Saturday, March 29, 2014

The flip side of exotic

I wrote of the enjoyment of the exotic, and how stretching the imagination can enrich the knowledge of what we have.

But, as with the story of the animals choosing a king, knowledge is not the only possible measure of goodness. Novelty is a great thing, but not the only thing. My Better Half always knows what I'll answer to her question “What do you want for your birthday dinner?”

One of my flaws is a tendency to start new projects before I'm done with the old. One of the Benedictine vows is to “stability.” That can be a more sweeping rule than not just staying in one place and not being a gyrovague. For us it can be turning the compost into the garden year after year after year. Finishing the project. Being reliable.

Novelty can undermine stability. A culture is expressed in explicit rules and artifacts, and in unwritten values and courtesies. How long does your eye rest on someone before it becomes a signal? The MidWest does not agree with New York or with Dakar.

Mix everybody together--hooray for diversity and new ways of looking at things (and cool ethnic restaurants). Now, how do you signal someone that you want him to find a convenient moment to break off what he's doing and speak to you? Spell it out with new jargon? “Please grant me a class B3 interruption to your work.” What constitutes flirting? How can you communicate that you are in a great hurry?

At times like that diversity is obviously a burden. But I gather that it gets even worse. Can you fully trust someone whose values are different and with whom you have no shared history to give meaning to the nuances of language? Saladin and Richard shared martial values and could deal with each other on that basis, but neither would have successfully lived in a city ruled by the other.

Perhaps it is a blind spot in the articulate, that they sometimes think everything is defined in words or rules. But not everything is easily expressible; a constellation of little things can be huge. A man does not want his national home destroyed or even changed, because he can not even remember all the good things that go with it; just as he does not want his house burnt down because he can hardly count all the things he would miss.

And I haven't even gotten to some of the conflicts you get when introspective cultures meet unashamedly assertive ones.

The more diverse a society is, the more is going to have to be spelled out in detail--up to a point at which nobody can possibly know the rules. Beyond that, I suppose you have to have some kind of millet system, which isn't exactly the individual freedom ideal.

Advantage to not being famous

I have trouble remembering names. When people greet me on the street, I like to be able to remember who they are in time to reply. If everybody thought they knew me...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Problems in re-designing college

AVI posted a question: “I wonder what we would design for post-HS education these days if we were starting from scratch?"

This is a subset of a bigger question: how do we want to educate people?

There are some traps to trying to answer that one. When the animals wanted to appoint a king, the eagle said the criterion should be how high one can fly, the lion how loud one could roar, and so on—all with quite plausible explanations of the utility of the skill.

I thought back on our home school plans, and though I still think the outline was good, it wouldn’t fit everybody—in fact it didn’t.

For example, advertising and propaganda are so pervasive and skillful that I considered some lessons in persuasion techniques and elementary statistics (and the deceitful “average”) essential. The problem is that you need some analytical skill to parse out the tricks. Not a lot, but more than some people have. It is easier to use the rule of thumb that "all advertisers lie and all politicians lie and most newspapers lie about politics and social issues and whatever their advertisers don't like."

And not everybody is going to agree on the contents. Back in the day European nobility learned dancing, reading, some arithmetic, and fighting: Lots of practice with the fighting. They needed it. We’re lucky enough at this moment not to need quite so much fighting skill, but I’m not fool enough to think good luck lasts forever. Maybe other things are more immediately useful than my list.

We tried to make sure everybody knew some elementary carpentry, could repair their clothes (maybe even make them), accompany themselves on the piano, cook for themselves, drive, write a coherent paper, swim, factor a polynomial, know countries and geography, know the rudiments of another language… and a few other things as well. To my regret there was no ground swell of enthusiasm for differential calculus and marksmanship didn’t make the cut.

I like the idea of preparing people to teach themselves—or having readily available facilities ( Khan academy, book clubs, Sunday School, etc) for people to learn alone or in groups. (Some things you learn better in groups—discussion is critical.)

And I like the idea of breadth—getting a taste of a lot of different things. Who except lawyers, for example, graduates from college with any clue about the reasons behind property law, or who understands more than the vaguest outline of medicine? First aid, sure, but I’m not sure about any depth. And I wish philosophy were introduced earlier.

But at a minimum (to return to AVI’s question) the university should appreciate the differences in the nature of mastery of different subjects. A lot of courses of study don’t square off nicely in 4 year chunks.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Why re-reading

As I get older I find I finish fewer books.

Most writers I read once only. A lot of them fall into the "OK, got it" category. I understand the picture they were trying to draw, and that's that.

For other books my taste has changed. For instance, some years ago some of Cabell's books were reprinted, and for some reason they caught my fancy. He was a good wordsmith and had a pleasantly ironic style, and I went through about half of his output (university library). At some point it became a little repetitious, and I moved on. When years later I picked up one of the copies I'd actually bought, I found the style unpleasant--the irony covered a despairing core; a chocolate coating on a stale crouton. (It didn't help that I was happily married and now had a completely different idea of romance.)

But other writers I return to: in fantasy Lewis the lucid dreamer, Tolkien the rich dreamer, and Williams the dreamer of the unsee-able. Bradbury dreamed bubbles that held little worlds, Zelazny had mythic dreams, Wolfe hidden dreams within dreams; Simak's blended the alien and the grounded, and Niven... OK, I'm not sure why. At his best he uses rigorous logic to draw the fantastic stories, but so do others, and he wrote best in company with Pournelle or Gerrold. Maybe its the consistency of the alien environment--like van Gulik or Hillerman describing their alien societies.

Or maybe I just have a taste for books that look at the world with alien eyes: alien but not wrong. Achebe's look at the world from a different framework I keep, but I quickly weary of stuff that is obviously simpleminded or stupid. Berkeley of the Midwest is liberally supplied with socialist and "transgressive" art, but at the other end of the spectrum Ayn Rand is just as hard to stomach. These aren't "different viewpoints" on the world; at best they're just tiny slivers: so tiny that they're wrong. I used to read the Isthmus, but after a few years it was too trivial to predict what they'd say.

I like using different questions to partition a situation. There aren't always answers, but sometimes they shed a little light on the corners of what we mean, and make the problems more three-dimensional.

And some books describe the worlds these questions come from so well that they seem to have fresh applications each time. It helps a lot if they're fun to read.


When I'm traveling my priorities change(*), and when lunching with colleagues I defer to majority tastes, but when going out to eat from home I prefer to eat something we don't make at home. Since our Youngest Daughter is in a culinary arts program, the latter category is getting smaller. That points me towards different cuisines--most recently Peruvian fusion and Korean. Bibimbap is a good comfort food. (When I first went into a Korean restaurant I decided to go as outre as possible, and the description "rice salad" seemed weird enough. I've liked it ever since.)

My reasons are mixed. There's a bit of "Why waste $$$ on something we can do ourselves?", a little "It isn't as good as yours" (or the dread "Can you get their recipe?"), and some of "If we're going to live differently tonight, let's go whole hog."

I don't know whether the tendency is world-wide, but we in the USA (me too) have a something of a fascination for the exotic. IIRC the French had it before us, and I gather so did the Romans before them. I can't tell about Liberians, for example, because the Western culture is omnipresent whether they like it or not. In Senegal the traditional wrestlers are heavily into oriental martial arts now, but it seems to be because they are more effective rather than because of any sort of fashion for the exotic.

I have to try to take this fascination with the exotic into account in other ways too. I've evangelical/baptist background, but when camping some months back where the only churches with convenient services were Methodist and Catholic, my first and ultimate preference was for the Catholic rather than the presumably more congenial Methodist. Part of that bias was because of the studies I've been doing in church history, but it didn't occur to me until later that I'd never actually researched Methodism as it is practiced.

(*) Food: rapidly, inexpensively, tasting OK, that I won't need Cipro afterwards for. Eating you can do anywhere. Dining you need friends for.


I was curious about Fred Phelps career. I never ran into the man or his cronies, and so all I knew is what I read in the papers: and all sides agreed that the "church" was a nasty group of people, with strong intimations that they used lawsuits to support themselves.

So google around. The Topeka Capital Journal put together a series on his life. It is quite a bit more in depth than the Wikipedia article, but Wikipedia separately flags his civil rights history, which is hard to find in the Journal collection. Interesting. Did he change his attitude to blacks later? The Journal suggests yes, but it isn't perfectly obvious. Both collections touch on Gage Park, but there's no followup, though I recall reading several years ago that the city actually did clean up the park.

I set aside claims that he beat his children with a mattock--others deny it and I'd expect serious damage from such an instrument. But even without those claims, he obviously turned extremely nasty very early on, as witness his suit against Brady.

Years ago I predicted that his "church" would eventually break up over who got the money. I wonder why he was "excommunicated:" whether he had complaints about finances in the "church" or maybe started to have second thoughts about whether all outsiders were damned.

He plainly wanted to be defined by his opposition to homosexuality, so I don't think he can complain too much that his early civil rights work is ignored in favor of the hatred his later years.


It was 13 this morning, and people complained about the cold spring. But I remember quite distinctly, less than two months ago, saying to Youngest Son "It is warm. It's 14. Go shovel the driveway."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dust bunnies

When you blow out a candle, the air moves fastest and strongest close to your mouth, but farther away the puff fans out and, because it is pushing a bigger volume of air, weakens and dissipates. So you have no problem extinguishing a candle from a foot away, but across the table the flame hardly flickers.

I am informed that most household dust is not tracked in (though the front hallway testifies to the contrary), but is made of dead skin cells that flake off and dry out and are carried by the breeze, or the detritus left by the mites that eat the cells. They are small enough that some are able to sift through the weave of the fabric in the sheets and mattress fabric, and collect under the bed. Since we spend about a third of our time in bed, I'd expect that under the bed would be the most concentrated collection of dust--but it seems not to be so. Perhaps because we don't move so much, and don't rub off so much dead skin when snoring as when walking about. Or perhaps a lot of dead cells accumulate, stuck by residual oils to the mattress stuffing. Pillows get heavier with age, perhaps mattresses do too.

What seems completely unintuitive is the accumulation under dressers. Things can't fall through the wood. Probably dust, once it hits a collection, tends to stick. Then as the airborne dust whirls through the air some puff of breeze from passing feet will push it under the dresser. Of course the air pushed in will have to push other air out, but thanks to the dissipation I mentioned in the first paragraph, that will be weaker. Once under there, dust is more likely to fall undisturbed and clump.

Which seems a plausible reason for why the dust bunnies look like Harvey.

On the other hand Dave Barry claimed that men are biologically incapable of seeing dirt until it accumulates in quantities sufficient to sustain agriculture.

Pick your reason.

Economic predictions

"Come," they say, "let us get wine, and let us drink heavily of strong drink; And tomorrow will be like today, only more so."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


I am trying to understand the details myself. If you want hairy details, look here, here (Lubos has a guest poster), or here or here for a little more on how reliable it looks. Or have a crack at the paper yourself--I haven't finished it yet.

The coolest of the pictures show what look like twists. That's what they are. Light, being oscillating electric and magnetic fields, has a direction for the electric field and another for the magnetic field. Most of the time the directions in a collection of light are random, but you can get polarized light from particular sources, or by blocking out the polarization you don't want, and some more exotic ways.

The twists in those pictures...

You remember waves in the sea, and up and down waves on a slinky, and pressure waves along the slinky. In physics class you may have been introduced to "twisting waves" in a rod--you can't quite get those to propagate along the slinky--and not in the ocean or the air at all.

But gravity waves are different, and they can be "twisty" Please follow that link for the picture to see what a twisty wave can look like.. If, as looks more and more likely, the universe grew from a big bang, even relatively small fluctuations early on should leave some kind of imprint. Unless they've made some mistakes, they're looking at the impress of gravity waves on the universe very early on. (The pictures represent a small section of the sky.)

If this pans out, it is probably Nobel material.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

To be fair

The old line goes "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; those who can neither do nor teach become critics." Which isn't fair to some of the excellent teachers I've known, but it's the critic aspect I need to reflect on.

I've tried from time to time to to walk back some science headlines and see what the story was, and try to explain the results (I hope) more clearly or accurately. I try to add a little value by pointing out some of the bigger picture, or some of the caveats.

Sometimes this is an hour's work--with more complicated ones it can be a little more.


Much easier than writing the paper in the first place. I'm trying to put together a simple limit on dark matter cross sections during my copious free time. Background research alone has been over 20 hours. The back of the envelope calculation that inspired it only required an hour to get the preliminary info and code an estimate, but doing it right will take a good deal longer. And then I have to run it by somebody to see if I did anything dumb. I'll be lucky to have it see the light of day by June. And I'm just piggybacking on public data, not running my own experiment.

There are several orders of magnitude of difference between the effort of doing research and the effort of blogging about it.

Multiple meanings

The ad headline announced "Eye-catching frames" beside a picture of an eye-catching woman wearing glasses. Since earlier I had been fumbling one-handed to put on sunglasses while driving, with memorable effect, I read the headline a little differently than intended.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

High voltage power lines

The BBC reports that a team of researchers says that high voltage power lines produce UV flashes which most animals can see, and surmise that this can discourage animals from coming near the lines.
"It has always been assumed that power lines - masts and the cables strung between them - were passive structures standing immobile in the terrain, and therefore inoffensive for animals," said Dr Tyler.

"As a result of this work, we now consider them as chains of flashing light stretching across the tundra in the winter darkness, and that's why the animals find them so offensive."

The random and unpredictable nature of these flashes were particularly problematic, he added, as the animals could not easily adapt to them.

Apparently reindeer avoid the structures: "The animals keep as much as 5km (3 miles) from either side of the cables."

Do they avoid them in the daytime too? Corona flashes can be startling at night, but we generally had to turn out the lights and get dark-adjusted when trying to figure out where the discharge was. (Grad students peering in the dark close to a frame covered in 6000V wires, looking for slowing spots--what could go wrong?)

Also, 3 miles is quite some distance.

I'd have looked at noise. Corona often makes noise. And the noise rate from a semi-infinite wire won't change much with distance, until you get far enough away that the terrain starts to randomly block the sound: it will always be buzzing at you.

If the terrain starts to significantly block either sound or light when the visual angle to the top of the tower is about 1degree, and the towers are 30m high (pulling all numbers out of the air), I'd expect the critters to hover somewhere around 1.7km away to avoid the racket or the glow. So the buffer distance isn't crazy.

I didn't realize that so many mammals could see UV. I wonder what windows look like: partly transparent, partly reflective? What other little things glow that we don't notice?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dark matter headline

New Analyses May Imply the Existence of a Dark Matter Particle. Reading further:
At a recent UCLA symposium attended by 190 scientists from around the world, physicists presented several analyses that participants interpreted to imply the existence of a dark matter particle.

The likely mass would be approximately 30 billion electron-volts, said the symposium’s organizer, David Cline, a professor of physics in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and one of the world’s experts on dark matter.

The physicists at the February 26–28 event were in agreement that “there seems to be an excess in the available data that could be due to dark matter,” Cline said.

"Source: UCLA Newsroom"

The conference proceedings are at this link, and are available to the public. Peruse freely. There are two semi-positive findings: Fermi and superCDMS. Fermi sees a narrow signal in the galactic center (too narrow, actually) where you expect a lot of dark matter to wind up, that has been decreasing with greater statistics. Worse yet, they see the same signal around the relatively small and lightweight Earth, which is a little like saying you see dark matter in your coffee cup. The other experiment sees a small excess of events--not enough to claim a discovery--and most of the excess is in a detector with a grounding flaw.

Where does this "in agreement" come from? Maybe from the people that try to do big bang evolution with different particle models; I'm pretty sure it isn't from the experimentalists.

The headline rang wrong immediately, but when I read the article I understood where it came from. I used to work for Prof. Cline. He is excellent at spreading ideas around from group to group, and quicker than I to pick things up, but he had a habit of jumping the gun. This is a better description of the dark matter playing field right now.

Monday, March 10, 2014

With only a few data points

When you don't know the whole story, and only get a snippet here and there, how do you know what's really going on? The reporting might be biased, in which case you've got a big problem, but even when it isn't...

Take this case:

Thousands of Liberians in support of the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) on Thursday, March 6, 2014 stormed the Capitol Building to present a petition, calling on members of the 53rd Legislature to reconsider their decision taken to amend the 1999 act that created the CBL.

And what is the amendment that has them so worked up? It says that the bank officials can't stand for office. Does that seem likely to inspire this rhetoric?

The pro-CBL protesters were seen in a jubilant mood before the main entrance of the Capitol Building chanting slogans like: "That Modern Slavery, It Will Not Hold! You Are In Error! Ellen Don't Sign It! Don't Target One Person! Stop The Evil!" amongst others.

They were also seen holding placards with the inscriptions: "The Anti-CBL Bill Is Evil! We Love Dr. J. Mills Jones; Do Not Harm Him! Lawmakers Do Not Strangulate The CBL! Liberians Say No To Satanic Law! We Don't Support So-Called Bill! We Say No To The 4G Amended Bill!"

Jones has been on the job for about 8 years now, and recently stirred up quite a bit of grief when he sold off a large chunk of Liberia's US dollar reserve. This sparked a little inflation, though it wasn't clear he had much choice.

I couldn't find any hint he'd been affiliated with any of the warlords, and since he has apparently been doing a fairly decent job I doubt that he was warlord or warlord crony material. I couldn't find anything suggesting that he was starting a political party of his own, though I could very easily have missed that. If he was, that would explain the law and the support group.

Who was in the support group?

The pro-CBL supporters, who included marketers, elderly women and men, university students, and youths, amongst others, came from across Monrovia and other parts of the country.

"Youths" stand around aimlessly all around Monrovia--there are more youths than opportunities. Hiring a few hundred to do a couple of hours of chanting wouldn't be hard. And while some of the university students are hard working, it wouldn't be impossible to locate a substantial number of layabouts among their ranks.

But then again maybe Sirleaf et al are afraid of Jones. Ellen Sirleaf has done a lot for Liberia, finagling billions in debt relief, but I wouldn't put my finger in the fire to swear that she and hers have always stood up to the temptations of corruption.

If I was living in Liberia I'd be hearing a lot more of the details, but I suspect that most of them would be lies and smoke. It used to be a grand place for conspiracy theories--probably still is. It wouldn't be surprising; people have to make sense of things somehow.

Here also. I find that my first reaction when the Feds release economic statistics is "What are you leaving out?" More and more when there's some new kind of "green" initiative or education program I automatically try to figure out who is getting the goodies. That's not a nice way to think, and it is only a step or two from conspiracy-land. There have been pockets of corruption all along, but I think they're spreading.

Soothing poison?

Researchers admit they have no idea why one component of mamba venom should include a powerful painkiller. It isn't quite ready yet: "He cautioned that the mambalgins worked by injections into the spine so would need "significant development" before they could be used in people." They speculate that maybe this chemical acts differently in different families of creatures, or that maybe it keeps the animal from struggling too much. Very odd.

I remember stepping on something soft, looking down, and seeing a mamba coiled beneath my shoe. My subsequent speed might have satisfied my PE teacher for once... Yelling "snake" is a good way to assemble a collection of adults with sticks and shovels. It didn't occur to us to see if the creature was useful for anything.

Standards of beauty

The latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition is all over the newsstands, this time with three young ladies not dressed for any beach I've ever been to. But set aside fantasy for the moment.

Either my eyes are failing me or the three look startlingly similar. If they appeared only one at a time it wouldn't be so obvious, but together it seems as though they were picked as being the closest approximations to a single ideal standard of beauty, uniform from cheeks to cheeks. I recall pictures of a group of Rockettes who didn't seem as much alike as these three, and I'd have thought uniformity would have been a goal for that chorus line.

The last time I checked there was more than one way for a woman to look gorgeous. One wordsmith called the women Hefner surrounds himself with as "identi-kit playmates." Every flower has to look like a daisy... It seems a bit sad.

Since too-close inspection is unwise, I omit links.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Team sports

All the world plays soccer today.

But I couldn't think of very many places that originated their own team sports. So I went googling about. Yikes: the things I didn't know were legion.

Some we all know: In North America/Mexico they had lacrosse and its variants ("each team consisted of about 100 to 1,000 men on a field that stretched from about 500 meters to 3 kilometers long") and ulama. In Persia a cavalry training exercise seems to have developed into polo.

Now I got into new territory. I gather that the Greeks and Romans had something I'd not heard of before, episkyros/harpastum; though I don't see any signs that these survived past the collapse of Western Rome.

Mongolia has beikou, Malaysia has sepak takraw, France has a game dating to Rome and France, Spain, Netherlands and Italy has games of the handball/racquetball games. Russia has bandy/Russian hockey

But baseball/rounders, cricket, soccer, rugby, American football, Australian football, basketball, hurling, modern volleyball, modern hockey (though there are very ancient precedents) and so on seem to come from the sports-mad British Isles and their descendents. Even more new team sports were invented last century (Switzerland, Sweden, and so on).

(I'm not going to include the battledore, because it seems not to be exactly a team effort, though it was widely popular from antiquity. South Africa has a booklet of traditional games, including board games, stick fighting, etc: but I can't tell if the dibeke is old or new.)

A few of these are pretty explicitly connected to warfare (polo), and old lacrosse and ulama seem to have had religious meanings, but most of the rest seem to have lost those connections, if they ever had any. Given simple high spirits and a few rules to give shape to the interaction (no Calvinball here); if the rules worked out well enough you'd have a traditional game.

Some sections of the globe are missing from the list. Everybody plays team sports now, but why didn't some cultures seem to develop any themselves? Or maybe they did develop some which fell out of favor with changing culture, or maybe the climate changed and they didn't have as much leisure (I'm thinking Amazon here--it looks like they used to build large farms there once upon a time). Or maybe the culture associated sports with childhood, and the visitors who documented the culture didn't pay attention to the kids.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

At the click of a button

Notice the dates:

7 February, 2001

February 27th, 2008

04 March 2014

Same guy. Color me dubious. If this is a real effect it must be extremely hard to implement. Risky, too. And he must get pretty bored in the winter if his press releases are all in February.

Also note that "The patent office will accept an application for, and issue a patent without any proof of its effectiveness."

Monday, March 03, 2014

Chasing the Ghost Particle

I wanted to like this one. Nils took the special iMAX camera to do filming at the pole, and we've got some fairly clear event animations that, with only a little explanation, show what's going on nicely. We've got some people who are used to explaining to non-technical audiences how things work and why. NASA has some great animations. Put them all together...

But some of the details ground my gears: the narrator talking about neutrino tracks, for example. And describing the really big kinds of explosions in space and saying that the really high energy neutrinos come from them (probably true, but we don't know that and we don't know how).

What really annoyed me was the Sesame-Street continuity. "Now let us go to the headquarters at Madison Wisconsin" jumps to a fast-motion street scene that has nothing to do with IceCube, and thirty seconds later it was back to pictures of big astronomical objects. True, there's not much exciting to look at at the headquarters: lots of people sitting around either doing analysis or in meetings, and a bunch of computers that do the heavy lifting. Still, if the scene is going to be boring, say so.

I saw it at the collaboration meeting "movie night." An iMAX's big screen would make the jazzy animations and continuity breaks dramatic, but even there a "general audience I" would leave not much wiser than I went in, though I might think I was.

Keith Reiminck's "No Horizon Anymore - A Year Long Journey at the Bottom of the World" (2008-2009 winter-overs) was better. Executive summary: 43 people living together in a frozen outpost through 6 months of night (plus a few more with some daylight) can get a little goofy, magnifying personality traits.

Banff is in a beautiful spot. Some of the sidewalks and roads are a trifle slippery. I tried one of the nearby trails and got about 100 feet before I realized that it wasn't going to work. It took me about 6 or 7 minutes to come back down--carefully.

Fukusima cleanup

This is an outline of what the Japanese may do to dismantle the Fukushima plants. It isn't easy. Read it to get an idea of the problems.

I suspect the reporter missed something, though. The robots can't communicate wirelessly with the outside because of the amount of shielding in the way, and unspooling communication cables turns out to be fraught with tangles and snags. But prepping the site with re-transmitters should be relatively straightforward: robots drag in the systems while unspooling power cables behind them. Since the operators would know where to put the re-transmitters before planting them, there is no backtracking that would tangle the cables, and they could even plan ways to dress out the cables so they didn't get in the way of later robots. With enough re-transmitters the robots could be sent anywhere. Of course, all the hardware they put in will be activated and have to be disposed of later, but in the grand scheme of things that's a minor issue.

Yes, some stuff might have to hang from railings, and be battery powered (and therefore replaced regularly). It could still work, though.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Prince Igor

We went to see the live simulcast of Prince Igor this morning. (Pompeii was playing next door: every now and then there were some rumbles that didn’t have much to do with the action.)

Since Borodin had a day job (research chemist) and never finished the opera, producers have some freedom in how they organize it. The Met showed the Polovetzian sequence behind a scrim and projected videos of Igor or his dead soldiers when there were major transitions. This gave a slightly hazy appearance to the production, in keeping with the producer’s claim in an interview that the sequence was a hallucination of a man with a concussion.

The outline is simple enough: prince Igor goes to war. His army is destroyed and he (and his son and a few others) are captured. The next section is a somewhat disconnected/surreal collection of songs and dances surrounding Igor’s experiences in captivity. Meanwhile back at home his brother-in-law’s dissolute ways and attempted coup are wrecking readiness and leave the city unprepared for the counterattack. In the last act the city has been ransacked and a penitent Igor returns to a warm welcome.

This version used as the intro to the opera a quote to the effect that a man goes to war to escape himself. (Which seems a little odd, especially when applied to the current Ukraine conflicts.) The setting is WWI gear and weapons, which makes some of the lyrics sound a little funny, but meant that the projected battle scenes could be just people and explosions. At the end Igor pushes away his adoring subjects and starts leading by example in rebuilding.

Igor never seems to be very enthusiastic about his wife. That’s plot-driven, I suppose: in the first part he’s about to head off to war, in the middle he’s a glum hallucinating prisoner (who once says his wife will forgive him, and then largely ignores her when she shows up), and in the last he’s full of guilt. Still. . .

Either Russian has an incredible number of syllables or else the subtitle writers were a little terse.

As you would expect the music was excellent and the sets were imaginative and effective.

I’d forgotten about it completely until yesterday when Youngest Daughter suggested it as a date for me and my Better Half before I head out of town for a week. It was a good idea. Everybody knows the Dances section, but there was good music throughout.

It took some effort to keep my mind from playing through “Stranger in Paradise” during that section. (I tried to concentrate on hearing the Russian syllables.)

Time to replace Hail to the Chief?

"Hail to the Chief" is OK, but it doesn't have quite the right zing. It seems a bit bland, and incongruous with the use of the office.

This, starting at about 3:45, would be a more appropriate anthem to welcome the arrival of the President:

If that doesn't load right, check this, which starts at the right place.

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.

Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that's our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!
[Dance of the Slaves]

Prisoners of the Khan, praise the Khan!
Sing songs of praise to the Khan, Sing!
Praise his generosity, praise his kindness, Praise!
For his enemies he is terrible, our Khan!
Who can be equal in glory to the Khan? Who?
With a blaze of glory equal to the sun is he.

[Dance of the Young Boys] - Interlude

IV. [Dance of the Men]

Equal to the glory of our forefathers is our Khan,
Khan, Khan Konchak.
Glorious Khan, Khan Konchak.