Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dragon? What Dragon?

I told my boss how much I enjoyed Wicked, and she said that her son had been particularly impressed with the dragon. But I didn't see a dragon. I love dragons, so surely I would have noticed if one had been included in the play. I wondered if it was a difference in staging, but she assured me that her son had seen the show at the Orpheum here in Omaha, same as me. She also mentioned that the dragon had been mentioned in the newspaper article about the musical. Later, I checked the Omaha World-Herald, and sure enough, I found a picture. And while the rest of the Orpheum's stage looked familiar, the dragon most certainly did not.

I was mystified. How could I have missed a gigantic dragon whose wings spanned the entire stage? Either the prop had been damaged and had been removed sometime before the performance I attended, or I had simply overlooked it.

How is that possible?

Well, human perception is a strange thing. Watch this video of a perception experiment, then test yourself with a different experiment. (Or better yet, test someone who doesn't know what exactly they're being tested for.)

Change blindness! The human brain can not process all of the visual data the eyes receive, and so it filters based on attention. Whatever you are focusing your attention on is what you see, and you don't notice anything else.

Apparently, I was paying so much attention to the witches and the flying monkeys that I never saw the gargantuan dragon sprawled across the top of the set, even though it would have been roughly eye-level with where I was sitting.

But I felt better after I asked both of the people who attended the show with me, and learned that neither of them saw the dragon either. So that makes a case for the dragon simply not being there anymore. However, to be honest, I just can't be sure.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reviews of Many Things

Sorry I haven't been blogging much lately. Here's a pile of mini-reviews of things I've watched or read recently.


-- I saw the musical at the Orpheum Theater. If you're not familiar with it, it's the story of The Wizard of Oz retold from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. It was absolutely wonderful. I have read the book by Gregory Maguire, and the book was good, but not amazing. The musical was a heck of a lot of fun, though. They changed the plot quite a bit, especially toward the end. Because, you know, musicals need happy endings. But it worked. It was a hoot!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- This book by Michael Chabon is one of the most engrossing novels I've read in a long time. Young Czech Joe Kavalier escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague and made his way to New York City. There, he and his cousin Sam Clay, created a Nazi-bashing comic book, which lead to fame and fortune . . . and tragedy. The story is so well written, its descriptive passages so rich, that the pictures that formed in my mind were as vivid and clear as if I were looking at the pages of a graphic novel. The book walks the fine line between real life and fantasy. The characters and their relationships feel real, but some of the situations they find themselves in are as wild as the tales they spin in their comics. It's beautifully absurd, and absurdly beautiful. I would recommend this book to . . . well, pretty much anyone.

Star Trek -- Some people don't like the new film because it completely erases the original continuity. But after five or six TV series and ten movies, it was getting hard for Star Trek writers to come up with new plots that didn't contradict something that had already been established. The movie gets around that with time travel, an incident that changes the lives of young Kirk and Spock so that their paths unfold differently. (No ambiguity is left on this count. Uhura even refers directly to "an alternate universe.") So this is a whole new Star Trek, a clean slate. And some of the changes to the universe were HUGE. Certain characters die. A certain planet is destroyed. And certain characters are in a romantic relationship that made me double-take. (Let's just say Uhura kisses someone--not someone I expected--and there was no alien mind control involved.) And it was tremendous fun. It wasn't deep and meaningful, but not everything has to be. It was a thrilling adventure, and I loved every second of it.

Avenue Q -- Another Broadway musical, which I saw at the Orpheum over a month ago. It was a rather raunchy, adult homage to Sesame Street. It was hilarious, but decidedly not for all audiences. I loved the Bad Idea Bears, who always showed up whenever the characters had to a big decision to make, and helped the characters make the worst possible choices. ("I'm broke and unemployed. I don't know how I'm going to pay my rent." "I know what to do! Let's buy beer! Yay!")


The Underneath -- This children's chapter book by Kathi Appelt was a National Book Award finalist, but I wasn't really fond of it. It was an enjoyable melodrama, but the writing style was really irritating, and often rather overblown. Good, but not great.

The Escapist -- This graphic novel is meant to be a representation of the comic written by the characters in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. However, it really didn't do justice to the source material. At all. It was very disappointing, perhaps because the prose descriptions in the novel gave me such vivid images, and this comic didn't measure up to the pictures in my mind.

Strawberry Panic -- I'm familiar with the lesbian-romance-at-an-all-girls-school sub-genre of anime. I enjoyed Maria-sama ga miteru, and I expected Strawberry Panic to be similar. And on the surface it is. However, it is boring--horribly, excruciatingly boring. It ran for five DVDs, with barely enough plot for one, spread very thinly. It had far too many characters; I kept losing track of who was who. And the plot was stupid. Seriously, how does winning what amounts to a popularity contest for best lesbian couple qualify you for student government? Don't bother.


The Historian -- I'm about two-thirds of the way through this book by Elizabeth Kostova, but I'm really enjoying it. There are parallel plots in different time periods, as a girl searches for her missing father, and many years ago, her father searches for his missing professor, and many years before that, the professor searches for the real Vlad Tepes, also known as Dracula. Actual vampires stalk the father and the daughter. (It's nice to see sinister Old World vampires as serious villains again.) I can't tell yet how it will end, but it is a very interesting journey, rich and vivid and suspenseful. I'm leaning toward proclaiming it to be awesome, even though I haven't even finished it yet. *

The L Word
-- I've been watching the DVDs with my favorite ex-girlfriend. It's a soap opera, to be sure. At times it borders on porn. Are all those sex scenes really necessary? I don't think so, but it's not bad enough to make me stop watching, because I actually care about some of the characters and want to see what happens to them. But these ladies make some really, really bad life choices at time, and I end up screaming at the TV rather often. I'm at about the middle of season two (out of six). At present, I'm planning to continue buying the DVDs and watching them. Not sure what the final verdict will be. It's witty and interesting, but often very frustrating.

* Addendum 6-4-2009: I finished reading The Historian. It is thoroughly awesome in every respect. It is suspenseful, vivid, and has a nice little twist at the end.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Amazon has redeemed themselves. This has nothing to do with last month's incident, but rather with another issue of importance to me: orphan books. If you're not familiar with the term, an orphan book is one which is out of print and unavailable, but still secured by copyright law. These books are essentially lost.

Well, now Amazon is starting something called AmazonEncore. They plan to take out-of-print books which had good reviews but low sales and republish them, giving them a second chance at life. (Amazon's release didn't use the term "orphan," but some bloggers are.)

Right now, Amazon is starting with a relatively recent self-published book that will likely benefit from Amazon's marketing. However, if Amazon so chooses, they could potentially republish older works as well. Amazon is big enough to afford to buy the rights to these orphan works and put them back into print, and that would mean renewed income for the authors of those books.

This experiment definitely bears watching. I hope it takes off. I'm looking forward to seeing which direction it goes.

If you're interested in orphan books, you should also be keeping an eye on the Google Book Settlement. There's some controversy over that one. It might not be in the authors' best interest.