Friday, December 27, 2013

Sometimes Amalgamation of Things

A collection of interesting links people send me because I am too busy holidaying to really post.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Day After Caturday Post: Old Lady Kitty on Rocking Chair

Miriah, my old 19-year-old kitty who lives with my parents.  She sits on things and disapproves of things. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Presenting an Opera Composed by a Woman! Finally!

The Washington National Opera is staging Jeanine Tesori's The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me. This is the first time ever that this opera house has presented an opera with a female composer.  Good on them!  I hope it's good.  Broadwayworld reviews and likes it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Caturday Post: Leaves of Grass

My sister, who has assured me that she does not spoil my kitties at all, grows grass in a pot specifically to feed to the cats, who adore it and are not allowed outside.  She yells "grasstime" and they come running and begging.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Self-Education via Libraries

The self-made person is a popular conceit of the American mythos, along with pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.  In association with this, one sometimes runs into the idea that education is unnecessary, given enough libraries and internet one can educate oneself.

Education solely via the internet is questionable because searching for information is a skill, and parsing out information that is credible and meaningful out of the web of a million lies (/cite{Vernor Vinge}) is also a skill.  Not to mention that you need some idea of the subject you are searching for in order to know the words to even start.  Not that having the internet is a bad thing, quite the contrary.  But having a teacher, even if one's teacher is an underinformed bigot, is going to give one the words with which to become better educated.  Just starting at a search engine with no words to enter and no idea of existing websites would be close to impossible. 

Education via libraries can be possible, I suppose, but it would be really hard.  Even Madam Marie "Radium Woman" Curie says in her autobiography that studying only from books without guidance is really hard. This from Radium Woman.  She goes out at night in the light of her own body to destroy supervillains with her righteous bone-melting rays of accurate diagnosis.

I bring this up because the local college in this hamlet recently screened Girl Rising, which I attended.  The film is a tearjerker about the struggles of girls in the developing world to get an education without being forced into child marriages, slavery, or rape.  I highly recommend it, though I would have liked it to end with a brief segment on the girls in the U.S.A who are denied upper education by their culture and entered into child marriages, since it is always good to remember that such atrocities don't just happen to other people in other places.  Anyway, the point of this is that during the Q&A session after the screening, someone asked "what about libraries, couldn't the girls get an education at a library?"

Umm, well, maybe.  Assuming an underprivileged girl is 1) literate.  2) Has access to a reasonable library that contains appropriate books in a language she can read. And 3) Has more self-discipline than most adults.

Prerequisite #1, literacy, should obviously indicate a need for some actual non-independant education.  I disapprove of the CIA, but they do have an awesome factbook online, part of which includes estimates of world literacy rates by nation and gender.  I have friends who teach at a primary school in Tanzania, and lament the number of kids, not just in form 1 or 2, who seriously cannot read.  This cannot be fixed by a library.

Prerequisite #2, access to a reasonable library, is a little variable.  If there is a library, it may or may not be in use, since maintaining a library in a useful form is a non-trivial amount of work.  If there is a library and it is decently maintained, it may or may not have appropriate books. By appropriate I mean books that are actually in a language the patrons can understand.  There are a lot of languages in the world for which there is a limited or nonexistent literary tradition.  In Tanzania, a lot of volunteers like to do library projects.  U.S. citizens are more than happy to donate books to the developing world, but what this means in practice is that Tanzanian libraries will have collections that include something like five copies of War and Peace, all in English.  This was good for me, since one of my Tanzanian projects was to read all the great classics of Russian literature, but useless for people who only nominally speak English.  This is not to say that libraries can't be made to work, I have friends who would get together a committee of students to pick what books they wanted for the library, and that works a lot better for getting a collection of actually useful books.  But as far as education goes, it's still hard, even in the U.S. to find in a library up-to-date textbooks.  Classic literature doesn't really change that much, assuming zombie Shakespeare isn't holed up with a word processor somewhere, but science does.  Old textbooks are outdated, and current science textbooks are massively expensive.  This is partially because textbook publishing is a corrupt industry, but the fact remains that getting access to good and recent educational textbooks via a library is not that likely.

But let's assume that all things are great.  There is a well-maintained library, accessible to a schoolchild.  The library even includes recent textbooks written in the child's native language!  What then?  Libraries are big.  Where do you start?  How do you know what course of self-study is best?  How, by yourself, do you have the motivation to really study without any sort of indicator of progress or outlet to practice learning?  You cannot learn science and math without doing science and math.  I know I probably wouldn't have the motivation for this, so all glory to those who do.

A library is better than nothing, absolutely.  But it is only part of a full education, not a replacement for the same.  Except for maybe a few exceptional individuals with ideal libraries, and most people aren't that and don't have that.    

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Happy Birthday, Hector Berlioz

On this day, back in 1803, Hector Berlioz was born.  This is reason enough to listen to the Symphonie Fantastique, it's a rocking piece of music.  I love the bassoon section in the "March to the Scaffold" movement.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Human Rights Day

Today is Human Rights Day.  It's good to remember on such days that human rights abuses don't just happen in other countries somewhere else to other people.  Amnesty International has details on the human rights abuses committed by the U.S. Pablo Neruda has poetic scorn:

The North American arsonists dropped dollars and bombs.                                                                                                         ~"In Guatemala, " from Song of Protest
We don't have a good history, and David Bowie has excellent reason to be afraid of Americans.  Let's not continue this trend.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Necromantic Sex and Unborn Children Singing to Batman

Because I'm stuck a few km to the left of center of nowhere here, my live opera experiences now arrive courtesy of the Bavarian Staatsoper, which streams live and free out of Munich.  Turing bless them.  If they would offer sufficiently low definition streaming options that I could have enjoyed their productions in Tanzania, Turing would bless them even more.  Yesterday they presented the Angsty Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten.  I knew nothing about it prior to watching it.  Musically, it's sort of meh.  I've never been particularly moved by the instrumental music of R. Strauss, and I don't find that his vocal lines add anything memorable.  It's not bad, it's just that there's nothing in it that I remember five minutes after hearing it.  Plotwise, it's kind of like a cooler and more surreal version of The Magic Flute but without the awesome music, and instead, even more misogyny.  The libretto blatantly and inescapably presents a moral that women who can't have or don't want children are less than human or evil, respectively.  During one of the intermissions, this was actually addressed on camera by the director (I think.  I missed half the intermission talks due to needing to get drinks and snacks.  It was a four hour opera.  I needed the breaks.) who at least recognized, and attempted to mitigate, this aspect of the opera.  His take on the misogyny was to say that since this was an opera that came out of Germany around the time of the Great War, we can interpret the opera as a call for a continuation of life after the most destructive war then known rather than as a call for women as breeding stock.  I don't know that the text supports this or that this mitigated message really came through in the production, but I do appreciate the production team for trying.  It's not their fault that all the operas of the canon are written by (and largely for) men.  If anyone out there can write an opera, message me and I'll write a libretto and we can work on fixing this.

Anyway, the opera.  We open in the spirit world, where a nurse is creepily giving an injection of some sort to a woman in a ballgown.  Through expository recitative, we learn that the ball-gowned woman is the half-human daughter of the undefined Keikobad, and she doesn't have a shadow. What this Keikobad or the spirit world is, we don't actually know, but it seems vaguely reminiscent of Faerie, but everyone wears formal clothes and hangs out in a creepily lit room with a giant aquarium. The half-human woman is also the Kaiserin, because the Kaiser was hunting and encountered her when she was magically in the form of a white gazelle and they have gotten along swimmingly ever since except for she can't have children (the euphemistic meaning of a shadow here).   This is bad and also BAD because falcons show up, wander about surrealistically, and portentously portent that because the woman casts no shadow, the Kaiser is going to turn to stone in three more days.  The Kaiser doesn't know about this and wanders off to hunt, because that's all he ever seems to do.  The Kaiserin asks the nurse to help her get a shadow so her lover won't turn to stone and they toddle off to the human world to get one.

Scene switch to a shabby laundromat, the abode of Barak the dyer and his three stereotypical brothers: a man in plaid pants and a sweater vest, a blonde man with lots of eyeliner and a t-shirt I'm not hip enough to understand, and a man with long dreaded hair.  The brothers are just freeloaders, and they dislike the dyer's wife.  The feeling is mutual.  The dyer's wife is not so down with her Angel in the House role.  She doesn't want children, doesn't like sharing her marital home with her husband's brothers (who did wake her up fighting with each other for a piece of bread), and is generally just unhappy. So when the Nurse and the Empress show up and the Nurse offers her blonde hair, freedom from childbirth, and a hot guy in briefs and headphones(and people think I'm kidding when I say I watch opera for the fanservice) she is ready to make a deal.

Story character 101: avoid making weird deals with complete strangers.

Nevertheless, the wife (she never gets a name or more of a title than wife) offers her shadow in exchange for 3 days of service from the Kaiserin and the Nurse plus wealth and hot guys in briefs and headphones.  In the meantime, before giving up her "shadow" she confesses her distaste for her husband's bed, and so the dyer and his wife get separate beds while the creepy chorus of unborn children sings in the background.  That night, the unhappily married couple go to separate beds without ever talking about their unhappiness, and the night watch, instead of an all's well, serenade the city with a chorus on the joys of matrimony.

You spouses, who lie lovingly in each other's arms, You are the bridge spanning the chasm on which the dead come back into life.

Married people sex: it raises the dead.

I realize that I am an evil feminazi opposing traditional marriage here, but desire for children or lack thereof should really be something discussed before marriage, and if there is no desire for such, that's what contraceptives are for.  Do I need to do a condom demonstration for opera characters?  If it's a problem with the sex, there are conversations, books, and for some cases, doctors for that.  Not that this is probably a marriage based on equality since the nameless wife is identified as a beggar's daughter, so she probably has no options other than marriage at the terms of her husband, who, she comments, wants his dinner and his bed whenever he comes home from work.

Whatever.  The awkward state of their marriage continues for the contractual three days, during which time the wife angsts over, but ultimately refuses, the gift of the hot guy in briefs and headphones. But then her husband brings the entire children's choir home for dinner without warning, thinking this will make her happy, and she snaps and screams at him, including a fanciful account of the awesome sex with the hot man in briefs and headphones.  He nearly kills her with a sword he has from somewhere, but then everyone thinks better of their passions (how unoperatic!) and goes to bed.

They all wake up in part of the spirit world to await the judgment of Keikobad, who, like Sarastro before him, is coming across as petty and sadistic, as the dyer and the wife wait miserably in a giant waiting room while dead horses and soldiers float slowly past the windows.  While they stew in their unhappiness, a messenger of Keikobad shows up, calls the Nurse a bitch, and tells her that while it was the will of the Keikobad that the Kaiserin run to the human world, the Nurse is cast out of the spirit world for failing to protect the Kaiserin and keep her in the spirit world.  This is illogic of first order pettiness.  But the opera continues and Keikobad ends up deciding that everyone has overcome their trials and gets rewarded with (in the case of the women) their own shadows, and (in the case of the men) women who can make babies.  The Kaiser doesn't have to turn into stone after all, and the wife is going back to being a dutiful wife.  Huzzah?  The creepy chorus of unborn children arrives on stage to play shadow puppet games on the back wall of the stage and sing about happiness.  Meanwhile, giant animated images of (I swear I am not making this up) Batman, Jesus, Gandhi, King Kong, Marilyn Monroe, Sigmund Freud (I think), and Buddha are projected onto the walls of the set.  To demonstrate that I am not making this up, I have a screenshot.

I am suffering from a complete failure of intellect and imagination to explain this cast of characters in the context of the opera.  Or, frankly, any context whatsoever.  Darling readers, please tell me why and how this makes any sense.