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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 15, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Dance Shows, NanoTrax

When promotion began for NBC's new dance program, World of Dance, with Jennifer Lopez as the lead judge, I was optimistic. I was seeing no promotion for So You Think You Can Dance, and I vaguely assumed that it might have been canceled.

After all, if Fox could cancel American Idol when it was still a powerhouse in the ratings, why would it keep on with SYTYCD? The signs of decay were already there. Some really misguided decisions -- dividing the dancers into two categories -- "street" dance vs. "stage" dance -- lowered the quality of both groups. I still watched the show that year, mind you -- but because all the street dance numbers were pretty much the same moves over and over, and the music was always hip-hop, mostly unlistenable to people who like things like lyrics, melody, and harmony, SYTYCD had become only half watchable.

And then they did the awful season 13, which they called "The Next Generation." It was children, all children. Aw. Awww. Aaaawwww. How kee-yute.

I don't want to watch children getting pushed and tormented into doing ridiculously difficult moves, any more than I would like watching children play tackle football. It isn't cute. It's scary and it's tedious.

Watching children dance -- even the most skilled of them -- is like watching dogs walk on their hind legs. The amusement comes from the fact that they can do it at all; because they're children (or dogs), we forgive the fact that they're not very good.

If you doubt me, compare poems written by "really really talented" children with poems written by, like, actual poets.

Well, maybe not, because these days there aren't enough adult poets of any skill to compare talented children with.

Anyway, it looked as if SYTYCD had been committing slow suicide for the past couple of seasons, and if they did either trick again -- child dancers or street vs. stage -- my wife was probably going to have to watch alone.

(Weirdly, I had no such problems watching children cook in Masterchef Junior. I think it was because the children don't have to contort and damage their bodies in order to do adult-quality cooking; they cooked the same kinds of foods that adults would have to cook, meeting the same standards; and Gordon Ramsay swore less and was even nice to them, which made the show more watchable.)

A couple of weeks ago, NBC's World of Dance premiered. They have a pretty good judging system -- which is quite an accomplishment, because how can you compare ballroom with hip-hop with ballet, or solos with group performances? They use a point system with a sliding scale in each of several categories, and so the judges don't confer, they just plug in a number and the average score pops up on the screen. Eighty points out of a hundred, and you move on to the next round.

The trouble is, the dancing isn't very good. No, no, the individual performers often show remarkable skill. The problem is that all the dancing -- all of it -- is what I call "Ice-Capades" dancing. Just like the "dancing" in ice shows, all the choreography in World of Dance is a relentless series of stunts designed to inspire the audience to cheer and applaud.

And the live audience is loathsome. They never stop clapping and shouting. Throughout an entire performance, it's clappety-clap-clap, hoot-howl-cheer, and when the stunts happen, it only gets a little louder. Nobody's listening, nobody's watching, nobody's really paying attention.

It's like Family Feud the whole time: "Good answer, good answer!" (You can hear that as "good dancer, good dancer!") The audience is there to compete as marathon applauders. Look! Hour after hour, and they never stop clapping!

Like Jeopardy!, in which five shows are filmed per day, the first two shows of World of Dance were actually performed and shot on the same day, then edited and broadcast a week apart.

With Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek keeps a hundred suits and changes his clothes between shows. The previous show's champion also changes, so the illusion of the passage of time is maintained.

But on World of Dance, I don't know if they even took a bathroom break. J-Lo wore the same faux-sexy red outfit in both episodes. They weren't even pretending any time had passed.

Hey, J-Lo. I'm a fan, but if you're going to wear the same outfit in every episode, couldn't you at least have chosen something that doesn't make you look as if you're ready to go to the pole yourself?

I may keep watching World of Dance, though I'll probably use the fast-forward button a lot. Especially during the judges' comments, because they all say absolutely nothing every time. This isn't like SYTYCD, in which the contestants are actually expected to stretch and grow. Nothing is going to change on World of Dance -- nobody's going to get better. Or if they do, it won't be because the judges told them anything useful.

Because the only dancers who get useful criticism are the ones who are getting booted. And the judges are suckers for cute children and sob stories, so they get the highest scores while actual dancers score ten points lower.

By contrast, in the first episode of SYTYCD this summer, Nigel Lythgoe tells a dancer with a very effective sob story: "I hope your audition is very good, so that this competition will have a chance to improve your life." In other words, the sob story isn't going to make the judges keep dancers who don't have the skills.

And yes, you heard me right. So You Think You Can Dance is back again on Fox. And I realized why I hadn't seen any promotions until a couple of days before: Fox used to do all its promotions during Idol, which I was watching.

So far, it looks as if they've gone back to the original format. In these LA auditions, there's no nonsense about street vs. stage. In fact, the "street" dancers who do best are the ones who've also learned good skills in other genres.

What did I see in the first episode? First, Mary Murphy is back as a judge. Yeah, complete with screeching and the "hot tamale train" but when she wasn't there I missed her because that woman knows ballroom. She's smart and lays it on the line. And she and Lythgoe work well together.

The third judge, Vanessa Hudgens, was also good. And best of all, Cat Deeley is there, never pretending to be a dancer, giving good smart interviews and charming everybody without ever thinking the show is about her.

(I kept fast-forwarding through interview bits on World of Dance because their contestant interviewer is as shudderingly bad as the one on Dancing with the Stars. They needed Cat Deeley, and they didn't get her.)

The first audition looked like it might depend on sympathy, but no: Mark Villaver could dance. He didn't have any show-stopping tricks, but he gave a fluid, powerful, moving performance that consisted entirely of -- get this -- dance.

Other dancers, though, made a bigger splash. Robert Green danced in what looked like Saran Wrap over shorts and a t-shirt, but that was quickly forgotten as he brought real moves and good choreography to a B-Boy style.

I was blown away by the blonde Russian twins Anastasiia and Viktoriia doing "modern dance" -- a genre that I thought had been completely replaced by "contemporary" in all the previous seasons.

(I had come to think of "contemporary" as a genre of dance consisting of teenage girls in baby-doll nighties doing physically exuberant gestures showing how hard life is when nobody answers your texts for three whole minutes.)

But no, the kind of dance I used to see in the Alvin Ailey dance company and other modern troupes is still alive -- because everything the twins did was startling, beautiful, and emotional. And it was emotional without any kind of coherent story -- it's as if they embodied panic and dread. They took their jackets off, used them as props, and put them back on so fluidly and organically that it never came across as props -- it was just part of the dance.

To my surprise, however, my favorite dance of the first audition show was a married couple, Kristina and Vasily, who did a Latin Ballroom number that told a powerful story. Vasily began the routine blindfolded, dancing fluidly with Kristina as if he could see her; yet when she takes the blindfold off of him, that revelatory moment led immediately to a kiss combined with a lift and a spin that was emotional and beautiful. But that was far from the end. That was merely when the dancing started getting really good.

Find this episode online and watch it. Even the dancers who seemed to me to be there for their quirkiness or their sad sad tale were enjoyable to watch.

It seems that SYTYCD didn't forget their good decisions in earlier seasons: They have not brought back the horrible-and-embarrassing auditions that marked both SYTYCD and American Idol in their earliest seasons. That was an ugly formula, because it meant that these awful performers had been selected in the early screening process and sent on into the filmed audition for no other purpose than to be ridiculed. That level of ugly exploitation marred both shows -- but SYTYCD got rid of it first, and there's no sign of it coming back this time.

As far as I'm concerned, folks, So You Think You Can Dance is back in fine fettle, and it already has better dancers and better choreography than any other dance show on television.

*

The frustration with feeding wild animals in the back yard, and with keeping koi in our pond, is that you really get no more than glimpses of their life. Sure, I've watched our beasts adapt to changes in the feeders (and the schedule of feedings), but my best times of beast-watching usually come when I flip on the patio lights at two a.m. and catch a placid raccoon or opossum who is so laid-back he doesn't even bother looking up from his raid on our birdseed when the lights come on.

So you can bet that I backed NanoTrax when I heard about it on a crowd-funding site ... and now we have the perk. Amazingly, it consists of only two parts: what looks like a can of spray paint, and then the downloadable app.

It ain't spray paint, folks. The engineers have suspended a bunch of amazingly adaptable nano-bots in a sprayable lubricating solution. What comes out isn't an aerosol mist, it's more of a single beam of spray -- you know, like Raid's anti-wasp spray.

Spraying it on the koi was easy enough. You wait till they come to the surface -- to eat or just say hi in their fishy way -- and you spray them from the side. It doesn't take much contact with the spray, because there are dozens or hundreds of nanobots in every shot.

With birds and squirrels and chipmunks on the patio, you have to invest a little more patience. You sit there holding the can, not moving, until your preferred target is within reach of the spray. Then you give it a single squirt. If any of the spray hits the animal, you'll be fine, you got it.

Because, you see, the first job of the NanoTrax robots is to migrate to the highest point on the beast and then attach (harmlessly) to the skin. If there are feathers or fur, it lifts itself on skinny telescoping legs so that the nano-camera is above the fur and feathers.

Naturally, your target flew or scampered or dived away the moment it was hit. But as long as it remains (or returns) within Bluetooth range, you can link to it through the NanoTrax app on your phone (a free download from Google's Android store; sorry, iPhone users, not yet available for you).

OK, good news and bad news. These are nanobots, folks, so it's not like they have a lot of onboard memory. Or, in fact, any memory. Nor is it a super hi-rez camera. It has about the same level of resolution that we used to get on the Atari 800 or the Commodore 64, but as long as you keep it in a tiny window instead of trying to full-screen it, you can watch what your beast is seeing in real time.

The app will record anything you're watching in real time, if you tell it to, till your phone runs out of memory; or you can watch without recording and then press the BackTrax button and the app will save the previous 60 seconds of video for sharing and later viewing.

We've already watched our frontyard bluebirds bring mealworms from our patio feeder and plop them into the hungry mouths of the three baby bluebirds in their birdhouse. Is it as good as footage from NatGeo? Absolutely not. But they're our birds.

OK, more bad news: The nanobots do draw power from the sun (you can't exactly attach them to a watch battery) but these mechanical parts are tiny and they wear out. We lost all our FishTrax within a couple of days. We're not going to try to put on a new set, either, because we quickly learned that life as a fish is terminally boring. Five minutes and you've seen everything they'll ever do in their entire lives.

But the squirrel and chipmunk Trax were brilliant and of the seven NanoTrax cameras we placed on rodents (three of them were on one chipmunk), four are still working. They lead an exciting, scary life. But to see the chipmunks dropping food for their munklings in the burrow -- worth the price of admission.

Though we're dreading the horrible day when a hawk takes one of our rodents. We don't want to see flight on our rodent cams. That's for the bird cams.

We thought crows would be the best, because they're the boldest in-your-face strutters around our birdseed. And yes, it was easy to nail them with the spray. Big target, slow movement. But we were only able to link with three of the dozen or so CrowTrax that took root because guess what: Crows are smart. We saw only two things on our CrowTrax:

1. The crow's head (and therefore the camera) getting scraped against the rough surface of the brick walls around our patio until the camera was broken or got scraped off.

2. A closeup of the beak of the cooperating crow that pecked the NanoTrax off its buddy's head.

Then: nothing from crows. They know it's there, they're not putting up with it, they get rid of it, finito.

Finches are so small that they're hard to hit. Ditto with chickadees. Bluebirds don't seem to mind the cameras but they're only a little easier to hit with the spray.

You know who's easy? Doves. Do you know what's sad? Doves and pigeons are the koi of the bird kingdom. Fly for a second. Land. Walk walk walk, head bobbing. Is this food? Peck downward. Not food. Head up, walk walk, bob bob, is this food? Peck downward. Yum.

You need to take dramamine just to watch them.

NanoTrax is bound to be just the first round of animal-attached nano-cameras. Eventually, they'll probably develop cams that respond to commands, so you can swivel the camera or pitch it up and down. Maybe sound capture?

And I hope that each round of improvements extends the working life of these machines. Because I'm betting that all the beasts are going to catch on that when you're holding that spray can, weird stuff is going to happen. So you won't want to have to reapply the "paint" every week.

If it really becomes profitable, Microsoft will invent a really lousy version of the software and then a jar full of nano-cams that run on Windows 10 and have to be applied to the animals by hand, like ChapStick. Apple will do a version that is clunky and ugly, they'll get all the reporters to call it "stylish," and it will cost three times as much.

Right now NanoTrax is the best and coolest animal-cam we've got. And even though I couldn't test it on dogs and cats because we don't have any housepets, I can imagine that dog-owners will find that every time their dog sniffs another dog's butt, they can get that wonderful anal view onto their Facebook pages to delight their friends.

And cat-owners will have closeups of every act of wanton murder that their serial-killer pets commit before coming home to eat that lovely canned tuna or liver that is so lovingly provided in support of their lifelong rampage of death.

Whatever the weaknesses of NanoTrax might be, I'm not complaining. This is a fantastic technology that has always been more like science fiction than real science.

In fact, it is science fiction, because haven't you heard? I'm an actual science fiction writer, and sometimes I just make stuff up. If anybody's working on spray cans of nanobots that can attach themselves harmlessly to animals, I haven't heard about it, and as far as I know, there's nothing like that on Indiegogo or Kickstarter.

If I had a budget, there would have been sample visuals to go along with this story.

This is, in fact, an exercise in wouldn't-it-be-cool counterfactual reporting, or, as some people call it, "fake news." However, my fake news isn't designed to destroy anybody and I'm telling you right here, in the original review column, that it isn't true.

So the only victims of this bit of wishful thinking are those people who forward or post things without having read them all the way through. And they deserve to look a little foolish now and then.


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