🎭 Has It Gotten Easier for Women in STEM? | “Ada and the Engine” @ Theatre Unleashed

Ada and the Engine (Theatre Unleashed)I’ve written before how, when I see multiple shows in a weekend, there tends to be a connecting thru-line that I never realized when I scheduled these shows. That was certainly true last weekend, and it hit me during the closing scenes of Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage), which we saw Sunday evening. Earlier that morning I had been at our synagogue’s Purim Carnival, celebrating the agency of Queen Esther in saving her people, and Saturday evening we had seen Matilda Wormwood using her agency — and the power of her mind — to rewrite her story. What hit me as the story of Ada drew to its conclusion was that Lady Ada Lovelace had also used her agency — and the power of her mind — to rewrite her legacy and reputation as the daughter of Lord Byron to become a mathematician. She also overcame her mother’s desire for her to be a distinguished socialite. She became what was (in essence) the first computer programmer. Never mind that the computer didn’t really exist. The computer industry has a long history of promoting vaporware.

I first became familiar with Ada Lovelace as I was finishing up graduate school in Computer Science, with a specialty in programming language. I had been following development of the Steelman programming language competition, of which the eventual winner was the Steelman Green language. Steelman Green was eventually standardized and released as the programming language Ada, MIL-STD-1815A. The language has been updated since 1983 when it first came out, but I still have the MIL-STD on my bookshelf. It was named Ada, of course, in honor of Ada Lovelace, the first programmer.

This brings us back to Ada and the Engine, written by Lauren Gunderson, who has written a number of science-themed plays. Ada tells the story of Lady Lovelace. It covers her life from when she was an 18 year old mathematician and socialite looking for a husband, through her marriage to Lord Lovelace, up to her eventual death. It focuses, however, on her relationship with Charles Babbage and the work he was doing on the Difference Engine, later the Analytical Engine. Ada is remembered as the first person to see the broad potential of the Babbage’s Analytic Engine, and the developer of the first algorithm for the engine — essentially the first program.

But what struck me during the show was how things have changed so little. Ada fought to be seen as more than just a daughter of her famous father, or wife of her famous husband. She was forced into a role, and not seen at the time for the mathematical talents and insight that she had. In a world where women engineers have to still fight for recognition parity and pay parity, can we really say we’ve improved all that much. As Gene Spafford has written: We are out of balance with respect to women in technologyAda and the Engine reminds us that this has been a long battle. But Ada, and Esther, and Matilda remind us that we have the power to rewrite the story — we have the power to increase the visibility and parity of women in STEM fields (and I would be remiss if, at this point, I didn’t mention my long-term involvement with the sponsors of the Scholarships for Women Studying Information Security (SWSIS), which everyone should support). PS: You want proof that there’s discrimination against women in STEM? NASA just cancelled the first all-women spacewalk because they didn’t have two suits of the right size for women.

Back to Ada and the Engine: Knowing my background and my history, it is probably not a surprise that I really enjoyed the show. So did my wife, who is also an engineer. We felt that the story captured well the history and excitement of Ada, and brought her to life with a wonderful energy and … for us … the correct math and science. It was also helped by the fact that, under the direction of Heidi Powers (FB), the cast brings the story to life with exuberance and joy.

In the lead position is Jessie Sherman (FB)  as Ada Lovelace . We saw Sherman last summer in Beauty and the Beast at 5-Star Theatricals, and she brought the same energy and giddyness to Lovelace. I think the best way to characterize her performance is that the mathematics were bursting out of her in excitement, and that joy made her performance special for the audience. She also had a few singing moments in the show that were quite beautiful, using musical arrangement from Jennifer Lin, who is the musical director of Matilda. Connections, folks, connections! The music and lyrics for those songs were by The Kilbanes.

Playing the main men in her life were Alex Knox as Charles Babbage and Gregory Crafts (FB) as Lord Lovelace. Both literally towered above Sherman — I think they had at least a foot and a half of height on Sherman, providing a metaphorical demonstration of the difference in stature. Knox’s Babbage captured the excitement of an engineer and scientist of the age — as well as the arrogance. His performance presented an interesting relationship between the quasi-romantic (but perhaps only in the mind) and the business relationship, and demonstrated well the power dynamics that often come into play with women in the professional technical world. Crafts had a different role: the husband of someone who didn’t understand his wife having a technical relationship and friendship, but who learned how satisfaction of that aspect of his wife’s nature made her whole. Anyone who is married to an intellectual or a scientist understand that well, and I think Crafts portrayed it right. I must also acknowledge all the work that Crafts has done outside this show for the LA Theatre community and the #Pro99 efforts (I was one of the audience members speaking up on behalf of that effort).

As Ada’s moether, Anabella Byron, Denise Nicholson (FB) brought the right level of sternness and disapproval and authority to the role. Watching her facial expressions while Ada was interacting with Babbage said multitudes about her attitudes on the matter.

Rounding out the cast was Casey Hunter (FB) as Lord Byron and Michelle Holmes (FB) as Mary Somerville. Hunter’s Byron is really only seen (as Byron) in the opening and in the final scenes, but he does a great job with those closing scenes. Holmes role is even smaller, showing up introducing Ada to Byron at a few parties.

The scenic aspects of the show — set, props, and hair design — were handled well by Jenn Scuderi Crafts (FB), who did a really great job with a small budget.  Costumes were designed by Denise Barrett (FB), and worked well. Movement was choreographed by Roger Fojas (FB). This went beyond the few dance numbers; there was some really interesting choreography as the actors portrayed the analytic engine and the gears and cogs that made it work. The sound design of Graydon Schlichter (FB) provided the appropriate ambient sound effects, and Gregory Crafts (FB) lighting established time and place well. It also worked well with Kevin Hilton (FB)’s projection design, which provided context and the background mathematics. Other production credits: Tanya Nancy Telson (FB) — Stage Manager; Tom Moore (FB) — Dramaturg; Rosie Bryne (FB) — Dialect Coach; Jim Martyka (FB) & Gregory Crafts (FB) — Publicity; Matt Kamimura (FB) — Production Photography.

Ada and the Engine, continuing the parallelism with Matilda the Musical, also runs through March 31, 2019. Tickets are available through the Theatre Unleashed website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. As an engineer, programmer, and mathematician (really, my Bachelors degree from UCLA is in Math/Computer Science; my Masters in in Computer Science), I found this to be a wonderful show. The science is right, the story is right, and the performances were great. It is well worth seeing.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

March was to conclude with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that date had to chance so that we could attend the wedding of our daughter’s best friend, who is a wonderful young woman.

April starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. During the week, we are back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend brings the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (FB). The third weekend of April will bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The fourth weekend of April is open, although we may see Chris McBride’s Big Band at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and I may book a show for myself. Looking to May, the month starts out with Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, simply because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show. The second weekend of May brings  Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring! June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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🎭 Taking Back the Power | “Matilda” @ 5-Star Theatricals

Matilda (5-Star Theatricals)Last Saturday night we saw Matilda (with a book by Dennis Kelly and Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin (FB) based on the novel by Roald Dahl (FB)) at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). I had seen Matilda before at the Ahmanson almost four years ago, and I was at a loss how to describe the show last time. Back then, I had riffed off the bullying theme in the show (perhaps because I had just seen the La Mirada production of Carrie, and was making the connection). But this time that theme didn’t hit me, and so I was stuck. In fact, it wasn’t until near the end of the show we were seeing on Sunday, Ada and the Engine,  by Lauren Gunderson, that it hit me: The two shows were linked with a common theme. In fact, it was a theme common with my third event of the weekend: A Purim Carnival. Purim, after all, tells the story of Queen Esther, who saved her people by speaking up.

What was this common message, you might ask. Simple: It is up to you to change your story. It is a message I highlighted in the lyrics I quoted in my previous post:

If you sit around and let them get on top, you
Won’t change a thing.
Just because you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it,
You might as well be saying you think that it’s OK.
And that’s not right.
And if it’s not right, you have to put it right.

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me.
Nobody but me is gonna change my story.
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

Matilda overcame the bullying by her parents and by the Trunchbull to take charge of her story, and to change the ending.

Esther overcame the existential threat from Hamen, and changed the ending to save her people.

Ada overcame the legacy and reputation of her father, the overbearance of her mother, and her participation in a field that wasn’t particularly welcoming of women to change the nature of computing (more on that in the next post).

All changed their story. All overcame parents who were bullies. This was the uniting them of the shows over the weekend: Finding your agency. Overcoming your circumstances to write the end to your story, the way your want it to be. Not being powerless; taking the power into your own hands. Using the power of your mind. Being a little naughty along the way.

I just realized I’ve been blathering on without providing you a short synopsis.. After all, you might never have read the novel; you might not have seen the wonderful 1996 movie with Danny DeVito, Rhea Pearlman, and Mara Wilson. Luckily, I can copy what I wrote back in 2015: As opposed to trying to detail it all here, I’ll point you to the Wikipedia page. The “TL;DR” version is: Matilda is a precocious and intelligent little girl born to parents who didn’t want her, and who value stupidity and the messages that TV teaches over reason. Unable to control her (Matilda loves to play pranks on her parents), then enroll her in a school run by an evil headmistress who delights in torturing children. One teacher sees Matilda’s value, and working together they fight the headmistress, and return the school to a place of love and learning. Oh, and Matilda gets a happy ending as well.

Back then, I also noted that in adapting this story to the stage, the authors imbued it with an additional message that was not the novel or the movie — a message that is a commentary on parents today. In the opening scenes, there is a birthday party where every parent is talking about how their child is a precious little miracle and something special. This, of course, creates a contrast with Matilda’s parents who see her not as a miracle and as something not special. The point that is being made is that if everyone is special, then no one is. Special becomes the norm, and the truly special become invisible. The reality must be that we, as parents, must not predefine our children with labels, but must encourage them to grow up and be whatever they are destined to be (and be the best at that).

Today, there was one other additional message that I noted: At the top of Act II, there is a number called “All I Know” (which is known to most folks as “Telly”). In it, Matilda’s father and her brother sing of the joys of getting all your information from television, and making fun of people that believe in facts and getting information by reading. Back then, the number was a novelty number. But that was 2015. It is now 2019 — and Donald Trump is President. All I could think of watching that number was that it described perfectly Donald and Eric Trump.

My one complaint with the show from the first time I saw it, alas, was not resolved as the version was adapted for licensing and regional productions. The Act I ending is still too abrupt. You want Act I to end with a rousing number to get you talking during intermission and wanting to come back. Instead, you get Matilda alone on stage going “But That’s Not Right”. There are a few points where the story seems to drag a bit, or at least move away from the interesting. But overall, the structuring of the story is fun and well-paced, and the songs are more than just entertaining patter. In particular, the songs did a great job of illustrating the wants and motives of the characters; they illustrated and illuminated personalities and drives. This is what the songs in musicals should do.

I also want to note that, unlike the production at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) back in 2015, this production was not a tour. 5-Star Theatricals, formerly Cabrillo Music Theatre, is Broadway in Your Backyard, and they pride themselves in not booking tours. They cast using a mix of local and new-to-local top talent. They pride themselves on finding newcomers (such as Katharine McPhee (FB), who was in CMT’s Annie Get Your Gun) who excel. They do this all in an environment of community outreach and giving back. As an example for this production, they made an effort to honor local teachers, and collect used books for school libraries and children. Next year will be 5-Star/Cabrillo’s 25th Anniversary. They have just announced their season: The Music ManMamma Mia, and Newsies.

Matilda @ 5-Star Photo StripThis production was directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld (FB), the former artistic director of 5-Star, and choreographed by Heather Castillo (FB), who has choreographed a number of productions at 5-Star. Both know how to work well with kids and ensure that they are having fun with the show, and this was evident in how the children and adult performers were having loads of fun with the show. This is one reason why we keep coming back to 5-Star, even with seasons (such as the upcoming season) where we’ve seen the shows before.

The lead position in Matilda is quite demanding, and as a result is dual-cast. The 5-Star Matildas are Lucy Bollier and Olivia Marcum. At our production, we had Lucy, and she did a spectacular job. She had a very strong singing voice, and a wonderfully mischievous and expressive face. She moved well, was suitably playful, and was just fun to watch. If you are up in the balconies, bring your binoculars because you’re going to want to watch her face.

On the other hand, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (FB)’s Miss Trunchbull is best seen at a distance. His performance itself was quite strong and hilarious; it is more that a closeup of his/her makeup was a bit off-putting, with the exaggerated cheekbone and moles. That might have been the intent, but it was a bit distracting through the binoculars. But, again, that doesn’t make the performance bad. Performance-wise, Mongiardo-Cooper is perfect, capturing the overbearing and bullying nature of Trunchbull perfectly, and handing Trunchbull’s few songs well and with strong humor.

Even more humorous moments come from Matilda’s parents: Janna Cardia (FB) as Mrs. Wormwood, and James Larsen (FB) as Mr. Wormwood. Cardia was hilarious during the opening “birth” number, as well as in her dancing number with John Paul Batista (FB) as Rudolfo (who was side-splitting in the background). Larsen — who research shows we saw over 10 years ago in Parade, where I noted the strength of his performance even then — was just great. His comic movements with the hat were just great, and his performance in “All I Know” was very very strong.

Representing the good in the show was Matilda’s teacher, Miss Jenny Honey, played by Katie DeShan (FB). DeShan captured the innocence of the character well, as well as the pathos in the later scenes. She had a strong singing voice and a wonderfully expressive personality on stage. A slight PS: She needs to update her personal website as it still uses Flash, which has security risks and has been deprecated.

Then there are the kids. Cabrillo/5-Star loves kids, and works with them as performers to bring out something special. The youngsters in Matilda are no exception. Strong singers and strong dancers, they had delightful performances, with special acknowledgements for the kids playing Lavender and Bruce. The kids consisted of: Drew Rosen — Nigel; Luke Pryor — Tommy; Olivia Zenetzis — Lavender; Marcello SilvaBruce; Taylor Lynda Thomas (FB) — Amanda; Nico Ridino — Eric; Glory Rose — Alice; and Iyana Hannans — Hortensia.

This brings us to the adults who had the smaller roles, and the members of the adult ensemble (many of whom also played kids). The most notable performance here was Deanna Anthony (★FBFBIG)’s Mrs. Phelps, who brought a wonderfully comic touch to her scenes. She’s been in a number of 5-Star roles and always brings a great humorous character touch to her roles. We also recently saw her singing and dancing her way through Cupcake Theatre’s Mamma Mia — who knows, perhaps she’ll reprise the role for 5-Star in their next season. Also notable (as I noted earlier) was John Paul Batista (FB)’s Rudolfo, who was hilarious in “Loud”.

Anyway, the other adults on stage were: John Paul Batista (FB) — Rudolfo, Ensemble; Ben Carroll (FB) — Escape Artist, Doctor; Monica Ricketts (FB) — Acrobat, Ensemble; Joah Ditto (FB) — Ensemble; Maya Galipeau (FB) — Ensemble; Tyler Luff — Ensemble; Julia Marley (FB) — Ensemble; Jared Cardiel (FB) — Ensemble; Renee Cohen (FB) — Ensemble; Josh Golombek (FB) — Ensemble; Carolyn Lupin (FB) — Ensemble; and Tyler Marie Watkins (FB) — Ensemble. I’ll note that, as a former Rep East subscriber, that we saw Ms. Cohen many years ago in Rep East production.

This brings us to the musicians, under the direction of Jennifer Lin, musical director and conductor. The excellent 5-Star Theatricals orchestra consisted of: Gary Rautenberg (FB) — Flute, Clarinet, Alto Sax; Darryl Tanikawa (FB) — Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tenor Sax; Chris Maurer (FB)  — Trumpet 1, Flugelhorn, Piccolo Trumpet, Cornet; Michael Fortunato (FB) Trumpet II; June Satton (FB) — Tenor Trombone, Bass Trombone; Brian LaFontaine (FB) — Acoustic & Electric Guitar; Bang Eunn Lee (FB) — CelloChris Kimbler (FB) — Keyboard I;  Jennifer OikawaKeyboard II; Shane Harry (FB) — Double String & Electric Bass; and Alan Peck — Set Drums & Percussion. The orchestra was produced by Tanikawa Artists Management LLC.

Finally, we turn to the production team. Unlike recent productions, where 5-Star had moved from the days of Cabrillo building its own sets to renting sets from other productions, this production has no credits for set rental, meaning that the excellent sets were the sole work of Stephen Gifford (FB) and his construction team. Gifford is a busy man; we saw his sets a few weeks ago for Anna Karenina. I had memories of the Ahmanson tour sets: swings and letter blocks everywhere. Gifford’s unifying motif was books and more books, library bookcases around the stage, with other pieces that came in for the school, Trunchbull’s office, and a large blackboard that made good use of projections. It worked well, and was augmented by properties design of Kevin Williams (FB) — who, in an interesting coincidence, did the properties for 1776 at the Saroya (together with Gifford‘s scenic design), which we saw the same day as Karenina. Also supporting this design was Noelle Raffy (FB)’s costume design, Jessica Mills (FB)’s hair and wig design, and Debby Bryan (FB)’s makeup design (modulo my comments on Miss Trunchbull’s makeup, which I thought was a bit overdone).  Jonathan Burke (FB)’s was reasonable, although the first few numbers had the same problem as the Ahmanson — clearly making out the lyrics that were being sung. Always test the sound quality in the balconies!  Jose Santiago (FB)’s lighting design worked well in establishing time and mood. Other production credits: Alex Choate (FB) — Asst. Props Design; David Elzer/Demand PR — Publicity; Fresh Interactive (FB) — Marketing; Tal Fox (FB)— Assoc Producer; Jack Allaway (FB) — Technical Director; Talia Krispel (FB) — Production Stage Manager; Patrick Cassidy (FB)— Artistic Director. The original Broadway production was directed by Matthew Warchus and choreographed by Peter Darling.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda – The Musical has one more weekend at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). Overall, I thought it was a very strong production with good performances and a great message. It is well worth seeing; you’ll enjoy it. Tickets are available through the 5-Star Theatrical’s website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. The last performance of Matilda is March 31, 2019.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

The day after Matilda, we saw Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage). March was to conclude with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that date had to chance so that we could attend the wedding of our daughter’s best friend, who is a wonderful young woman.

April starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. During the week, we are back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend brings the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (FB). The third weekend of April will bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The fourth weekend of April is open, although we may see Chris McBride’s Big Band at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and I may book a show for myself. Looking to May, the month starts out with Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, simply because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show. The second weekend of May brings  Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring! June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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🎭 Think Of It As a Dance Show | “Cats” @ Hollywood Pantages

Cats (Hollywood Pantages)The most important thing to remember, when thinking about the production Cats (currently at the Hollywood Pantages (FB)), with music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics (mostly) by T. S. Eliot* (supplemental lyrics by Trevor Nunn), is that it is not a musical, despite everything you hear. It is a dance show, pure and simple. Go in thinking that, and you won’t be disappointed by the paper thin plot, the lack of real characters, the absence of character growth, or any silly musical theatre notions like that. If you read reviews of Cats and you find they are disappointed with the show, 9 times out of 10, you’ll find that they were going in expecting a traditional musical.

So, I’ll say it again: Cats is a dance show. And as a dance show, it is a spectacular one, with catchy if simplistic tunes that exist solely to support the dance, wonderful movement, and some lovely character vignettes that showcase characters you don’t see again as their characters. This shouldn’t be surprise, as this show was based on a collection of children’s poems, not any sort of story or novel with a through line.

I”ll repeat it a third time, because if you say it three times it must be true: Cats is a dance show. It only lacks the introduction that Bob Fosse put on his show Dancin’: “This show has no plot; it is a dance show.”.

I’m a big fan of comparing and contrasting shows, and ignoring my sojourn into Silly Symphonies at the Soraya the weekend between,  I had two dance shows in a row: Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella at the Ahmanson,  and Cats at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). Both celebrated and were centered around dance. One told a story without words, showing character growth. One used words to accompany the dance, but really didn’t tell a story. One used the classical repertoire; the other used more pop and rock stylings. One shows up only periodically; the other was one of the longest running shows on Broadway. Ultimately, I think I found Cats more satisfying. Perhaps it is the whole issue of accessibility. Using more modern music, and having songs to accompany the dance, ultimately made the dance itself more satisfying. The paper thin story went by the wayside, and one could enjoy the dance for what it was. With Cinderella, one had to focus on the dance and the language of the dance in order to figure out the more substantial story — and in doing so, the enjoyment of the dance itself was lost.

We last saw Cats in 2009 at Cabrillo Music Theatre (now 5 Star Theatricals (FB)); before that, it was the original production in 1985 at the Shubert Theatre in Century City.

There are those who somehow believe there is a story line in Cats. They think it has something to do with cats auditioning to go to the Heavyside layer, and ultimately Grizabella the Glamour Cat being chosen for no reason other than she has the one new song in the show. But given you really only see the other cats do their numbers and disappear (only three remain really visible in the ensemble dancing — Mungojerrie, Rumpleteaser, and Rum-Tum-Tugger), that story isn’t really there. It is grafted on to give an excuse for the song “Memory”. Don’t think about it. This is a dance show. Enjoy the spectacle.

I must, however, note some interesting story changes in this version. At the top of Act II, we have Gus the Theatre Cat’s number. Normally, this has been “Growltiger’s Last Stand”, with the whole number with the Siamese cats that was borderline offensive when the show premiered in the 1980s (with the use of stereotypes and such — not surprising, given when and where the poems were written). The 2016 revival on Broadway replaced that number with a different poem, “The Pekes and the Pollicles”, using some but not all of the original music. The new number works, but it creates an interesting discontinuity in the “McCavity” number where a mention is made of Griddlebone — who is now no longer in the show. Some other numbers have had their tempos changed or adjusted. I believe some of these adjustments derived from the 2015 London revival.

It is also important to understand the role productions such as Cats play in the musical ecosystem. Cats is not a star vehicle. Sure, there can be a star turn for the actor playing Grizabella — they get to shamble on, sing a spectacular number, shamble off, and then in the second act, shamble back in, sing a reprise of that number, and then die on stage. But for all the other actors in the show: this is ensemble heaven. It is a training ground for dancing, singing, and background characterization. When you go into the show, look for that. Watch each individual cat and how they succeed or fail in making each cat their own character. Look at their movement. Note who they are. This is how they get their exposure: doing this show with a paper-thin plot but spectacular movement and characterization exercises. For many of them, you’ll see them grow over the years into musical or dance mainstays.

But there is that one problem of identifying the performers. The individual cats are not all named in the show, so how do you know who is who? These answer is that the Wikipedia page provides a list of all the cats, their names, and a description of their costumes. This is a must, and should be in every program, because the individual cats are never introduced in the show — and other than the actors, the audience has no way of knowing who is performing whom (unless they happen to have done the show before). I think providing this listing would be a courtesy to the actors/dancers, as then they can be properly credited for their outstanding work.

I’ll note that this production was directed by Trevor Nunn, with choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne. I’ll also note that the entire performance team was strong, and the dancing was just a joy to behold. Writing this the night after the show, there are a few performances I’d like to highlight:

  • Caitlin Bond (FB)’s Victoria (the white kitten) is just amazing. Her moves and her talent are just wonderful. I really enjoyed watching her.
  • Rose Iannaccone (FB)’s Rumpelteazer was also fun to watch. Small, lithe, and with some spectacular moves — as well as great facial expressions. My eyes kept being drawn to her.
  • Emily Jeanne Phillips (FB)’s Jennyanydots did a spectacular tap number. I tried to recognize her elsewhere in the show, but couldn’t.
  • PJ DiGaetano (FB)’s swung into Mr. Mistoffelees, and did an outstanding job with it. DiGaetano normally portrays Coricopat.
  • Keri Rene Fuller (FB)’s has essentially a “walk-on” as Grizabella — she doesn’t really do all that much dancing. She does, however, get the powerhouse number in the show: “Memory”, and she does wonderful with that number.
  • Timothy Gulan (FB)’s does good as Asparagus, the Theatre Cat — I liked his characterizations and facial expression. I was a bit less taken with his Bustopher Jones.
  • Erin Chupinsky (FB) swinging in as Demeter, and Charlotte O’Dowd (FB) swinging in as Bombalurina, did a wonderful job on “McCavity” with some spectacular dancing.
  • McGee Maddox (FB)  gave a strong turn as Rum Tum Tugger/Bill Bailey. A different swagger in the characterization than I’ve seen before, but fun to watch.
  • Marian Rieves (FB)’s Cassandra is one of the ensemble cats that catches your eye. A seemingly Siamese shorthair (at least she has a more slinky costume than the other cats), she has wonderfully lithe movement. Her tumbling runs were incredible.
  • Ahren Victory (FB)’s Sillabub is the cat that sings with Fuller’s Grizabella, and does a spectacular job of it.

The other performers were strong dancers, but other aspects of their performances either didn’t stick out in my mind, or I couldn’t identify their character well enough to comment. Other cast members were: Phillip Deceus (FB) [Alonzo]; Lexie Plath (FB) [normally Bombalurina, but out last night]; Justin W. Geiss (FB) [Swing, who I’m guessing swung in for Coricocat]; Liz Schmitz (FB) [normally Demeter, but out last night]; Kaitlyn Davidson (FB) [Jellylorum]; Tion Gaston (FB) [normally Mistoffelees, but out last night]; Tony d’Alelio (FB) [Mungojerrie]; Dan Hoy (FB) [normally Munkustrap, but out last night]; Tyler John Logan (FB) [Plato / McCavity]; Anthony Michael Zas (FB) [Pouncival]; Ethan Saviet (FB) [Skimbleshanks]; Halli Toland (FB) [Tantomile]; Devin Neilson (FB) [Tumblebrutus]; Brandon Michael Nase (FB) [Victor / Old Deuteronomy]; Maria Failla (FB), Adam Richardson (FB), Tricia Tanguy (FB), Andy Michael Zimmermann (FB[Cat’s Chorus]; Zachary S. Berger (FB) [swinging in as Munkustrap]; Nick Burrage (FB) [Swing]; and Laura Katherine Kaufman (FB) [Swing].

The Cats orchestra was conducted by Eric Kang (FB), who was also musical director. Other members of the orchestra (🌴 indicates local) were: Evan Roider (FB) [Assoc. Music Director, Keyboard3]; Luke Flood (FB) [Keyboard1]; David Robison (FB) [Keyboard2]; Garrett Hack (FB) [Reed1]; Dave Stambaugh (FB) [Reed2]; Ralph Agresta (FB) [Guitar]; John Toney (FB) [Bass]; Aaron Nix (FB) [Drums / Percussion]; Jeff Driskill (FB) 🌴 [Flute / Clarinet / Tenor Sax]; Sean Franz (FB) 🌴 [Clarinet/Soprano Sax/Bari Sax]; Mike Abraham (FB) 🌴 [Guitar (Electric, Steel String Acoustic, Banjo, Nylon String Acoustic)]; Dan Lutz (FB) 🌴[Bass (Electric, Fretless)]; William Malpede 🌴 [Keyboard Sub]. Orchestra support: Eric Heinly (FB) 🌴 [Orchestra Contractor]; Kristen Blodgette [Music Supervisor]; Brian Taylor (FB) [Assoc. Music Supervisor]; Stuart Andrews [Keyboard Programmer]; and Talitha Fehr [Music Coordinator].

Turning to the production and creative side of the equation: Alas, nothing can top the original scenic design in the Century City Shubert theatre, where the entire theatre was transformed into a larger-than-life junkyard. This is a tour, which constrained John Napier‘s scenic design primarily to stage, with a few rows of lights. It was still a junkyard; just not as immersive. The audience did, however, get to see Napier’s design in another area — the costumes — when the actors came into the audience. Still, even here he was constrained by the original, as he had to keep the character designs within the constraints of the original design. Still, the impact of the actors going in the audience should not be discounted; Marian Rieves relates the story of going into the audience in the Pantages and making a little black girls day by showing what she could be when she grows up. Theatre does change lives. Where there has been a significant change since the original production is in the technology, and that is no where more apparent than in Natasha Katz‘s lighting design. Lightweight LEDs have transformed the theatre, from the eyes on stage, to Mr. Mistoffelees’ spectacular costume, to the changing colors of the light strands, to the on-stage flashlights. Katz’s design makes use of this well. Victoria Tinsman (FB)’s hair and makeup design is a key part of these characters, and what I’m sure was a time-consuming job paid off well in their looks. About the only weakness was Mick Potter‘s sound design: one of the characters had a very muffled microphone (I want to say Alonzo), and my wife noticed a number of balance problems. As an aside, I’m so looking forward to productions at the Dolby Theatre, because it should not be plagued with the muffled sound that is endemic to the Pantages’ rococo design. Knitting by Jo Thompson (Leg and Arm warmers) and Marian Grealish (Skimbleshanks / Victor). One other key creative credit for this show: Neuro Tour provided the physical therapy, which I’m sure these dancers depend upon. Other production and creative credits: Chrissie Cartwright (FB) [Assoc. Director / Choreographer]; Kim Craven (FB) [Assoc. Choreographer]; Ellenore Scott (FB) and Lili Froehlich (FB) [Asst. Choreographers]; John Clancy [New Dance Sequences for selected numbers]; Nick Burrage (FB) and Erin Chupinsky (FB) [Dance Captains];  Tara Rubin Casting (FB) [Casting]; Abigail Hahn (FB) [Assoc. Costume Designer]; Donovan Dolan (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; J. Andrew Blevins (FB) [Stage Manager]; Laura C. Nelson (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]; Aaron Quintana (FB) [Company Manager]; Justin Coffman (FB) [Asst. Company Manager]; Troika Entertainment LLC [Tour Manager].

Cats continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through March 24. Tickets are available through the Pantages website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or TodayTix. After Los Angeles, the Cats tour moves on to Seattle WA. If you like theatrical dance, it is worth seeing. If you are looking for a real musical with a plot and deep characterizations, and a storyline that means something, pass. Cats is a dance show, as I’ve said before.

PS: Let’s start the rumor: Cats in Yiddish. Ketz anyone?

ETA: Something I never knew: T.S. Eliot was antisemitic. Luckily, I don’t think he is making the big bucks off the musical, nor do I think there are any such references in this work, but it does make “Growltiger’s Last Stand” even more problematic.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend brings Matilda at  5 Star Theatricals (FB) on Saturday, followed by Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage) on Sunday. March was to conclude with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that date had to chance so that we could attend the wedding of our daughter’s best friend, who is a wonderful young woman.

April starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. During the week, we are back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend has a hold for OERM.  April will also bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Looking to May, only four shows are currently programmed: Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB); and Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Because some of those shows are mid-week, two weekends are currently open (but will likely be programmed as press announcements are received). June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

 

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📝 My Father: A Remembrance (2018)

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Every year on my dad’s birthday I post a remembrance that I wrote the day after he died in 2004. Today he would have been 94. As I wrote last year: As I get older, I see more and more of my father in me — and I like what I see, and I’m grateful he gave so much to me that makes me who I am.

My father was born in Flushing NY in 1922. He was the eldest of four brothers; the son of a tailor who lived over his shop. I can’t give you too many details of the early days. His mother died young, when he was in his twenties, and sometime thereafter, his family moved to Los Angeles (how’s that for glossing over details). My dad went to Southwestern School of Accounting, and was a Public Accountant. He married his first wife in the late 1940s, and my brother was born in 1952. He loved my brother very, very much. He divorced that wife in 1955, and retained custody of my brother. He married my mother in 1956, and I was born in 1960. My mother was a CPA, so they formed an accounting company of their own, Faigin and Faigin. My brother died, reportedly due to an accident (I never knew the true details) in 1970. It devastated both my parents. My mother died in 1990 on my wedding anniversary. My father remarried a year or so later to Rae, who had lost her husband. This brought me some new wonderful family members. This should bring you up to date on the familial backstory.

So, who was my dad, and what do I remember. This is a jagged collection of memories.

I remember being in Indian Guides with him, painting rocks and bark to invite people to meetings. I remember going on Indian Guide campouts with him. It is because of this that I did Indian Princesses with my daughter, continuing the tradition. I recommend this program to anyone who is a dad.

I remember going on trips with him to East Los Angeles, to visit his clients. We would hit small mom and pop grocery stores, Mexican candy companies. I’d always get sweets… and get to sort the paid bills afterwards.

I remember him taking the time to be with me.

I remember him telling bad jokes, and being enamored with old-time radio stars, such as Al Jolsen (his favorite), Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, and so on.

I remember his teeth. Specifically, I remember how he would remove his dentures just to gross out us kids.

I remember him taking me to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see musicals, starting in 1972 when my mother was too sick to attend The Rothschilds. From this came my love of musicals.

I remember him reading Robert W. Service to me, especially Bessie’s Boil.

I remember him, at the Passover Seder, reading the Four Sons. He loved to act, mug, and play with his voice to make a point during the story.

I remember him being active in the Masons and the Shriners, especially with his good friend, Raymond Schwartz. I remember him going to the Masonic Picnics.

I remember him playing bridge with my mom and their friends, the Cohens, the Schwartzes, and the Strausses. Perhaps this is where I got my love of gaming.

I remember him telling stories of his time in the Navy, when he was a pharmacists mate, 2nd class, at Camp Elliott, which is now part of Mirimar NAS in San Diego. He found it ironic that he was in the Navy, as he could never swim.

I remember his disorganized tool-bench, where eventually you could find what you need. I still have his 30 year old power drill, which I still use today.

I remember him taking care of my mother as she died of cancer, and fiercely defending her when we would fight.

In his later years, I remember him fighting with the computer, and eventually learning to use it and to use Email. However, he could never quite get the printer figured out. I would get calls from him that stuff wasn’t printing, and it was because he had been playing with the printer queue again.

I remember him cooking. He loved to cook peppers and onions in olive oil. He made a mean spaghetti sauce, and a great pot roast in tomatoe sauce. Rae says that I got my cooking skills from him, with which I must agree, as I don’t think my mom could cook.

I remember him collecting autographs and first day covers. For many, he would frame them and put them all over the walls.

I remember his love of baseball, which never rubbed off.

I remember him taking pictures. And more pictures. And more pictures. And still more pictures. I’ll probably find about 50 cameras at the house, together with probably 200 photo albums. In particular, I remember a few specific cameras: His Konica T-3 SLR, which I have. His Fuji POS, which he received at a special party my mother threw for him at the Magic Castle in Hollywood.

I remember him loving fountain pens, just like me. He had boxes of pens, and even more ink. He’s the only man I know that has a quart bottle of Schaeffer Black Quink Ink in his supply closet. There are about 6 bottles of ink on his desk (I only have 3).

I remember him being a luddite when it comes to computerizing financies. He left me loads of two-peg journal books to go through to figure out stocks and bank accounts.

I remember him being a packrat. He collected office supplies. He collected biographical books. He collected CDs. You name it, he collected it.

I remember him being a good friend and caring about other people. After my mother died and he remarried, his new wife’s children were treated the same as his natural children, with the same love. He was a second grandfather to my sister-in-law’s children. He was there when people needed him. Until his last year, he volunteered to help seniors with their taxes.

For many years, I remember him being a staunch Republican, going counter to my mother, the strong liberal. I remember him backing Nixon and Reagan. This year [nb: this was written in 2004], however, had he been strong enough, he was going to vote for John Kerry. [I think he would have been disgusted with Trump.]

I remember him being a people person. He would just light up when he was around people, especially those that hadn’t heard his stories before.

I remember him being there for me and my family. We spoke weekly on the phone, something I will miss, talking about everything. He had good advice, which I grew to respect as I got older. To the youngsters reading this: listen to your parents. They’ve been their and made the same mistakes. They do know what they are talking about.

I remember his love for his granddaughter. He had pictures of her everywhere, and she loved him. I remember him taking her to Disneyland when she was three, and being there in the hospital when she had her open heart surgery at the age of four.

I remember his love for his family. He enjoyed spending time with his brothers, Herbert, Ronald, and Tom, and researching family history. [I’ll note we lost Uncle Herbert in 2011, and Uncle Tom just last year; luckily, Uncle Ron is still going strong.] When my daughter was little, we picked up a copy of Grandfather Remembers and gave it to him. He filled it out, and now it is a lasting memory for her of her grandfather. To those of you who are grandparents: take the time now to write out your memories for your grandchildren. Record an oral history. Annotate your photo albums. It is worth the time. You will create that memory that will outlive you.

I remember how he loved Yiddish and Yiddish stories. I remember him reading the Freiheit. [ETA: I think he would have been extremely proud to see his granddaughter become the Yiddish scholar that she is.]

I remember (or have discovered) how he loved his wives. I remember how he loved my mother, Nancy, even through the depths of her depression, her anger, her rages, her illnesses. I remember how he rarely lost his temper (and when he did, you needed to worry). I remember when he first told me he had met Rae, and how they quickly grew to love each other. Even though there was an age difference there, I saw the deep affection that existed between them. He chose well.

I remember how he touched people. A few months ago, I went to a funeral that was packed to the gills of people who loved the deceased. My father had friends all over the world, and helped many people.

In short, I remember a deeply caring man, who I really think was responsible for making me the way I am today (both for good and for bad). He does live on in me, and I think he lives on in my daughter as well. As long as we remember someone, they never die.

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📰 Inspired Miscellany: A Random Collection of Things I Found of Interest

As I continue to review the collected links, here’s a random collection of articles that I found of interest:

  • Amazon’s streamlined plastic packaging is jamming up recycling centers. One area of interest to me is plastics, and the growing amount of plastics in our waste stream. They are hard to recycle, and even their presence makes things that are normally easy to recycle very difficult (think plastic tape on packaging). This article explores a recent change made by Amazon in their packaging. Amazon is an interesting case, for they require extra packaging as they ship everything. Over the last year, Amazon.com Inc. has reduced the portion of shipments it packs in its cardboard boxes in favor of lightweight plastic mailers, which enable the retailing giant to squeeze more packages into delivery trucks and planes. But environmental activists and waste experts say the new plastic sacks, which aren’t recyclable in curbside recycling bins, are having a negative effect. The problem with the plastic mailers is that they need to be recycled separately, and if they end up in the usual stream, they gum up recycling systems and prevent larger bundles of materials from being recycled.  It’s a really hard question. Cardboard is easier to recycle. But it is heavier, takes up more space, and requires more trucks, which have more environmental impact. Plastic takes less space and less trucks, but is harder to recycle and can contaminate the recycle stream.
  • Why your desk job is so damn exhausting. Think about it: Which is more exhausting: a job that requires physical manual labor, or a desk job behind a computer all day. You would think the former. This articleexplores one of the more hotly contested issues in psychology: What causes mental fatigue? Why is desk work so depleting? It presents the two main hypotheses for why we get so tired from work when we’re not physically active. Hypothesis 1: we get so tired because we deplete an internal store of energy. The problem is, increasingly, psychologists aren’t sure it’s real. Hypothesis 2: we get so tired because our motivation runs out. We become drawn to the things we want to do, rather than the things we have to do. And this tension possibly causes fatigue… and blog posts like this… did I type that with my public fingers?
  • How to Make Your Office More Ergonomically Correct. Here’s another thing that could be making you tired: Your office layout. At the end of last year, I moved offices — meaning a new desk and new monitor support, and it took me a while to make things comfortable. I’m still not 100% sure it is right. This article explores how to ensure that. Remember: About $1 billion a week is spent in the United States to deal with entirely preventable work-related musculoskeletal injuries, many of which are caused by small flaws in body positioning. You can do a surprising amount of damage to your body if you hold parts of it in strange positions for hours at a time, five days a week. But some research suggests that you can also prevent and even reverse damage by engineering your office work environment properly.
  • How to responsibly get rid of the stuff you’ve decluttered. Right now, society is on a decluttering trend. More and more stuff is being removed from closets and houses, and it has to go somewhere. You want it to go to the right place. Last thing you want to do is add it to the trash stream, especially for clothing. This article explores the best way to get rid of different classes of stuff you may be (shall we say) de-accessioning. For us, it will probably be participating in a multi-family estate sale in a few months.
  • Why so many financially independent adults are still on their parents’ phone plans. You would think, as you become financially independent and move out of your parent’s house, that you would financially separate from them. But that doesn’t always happen — and for good reasons. Kids stay on their parent’s health insurance until they are 26 because that’s often much cheaper (especially for insurance you get through work). Often Car Insurance is bundled if it makes financial sense. This article explores the reason that kids are on their parent’s phone plan — and it is often for the same reason: adding an extra line to your phone is much much cheaper than having a separate plan.
  • The periodic tables we almost had. Design is an area that fascinates me. This explores how we got the current design of the periodic table, exploring its evolution over time. It was surprisingly hit and miss, settling down as we began to learn more. But in many ways it is still imprecise, and not an accurate model. I tend to like the “Underground Map of the Elements” m’self.
  • The Aldi effect: how one discount supermarket transformed the way Britain shops. Yes, I know, I’m not in the UK. But this article — which looks at the evolution of Aldi as a market and its expansion into the British market — provides some fascinating insights into the US: especially the difference between Trader Joes (owned by Aldi North), and Aldi (owned by Aldi South). If you don’t know what I mean by Aldi North and Aldi South, you really need to read the article.
  • Community colleges can cost more than universities, leaving neediest students homeless. We’ve all been taught that it is cheaper for students to go to community college than a big university. But what if that is wrong? This article explores why it is wrong — and the answer is interesting. Community colleges do cost less tuition-wise. But because they have lower tuition, they also have lower financial aid — meaning that students get less support in paying for those units. There is also less to no housing aid, meaning students are on their own to find housing. This makes the total cost often higher than a mid-tier state university with aid.
  • Off the chart: the big comeback of paper maps. We often think mapping apps will be the death of paper maps, but that’s not the case. This article explores why. In a time when facts are to be treasured, perhaps paper maps have real significance, recording as they do a version of the truth less susceptible to tampering and fakery. The effects of the digital era on humans’ mental map abilities are becoming apparent. A recent study at the University of Montreal found that some video games that relied on non-spatial strategies could reduce growth in the hippocampus, an all-important region for mental mapping.

 

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📰 🔐 Complexity, Assurance, and Airplanes

Recent tweets from the President have brought the issue of complexity to the front of the news cycle. In response to the second crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 Jet, the President tweeted:

Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!

So is the President right or wrong. Before I answer that, let’s explore the question of complexity and the risk that it brings. Any cybersecurity security expert worth their salt can tell you the three characteristics of a reference monitor:

  1. Always Invoked / Non-Bypassable.
  2. Tamper-proof.
  3. Never eat at a place called “Moms” Small enough to be easily understood and evaluated.

Why is that last point there? Simply, because complexity is the enemy of assurance. We’ve all heard of “feeping creaturism” — the way that software vendors keep adding in features to sell a product while not fixing known problems and making the product more reliable. This is because adding features sells products, while adding assurance does not. But the more and more features and capabilities you put into the code, the less assurance you have in its correctness. Logically, this makes a lot of sense: each feature has multiple inputs and options, each creating a new path through the code, and very quickly it becomes impossible to test all code paths. Simpler code means fewer code paths, meaning more reliability. Complex code means code that wasn’t completely tested in every possible situation, and as Hoare pointed out, once you find the first bug, you have an infinite number.

We are adding more and more complexity to the software we use every day. Remember the Toyota unintended acceleration problem? That turned out to be a software bug (which they claimed was a carpet mat problem, but they updated the software at the same time) from a rare complex interaction. Cars today have even more complex software, what with all the sensors monitoring things for safety. Most of the time these work, but there have been cases where problems have been identified due to software errors. Subaru, in fact, just had a recall to fix the software on the head unit related to the rear camera.

Airplane software is equally complex. When the Airbus Jets first came out, they were revolutionary in that they were “fly-by-wire”. In other words, instead of multiple physical hydraulic lines to control the rudders and wing surfaces, there was an electrical signal that went to the other end of the plane. Many people didn’t trust fly-by-wire and only flew the Boeing. It took multiple flights to convince the public of the safety of the systems, and now all modern jets use fly-by-wire.

So, are airplanes too complex to fly? Airplanes are controlled by software, and that software is very complex. But statistically, airplanes are safer than they were in the days when there were only simple physical controls. Similarly, cars are more complex, but they are statistically safer than vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s.

But that doesn’t mean the complexity doesn’t cause problems. In fact, it looks like Boeing is already adjusting the systems in the Max series: instead of just using one sensor to control nose down, they are using multiple sensors.

Now, let’s go to the second part of Trump’s statement: do you need a computer scientist from MIT to fly a plane? Flying a jet — even an older one like a Boeing 707 — is very different than flying a private two-seater Cessna. The number of systems that must be monitored are immense, and you need a strong understanding of the physics of flight. You don’t need to be a computer scientist — after all, you’re not programming the systems — but you do need to be comfortable with technology and have a strong understanding of physics. Given the choice, you want a pilot with lots of experience (and no mental problems) flying the plane; not a rookie MIT computer scientist. However, you might want that scientist writing the software.

Lastly, there is one other assertion in Trump’s tweet we need to address: “old and simpler is far better.” No, it isn’t. Old and simpler — both in technology and people — cannot grasp the complexity of today’s split second world. You want someone nimble, who truly has a deep understanding of the system. You want someone with years of experience with that technology at the helm.

Yes, those last two sentences were an allusion. As was the point that you need a pilot with no mental problems.

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📰 🔐 Cybersecurity: News and Sausage to Chew Upon

I haven’t done a news chum posts in a while, and the articles of interest are accumulating. So here’s a collection of articles that caught my eye, all dealing with cybersecurity:

  • Password Managers. Recently, there was an article about vulnerabilities related to common password managers, the gist of which was: All password managers are vulnerable to attack. Many people took that as an excuse to trigger their risk aversion, and to run away from password managers. Bad thing to do. The attacks in question all required physical access to the machine in question. Vaults in the cloud were safe. Further, if you had physical access to the machine, then a complicated attack to look at a residual password in a buffer is the least of your worries. This is a clear example of people not understanding the risks. The upshot: Use password managers. They make it so that you have longer, more complex, passwords in use; they also encourage the use of one password, unpredictable, per site. They are much more secure than algorithmic generation by humans, or writing things down.
  • Choosing Good Passwords. Another password related article looked at the surprisingly common password “ji32k7au4a83”. This is a good example of why a password that looks strong might not be. In this case, the password turned out to be the ASCII representation of the characters you get when you type the Chinese for “My Password” on a specific Taiwanese keyboard. I could imagine similar problems for Hangul, or possibly other representations. This is yet another argument for using password generators (I recommend Lastpass, but other good tools are the XKpasswd generator and the nonsense word generator… and for good measure, the username generator from Lastpass, if you don’t want to have the same username everywhere).
  • I Am Not A Robot. Some of us remember the days when everyone used a CAPCHA that required you to recognize letters and enter them in order to prove that you were not a bot. But you don’t see those very much anymore. You may see tests that require you to recognize what is in images, but even those are getting fewer. That’s because it is getting harder and harder to prove you are not a robot, and CAPTCHAs are having trouble catching up. Somedays, it seems that the only thing computers can’t reliably recognize is porn (but then again, neither can humans, and imagine the CAPCHAs). What you do see is a simple checkbox that “I am Not a Robot”. But why does something simple work. There’s actually a great explanation, which involves all the information your browser collects, and all those cookies you don’t think about track, that a bot does not have. Who knew?
  • Forgetting the Past. Recently, Gene Spafford (a grey-beard I know well from the days of USENET) visited the RSA conference. His reaction was very interesting, and reflected the feeling that many of us grey-beards and CBGs and other professional old-codger terms have: the youth of the cyber industry have forgotten what was done in the past. I’ll note that luckily, the people behind the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference haven’t, and we are starting to plan the 2019 Conference (web pages should be updated soon) that will include both new research, and reach-back into the relevant history. We’ll be doing our 2nd year in San Juan PR in December; mark your calendars now.
  • Listening and Privacy. We often use our computers thinking we’re the only ones who see what we are typing, just as we talk out in public as if we are the only one listening. Both are pretty far from the truth. Hopefully, you know that most public wireless access is not secure, and the best way to secure it is through the use of a VPN. Virtual Private Networks make sure that communication between your computer and a trusted endpoint are secured, and claim to provide security from that endpoint to your ultimate destination on the web. How much can you trust them? It depends on the VPN you choose, as some are better for privacy than others. But what about the real world? When you discuss things on the bus or the subway, how secure are you? Not very. One instructor gave their students an interesting assignment: find out as much as you can about that stranger sitting next to you on the bus, using only public information. They found out quite a bit by listening to the public side of phone conversations, looking at visible screens, and noticing other aspects of the person. Sherlock Holmes in the wild. But that’s not the only risk. It turns out that your hard disk might be eavesdropping as well. Sound waves create movement in disk heads, which can be monitored by sensors in the disk. So when will those concerned about eavesdropping move to SSDs to get rid of that risk?
  • AntiVaxxers and Cybersecurity. A meme has been going around asking why we are willing to inoculate our computers against viruses and malware, but not our children? As memes go, it makes an interesting point — but misses some of the differences between computers and the human immune system. Vaccines are a great example of how we train our immune system to work for us by exposing it to the potential malware — in a neutered form — to train it to recognize the real thing. Traditionally, humans have been great at this: that’s why babies crawl around and put things into our mouths — the exposure makes our immune system stronger. In fact, our current antiseptic and germaphobic environment has both weakened our immune response, and trained it to overreact. So yes, pick your nose and eat it, but not in public where anyone can see you. But I digress. Think about this in terms of computers. We install an anti-virus or anti-malware program; this is the equivalent of installing an immune system in our computer. But the success of that system depends on the collection of malware signatures that it downloads regularly. These signatures are benign snippets of code DNA that allow for safe identification of dangerous code. Exposure to those benign snippets is vital if our computer immune systems are to work, and we don’t lose the system. Similarly, vaccines allow our natural anti-virus mechanisms to recognize the malware that try to invade us — and more importantly, they protect those systems that — due to specialized wetware — cannot install the anti-virus. In short: Vaccinate your kids and yourself to protect those around you, as well as yourself.

 

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🗯️ We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

userpic=divided-nationThe recent discussions of Ilhan Omar and antisemitism have reignited the debates of racism and divides in this country.  On the Democratic side there is the push to condemn antisemitism while not offending those who either disagree with the behavior of the Israeli government, or to include other racist attacks. On the Republican side, there is the push to condemn antisemitism while ignoring similar behavior within the Republican party. But the truth is, despicable behavior and intolerance — racial, political, and other — exists on both sides.

The Atlantic had an interesting article recently exploring this. The Atlantic asked PredictWise, a polling and analytics firm, to create a ranking of counties in the U.S. based on partisan prejudice (or what researchers call “affective polarization”). The result was surprising in several ways. First, while virtually all Americans have been exposed to hyper-partisan politicians, social-media echo chambers, and clickbait headlines, we found significant variations in Americans’ political ill will from place to place, regardless of party. The maps show that affective polarization occurs on both sides of the aisle: there is intense political hatred and bias occurring in both Red and Blue areas. A NY Times opinion piece refers to this as the culture of contempt:

Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. One in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Millions of people organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid people with opposing viewpoints. What’s our problem?

I know I’ve fallen into this. I’ve begun to block memes from the side I disagree with: I find them annoying, but it is pointless to comment on them and point out the errors because the other side won’t listen anyway. Why won’t they listen? Another article I found explores this quite well, detailing 24 cognative biases that shape our thinking. These are flaws in human reasoning that political machines can exploit to make our biases stronger. You can combat them to some extent if you know what they are (just as you can filter out the bias from news sources if you know it), but you will never succeed completely.

These biases and prejudices and hatred and contempt are playing out in many discussions we see in the news today. But it isn’t just the news. Racism and hatred can be anywhere, including your local knitting store. Online bots can take racism and hatred, and amplify it. The best way to combat it? First, educate yourself to recognize it. Second, speak out and don’t let it go unchallenged. Third, engage as much as you can. There is a balance between those who cannot be redeemed, and those whom you can educate about their bias. Don’t expect to change minds immediately; but do work to plant the seeds.

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