Tag Archives: Notes from Terra

War of the Wing-Men

war of the wingmen

Recently, a reader wrote to ask about the image used as a header for this blog.

It is a scanned and photoshopped cover from a 1958 ACE pulp science fiction paperback.  The paperback includes two short novels by Poul Anderson.  The side above shows an illustration for War of the Wing-Men.  The verso has an inverted illustration for Anderson’s The Snows of Ganymede.  The text of the two novels meet somewhere in the middle of the book and then flip upside-down (or right-side up, depending on whether you are reading from front-to-back or back-to-front).

Here is a short summary of the plot from the insert to War of the Wing-Men:

Only three humans survived the wreck of that space-ship on the little known planet of Diomedes.  One was the beautiful ruler of a distant colonial world; another was the fat, slovenly owner of a great Solar trading company; the third was a handsome, blue-eyed engineer.

The survivors had food for only six weeks, for the native food was one hundred percent poisonous to people.  So in that limited amount of time they had to gain the trust of the winged barbarians who held them prisoners, end the terrible war that these Diomedians were engaged in, and persuade the wing-men to carry the three across the thousands of miles of unmapped territory to the single Earth spaceport.

Their desperate efforts to beat that fatal deadline makes WAR OF THE WING-MEN one of Poul Anderson’s most exciting novels.

My wife inherited this pulp novel – along with a hundred more like it – when Walter G. Steblez, her father, passed away a few years ago.  Walter had collected sci-fi, mystery and horror pulp novels from his childhood and later became a collector as an adult.  His tastes were eclectic, and ranged from books of poetry in Latin (he was a classics major in college) to the complete series of The Saint novels by Leslie Charteris (though he was also a keen advocate of the mystery writings of S. S. Van Dine).  Walter’s book collection also included the books belonging to Nikolai Elenev, a distant relative and Russia scholar who was part of the Russian émigré community in Prague during the 20’s and belonged to a circle of friends which included Marina Tsvetaeva and Sergei Efron.  We also have correspondences between Nikolai and Walter, though the majority of Nikolai Elenev’s correspondences are archived at Amherst College.

Walter George Steblez was born in Germany in 1945 on the road between an Auschwitz labor camp for Osterlanders and Hanau, where his family was able to make contact with Allied Forces and eventually arranged passage to America – having escaped both Stalin and Hitler.  His family was originally from Mariupol, a city on the Azov Sea, but left for Germany during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in the hopes of a better life.  This may seem strange, but it should be remembered that they had lived through the revolution, the famine in the Ukraine, and had watched Avraam, Walter’s grandfather, be dragged away to the Gulag with no expectation of ever seeing him again. 

Walter grew up a bilingual speaker of Russian and English and was fluent in French.  He later picked up classical Greek and Latin in college.  He worked for the State Department in the 70’s and was well known for hosting soirees in Washington, D.C.  He later moved to the US Geological Survey and ultimately to the U.S. Bureau of Mines where he was an expert in Central and Eastern European minerals.  A Bing search will bring up his publications for the USGS.

Richard Levine, one of Walter’s longest friends, wrote this about the childhood collector of War of the Wing-Men:

I knew Walt Steblez as a best friend and colleague with whom I spent either the entire day at work or talked with after working hours almost every day for 30 years.  I could go on and on with stories about Walt’s humor, philosophical insights, and varied interests, but the one overriding thing which informed everything he did was his sense of righteousness and the courage he displayed in acting according to his beliefs. If a person was ever being treated unjustly and needed a defender to stand up for them despite any personal consequences there was no better person than Walter Steblez.

I should also add that Walt was the Union Steward where we worked so he did this not only for his friends but for everybody in need that he was in a position to help and he would even go against his politics if he felt it was necessary to help people. For example, although Walt often sided with Republicans in their fiscal views, he voted for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan in 1984 because he told me he thought that Reagan’s policies were adversely affecting the homeless and disabled.

On a personal level I think that one of the ways that he helped exemplifies how he lived his life and what he did for others.

We were in a work situation where we had an unstable supervisor whose many problems I won’t go into, but the supervisor had decided that he could advance himself further if he could get rid of me and promote Walter to my position who he thought would be a loyal minion. He proposed this plot to Walter, even lamenting that because I did a good job it would be more difficult.

This would have meant for Walter a promotion and a chance to do a job which may have given him more personal satisfaction and fully employed his unique bilingual abilities in Russian and English.  Rather than being tempted, Walter found the person despicable, and without any authorization physically moved his office so that he would not have to look at this person.

Nevertheless, the supervisor thought that Walter would still be in on the scheme and began to carry it out. He laid the groundwork by giving me a lousy performance rating although I had the best year of my career and by giving Walter a superlative performance rating. I of course was infuriated and launched a grievance about receiving too low an evaluation. 

Walter, who knew his game, also launched a grievance procedure, claiming that he gave him too high an evaluation by listing false accomplishments. Walter just as doggedly pursued his grievance for too high an evaluation as I did for too low of one.  Not only that, but Walter went with me personally to the head of our agency to describe what was going on with the supervisor. 

So the result was I kept my job, the supervisor, who had harmed many others, was moved, and Walter stayed doing what he was doing and only much later was he promoted. 

Until Walter’s last day he maintained this blazing sense of justice and would have pursued any just cause as vehemently at whatever cost to himself. If all people, were like Walter, then the Biblical prophesy would come true of let justice roll down like waters. I am not only personally appreciative to Walt for saving my career, but live in awe of his example which I forever hold before me as a standard to which I must always try to live up to. 

Look at me, look at me

cat

… I’m the cat in the hat.

While on vacation in Los Angeles, I received an exciting email from Microsoft informing me that I have been given the 2010 MVP award in Client App Dev.

This is an immense honor and a remarkable vote of confidence from Microsoft which I hope to live up to in the coming year.  Hats off to the members of the Atlanta developer community, my local DE Glen Gordon, friends I have met at conferences and Magenic employees past and present who have challenged and encouraged me to always work towards being a better developer.  Of course, great thanks to my wife for her indulgence and patience those many times I have stayed up all night working through the latest MSDN tutorial, polishing a technology presentation or answering Microsoft forum questions.  I couldn’t have done it without you.

Perversion and the Four Day Weekend

metropolis

For me, a four day weekend around Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to catch up on work.  On reflection, however, it makes me think that a third section could rewardingly be added to Rousseau’s Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité about our further fall from the mythical natural state and the gentle yokes we place upon ourselves for the sake of both society and financial independence.  Trying to find time to further steal time from my family is clearly a perversion of some sort and I don’t know why it isn’t a pretext for revoking spiritual communion in religious faiths which still take the spiritual realm with a degree of seriousness.

Perhaps it was Hegel (but perhaps it was someone else — Kierkegaard?) who wrote that the churchmen of today walk around as if God is dead.  No longer in an academic milieu, I’ve lost the habit of striving for accuracy in the archeology of knowledge.  All I know is that someone said it (or perhaps not).  The as if is important. While I was a grad student in philosophy (and before I became a grad school drop out) we often spoke about as if metaphysics, which I took to mean the things we were required to believe in order to have confidence in order and purpose in the physical world.  In truth, however, order and purpose are illusions.  The prevailing philosophy of mind of that time – and currently, as far as I can tell, outside of the brilliant work being done by David Chalmers – holds that consciousness itself is merely an illusion.  That movement in philosophy went back in a revisionist archaeology of knowledge to show that even Descartes never took his arguments for the existence and necessity of God seriously, and so – if one follows this alternative argument read between the lines of the Meditations – neither is the problem of other minds ever resolved nor the ego sum affirmed.

We robots who think we are something more, nevertheless, abide.  I’ll throw in a tentative speculation into the archaeology of knowledge here and remind the reader that robot is a Russian derivative meaning “worker”.

Somewhere in the sediments of unconsciousness that make up our neural pathways we all recognize this Archimedean fixed truth of meaninglessness – we feel it in our bones and experience it in our daily lives.  The secret to success is determined by how we pivot on this truth.

When I was occasionally allowed to teach ethics (so far had academia fallen that we no longer even attempted to teach virtue) I felt a small degree of triumph if I could at least get students to the point of defining ethical behavior as the effort to think about the moral implications of what they were doing before they did something wrong.  It meant they had found the pivot.

So how does one pivot around God – Whom we secretly and sometimes openly suspect to be deceased?  Lucretius the first century B.C. Epicurean posited that the world was made up of chance and freely bouncing atoms – is our modern zeitgeist so different? In a world without order – and consequently without rewards for the good or punishment for the wicked (take the CEOs of our financial institutions as examples if you must have one) – hard work, the cornerstone of Lutheran and Calvinist theology – seems rather pointless.  The common lament of the underachiever is that the bullshitter succeeds while the grunt goes another year without a raise or a promotion.

And so that theology must change.  The theology of election – the notion that there are a set number of souls who will go to heaven – morphed in the 19th century into a doctrine that the elect would be known by their worldly success, for they were blessed by God.  But in a world of pure chance, how does an as if theology make sense of this?

The Atlantic Monthly’s most recent issue posits that mega-churches created the recent economic collapse we are currently all living through.  The argument is that “theology of prosperity” encouraged parishioners to over-extend their credit, to buy homes and cars they couldn’t afford while banks were more than glad to help them do so, because such acts of blind faith in future prosperity constituted faith in God’s goodness.  To act foolishly, and bet one’s future on chance, is as close as we can come to true faith.

I find no immediate reason to excoriate the pastors.  In a world in which we act as if God and rational order are dead and chance rules all, this is sound advice.  Furthermore, for those whom chance blesses, it actually brings souls closer to the absolute.  The recipients of this theologically and fiscally dubious advice were typically the poor, the roboti, looking for ways to improve their stations.  Their pastors used this natural desire to bring them closer to the divine.  As a viewer of reality shows and Lifetime bio-pics as well as a proponent of lottery money as a great source of revenue for education, I have no reason to doubt that this is the future toward which we are all headed.  Why work toward success when all we have to do is wait for it.

Being a software programmer, I have very little sense of history.  I have to look at my resume to discover how long I have worked with a particular language, and I have very little idea where these languages came from.  As an industry, programming always looks to future successes and rarely back at past mistakes.

My spouse, on the other hand, has a rich history she maintains a retells, developing a beautiful tapestry of traditions she freely shares with anyone who enters our lives.  She recently gave several talks at my daughter’s elementary school about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath using her own family narrative as a way to make sense of it.  One great-grandmother was a peasant while the other was an aristocrat.  By chance – and some peculiar contrivance – they knew each other in a private girls school where the poor relative envied the wealthy one for her oranges, which were eaten every day in the gardens of the academy.  Then comes a series of confusing events tied together through rare documents and pictures.  The children of the two schoolmates marry — there are photos.  The revolution comes.  The poor great-grandmother’s husband is taken away to the gulag – evidenced by a single NKVD document signifying his eventual release after three years servitude.  Letters and a death certificate mark the passage of the relatives who join the White Army as they fight — and flee — the Red Army across the broken Russian Empire, eventually surrounded and killed.  The Germans invade the area of Ukraine where the family estates are.  The family leaves Ukraine on the promise of work in Germany, only to end up at a labor camp in Auschwitz for Osterlanders.  They escape when the Red Army liberates the camps and executes the Russians they happen to find there.  They end up at a displaced persons camp (their papers now declare them as apatrie) and eventually make their way to New York, then Washington D.C., where a grandmother works for years at the Voice of America’s Russian Bureau but does not live long enough – none of these émigrés do – to see the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Within the fabric of this narrative there are many more stories, of course, few of which can be verified but all of which are colorful.  There are even more stories lost forever because they were so traumatic no one would speak of them.

The story I want to bring to the fore is of how Baba Neela, the peasant great-grandmother, taught the émigrés the traditions of old Russia which they had either forgotten or never had a chance to learn – how to pray in an Orthodox church, how to pray at home, how to throw a party, how to make traditional meals, how to drink one’s tea, how to enjoy life with one’s family and friends.  Also the lessons embedded in these traditions –that personal rewards only come in the afterlife, while material rewards, in a world dominated by chance, are found in the success and happiness of one’s children.

The problem with long weekends is that it gives one too much time to think.  The aftermath of 9/11 was like a condensed long weekend.  Productivity across the country went down as people realized that there were things more important than work or money.  The roads on Sunday were clogged with people returning to church, realizing that it is the fixed point of consolation in an uncertain world.

We quickly overcame that moment of excited introspection, however.  We returned to more standard patterns of as if theology and as if expectations.

Despite that, my own nagging as if expectations from another time are returning over this holiday.  For the past few months I had been trying to figure out how to get my children into soccer leagues and karate classes, since that is what is expected.  But now I’m stuck on another notion which I imagine to be the traditional education of a well-raised child of the last century.  I want each of my three children to learn a language.  I want them each to learn to play a musical instrument.  And I want them each to be well-versed in poetry and classical literature. 

With languages, they will be able to travel from country to country if required by troubled times.  With music, they will always be welcome at a party.  With literature, they will know how to enjoy their lives.  The public schools, I expect, will get them up to speed on science and mathematics.  And so the XBOX has just been turned off while the TV has been silenced.  I have work to do – promised and as yet undelivered –  but I am picking up a book instead – one by Tim Powers in an attempt to reinvent the lives of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley according to his own peculiar vision of the hidden world.

Is there a doctor on the plane?

tdc 003

I have just returned from a private conference in northwest Arkansas hosted by Tyson Foods.  The flight to Arkansas was quite eventful – but more about that later.  It was an extremely successful event on the scale of a district level Code Camp.   There were eight tracks with about 50 presentations throughout the day.  Presenters came in from all over – Georgia, Texas, Ohio, Minnesota are the states I remember – and the presentations were uniformly excellent.  There was also a large Microsoft presence at the event – much larger than we get at the usual Code Camp – which simply added to the fun.  There were approximately 250 attendees – all Tyson employees – and almost every session was recorded, so anyone who missed the event can play them back later.

Special congratulations should be given to Devlin Lyles of Tyson for his central role in organizing this conference and promoting it internally.  He was able to make the business case for the conference to his internal management, arguing that bringing a conference in-house would ensure that everyone at Tyson corporate could participate and, furthermore, exposure to sophisticated conversations about technology will raise the level of software development within the corporation.  I wish more companies were this insightful about, first, the need to raise everyone’s game and, second, that there are easy, non-coercive ways to do this.   Congratulations also to Jay Smith, Jeremy Sharp, Rob Tennyson and all the others who put in long hours to make this conference successful.

I was also happy to have the opportunity to get to know some of the other speakers, in particular Jim Holmes, Phil Japikse, Cory Smith, Tim Rayburn, Robert Boedigheimer, Chris Patterson, Seyed Hashimi, Betty Leudke and Tom Sanchez.

I gave three talks at the TDC: Architecting WPF for Versatility, Intro to WPF, and Advanced C#.  The last talk was mostly code, so I have only attached the slide decks for the first two.

As I said, the flight to the conference was eventful.  I met up with Phil Japikse and Jim Holmes at the airport, recognizing Phil from his MVP profile picture (there aren’t that many MS MVPs with shaved heads and handlebar moustaches).  Our flight kept getting delayed and moved from gate to gate, and we kept emailing Devlin to let him know that we were not confident we would make the speaker dinner.

tdc Phil and Jim

We finally embarked onto one of the smallest commercial planes I have ever had the pleasure of flying in.  There was one stewardess and one pilot and before we knew it we were off.  About half-way between Atlanta and Northwest Arkansas our stewardess came to the front of the plane and asked – I never thought I would ever hear these words — “Is there a doctor on the plane?”  It was cliché but effective in getting everyone’s attention.

As if going down a well-rehearsed list, she then asked if there was a nurse on the plane.  Finally, she asked if there was an EMT on the plane and Phil raised his hand.  Two seats behind me, a passenger was having some chest pain.  Over the course of the flight, this passenger proceeded to pass out twice and projectile vomit once.  That familiar smell was with us over most of Arkansas.  Phil had a commanding presence and immediately recruited Jim to be his assistant.  Jim, in turn, helped to calm the other passengers and simply did a great job keeping his head through the emergency (at the conference he presented a session on Leadership which I am glad to hear was very well attended).  As Phil became aware of the seriousness of the troubled passenger’s condition, he told the stewardess to tell the pilot to land the plane immediately and have an ambulance meet us.  We were close enough to our destination that we simply sped up and quickly dropped our altitude (it took hours for my ears to finally adjust after that) and I don’t think I’ve ever landed and been taxied to the airport gate so quickly.

I already knew that Jim and Phil were impressive software people who can quickly debug and deploy applications during software emergencies.  I was quite pleased and impressed to find out that their skills translate so well to emergency situations in the real world.  They were both heroic and I am quite certain that their actions saved a life that day.

Cod Chowder

moby-dick

Early in Melville’s Moby Dick, Peter Coffin, proprietor of the Spouter Inn, recommends the Try Pots, an inn known for its chowders and run by Peter Coffin’s cousin Hosea Hussey, as a good place for a meal.

Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. The area before the house was paved with clam-shells. Mrs. Hussey wore a polished necklace of codfish vertebra; and Hosea Hussey had his account books bound in superior old shark-skin. There was a fishy flavor to the milk, too, which I could not at all account for, till one morning happening to take a stroll along the beach among some fishermen’s boats, I saw Hosea’s brindled cow feeding on fish remnants, and marching along the sand with each foot in a cod’s decapitated head, looking very slip-shod, I assure ye.

The description of the cod chowder at the Try Pots has always captivated me.  I’m a fan of canned clam chowder and have occasionally had the pleasure of a bowl of clam chowder at Legal Sea Foods next to the Georgia Aquarium – but cod chowder has never made its way to my table.

"Come on, Queequeg," said I, "all right. There’s Mrs. Hussey."

And so it turned out; Mr. Hosea Hussey being from home, but leaving Mrs. Hussey entirely competent to attend to all his affairs. Upon making known our desires for a supper and a bed, Mrs. Hussey, postponing further scolding for the present, ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said—"Clam or Cod?"

"What’s that about Cods, ma’am?" said I, with much politeness.

"Clam or Cod?" she repeated.

"A clam for supper? a cold clam; is THAT what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?" says I, "but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?"

But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple Shirt, who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word "clam," Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out "clam for two," disappeared.

"Queequeg," said I, "do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?"

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey’s clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word "cod" with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.

We resumed business; and while plying our spoons in the bowl, thinks I to myself, I wonder now if this here has any effect on the head? What’s that stultifying saying about chowder-headed people? "But look, Queequeg, ain’t that a live eel in your bowl? Where’s your harpoon?"

We have a crock pot in our kitchen – a repackaged gift from Christmases past – and I decided to put it to good use this past weekend.  The recipe itself was quite simple:

    • 1 cup finely chopped onion
    • 1 stick butter
    • 4 cups diced potato
    • 1 can creamed corn
    • 1 1/2 lb Cod
    • 1 1/2 cup water
    • 1 pint half-and-half
    • salt, pepper and thyme to taste
    • 1 bay leaf

Cook the onion in the butter until it is transparent.  Throw chopped onion and liquid butter in the crock-pot along with potatoes, creamed corn, water, cod and spices.  Cook on low for 4 1/2 to 5 hours and then add the half-and-half.  Cook for another hour.

I served it with some hushpuppies and an upside-down cake for dessert.  I have heard that crumbled bacon on top is also tasty.  The cod was a bit pricey at around $9 a pound at Kroger, and I imagine that tilapia would make a good replacement – though it wouldn’t fill my literary hunger quite so well.

 

Do computers think?

sheep

The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has just published David Cole’s update to the entry on The Chinese Room Argument.

The thought problem was posed by John Searle almost 30 years ago and has been a lightening rod for discussions about theories of consciousness and AI ever since.

For those unfamiliar with it, the argument is not against the notion that machines in general can think – Searle believes that minds are built on biological machines, after all – but rather against certain projects in AI that attempt to use computational theories to try to explain consciousness.  Searle’s argument is that computational models are a dead end and that thinking machines must be investigated in a different (apparently “biological”) way.

Of course, if biology can be reduced to the computational model (for instance) then Searle’s argument may be applicable to all machines and we will have to search for consciousness elsewhere.

Here’s the crux of the argument, from the SEP entry:

“The heart of the argument is an imagined human simulation of a computer, similar to Turing’s Paper Machine. The human in the Chinese Room follows English instructions for manipulating Chinese symbols, where a computer “follows” a program written in a computing language. The human produces the appearance of understanding Chinese by following the symbol manipulating instructions, but does not thereby come to understand Chinese. Since a computer just does what the human does—manipulate symbols on the basis of their syntax alone—no computer, merely by following a program, comes to genuinely understand Chinese.”

If this sort of problem excites you, as it does me, then you may want to examine some of the articles about and around consciousness collected on David Chalmers’ website: http://consc.net/online .

Cicero or Kikero?

I’m often curious about how people pronounce their names.

There is a scene from the 1939 version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips in which Robert Donat accedes to the growing trend to pronounce Latin according to scientific rather than poetic principles – Kikero, with a hard ‘c’ rather than a soft one.

The controversy over the conventional pronunciation of Latin is captured in this 1916 article from the New York Times in which a defender of the Italianized pronunciation frames it in terms of Germanic (for it was German philologists who researched and then championed the original pronunciation of Latin) scholarship versus (wer-sus) the pronunciation of the Roman Curia. 

“The Germans, representative of the real and uneffete Romans, have a passion for uniformity and discipline.  Why should two sounds of c be uttered in concillium?  The Latin consonants must march goosestep.  What has made France, England, Italy, decadent and degenerate?  Soften the sound of your c’s and g’s, and you soften the character of the people so abasing them.”

Sometimes, of course, people really don’t care how their names are pronounced.  In exceptional instances, however, there is always a chance that one risks giving offense – Fran-ken-STEEN, as Gene Wilder insisted, not Fran-ken-STAHYN.

As an opportunity to have dinner with Tim Heuer of the Microsoft Silverlight Team approached this week, the correct pronunciation of his name became a small source of anxiety.

When a colleague asked me about it, I suggested that it was pronounced like howitzer without the itz.

Immediately afterwards, I became concerned that it actually was pronounced in the German fashion, HOY-er.

It turned out that both are incorrect.  After consulting with a Microsoft Evangelist, Glen GOHR-dun,  I discovered that Tim’s name is pronounced HYEW-er.

Shawn Wildermuth called me out over the weekend for pronouncing Rocky Lhotka’s name with a long O rather than a short one.  Again the anxiety of pronunciation struck.  Rocky’s last name is actually pronounced LAHT-ka, like the character from Taxi.

Shawn’s last name, in turn, is pronounced with a short rather than a long U – as in MOTHER and not like VERMOUTH.  His first name is not Irish, but instead is derived from the Shawnee Indian nation – such strange things we discuss in the backrooms of conferences.

Since some Wintellect consultants were also with me lounging in the speaker’s room during the Silverlight Firestarter, I inquired into the pronunciation of Jeff Prosise’s name.  The I in his last name turns out to be long, while the stress is on the penultimate syllable: PROH-sahys, like precise but more emphatic.

The Hazards of Love in Atlanta

On Wednesday, June 3rd, The Decemberists performed at the Tabernacle in Atlanta.  It’s taken me about the intervening two weeks to fully digest it all.

My friend and colleague, Tim Price-Williams, is a big fan of the Tabernacle and drew out a diagram for me and my wife on where to sit and how to get those seats.  First, we needed to arrive two hours before the doors opened at 7.  Then we were to sit outside the left (not the right, or the far right VIP entrance) doors.  As the doors opened, we needed to proceed to the left and up the stairs to the first balcony.  Tim drew a map of the second balcony and then pointed out the four seats he deemed acceptable, just to the left and the right of center stage and flushed against the forward railing.  Wait an hour for the opening band.  Then wait another hour for the main show.

We messed up Tim’s well laid plans from the get go when I forgot to pick up the baby sitter on the way home from work.  After that we were stuck in remarkably heavy traffic and didn’t find parking until about 6 o’clock.  As we waited in line I made a quick trip across the street to pick up a chicken sandwich at Ted’s Montana Grill for dinner.  I’ve been habituated to fast-food chicken sandwiches for years and was pleasantly surprised to find that the basic recipe can indeed be improved upon.  The line started moving at 6:45 so Tamara and I had to eat quickly.

This is where Tim’s advice came in very handy.  He recommended that we each have our tickets in our hands to be scanned – if one of us fell along the way the other could continue on to the prized seats on the balcony.  Everyone else apparently wanted to stand in front of the stage, so we had no problem getting to the second balcony (we didn’t even realize that there was a first balcony above us) and managed to get two seats a row back from the ones we had coveted. 

The opening band was Blind Pilot (we joked that they were composed of the injured members of Stone Temple Pilots) but it turned out that they are another band from the pacific northwest with an eclectic instrumentation and a folksy/rock feel.  They were really good.  But we were there to hear The Hazards of Love.

The Hazards of Love is a concept album by The Decemberists.  Based on an apparently original Welsh mythology cycle, it was written by lead singer Colin Meloy while in Paris.  It’s received some mixed reviews while the standout songs have been The Rake’s Song and The Wanting Comes in Waves.  Part of the difficulty follows from trying to understand what the songs are about, which is particularly difficult for me since I generally don’t hear lyrics.  Tamara has made some progress in untangling the characters and the events of the songs, however, and during the break between Blind Pilots and The Decemberists she explained quite a bit of it to me.

The Tabernacle, by the way, is a renovated classic movie theater that looks much better with the lights out than with them on.  It is an amazing venue.  The backdrop for the show – gigantic gauze sheets hanging from the ceiling – along with impressive lighting made it even more so.

We didn’t know exactly what to expect since concept albums are typically something done in a studio.  We thought that this would be a modified presentation of some highlights from the album.  Instead it was a full performance of Hazards of Love straight through and faultless.

As the performance progressed, I came to realize that I had fundamentally misunderstood the relationship between the album and the concert.  Normally a concert tour is meant to reproduce an album for fans.  In this case, I slowly realized, the album is just a memento of the concert itself.  I don’t go to that many rock concerts, so it doesn’t mean much when I say it was the best one I’ve seen.  It was, nevertheless, an event that has left a deep impression on me and still stays with me after these weeks.

The core members of The Decemberists were dressed in formal suits for the performance of Hazards.  Shara Worden and Becky Stark, who sing on the album as the Forest Queen and the heroine Margaret, respectively, were dressed in renaissance fair costumes appropriate to the theme.  Shara Worden has the attitude of Joan Jett and the voice of Grace Slick.  Becky Stark was simply ethereal waving her arms about like Elfine Starkadder the whole time.

Again, I have trouble what actually happened during the performance of Hazards itself.  There are large portions of it I can’t even quite remember, and all I have is the strong impression that something amazing occurred.

I do remember that after The Decemberists, Ms. Worden and Ms. Stark finished with Hazards of Love, and after a half-hour intermission, The Decemberists came back out and performed some songs from their previous four albums.  Then Shara Warden and Becky Stark closed the show with a cover of Heart’s “Crazy On You” which I still can’t get out of my head.  For an encore, Colin Meloy constructed a story about the building of the trans-American railway with audience participation while the rest of The Decemberist led a conga-line through the hall.  I also vaguely recall singing Sixteen Military Wives as a round with the floor, the first balcony and the second balcony performing the parts.  The second balcony was clearly the best.

On the drive home I fell into a melancholic mood; I had the sense that some part of me had been sleeping for a long time and that after waking it up I had left it behind at the Tabernacle.  I now find myself replaying The Hazards of Love again and again on my iPod trying to recapture how that lovely night felt.

On Culture

My wife and I performed a small experiment this weekend when we took our three children to the symphony.  According to Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s book, Freakonomics, children who are taken to concerts and art museums are not statistically advantaged by this activity.  However, in an interesting twist on the theological debate between justification by faith and justification by works, the authors claim that children who are parented by the sort of people who take their progeny to cultural events and fill their homes with books are indeed statistically advantaged.  Taking this to mean that good intentions are at least of equal value to good works (and what more can you ask of the parents of three children), we exercised our good intentions at the ASO’s performance with Jennifer Koh.

Sasha, the oldest (10), found the whole performance to be a waste of time.  Paul (8) and Sophia (6) were quite taken with Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde.  They found Jennifer Higdon’s The Singing Rooms to be considerably more challenging, however, as did their father. 

Ms. Koh’s performance was magnificent, of course, but the center of attraction for us was the Stradivarius on which she played.  I’ve never heard one live before.  Paul kept asking why it was so special and all I could think to say was that the ex-General Dupont is almost three hundred years old.  This duly impressed my son.  What speaks more on culture’s behalf, after all, than it’s gray-haired hoariness.

Perhaps it is an indication of my low-tastes, but as I watched this performance I kept thinking about how much I enjoyed the last performance I had seen at Atlanta Symphony Hall, Cirque de la Symphonie.  The music at that concert tended towards the romantic, from Saint-Saëns to Ravel.  While the orchestra performed on their instruments, the acrobats plied their art on their bodies by defying gravity in the air as well as defying basic physiology through acts of contortion.  Two acts stood out especially. 

Jaroslaw Marciniak and Dariusz Wronski entered the stage bald, in loin-cloths, and painted gold from head to toe.  They proceeded to lift, pin and balance off of each other in what I took to be an extended demonstration of Euclid’s 47th proposition, with each brief suspension being a prelude to the final revelation. 

Even more impressive was Elena Tsarkova’s contortion and balancing act.  All of it was remarkable, but at one point she stood on her head with her legs extended upward.  She then spread her legs out to be almost perfectly perpendicular to the rest of her body.  At this point something uncanny happened, but so quickly that I had to ask my wife if she had just seen something.  We couldn’t quite put words to what we had witnessed, and the best I could come up with was “ululation”.  There was an ululation in her legs which looked like the small wave some people can make with their shoulders.  It was breathtaking.

Following the Higdon performance came the intermission.  We took advantage of this natural break to sneak out and hunt for a decent milkshake in Atlanta.  The kids had earned it.  They behaved extremely well at the symphony.