Archive for August, 2010

Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death

Matt Parker and Timandra Harkness put on an extremely well constructed show. There are a few (very small) problems with that, but perhaps only for those sensitive to set-ups. When the audience participation gets a little to independent, there’s anxiety: will they manage to bring out the punch lines of the planned brick jokes at the right minute?

The nominal thesis of the show is the calculation of your personal chances of death at any given time, in any given way, using a unit of risk measurement called the micromort: a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Taking a tab of ecstasy and smoking a single cigarette, for instance, both carry a risk of one micromort. In the UK, dying by shark attack and as the result of a tea cozy incident carry the same risk: zero micromorts. A glass of wine or a breakfast fry-up, well…that’s more complicated. Chronic alcoholism certainly shortens one’s life, but moderate drinking (whatever that may be for any individual) is actually linked to a lower risk of heart attacks. And, all factors considered, it’s actually healthier for most people to be a little overweight (again, whatever that is person to person) than a little underweight (likewise).

At this point, an overweight man in front of us yelped, “Has that sample been controlled for people who’ve lost weight due to cancer treatment?”

“Yes!” Harkness replied immediately, and continued, “We have the best hecklers of any Fringe show: ‘So’s your control group!'”

A running gag is the treatment of the audience as a sample group, treating each minute of the show as a year with all of us born as it started, with Parker doing his math-genius thing of calculating the percentages for a 146-member audience on the fly. At 65 minutes, most of us were lucky: only one in ten UK resident will die before that age, so only the front row had stickers on their forehead declaring them “DEAD.” After that, though, there was the expected steep drop-off, which somehow culminated in a mock shark attack, then a song about the point of life being what goes on underneath all the calculations, ending on a cheery note.

My grandmother died a few days before the show. We’d bought our tickets earlier that week, so it wasn’t as if we chose to be morbid, but we did nearly have second thoughts about attending. It’s a testament to the show’s warm silliness that I left it feeling better about the mysteries of life, death, the universe, and everything.

reasons to be cheerful #3

Fallout: New Vegas coming out this fall.

Such august reviewers as the AV Club and Spoony faintly praise the previews as “pretty much Fallout 3 in a new location.” Which makes me anticipate it all the more. I’ve played the hell out of Fallout 3, including every expansion pack. Because I’m a massive dork, after beating it a couple of times as a super-powered saint, I went back and started again as an evil, mentally retarded character named “Ayn” (but still reverted to a previous save after killing GretaCarol was just so damn sad).

Even if it turned out to be a glorified stuff pack, I’d be a happy camper. In fact, it’s being developed not by Fallout 3’s Bethesda but by Obsidian,  who brought out 1 and 2. During old-school and particularly patient moods, I’ve been inching through Fallout 2, and it’s got a very different worldview and sense of humor than 3. If anything, it’s snarkier, meaner, and dirtier. Can’t wait to see what they bring to a modern FPS engine, if the go-go dancer Super Mutant is any indication.

Sanderson Jones: Taking Liberties

August is a painful month for Edinburgh locals. Not only do some bastards bugger off for the entire month, renting their homes out as “party flats,” but every nook of the city is hastily transformed into a dozen-seat venue for a variety of talent, all of whom spends 12 hours a day ambushing passers-by with advertisement postcards.

Getting into any of these shows is a trial, as the Fringe follows the typical UK festival tradition of nurturing a cramped, surly chaotic atmosphere all but devoid of accessible bathrooms. Sanderson Jones‘ show, tucked away in the Five Pound Fringe ghetto, initially was no exception. The venue was on the top floor of a hole in a wall, the door to which was completely blocked by amateurs with power tools bashing a groove in their stoop and pulling out the wall’s wiring. Customers who dared approach at the show’s start time were snapped at to go into a nearby bar to wait, then thirty seconds later were snapped at to form a queue up the stairs and go go go! Since this has happened at every Fringe show we’ve attended (aside from the power tools, a nice improvisation) in the past three years, I’ve come to assume there’s special courses in July, where staff have to act this scenario out again and again through intensive role-play until they’ve got it note-perfect. Bravo, GRV staff – your hard rehearsals were not wasted. Once in the small venue, piercing electropop was playing at roughly six billion decibels while a webcam projected the growing audience’s image on a small screen. Our hopes were no longer high.

But then! Sanderson Jones leapt out, with his lovely red beard and skinny jeans that removed all threat of progeny from his future, and accused my husband of pedophilia. It was funnier than it sounds. His loose theme was how prurient hysteria and paranoia threaten freedom of speech for all, and he approached a genuinely uncomfortable audience threshold with his “I’m drawing a children’s book about prophets of monotheistic Middle Eastern religions, guess which one this is!” bit. He compared the concept of fatwās to cynical advertising campaigns (drawing on his experience as an advertising seller for the Economist magazine), which was a little Bill Hicks, and used Venn diagrams to illustrate the problems of being both a comedian trying to connect to audiences via funny and being a human being trying to connect to other human beings by any means necessary.

And, to make some point or other, the webcam turned out to be a chekov’s gun, ambushing unsuspecting wankers on chatroulette with the sight of a couple dozen strangers waving cheerfully, or wearing creepy masks. I sincerely believe he was making a real point, but was too amused by the half-dozen or so naked cocks that came on screen and rapidly nexted away from us. (For once, South Park didn’t lie to me.)

There were some weak points in the show. A long segment on the Brook Shields photograph removed from the Tate Modern didn’t entirely pan out, despite Jones’ offering of one of his own nude baby pictures as an alternative (awwwww…the cute little ginger toddler). Having that photo up on stillscreen was too creepy to laugh around – which may have been his point, so, good attempt there. And, while his material is generally innovative and personal (despite a few seemingly mandatory “women I want to fuck don’t want to fuck me” bits…which Hicks himself regrettably fell into too damn often for me to deify that talented man), he doesn’t seem quite confident enough. He encouraged audience involvement but was rattled several times afterward at then being talked back to, calling fairly quiet “I want to play too!” outbursts “heckling.” You try to break through the audience’s individual shyness…meh, that’s what you get. It’s just seeking approval from the man in the spotlight everyone’s paying attention to, not repeated drunken screams of “free bird!”

Overall, the guy’s got a lot of potential, and I hope to see more of him.