Monday, February 21, 2011

From the front lines of monkey research

what a cutie!I am breaking my rule against writing about the news for the second time now. Maybe it's time to give that rule up? Even if it is a sound rule, I couldn't help breaking it this once: this little story is just too good.

The story, linked below, involves computer tests for monkeys. They were asked to label a box of pixels "sparse" or "dense" -- big letters S and D on the screen -- and got a treat for a correct answer. Incorrect answers caused the program to hang, and apparently the only punishment was visible frustration at having to wait for another treat. The catch was that there was a third option that would skip immediately to the next problem, without any treat but without any pause either.

The new discovery is that for this particular game, macaque monkeys turned out to interpret that third option the same way that humans would, as a "pass" without penalty. For the researchers, this amounts to an assessment of their own knowledge, something close to the Socratic admonition to know your limits. By contrast, so-called New World monkeys like capuchin monkeys (as opposed to the macaques, which are Old World monkeys) did not choose "I don't know" at all, instead risking a pause in hopes of getting a treat even on tricky questions. They suggest that this introspection may have evolved only in the one line of apes and monkeys, which happens to be the same one that gave rise to humans. To put more fine a point on it, these creatures' introspective insight could provide us one of our own.

This is, pretty literally, fantastic, exciting stuff. It's almost on the level with 2001: a space odyssey. Sure, that's the actual conception of fundamental leaps, and here we have the mere discovery of traits that presumably developed millenia in the past; still, I figure it for kind of a big deal. If you ask me, that combination of lofty S.F. themes with the heartwarming image of a monkey munching on a cookie is a template for an excellent, shareable news story.

You can read the story here:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Nixon in China" in the Met in a movie theater

Truth be told, I had no idea what to expect walking into Nixon in China. For one thing, opera in a movie theater seemed to leave room for doubt. I also doubted my own taste: though I'd heard good things about the composer John Adams from respectable listeners, it had been a while since I had listened to anything more adventurous than Pandora suggestions, and I half feared I'd become boring enough to be intimidated like everybody I mentioned it to — and apparently like the person in my row who chuckled "Well, it was enteresting!" — or that to avoid the appearance of philistinism, I would overrate the opera.

(To pre-empt the "TL;DR" response, I'll summarize by saying it was a wonderful experience. If you're in New York and able to catch the last shows at the Met this weekend, or elsewhere and able to catch the cinematic encore on March 2, I hope you will consider it. For a more elaborate form of that exhortation, read on.)

The latter two concerns turned out to be unfounded: I managed to clear anxiety from my head and thoroughly enjoy the show. Music, libretto and staging were all both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I don't have much substantial to add to this review, except perhaps that the flimsy story is not such a fault as the reviewer seems to think. However, I formed so many impressions about the piece that I had to try to articulate some of them here.

The classical Orientalist tonal vocabulary (think "Kung Fu Fighting") was conspicuously and thankfully absent from the score, but the handling of race still raised some questions. All but three of the characters (the Nixons and Henry Kissinger) are Chinese, yet scarcely ten percent of the faces on stage, and only one of the leads, were Asian. In interviews, the creative staff struck me as sensitive so I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this issue: maybe for economic or contractual reasons, it was out of their hands. Whatever the reason for the problem, I felt the crew faced it respectfully and directly — though perhaps as a middle-class white male my judgment is suspect — but it is still deeply sad that a story about China should be told with so few Chinese voices involved.

The cinematic presentation mostly met my expectation that I wouldn't notice it. Of the emcee, I'll only share this telling anecdote: at the end of an intermission interview with Mr. Adams (who conducted), he turned to the camera so abruptly that for a full minute neither he nor his crew noticed Mr. Adams trying to hand off his microphone. More seriously, the camerawork overtly aimed not to bore, and at times this approached distracting and condescending excess. During one scene change, for example, the camera switched from facing the lowered curtain to looking behind it, showing stagehands setting the scene and dancers practicing their steps, effectively forcing the audience from narrative into meta-narrative. In retrospect, I'll admit my annoyance with the form reflected my desire to be at the Met rather than watching a facsimile, and as such may not have been totally fair: the broadcast setting for an opera is obviously in its infancy, and these apparent missteps may simply be well-advised departures from tradition, even to become unremarkable custom with time. (This defense of 3D movies, for instance, boils down to "I got used to it.") Nevertheless, I felt the producers needlessly assumed the worst of our patience: if it continues, that assumption may become self-fulfilling truth.

NiC begins with an intriguing chorus and a breathtaking set piece. The lyrics are unmistakably Communist propaganda, but their substance seems uncontroversial: the singers exhort us against exploitation, to "pay a fair price for what you buy", to "respect women, for it is their due", and above all to venerate workers. It's hard to miss that these lyrics are being sung by only half of the 40 or so singers, namely the half wearing uniforms. The rest, presumably "venerable" workers, are seen rather than heard. In fact, toward the end of the number, they leave formation, walk to the back and face away from the audience: the choreography suggests that under communism, the proletariat are symbols (but still workhorses, as we see in the second act), as powerless as in any society.

As the chorus ends, the egalitarian pretense crumbles: the commoners disappear and the various officials and dignitaries form ranks, while the tall and commanding Chou En-lai (Robert Braun) stands on his own to greet an arriving airplane. The music, previously a rousing anthem, builds to a deafening and terrifying fanfare as Air Force One descends: when Richard Nixon (James Maddelena) steps out, the music is totally overpowering, making for a headbanging moment that rivals anything in Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi (a score to which this one owes a lot).

This immense drama continues well into Nixon's diplomatic pleasantries, segueing into an aria/soliloquy where he sings of his paralyzing awareness of scrutiny from the world and from posterity. As he sings, a line of dignitaries files past, and what little reaction Nixon shows us as he goes through the motions with them is surprise and even horror; we get the sense that he is not an agent in his own actions, and perhaps even his presence in China results from forces beyond his control. Here the fatalistic theme of the opera is first made plain: we are parties to events rather than agents of them. It's hard to imagine a stronger fatalist statement than one with Richard Nixon as the subject.

The second act begins with Pat Nixon's (Janis Kelly) tour of Chinese culture and industry. She meets factory workers who joyfully present her a gift, and tours the countryside; even if the people she meets seem genuinely honored by the moment, there is no small amount of showmanship as officials whisk her from one occasion to the next, even announcing obedient students with the words "Here are some children having fun!" The artifice is barely disguised, but Ms. Nixon appears oblivious: reacting to the egalitarian idyll being sold so aggressively, she recalls her own idyllic Americana cliches in an aria that seems to depict her drifting into a reverie: e.g. "Let passersby glance into the window as the quiet family dines". As she returns to the real world, she tries to discuss this with some workers nearby: they respond with haunting hints of a darker reality, images of cruel suffering and men digging their own graves, before retreating with a brief "we've said too much," a deeply troubling statement to which Pat cannot possibly respond.

After the distracting backstage glimpse mentioned earlier, we move to a dance/theatrical production, an "opera-within-the-opera" (OWTO) as one cast member called it. It is based on an actual production that was performed for Nixon, but here it is portrayed with a surrealism that I found genuinely confusing. As the inner production progressed, its fourth wall blurred and eventually disappeared: first Kissinger, then Pat Nixon and Chou En-lai also join in the increasingly chaotic action, and at its climax Chairman Mao's wife, Chian Ch'ing (Kathleen Kim), rises to command the storm. I recall a sense of closure at this point, accepting Chian's outburst and subsequent aria as a deep point for which the entire surreal OWTO had been mere preparation. This seems inadequate in retrospect, but that I found it plausible at the time testifies to Ms. Kim's magnetic stage presence: of the whole show, only her number induced applause from my comatose theatermates.

The third and final act takes place after the conclusion of official events: all the characters are resting, and the Americans are preparing to fly home in the morning. As Pat and Richard get ready for bed, Nixon starts reminiscing about his service in World War II. As he remembers the terror of a particularly brutal bombing, emotions seem to spill out. Mr. Maddelena was extraordinary in this scene: his Nixon is no small man in any sense, and yet the decades-old memory alone causes him to scream, shake, and curl up into a ball. I shook and cried myself at the sight, reminded of many nights spent replaying my own memories, which though far less traumatic can leave me just as powerless as Nixon in this scene. Chou En-lai, Chairman Mao and his wife also dwell on the past, remembering powerful moments and second guessing their decisions (Braun's Chou beautifully delivers the line "How much of what we did was good?"). As they recall the past, the libretto seems to dwell on its fixed indelible nature, much as the opening showed Nixon transfixed and unable to act on his own as history relentlessly continued.

It would be naive to suggest my fatalistic reading is at all objective. Days after digesting the opera (and editing out some of the more egregious bullshit here), it's very clear that I've at least partly projected fatalism into the story, and I'd love to hear about something against it in the opera that I failed to notice. Nonetheless, I think fatalism is certainly at least one among a few prominent themes, and it's obviously one that spoke deeply to me.

In sum, please consider seeing Nixon in China while it's out, as it's hard to guess when you'll get another chance.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ripped from the headlines crap movie

A piece of sadly predictable news: the FBI overstated their anthrax case against a dead man. At risk of disrespecting the guy, who is a mildly credible suspect but still dead, maybe there's a crap suspense movie to be found here:

FBI lead investigator stalls investigation, pins crime on innocent man, because all the real evidence points to .... HIS SON! A heartrending choice between family and the justice he's served his whole career! The pressure tears his marriage apart! One (beautiful!) crusading journalist is getting close to the truth, and now he has to make his most serious decision yet! Will he come clean and give up his son, or will he add more sins and coverups to his conscience?

I see Nic Cage for the investigator, Joshua Jackson for the (former environmentalist, current coward) son, maybe Tom Wilkinson for the patsy, with the journalist played by Elizabeth Banks or that girl from Zoolander. (Incidentally, if there is any doubt that this is crap, the hostile journalist will also be a love interest.) Who for the wife, maybe Cameron Diaz?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

By way of introduction

Welcome to my little blog! I haven't kept one in a while, nor a relatively serious one ever, so apologies if it comes off as rough around the edges. The impulse is more or less this: I have a bunch of free time and a nagging desire to improve my writing, two birds that suggest the single stone-throw of writing on a semi-regular basis.

About me: I am a recent bachelor of math from the public university in my hometown New York, and currently working as a programmer for a genetics lab in Lawrence, Kansas. (If you are curious: my math interests include algebra and topology, in which I have the most formal-to-quasi-formal training, as well as geometry, combinatorics, number theory, and logic.) I also half consider myself a musician, which includes some barely competent playing on various instruments, some half-capable singing, and some dabbling in composition.

About the blog: The name Riemann Summary is a bad pun on Riemann sums.* I hope to write once or twice a week. Subjects might include math that I'm doing, music theory that's on my mind, perhaps a bit of both at once, programming tidbits, or whatever show/song/movie is on my radar. I hope to avoid trendy or newsy topics, since there's typically so much talk already that I won't add anything useful. In that and other respects, I'll take "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should be silent" as a guiding principle.

There should be a first non-housekeeping post up in a few hours. Hope to see you there!

* There's no connection between Riemann sums and this blog. Not that I couldn't fabricate one! Informally---very informally---Riemann sums can be described as the combining of many tiny, almost-zero things to form a large non-zero object, just as I could characterize my (hypothetical so far) posts here as tiny things that may, together, form a larger picture or idea. Predictably, this elaborate nonsense masks a deeply boring truth: in searching for a title, I tried puns, and Riemann Summary was the first non-awful one I could think of. You won't hear the ones I discarded.