Briefly noted: The once and future flood

From a New Yorker article on sea-level rise called “The Siege of Miami,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, in the December 21 and 28, 2015, edition:

As the ice age ended and the planet warmed, the world’s coastlines assumed their present configuration. There’s a good deal of evidence—much of it now submerged—that this process did not take place slowly and steadily but, rather, in fits and starts. Beginning around 12,500 B.C., during an event known as meltwater pulse 1A, sea levels rose by roughly fifty feet in three or four centuries, a rate of more than a foot per decade. Meltwater pulse 1A, along with pulses 1B, 1C, and 1D, was, most probably, the result of ice-sheet collapse. One after another, the enormous glaciers disintegrated and dumped their contents into the oceans. It’s been speculated—though the evidence is sketchy—that a sudden flooding of the Black Sea toward the end of meltwater pulse 1C, around seventy-five hundred years ago, inspired the deluge story in Genesis.

Considering that there’s more than one flood story in ancient literature—as the SFE entry on the theme of disaster points out, “Tales of universal floods are at least as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 BCE)”—it’s easy to believe that something actually occurred way back when, before the invention of writing, and also before history was separated from mythology. Because I encountered Gilgamesh long ago, in college, the idea of a real event doesn’t surprise me, but it’s fascinating that scientists are able to make a guess about when it happened.

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Re-X-amining The X-Files

The_X-Files_2016_Poster

Television hasn’t been much prone to sequelism, because a series is, by definition, a thing that keeps coming back—recurrence is built in. So it’s pretty odd that the Fox network decided to revive its SF-and-conspiracy drama The X-Files for what amounts to a six-episode sequel, which starts tonight. The show began in 1993 and came to a fairly conclusive ending in 2002, after nine seasons and one movie (a much-derided second film was released in 2008), appearing to have nowhere left to go. At its peak, the series was well written, well produced, winningly wacky and engaging, both popular and influential. But it lost its way before time and consequently lost some of its admirers, as the show’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction points out; its departure was not entirely regretted. The X-Files is not so recent that it can just be restarted, as Netflix has done for a handful of shows. Nor does there seem to be much room for a fresh look, a new version for a new era, given that Fringe, which ran on the same network between 2008 and 2013, already regenerated the show in a sense. Replacing aliens with a parallel universe, Fringe could’ve been called The Altiverse Files.

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James Gleick’s compact history of information is bigger on the inside

The Information cover

[The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood was published in 2011, but I read it only recently. It impressed me enough that I’ve decided to share here, with slight revisions, the comments—not intended as a full review—that I posted on Goodreads.]

James Gleick doesn’t address the beginning of human language in this book, but he seems to cover all the major developments in human communication since then. The origin and impact of writing, the challenge of conveying messages across a distance (exemplified by the talking drums of Africa as well as by the varieties of telegraph), the invention of printing, the development of information theory, the rise of computing, aspects of the history of dictionaries and encyclopedias, including the growth of Wikipedia: all that is here, along with discussions of mathematical logic, codes and code-breaking, quantum theory, cybernetics, genetics, memetics, and info-glut (a current complaint with a surprisingly long history).

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Briefly noted: Vilmos Zsigmond, 1930–2016

A good story about Vilmos Zsigmond comes from his youth. Shortly after he finished film school, a protest movement swelled into a rebellion. He and a friend borrowed a movie camera, got hold of some negative, and filmed what was happening, sometimes hiding the camera in a paper bag with a hole cut for the lens. This wasn’t Berkeley in the 60s but Budapest in 1956; the rebellion was met by Soviet tanks and troops. Zsigmond and his friend escaped from Hungary and made their way to America, where their footage ended up on TV and they ended up in Los Angeles. Zsigmond’s companion on that trek was László Kovács; the two of them became groundbreaking cinematographers, shooting works as varied as Easy Rider (Kovács) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Zsigmond).

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Forget VR—Red Bull’s production of The Changeling will take you places

B-J & Alsemero in Red Bull's Changeling (by Carol Rosegg)(w)

Sara Topham as Beatrice-Joanna and Christian Coulson as her paramour of the moment in The Changeling (photo by Carol Rosegg)

If ordinary superhero fantasies get you down, you may be tempted to turn to Quentin Tarantino, whose recent films have dramatized attempts to compensate for history and thus indirectly remind us how badly things have gone for entire classes of humanity. Unfortunately, Tarantino’s most recent movie, The Hateful Eight, is a lunatic spectacle, dispiriting in the extreme. If you want a more coherent glimpse of the twisted ways of the human heart, take a look at The Changeling, by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, now being performed by Red Bull at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City. At the center of the play are two fabulous characters: Beatrice-Joanna, a well-born woman whose desires change like the wind, and De Flores, a manservant so besotted with her that he’s willing to bring about whatever she wishes, though she detests the very sight of him.

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Hurrah for overstatement?! A few words on how we say things

On Medium this morning, I read a short piece—two minutes estimated reading time, according to the label—that bore a lengthy title: “The Absolutely True Story of a Real Programmer Who Never Learned C.” Put me in a box and burn me, ’cause I am literally already dead from having read that. It wouldn’t do to title the piece “The Programmer Who Never Learned C.” The man wasn’t merely a programmer; he had to be called a real programmer. The account had to be labeled as a story, and not only that but a true one, and not only a true one but an absolutely true one. Though the piece never quite regains the peak at which it begins, there’s a lesser summit later, when we read of “Dennis waiting Sam’s entire life…” (emphasis in the original), which might seem to suggest that Sam, in a manner befitting the tone, expired forthwith. Read it and see. The overall effect here is of sitting in a bar with acquaintances, trading anecdotes in the pumped-up and excitable style of current conversation.

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