Tuesday, January 26, 2010

There is a cat on my lap

I'm working at home -- or, at least, trying to.  There's an attention-seeking feline (is there any other kind?) on my lap (or on the papers I'm reading, or between me and the netbook, or...).  I want to move her because I've really got to get the work done, but, at the same time, a co-worker had to put her cat down the day before yesterday, and I feel like I don't want to miss out on a minute of kitty love.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Item 46 in Sentences I Never Thought I'd Say

"I got yogurt on my underpants."

Yeah, you can create your own story to go with that.  I'm sure it's better than what actually happened.

Friday, January 22, 2010

You Ever Have "Brain Stop"?

Working at home today (and yesterday) thanks to the torrential downpour, and the fact that Southern California, in general, reacts to vast quantities of rain the way the rest of the country reacts to vast quantities of snow.

(Perhaps it's just that we don't get all that rain all that much.)

Anyway, I've been sleeping in and working late and all that good stuff (also, apparently, "time shifting" some of this week's work into this weekend).  And for the past two days, I've found that I'll work really well and be very productive for a certain amount of time ... and then my brain just says, "Done now!"  

It's not that I don't want to do the work.  (This particular task, which involves reviewing ... let's see, 14 volumes at 250 pages each ... about 3500 pages of transcript, is equally interesting (or not) whether I'm feeling ready to attack it or feeling totally wiped.)  It's just that, on a very fundamental level, my brain is finished for the night.  It's almost like physical exhaustion, when you just can't go another minute on the elliptical, except it's, y'know, mental.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I Have Never Wanted to Give to a Charity More

Honest to God.  

And, I mean, I swore I'd be in bed tonight by midnight, but here it's 1:30 a.m. and my little wheels are just spinning.  

All because I thought, "OK, I'll go to sleep by 12:20 -- just let me watch that Colbert Report I've recorded first."

So Colbert had this woman on who talked about ... well, I forget what she called it actually, but, basically, she was showing off a few inventions with massive humanitarian impact.  And one of them was this pair of self-adjusting eyeglasses.

The lenses are basically filled with a liquid, and there's little syringes on the stems.  Turn little wheels to adjust the amount of liquid the syringes force into the lenses, and it increases the curvature of the lens -- you adjust them until you can see.  Then you can lock the prescription and remove the syringes.  Presto -- working eyeglasses.  Distribute these in developing countries where there aren't nearly enough optometrists to go around and you make people see.

I immediately set to googling.  The inventor is an Oxford Physics Professor named Joshua Silver.  The glasses currently cost about $19/pair; Silver is trying to get it down to something like $1/pair.

Enter one Major Kevin White, then of the U.S. Military's humanitarian assistance program, who learns about the glasses and convinces the military to buy about 15,000 pairs and distribute them in uh, Ghana, I think it was (can't keep all the articles straight).  Reaction of the people who try them is instantaneously positive.  

White thinks -- and he's correct -- that if you get people seeing better, they can work (he tells the story of a tailor who'd retired at age 35 because he couldn't thread the needle of his machine anymore -- puts on the glasses, dials them up, and immediately walks over to his machine and starts sewing again) and they can learn.  Literacy goes up; education goes up.  These are all good things.

White starts up a 501(c)(3) called Global Vision 2020, with the goal of distributing these puppies.  The neat thing is that since you don't need a medical professional to hand them out, they want to use existing aid networks -- just train the people on the ground on how to distribute the glasses (and how to train other people on the ground on how to do it) and then, of course, there's the cost of the glasses themselves.

The operation itself is pretty new -- there's little data on it on Guidestar because the charity itself was started in 2009.  But, damn, you know?

I mean, it's funny -- there's lots of charities I'll give to every now and then ... Doctors Without Borders, DonorsChoose, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, loans through Kiva, them Susan Komen Breast Cancer people ....  And it's always hard to choose where one's limited charitable dollars should go, you know?  I mean, is fighting Breast Cancer any more or less important than fighting AIDS?  Both need cures.  But this thing ... this simple basic thing by which a $19 product can give someone in a developing country corrected vision just touches me like nothing else has.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

This weekend sucks

OK, technically, I'm only about halfway through my 3-day weekend.  But it needs to do a 180 right quick.

We are entering the time of year when (despite the fact that my blog readership is likely in the single digits) shit is happening that I can't blog about -- as I am working on putting together a theatre awards show with my partner in crime, and none of that can go public.  But stuff goes wrong.  Stuff always goes wrong.  There are always apparently insoluble problems which, somehow, we manage to solve.  (Like the one five (or so) years ago, when we learned we couldn't get a one-day non-profit license to sell beer and wine, because someone had lost our IRS exemption letter.  And then we learned that, even if we'd had the exemption letter, someone had forgot to mail in some paperwork so we'd actually lost our IRS exemption.  Happy times, that.)

Of course, now that we've produced the Awards show a few times, it's supposed to get easier.  And, in some ways, it has.  But we've cancelled that out by getting more ambitious with our plans every year.  (The second year, we actually added a curtain raise to the show.  Which is more difficult than you might think, as only union folk can touch the curtain.  By the third year, we had curtains moving all over the place.)  As usual, we've gone overly-ambitious again.  If we were doing exactly what we'd done before, there'd be no problem.  But in a few ways, we're trying to push the envelope again -- and since those ways are new, shit is just bound to happen.

And it is happening.

This weekend.

A good deal of yesterday was spent in damage control mode and, at one really exciting point, I actually had to do damage control for the damage control.

Don't get me wrong -- all I have to do is look at a news site and see one photograph from Haiti to know that my sort of shit is nowhere near the sort of shit that these people are dealing with, and that I should thank my lucky stars that, in fact, this is the only shit with which I have to deal.

And while I recognize that, and realize that I am, at a truly fundamental level, an incredibly lucky human being (so much so that I actually knocked wood when I typed that), that somehow does not stop the current situation from sucking.

Friday, January 15, 2010

On Interviewing

So, over here, Justine Larbalestier gives tips on how to interview an author.  I remember reading (late one night at a webpage I can't find anymore) a really brilliant (similar in point but funnier in delivery) rant by Terry Pratchett on the same subject.  I guess that authors, seeing as they write, are more than happy to write about how to interview them.

Before I got into theatre reviewing (as my not-job), I did some theatre writing, which involved interviewing a bunch of theatre people.  Some of the people I interviewed intimidated the hell out of me -- you know, because they were famous and I loved their work.  (Or, in some cases, because they were famous and I didn't love their work.)  So, being the Type-A totally anal individual that I am, I planned and prepped like crazy.  And, in the process, I learned some things about interviewing, which (seeing as the topic has been brought to mind), I feel inclined to share.

1.  Justine L. over there says to research your subject.  I think that's good advice, but you do need a back-up plan.  Look, maybe authors (again, being all wordy) will be happy to ramble on at length no matter what question you ask them, but you get an actor in front of your tape recorder, and it's fairly likely that half your questions are going to miss.  (And by "miss," I mean, give you nothing worth reading and no opening for a follow-up.)  Man, there is nothing like that feeling you get when you craft the perfect question -- specifically suited to this particular actor and this particular role, and you get a one-syllable answer.  And what you've got to do then is have a completely different line of inquiry ready to go.  And when that one fails, have yet another line of inquiry ready.  I would approach every interview with two lists of questions -- the list of questions unique to the actor I'm talking to, and the "cut-and-paste interview question collection" -- 6 pages of generic questions I could ask any actor (or director, or set designer...) when I need to change direction.  And it surprised the hell out of me when a generic question (which I thought was pretty stupid to begin with) got a "hit" with an actor who had been giving me nothing with the questions I'd created just for him.

2.  By the way, that's how I started looking at it -- did the question "hit" or "miss."  And you could get a good solid interview with one or two "hits" if you had the good sense to listen to the answer and follow it up.  The goal here isn't to show off your brilliant question-writing abilities -- it's to get something out of the subject that's worth reading.  So keep poking around until you get a "hit," then put down your notes and run with it.

3.  Get your subject excited about something.  It's there; it may be hiding, but there's something that lights up your interviewee.  I had one interview where, after the interview, I confessed that I'm actually a lawyer.  He ignited like he hadn't at any point in the interview -- "I just entertain people," he said, "you help create social change."  If I'd had any sense at all, I would've put the recorder back on and started talking about theatre's ability to effect change.  That's just where he was that day, and that's where I would've gotten the best stuff.

4.  My favorite interview -- not that I've conducted, but that I've read -- is an interview that ran in Entertainment Weekly about 8 years ago with actor/director Kenneth Branagh, and the  interviewer asked Branagh if he wouldn't mind directing her.  So she whips out a passage from Henry V, starts reading it, and he immediately interrupts and starts giving her notes.  It's an insanely brilliant interview because rather than asking him to explain how he directs Shakespeare or how he approaches the text, she gets him to do it.  In an extremely short period of time, we learn his respect for the text, the depth of his understanding, and the way he combines the multitude of factors which motivate a character into his interpretation of a single couplet -- additionally, we see how he guides an actor AND (bonus) learn something about the passage in question.  Absolutely stunning.  I'm not suggesting the technique works with every interview (or even most interviews), but I always keep "get them to show rather than tell" in the back of my mind as the ultimate goal. 

5.  Of course, to make an interview like that one really sing, the interviewer has to have the ability to actually describe what Branagh was doing, rather than just transcribe what he's saying.  And there's a lesson in that, too -- and one I'm not seeing mentioned enough.  Coming up with decent questions and typing up the answers isn't the entire job of an interviewer, and you're lying to yourself if you think it is.  I did a couple dozen interviews, and -- with each one -- there was a lot more work after I'd transcribed the tape.  What do you print?  What do you edit out?  Which interviews read better as a transcript?  Which as an article?  Every interview leaves me with an impression of the actor -- a feeling about who or what he is -- how do I best convey it?  (Or, if it's a negative impression and I'm writing a puff piece, how do I best hide it?)  Look, when you post or publish an interview, you're still posting or publishing a writing -- it's something to be read.  And no matter how good the raw material that you use to create that writing, you're not going to get anywhere if you don't write it well

Monday, January 11, 2010

Seriously? You're Gonna Play Me This Way?

Just got another credit card statement from Citibank.

Lately, it's been a bit of a surprise when I open the statement -- just to see what I'll get.  Recently, there was that late fee (and finance charge increase to 29.99%) for failing to pay on time, except I had paid on time by a transfer from my Citibank checking account -- which I could confirm just by looking at my account online.  They confirmed it too, so reversed the charge.

Today's statement came with a $1.50 "Foreign Transaction Fee."  This was a puzzler as I hadn't bought anything in a foreign currency -- and my understanding of the whole "foreign transaction fee" thing is it's added on to the exchange rate for the service they've provided in exchanging currency or something similarly logical.  Not so much.  The Foreign Transaction Fee is charged because I'm transacting business with someone foreign, even though the entire transaction was done in U.S. dollars.  So, they hit a button somewhere crediting this bank with some U.S. currency, and charge themselves a cool three percent.

I'm not entirely surprised by this, but a bit disappointed.

I also have three Citibank credit cards, and it sounds like it's time one of them should go -- to perhaps be replaced by a Credit Card I'll Use For Foreign Transactions Only.  (Of course, that wouldn't have saved me from the fee here, as I had no freakin' idea the charge was a foreign transaction, but there's a principle at stake here.)  And, y'know, if I end up using their card for other domestic transactions instead of my Citi cards, well, that's just Citi's loss, isn't it?  (Clearly, as I'm paying on time and they are therefore not making 29.99% interest off me, I'm not high on their list of Customers To Retain.)

Still, it's not quite worth leaving the bank for -- they've generally been good to me.  They reverse baseless charges (and, on occasion, even charges that aren't entirely baseless, if I ask nice), and their fraud prevention has been rather remarkable on picking up on fraudulent charges.

I poke around the internet and discover that Capital One does not charge foreign transaction fees, so they seem like the best bet for my new Foreign Transaction Credit Card.

I foolishly google for reviews.  Pages and pages of people hating on Capital One.  Customer service sucks; baseless charges; "worst bank ever" and so forth.  

For comparison, I then google for reviews of Citibank.  Same thing.  Pages and pages of customer service sucks; baseless charges; and "worst bank ever."

I'm sensing our issues are industry-wide.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Update on the death

They caught the guy.

And we know it's the guy, because he apparently confessed.

Turns out it was personal -- dude had been in an "intimate relationship" with the victim.  

This doesn't make it any less tragic, but I feel a certain level of satisfaction at the closure.  The sheer "why?!" of it has been resolved, at least on a grand scale.  (I still wonder why, but it's more a question of what was going on in this one man's head, and I'm fairly sure the answer is none of my business anyway.)

I can go all philosophical about this -- about how when I used to work on murder cases, it was always important in some way to get a grip on the "why," because then I could sort of distance myself from it and feel safer.  And wonder if this is a human reaction to violent crime -- that we don't want to know the details out of morbid curiosity, but rather to just separate ourselves from it.

I can also get all angry about this, which I did when I heard a radio news report on the arrest, which managed to -- without actually accusing anyone -- imply that various sordid things could have been going on.  (I'll have to remember the technique if I'm ever planning to defame anyone.  You know, something like, "Police searched his kitchen; they didn't say whether he ate babies.")

But, basically, I'm still sad.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Another Death

I've blogged before about people who've died -- a professor who influenced me deeply and a former colleague I'd hoped to make peace with.

But this is a new one for me to get my brain around:  a murder.

A local theatre director, Ben Bradley, was found murdered in his home -- the victim of multiple stab wounds -- this weekend.  (Story here.)  I didn't know him personally, but I knew his work well, and to the extent that I (in my theatre critic capacity) am a member of the Los Angeles theatrical community, I can say that this well and truly bites.

Of course, in my lawyer capacity, I know pretty clearly that murders happen -- so often that they don't even make the news.  But those tend to happen in circles in which I (thankfully) don't travel, so it's easy to distance myself.  In my circles, people die of "old age," or illness, or accident.  And it's tragic and sad, particularly when someone is struck down so young, but that's Fate or Shit Happening or whatever you want to call it. 

This is someone whose life was intentionally ended by another human being.  Viciously.  Brutally.  For some reason we do not know but are pretty damned sure was inadequate justification. 

And so, with the new year, that's supposed to bring hope and that sense of optimism that comes with a (figurative) chance to start all over with a clean slate, Ben Bradley was stabbed more than ten times -- leaving his family, friends and colleagues with a feeling of emptiness, sickness, and disgust.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What adventure will I blog next?

My mother recently asked me if I'd thought about vacation plans for 2010, yet.  I hadn't, but since I find planning vacations to be almost as fun as taking them (almost), I put a little thought toward the question.

The answer appears to be coming together.  There is (not entirely surprisingly, if you know me well) a, um, play I want to see in England.  Around September-ish. 

Since the last major trip worked so well with the few-days-in-England-followed-by-big-honkin'-trip-elsewhere thing, the question then became, "OK, England and where?"  And I really should check out another country in Western Europe, and I don't want a bus tour, or a self-drive, and not another cruise just now, and I still like something vaguely adventurey, and and and ...

... and then I stumbled on my answer:  Ireland.  With these people.

I'll be booking this as soon as I get definite dates on the play.


On "Avatar"

Everyone is talking about just how awesome a technological advance Avatar is in filmmaking.  And it is.  The tech is pretty outstanding.

Here's the thing, though:  I expect the tech to be outstanding.  I grew up on Christopher Reeve actually flying in Superman, and the Death Star actually blowing up in Star Wars.  I've seen so many oversized robots capable of massive destruction (operated by evil humans or just evil on their own), I wouldn't be surprised if someone isn't turning them out someplace.  RoboCop looked like a robocop; Terminator looked like a terminator; and Neo really could bend the matrix.  I believed Yoda when he was just a puppet, and I believed Gollum when he was CGI.

What I'm trying to say here is this:  They shouldn't have made Avatar if they couldn't have made it look this good.  They did, and good for them.  But I come from a generation that doesn't put up with crappy tech in a movie -- I'm glad they had enough tech to do this film, really.  But I question whether (1) they made the film because this is the film they wanted to make and now they finally had the tech to do it; or (2) they made this film just to show off the tech.

Absolutely, James Cameron would say it's the first -- that this is the movie he's always wanted to make and the technology (with a few pushes) has finally reached the point where it could be made.  But what I'm not sure of is whether the people who put big piles of money into the movie felt the same way -- or if they just green-lit this thing because they thought James Cameron + impressive tech = huge box office.

I won't accuse them of using tech just to use it -- thankfully, all of the tech here is in service of the story.  The problem is that the story just isn't all that good.  I mean, suppose they did the exact same movie without all the impressive tech.  Suppose it wasn't in IMAX, wasn't in 3D, and didn't push the envelope on CGI all that much.  They could've done it with miniatures and puppets and robotics and lithe ballet dancerss.  (The Na'vi might not have come out quite so tall or so thin, but you don't need to be tall and thin to be an alien.)  And if they had done that, would it have been that successful a film?  Or would everyone have said it was a too-long retelling of a story we've already seen dozens of times?

When I was the only one in the theater who burst out laughing at "unobtainium," I got the distinct impression that I was surrounded by 399 people who had all drunk the Kool-Aid, and I was the only one left who was still capable of seeing reality for what it is.  And, in this case, what it is was A-plus tech wasted on a C-minus script.