An interview with Charlie Kaufman about his new novel takes a weirdly meta Kaufman-esque turn

Charlie Kaufman is the acclaimed screenwriter behind surrealist movies like Being John Malkovich; Adaptation; Synecdoche, New York; and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. My favorite bizarrely wonderful story about him — which, in a way, is kind of a synecdoche for his entire oeuvre of work, which is also something I learned about through his films — is that his Academy Award-winning screenplay for Adaptation is one of the few Oscars credited to a completely fictional person. Kaufman was hired to write an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, and seeing no way to write a dramatic narrative out of some meditative thoughts on flower poaching, he decided to write a screenplay about Charlie Kaufman struggling to write a screenplay about The Orchid Thief. Except, in the context of the movie, Fictional Charlie Kaufman also has an identical twin brother named Donald … who is credited as co-writer on the actual, real-life screenplay.

I thought of this as I read this New York Times Magazine profile on Charlie Kaufman, ahead of the July 7th release of Antkind, a 700-page novel that marks Kaufman's first foray into prose writing. Journalist Jon Mooallem had the article planned well before the pandemic hit, but quickly had to improvise when he realized he wouldn't be able to interview Kaufman in person. As the lockdown dragged on, their long weekly phone conversations became a surprising source of stability for both of them (as chronicled in the article). Moallem thought he had something — but right as he turned a draft into his editor, the political climate took an every starker turn with ongoing protests against racism and police brutality, making his quaint pandemic-focused profile seem out-of-touch. Read the rest

Listen to the original NPR radio drama adaptations of the first STAR WARS trilogy

In my 90s childhood Star Wars obsession, I remember hearing a lot about the fabled NPR radio drama adaptations (read: "podcast") of the original trilogy. They were supposed to be canonical, in-as-much as they were Lucas-approved stories that expanded on the familiar ones we already knew.

Now, someone has finally compiled them all on YouTube (although apparently you can find the MP3s on Archive.org as well). And wow, they are expanded — the A New Hope radio drama is 13 hours long!

It's quite a stark departure from the movies I'm used to. The first chapter focuses exclusively on Luke, and highlights his relationships with his friends at Tosche Station — Cammie, Fixer, Deke, and the OG prodigal son, Biggs Darklighter (there's a version of some of this material floating as a deleted scene, but it's not nearly as expansive as this). Chapter Two turns more attention to Leia and her relationship with her father, as well as the information that lead them to the Death Star plans in the first place. It's not even until the third chapter that we get to the opening scene of the movie (that's as far as I've listened yet). It definitely conflicts with the newly established canon, especially Rogue One, but I'm enjoying the experience of re-discovering this world in a different format, with different and exciting details filling out the edges. I'm eager to find out what other ancillary characters might get more of a spotlight treatment here.

From the editor who posted these compilations on YouTube:

I have combined all episodes of the original radio drama using excerpts from John Williams' original soundtrack and Ben Burt's sound effects for a more seamless blending from one episode to the next.

Read the rest

Watch this opera adaptation of an Octavia Butler novel on Friday night

In 2017, musician/activist Toshi Reagon began creating an operatic stage adaptation of Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower  — the 1993 Afrofuturist sci-fi novel about an America in the year 2020 that's ravaged by climate change and income inequality and greedy politicians who appeal to imaginary racists pasts while also promising to build a wall around the wealthy.

Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: A Concert Experience received renowned productions from Boston to New York to Los Angeles. And now — since it is 2020, and we're living in an America ravaged by climate change and income inequality and greedy politicians who appeal to imaginary racists pasts while also promising to build a wall around the wealthy — the arts program at Emerson College (my alma mater) has announced a year-long residency with Reagon called Parable Path Boston, which will continue to explore Butler's work alongside real-time climate activism in Boston.

To kick off the program, ArtsEmerson will be hosting a one-night screening of the show on Friday, May 22 at 6pm, followed by an online talkback with Toshi Reagon. I'm pretty sure it's free, but you have to register ahead of time for a link.

I have some friends who were involved in the early workshops of the play, who still talk about it as one of their most formative artistic experiences. I know what I'm doing Friday night; but if you're not convinced to join me yet, there's more links below.

Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower [Toshi Reagon / ArtsEmerson]

Parable of the Songwriter: Toshi Reagon Explains Why an Octavia Butler-Inspired Opera Is More Relevant Than Ever [Maiysha Kai / The Root]

A Prescient Sci-Fi ‘Parable’ Gets Set to Music [Jeremy D. Read the rest

Internet users are wising up to persuasive "nudge" techniques

Every now and again, a company will come up with a product "innovation" that seems to deprive people of their free will, driving great masses of internet users to look for Pokemon, or tend virtual farms, or buy now with one-click, or flock to Upworthy-style "You won't believe what happened next" stories, or be stampeded into buying something because there are "only two left" and "14 people have bought this item in the past 24 hours." Read the rest

Holiday carols, one-handed guitar, stump duct tape pick

“I was born without my right hand and play guitar with a duct tape pick I made,” says IMGURian abshow. “I play drums too!” Read the rest

With repetition, most of us will become inured to all the dirty tricks of Facebook attention-manipulation

In my latest Locus column, "Persuasion, Adaptation, and the Arms Race for Your Attention," I suggest that we might be too worried about the seemingly unstoppable power of opinion-manipulators and their new social media superweapons. Read the rest

Evolution doesn't like you

Sure, you've got those great opposable thumbs, complex culture, and the ability to walk on two legs. But don't let those facts lull you into thinking that evolution is on your side. It's not. It's not really on anybody's side. Which is why the same process that produces super-smart, super-creative apes (like us) is also responsible for helping cockroaches evade our attempts to murder them. Read the rest

Evolution happens. Even in Oklahoma.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the last 30 years, the number of cliff swallows killed by moving vehicles has drastically decreased. That change can't be accounted for by alterations in traffic patterns or swallow populations, say scientists. Instead, they think it's tied to the fact that the birds' wingspan is also decreasing. This adaptation — whether selected for by vehicular birdicide and/or other factors — helps swallows be more nimble in the air at high speeds, making it easier for them to avoid oncoming traffic. (EDIT: Sorry guys, I made an error here. Some of the researchers were from Tulsa, but study actually happened in Nebraska. Evolution takes place throughout the plains states.) Read the rest

The evolution of white fur and an animal sex scandal

Up north — in Canada and other places where snowy winters are reliable (and reliably heavy) — you find more animals whose fur comes in various shades of white. This is true even for species that are brown or black further south. The difference is obvious. But how does it happen? Carl Zimmer presents two possible paths to paleness — random mutation, and fortuitous cross-species mating. In related news: Golden retrievers are probably getting it on with Canadian coyotes. Read the rest

WTF, evolution?

A blog which offers helpful critiques of some of the weirder parts of nature. Read the rest

Utensils probably gave us all overbites

According to a new book, the human overbite developed at different times, in different places — and was always coincident with the widespread use of eating utensils. In Europe, for instance, evidence suggests that humans have only had an overbite for about 250 years. Read the rest

How plants stay warm

Plants and animals have to adapt to live in high latitudes and chilly mountain environments. With animals, we kind of instinctively know what makes a creature cold-weather ready — thick, shaggy fur; big, wide snowshoe paws. But what are the features of cold-weather plants? It's one of those really interesting questions that's easy to forget to ask.

At The Olive Tree blog, Tracey Switek has at least one answer. In cold places, you see more plants that grow in little mounded clumps. Of course, plants can't really rely on huddling together to create warmth. So you still have to ask, "Why is it better to grow in a mound when it's cold out?"

The dome-like shape which the cushions tend to take (made possible by an adaptation that makes all the plants in the clump grow upward at the same rate, so no one plant is high above all the others), and the closeness with which those plants grow, makes these clumps perfect heat traps. The temperature on or inside a cushion can be up to 15 °C more than the air temperature above it. The cushions are able to retain heat radiating up from the soil, as well as absorbing heat from the sun (a very dense, large, clump of green can get surprisingly warm on a sunny day at high altitude). Add to that the fact that the wind speed in and around a cushion can be cut by up to 98% from open areas, you have a perfect recipe to prevent heat loss.

Read the rest

Science Saturday: Nuclear energy, melting ice caps, and human adaptation

I was on Bloggingheads.tv Science Saturday this week, talking with Jessa Gamble, a science journalist and the author of Siesta and the Midnight Sun, a book about how culture and biology effect the way we experience time.

Jessa was in Japan in 1999, when an accident at a nuclear fuel processing facility in the prefecture just south of Fukushima killed two workers. We started off our conversation talking about the industry lapses that led to that accident, and how government and the media responded to it. Read the rest