid $10.00 for admission. The current exhibits included;  Bringing Back the City: Mass Transit Responds to Crisis, Next Stop: Second Avenue Subway, and Deconstruction of the Third Avenue El: Photographs by Sid Kaplan. It was interesting to see some of the equipment corroded by Hurricane Sandy. But what I really enjoyed was the fleet of restored train cars. I walked through quite a few of these old subway cars and each one was like a trip back in time.

New York Transit Museum

New York Transit Museum

After leaving the New York Transit Museum I went to the Barnes & Noble at Brooklyn Heights to do a little shopping. I found two books on Artificial Intelligence; Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl and Artificial Intelligence And The End Of The Human Era: Our Final Invention by James Barrat. I became interested in Artificial Intelligence after watching the recent Ghost In The Shell movie and reading a scholarly book, The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson, which explores the profound philosophical implications of artificial representations of man in the form of puppets, statues, or even robots, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence. Being a huge nerd, I really ate this up. So it occurred to me to research the current state of artificial intelligence and what I discovered was deeply disturbing. Artificial intelligence is not science fiction. It is already being used extensively and the implications are astounding, particularly when you realize that consciousness is over-rated and artificial intelligence can work without ever achieving consciousness. All your actions are over-determined by your unconscious and when you introduce a new deterministic factor to the unconscious mind, without even telling anyone about it, it will have profound effects. Search engines and recommendation engines are now powered by machine learning neural networks. This means artificial intelligence is a factor in what you find when you go in search of information, and it even recommends books for you to read. Both Google and Amazon are using artificial intelligence in this way and the consequences are frightening and inescapable.

Anyway, after buying those books I had hit all my targets in Brooklyn Heights so I had time to wander around the Dumbo area north of Downtown Brooklyn. I found the pedestrian access entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge which gave me the idea to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to return to Manhattan. But first I found the Dumbo Heights office complex. This is a very interesting hub of technology companies and startups. I saw where Etsy and WeWork are located in this office complex.

Although I did some updates to my old Dumbo notes, I didn’t actually intend to explore this area so I was poorly prepared. But I did notice considerable changes in the neighborhood which has rapidly gentrified. I’m going to describe what I saw in detail because I need to do some more research on Dumbo.

First I came across Pedro’s Bar and Restaurant on Jay Street. Then I located Berl’s Poetry Shop on Front Street but it appeared to be permanently closed, a victim of book store fate. I also located powerHouse Books which had moved to Adams Street. I was unable to find any photos of its new location so I made sure to take a few photos of its exterior. When I came to the intersection of Front Street and Washington Street I found the streets crowded with people taking photos because this is where you get the iconic view of the Manhattan Bridge. I walked down Washington Street to the Brooklyn Bridge Park and saw Jane’s Carousel and the performing arts venue St. Ann’s Warehouse. This theater moved to the historic Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park.  I was particularly interested in looking around its open-air triangle garden. The garden was being used by professional photographers doing photo shoots of models. I saw one man with some sort of lighted box around his head.

Manhattan Bridge

Manhattan Bridge

I saw the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and at first I did not see a line for ice cream but then I saw its long line so I wasn’t tempted to get any ice cream. Also in this area I saw a Shake Shack, the River Cafe, and Barge Music, a converted coffee barge moored at Fulton Ferry Landing on the East River near the Brooklyn Bridge. I noticed some locks of love on a fence at the landing so I even took a photo of that. On Old Fulton Street I found Juliana’s Pizza and Grimaldi’s Pizzeria but there were long lines for both so I was not tempted to get in line. At this point I was getting pretty tired so I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to get back to Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge was extremely crowded with tourists so you couldn’t even keep out of the bike lane. The last time I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge was on a Sunday morning in 2010 when it was not so crowded.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge

I arrived at City Hall in downtown Manhattan at around 4:00 p.m. and my next goal was to go to the Drama Book Shop before it closed at 6:00 p.m. I took a 4 train from the Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall station to Grand Central where I transferred to the 7 train shuttle to Times Square. This demonstrates how well I’m getting the hang of the subway system. That was a better option than walking all the way west from Grand Central to Times Square. But I need to add all the 7 train stations to my notes. The Times Square exit on West 40th Street brought me very close to the Drama Book Shop so I had no trouble getting there before it closed at 6:00 p.m. I consulted the shopping list on my smartphone and found two books on my list; Sexual Perversity In Chicago and The Duck Variations by David Mamet and Sight Unseen and Other Plays by Donald Margulies.

I didn’t really have any plans for what to do in Manhattan so I walked all the way to West 52nd Street to find Merilu Pizza Al Metro, a small pizzeria that was recommended to me by Reddit users. The restaurant did not have very many tables but I was able to get a seat at the counter. I ordered a slice of white pizza and two cans of soda because I was dehydrated. I’m not sure if I have ever had white pizza before, but it was pretty good and the entire meal only cost me $6.00. This restaurant could serve as my new go to spot for a quick bite but it is a little far from where I would usually be.

I spent the rest of the evening wandering around Broadway taking photos of the theaters. Eventually I wandered far south and found the B&H Photo Video store and the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. I was particularly interested in seeing the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center again because that is where I attended the Internet World conferences back in 2000, when the Internet was new and exciting. That was even before 9/11. It was late in the evening so the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was all lit up. I also saw the 34 Street-Hudson Yards Subway Station entrance which is one of the 7 Line stations I want to add to my notes.

Jacob K. Javits Convention Center

Jacob K. Javits Convention Center

This was my fourth extensive visit to Brooklyn and I’m not sure if I need to explore any more of the borough. There are a few more neighborhoods I could wander around in but I’ve seen plenty already. I think I may stick to Manhattan on my next trip to New York City.



Posted in General, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CAST’s The Boatwright by Bo Wilson

On Saturday afternoon I saw the play The Boatwright by Bo Wilson. I haven’t been writing reviews of the local productions I’ve seen, but there are a few aspects of this event that I should preserve for future reference. For example, I thought this play was being done by the Community Theatre League, but it was actually CAST, the Community Academy of Stage and Theatre. This explains why I was not allowed to select my seat when I bought a ticket online. CAST is located on the third floor of the McDade Trade and Transit Centre. The performance took place in their black box theatre and rehearsal space which I had never seen before. Apparently this is the Moyer Studio Theatre and it is the CAST’s Studio Theatre which is presenting plays in this intimate setting. Their next show will be Other Desert Cities in June which I will want to see because I’ve recently read that play.

Bo Wilson is a member of National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange, a web site that promotes new plays, so I was able to recommend this play there. The Boatwright is definitely a great play which illustrated some of the story telling techniques I’ve been reading about. Both characters made an emotional journey and the boat was used as a metaphor for the desire to escape depression, by literally going on a voyage. This play had a positive message since it showed a positive way to deal with the loss of a loved one and the sense of loneliness and depression that such a loss may bring on. It also illustrated something that I have been pondering lately, the positive aspects of a personal dream or vision which allows you to make necessary changes in your life. If you cannot envision anything changing for you then nothing will ever get better. For this reason, vision is vitally important for making progress in life. At the end of the play, both characters had changed a little bit and this is a crucial aspect of any good story.

The play was directed by Isaac J. Conner who is associated with the RiverStage Community Theatre in Lewisburg. I’ve heard of this theater but they didn’t have a permanent home so I never added it to my notes. They may have found a permanent home in the Old Lewisburg High School on Market Street. But what was really interesting is their Gaspipe One-Act Festival, an annual festival of original one-act plays, written, directed and produced by local Susquehanna Valley playwrights and artists. I’ll have to submit something to them next year.

I parked at the Third Street Garage and had to pay for my parking ticket since this was not a regular Community Theatre League show, but that was only $1.75 for an hour and a half. I only mention that to note how much change I should have on me for next time.

In conclusion, attending this performance served as an excellent introduction to aspects of the local theater community which had escaped me.

Posted in General, Theater, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Production As Validation

Recently I made the observation that playwrights should not be using a production as validation because that is too discouraging. I would like to elaborate on this point. The reason production should not be considered validation is that it sets the bar too high. Plays will not get written if you insist that they should only exist for the sake of the stage. The theater community likes to disparage the worth of a play script as literature. They insist that a dramatic story is nothing if the play is not produced. The problem with this attitude is that it will discourage the playwright from ever writing the damn thing. The odds of a play being produced are very low. If you tell playwrights that the only value in writing a play is having it put on the stage and then tell them that the odds of that happening are extremely low, you will simply be actively discouraging from doing the writing.

The first responsibility of any artist is to bring something into being. The artist must create and that means taking something from his imagination and putting it out into the world as something actual like a story or a picture. The artist will never reach his potential if he never takes this first step. Therefore it is vital that we never discourage the initial process of bringing something into being. You are discouraging the artist when you give him an unreachable goal with impossible odds and make the situation seem hopeless.

The fact is that creating a dramatic story has some inherent value without the theater’s involvement. The dramatic story does not need the stage to exist. It can exist on the page. Many plays have been published and will be read without the reader ever seeing the play brought to life on the stage. If people don’t read plays then they are just denying themselves the pleasure of the full range of dramatic stories. You only have a few opportunities to actually see a play on the stage. For the playwright, the important thing is to bring the dramatic story into existence on the page and then put it out there through submissions. That is quite an accomplishment in itself.

I’m contemplating writing a play to dramatize this realization. Only it won’t be about a playwright and his play script. It will be about a screenwriter and his screenplay. Now the chances of a spec screenplay ever becoming a major motion picture are slim to none, and slim just left the building. But writing a screenplay may still have some value if you give it to people to read and you live in a small town where nobody expects anybody to accomplish anything. These people will admire anyone who dares to dream big and they can be excessively impressed by your ability to tell a dramatic story. The discrepancy between their absolute adoration for the screenplay and the actual level of achievement represented in writing a spec script can be exploited for comic effect.



Posted in General, Theater, Writing | Leave a comment

Cultural Consumers Vs Creators

There are two types of people in a culture, creators and consumers. Consuming cultural products is a passive activity. Creating cultural products is an active activity. The reader is a consumer and the writer is a creator. I have made a considerable investment in my creative endeavors but I find that the writing is just not getting done. I have given some thought on why this is a persistent problem.

It is a lot easier to engage in passive activities than in active activities. I would rather watch a movie than write a screenplay. And I would rather read a play than write a play. However, it is more empowering to be a creator than a consumer. The writer gets to tell his story and may be compensated for his efforts. The reader is a consumer and must pay to read the story, if it is a book. So there are a lot of advantages to being the writer but I’m still not very motivated to do the damn writing. Part of the problem may be that I prefer vague daydreaming. I don’t like to give my fantasies too many details. I would rather leave many possibilities open. This works against the writer because creating a story is a matter of bringing something into being. The creator takes something that only exists in his imagination and he actualizes it, gives it some detail, so it can be put out into the world. One of the plays I’ve been planning to write actually concerns this reluctance to set out on a course because that destroys other possibilities. This was to be a play about a mother who agonizes so much over her son’s college major that she spends his entire college fund on campus visits and endless research into different careers. The psychological basis for this is a reluctance to give up one’s potential for an actual career. The mother would essentially be in mourning for her lost potential and tries to hold onto her son’s great potential. But ironically I have made no progress in telling that story because I don’t want to actualize its potential! I am reluctant to give the product of my imagination a final form.

I think my solution to this problem should be to value the writing process more. I have come to see the theater as more of a sacred space where something significant is brought into being. But I don’t see the process of writing for the theater as being a sacred ritual. In other words, I need to become more obsessed with writing than being a spectator. This is a difficult proposition since writing isn’t the sort of activity you can invest much real passion into. Writing lacks novelty because you are wrestling with conscious invention. It can gain some novelty when you tap into your unconscious, but you will still be dealing with the familiar. I could get exciting about writing if I thought it was going to get me anything. This would not actually be the case. Maybe the solution is to convince myself that writing will indirectly get me something more valuable than the actual rewards of writing. For example, writing can give you additional opportunities for travel when you become successful enough to be invited to a conference or festival. I could get excited by the prospect of intangible rewards. I will give this some more thought because I do have the power to invest something with the sacred, to give something a heightened significance subjectively. Writing itself is not very enchanting and it would take a considerable exercise of the imagination to make it more meaningful.

Posted in General, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Playwright As Shaman

I’ve been sharing a lot of my thoughts on the Internet lately but none of it has made it to my blog. So I think it is time to share some of my insights on my own platform instead of contributing anonymously to other public forums.

I have been reading a lot of books on shamanism and Jungian psychology. This has served as a sort of master class on writing. It has occurred to me that the playwright is a lot like a shaman. Ideally a playwright is able to explore the depths of his psyche where he will discover the unknown within himself. This knowledge is then shared with the tribe, the community in the form of the audience. Bringing knowledge of humanity, the soul, to a public which does not have the time or inclination for self-reflection can be very healing. This is precisely the role the shaman plays in his culture. The shaman makes a vision quest to the spirit world where he learns things that may have value for the tribe. The shaman goes into a trance and acts out various rituals to symbolize his insights. He may pretend to assume the form of an animal or give voice to the gods while in a state of possession. In this heightened state of consciousness he will dispense wisdom that could not be acquired or expressed while in a rational state of mind. The shaman is also considered to be the earliest form of the actor in human culture because he assumes the persona of a god or an animal, something other than himself.

Probably the earliest example of shamanism in Western theater is the play The Bacchae by Euripides. I have read various translations of this play. There are obvious elements of shamanism in the play. Dionysus represents the irrational in the form of a god who arrives in Thebes to challenge the rule of its King, Pentheus. Pentheus is too strictly rational and forbids the worship of Dionysus. The Dionysian rites are a form of divine madness induced by wine and consist of frenzied dancing and other festivities. Pentheus is punished for not allowing the irrational to find any expression in his rational city state. He is punished  by being torn apart by the Maenads. Dismemberment is a frequent symbol encountered in shamanism because it represents how the mind heals itself in extreme cases. The mind breaks down and is forced to reconstitute itself in such a way that it incorporates what has been left out.  For example, if the Self favors intellect over spirituality and refuses to give the spirit any breathing room, then the intellect must be humiliated and forced into an encounter with spirituality. When the individual has recovered from this harrowing experience he will have gained a new respect for the importance of spirituality and he will pay more attention to his inner needs, the psyche. You ignore your psyche at your own peril. Pentheus is put back together by the people of Thebes once they have realized what they have done in their madness, but this is only a dead integration and the community is severely punished. The shamanic elements in The Bacchae has been noted in the books The Greeks and the Irrational by Eric R. Dodds and A Jungian Approach to Literature by Bettina L. Knapp. I have adopted the basic story for my own work by imagining a mysterious stranger making an appearance in someone’s life, challenging them to abandon their mundane life in the pursuit of some greater glory. For example, a very comfortable office worker could be accosted by a shaman and lured into increasing irrational behavior until he loses his job. This might seem like a disaster but it can serve as the impetus to fulfill his true potential. The trick is to show how it was his own inclinations towards the irrational which had to be given expression and allowed some influence over the course of his stagnating life.

Dionysus is always in a struggle with Apollo. Read this Wikipedia article on the concept Apollonian and Dionysian. This dichotomy was explored in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, which I was shocked to realize is something I have never read. The Birth of Tragedy is an important work of dramatic theory so I plan to read it soon.

I have expanded my study of depth psychology to cover various other aspects of the psyche. For example, there is the concept of the numinous. This word comes from the field of comparative religion and is used to describe the sense of something glorious, transcendent, awe-inspiring, and terrifying in the divine or the wholly other. The concept of the numinous was introduced in the book The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto, which I have not read yet. But I have recently read Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature by Chris Brawley. This book considers how fantasy writers strive to restore our sense of enchantment with the world by forcing us to envision the world in novel ways, thereby restoring novelty and bringing about a re-enchantment of the world. This can be accomplished through imaginative encounters with the supernatural, the wholly other, and other elements of fantasy. Fantasy fiction is a vision quest which results in an encounter with the unknown, an encounter with beings of the spirit world, which restores something lost to us. This is an example of healing fiction which brings me to my next avenue of exploration, James Hillman.

I’ve recently ordered James Hillman’s book, Healing Fiction, which attempts to answer the basic question, “What does the soul want?” His conclusion is that the soul wants fictions that heal. James Hillman was a prominent Post-Jungian who developed his own theories to form imaginal psychology. To argue that the soul wants fictions that heal is an interesting proposition because it has been argued that we like stories because they give meaning to life. Life is a series of seemingly random events which have to be made sense of in order to orient ourselves, to give us a sense of direction and purpose. We make sense out of these random events by stringing them together into a story. Therefore all the meaning we could possibly find in life consists of the story we tell about ourselves or the stories we tell about others. Think about it. You would never relate the actions of someone you know in a completely dispassionate manner such that you merely provide an objective observation of what actions they performed. No. You would most certainly describe their actions in context of our shared cultural framework so their actions would seem meaningful and purposeful. But since you can’t fully know another human being and their thoughts and motivations, you would be creating a story, a fiction. We simply cannot relate to each other on a strictly objective basis. Our understanding of the world is always imperfect and consists of a subjective narrative. We enjoy stories and works of fiction because they relate a series of events and provide some form of meaning for these events. If a story presents us with events and actions which don’t seem to have any connection, we just consider the story to be very complicated and praise the writer for being really sophisticated. Because no matter how hard a writer tries to present life in all its confusion, we will still discern some meaning in the fiction and congratulate ourselves for our cleverness when we discover what the writer was trying to say. Often the writer was just presenting a slice of life without actually commenting on it or coming to a moral conclusion. But we still read too much into it and it will seem meaningful.

So we should take fiction very seriously since it is literally the meaning of life. And in truth, we often take fiction more seriously than reality itself. For example, why is it such a thrill to meet a Hollywood actor in real life? Why is this person considered to be a star, a person so special they can only be compared to a star in the heavens? It is because this person has played the hero in the stories our culture has chosen to tell itself. The movie star has undertaken the hero’s journey in our myths so he appears to be larger than life, a legend. In other words, stories hold profound significance for us and the hero of the story must appear to be a very special person.

Stories can heal the person who feels that life is meaningless. We create our own personal myths to comfort us when we don’t feel very important. You should never try to tear down somebody’s personal myth. We are often very concerned when somebody appears to be living a lie, a life trapped in their own delusions. So for the sake of the truth, the absolute truth, we will tear apart their delusions and expose them to the truth about themselves and the world. This is almost always a misguided course of action. It is cruel and does not help the person. Many dramatists feel that the purpose of a play should be to break down our illusions and show us the harsh realities, but these sorts of plays are never very popular. The audience prefers plays which lead to catharsis and I would argue that this only occurs when a story is told which heals. Healing fiction is very important in the theater. This is why I’m interested in the work of James Hillman and shamanism. I recently read the book The Soul Of Shamanism by Daniel C. Noel and I’m currently reading Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination by Shaun McNiff. Both of these authors were influenced by the work of  James Hillman.

I am on a quest to understand my fascination with dramatic stories and in pursuit of this knowledge the pile of books I plan to read keeps growing and growing. I will list some of the more promising books here.

The Symbolic Quest by Edward C. Whitmont which explores the significance of symbolism since the language of the psyche is symbols. Many great plays employ symbolism so it is very important to understand their significance.

The Archetype Of Initiation: Sacred Space, Ritual Process, and Personal Transformation by Robert L. Moore. It has been argued that the theater is a sacred space where the community comes together to witness a ritual enactment for the sake of personal transformation, to be initiated into one of the mysteries of life. As you can see, we keep coming back to shamanism as the essential nature of theater.

Liberating Rites: Understanding The Transformative Power Of Ritual by Tom F. Driver examines the role that ritual plays in creativity and performance. It is very difficult to grasp the significance of rituals and I’m not sure what qualifies as a ritual. But the characters in a play can be made richer by giving them little rituals, actions the actor might perform. However, the ritual would need to have some profound significance in the story. I plan to learn about rituals so I can get some ideas on how to incorporate them in my work.

The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson concerns how the supernatural has been pushed underground by our materialistic, scientific age. But instead of disappearing the supernatural reappears in our art and entertainment which suggests that religious notions still have power over our imagination and cannot be dispelled. This is an important realization because no matter how rational we imagine we have become, the irrational still entices us and represents an ever present danger. Instead of trying to deny the irrational altogether, we should try to remain aware of how it is always influencing our decisions. This point is being made repeatedly in the books I am reading.

The Cry For Myth by Rollo May provides many examples of how durable myths in our culture come up during therapy to reveal something to the patient so he can heal. Although the power of myth to heal is often mentioned, you are rarely given any examples so this book should give me some ideas on how to craft a story that heals.

Shamanism And The Psychology of C.G. Jung: the Great Circle by Robert E. Ryan is another book on the connections that can be made between shamanism and Jungian psychology. I’ve had this book for a long time but I only recently realized that I have not read it yet.

Tools and Techniques for Character Interpretation: A Handbook of Psychology for Actors, Writers, and Directors by Robert Blumenfeld would seem to be the only book  a playwright would really need, but I don’t think this book gets into the fundamental psychology of narrative, fiction, myth, or the story and that is more essential than the psychology of characters.

Shakespeare’s Royal Self by James Kirsch is a rare book which applies Jungian analysis to some of the greatest plays ever written for the theater. Unfortunately it only analyzes the plays; Hamlet, King Lear, and MacBeth. But this book has helped me to realize that Shakespeare’s real goal was to become “well known”, to fully reveal his true worth in a society that did not give much social status to a genius. Given this goal, it is ironic that Shakespeare remains such an enigma to us that many scholars even doubt his identity. But in  a way, this just proves that you can never really know another person in a profound sense. All writing is ultimately an attempt to reveal all the additional information we have about ourselves which we feel that other people don’t have. This additional information has to be given in the form of a very difficult story that is full of symbolic meaning. That is literature!

Hamlet is essentially a murderer. The purpose of the play is to allow us to get inside the mind of a murderer. Perhaps one of the reasons why this play has endured is because it is vitally important to understand the murderous intent of powerful people! Madness in great ones must not unwatched go. Hamlet fascinates us because he promises to give us some vital insights. But ultimately Hamlet remains an enigma to us and scholars have never been able to figure out his irrational actions. The entire play concerns Hamlets efforts to conceal his true intentions and his true nature yet this seems to cause him the greatest anguish.

Sacred Play: Soul-Journeys In Contemporary Irish Theatre by Anne F. O’Reilly is the book I’m most interesting in reading at the moment. Unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with contemporary Irish drama so I’ve had to order still more books. Learning the mysteries of great playwriting is a very expensive proposition! But this book uses many plays to illustrate how drama is a journey in search of the soul, of self, of sacred meaning, of healing.

I have one final insight to offer about the relationship between playwriting and the discoveries of Jungian psychology. Playwriting can function as a form of active imagination since you imagine some aspect of your inner self as an autonomous entity and enter into dialogue with these aspects of your self. “Active imagination is a method for visualizing unconscious issues by letting them act themselves out. Active imagination can be done by visualization (which is how Jung himself did it), which can be considered similar in technique at least to shamanic journeying.” from the Wikipedia article on Active imagination.

In conclusion, you might wonder why I am putting so much effort into playwriting and the psychology of dramatic stories. Playwriting itself is not very rewarding. Playwrights don’t make a lot of money and they only enjoy a very slight amount of literary fame. In spite of that there is a fierce competition for the honor of presenting an original play on a national stage. We should wonder about that since a play only reaches a very small audience. A play only has the potential to influence a small number of people. But dramatic stories actually have enormous power in our culture. The dramatist is literally creating the stories that our culture wants to tell about itself. The dramatist literally has the power to define the meaning of our entire civilization. This may seem like hyperbole but think about the power that major motion pictures have over the collective imagination. These movies show us who we think we are as a nation. Major films become our collective self image. This power is not given lightly which is why writing for the stage or the screen is such a challenge. It is actually a very big deal and people will fight for the right to tell their story even when there is just a handful of people in the audience. You might notice that I switched from plays to motion pictures but the fact is that any dramatic story with real emotional power will reach the biggest stage or screen available. However, to answer the question as to why I feel that I, in particular, must put a lot of effort into playwriting requires a consideration of how much access a person has to his psyche and how much pressure he is under to reveal all the additional information he has about the human soul. This is a question of how one is called to become a shaman. The playwright’s job is to do the soul searching for his tribe. What nominates him for this position is the ability to do that soul searching.

Posted in Theater, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t Rush A Web Developer

I like to work very slowly. This can be frustrating for a client but there are good reasons to work at a slower pace. Programming is not something that should be done in a rush. One of the biggest problems in software development is the lack of documentation. Developers don’t have time to create any documentation when they feel rushed. This actually costs you more time later on when you have to go through the entire process of discovery all over again. If a project has to be maintained for years then it makes sense to invest some time in documenting it.

Ideally a developer should only work on one problem a day. When you try to do too much in a day you don’t have time to reflect upon what you have done. This leads to ill considered software design decisions. But if you only create one method a day you will have plenty of time to think about what you have done. If you have made a mistake in creating that function you will be more likely to find that mistake if you can reflect upon the day’s work, the work that consisted solely of doing that one thing. In other words, setting yourself a single goal for the day’s work allows you to have more focus. Software development is a step by step process so it really benefits from a concentration on every step.

Working in a rush also prevents the developer from learning anything new. Often you will learn something new in the process of working on a project but you won’t have time to digest this new information if you are in a big hurry to get the job done. When you don’t have time to explore the new method you employed, you often miss various improvements that could be made. And you might not fully understand what you are now using in your project. This can lead to costly mistakes.

In conclusion, I would argue that the pace of software development should be slow but sure. This is complicated work that should not be rushed. It requires great concentration and concentration requires focus.

Posted in Programming, Web, Web Design | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment