Monday, October 31, 2005

Teela Brown does not exist

Looking at "luck"
I am not prepared to enter into the concept of luck, as it is vulgarly called: philosophically it is indefensible; in daily experience we see it to exist.
Recently I took my graduate faculty advisor and his wife to dinner. This is not a bad thing to do once the dissertation is filed and the degree awarded . His wife arrived at the restaurant alone, explaining that her husband was trying to find a parking place. In a few minutes, his quest rewarded with success, the professor showed up and we took our seats. The first small-talk topic concerned one of my advisor's friends, who apparently has an uncanny knack for tracking down open parking spaces where less talented people would fail.

What is it about people who are "lucky"? I hold that the fundamental idea is meaningless. There is no such thing. To be sure, there are times when circumstances work out randomly in one's favor. Even if there is no such thing as luck per se, there will nevertheless be some who will have a greater number of happy outcomes than some others. It may be that a form of luck accrues to those who are better prepared to take advantage of situations as they arise, but I regard this as the mere appearance of luck. It is actually the consequence of superior faculties, either innate or acquired. I took my opening quote from The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian, a passage in chapter six wherein Dr. Maturin explains his optimism concerning an impending venture by observing that Commodore Aubrey has amply earned his nickname of "Lucky Jack." However, Aubrey's purported luck is at least as much the result of his superior skills as it is the product of happenstance.

As for the professor's friend with the preternatural talent for finding parking spaces, could this be a talent? To a degree, I think it might be. Some folks could be more attuned to the ebb and flow of traffic, have a sharper eye for the vacant or newly opening space. Talent could certainly play a role. Another important factor might be our tendency to filter data. After all, simple random chance will fortuitously elevate some individuals above their competitors in ventures that are based on probability rather than skill. Once a person gets a reputation for being lucky in some endeavor, future good outcomes will be remembered as confirming instances of his lucky nature and bad outcomes will be disregarded as exceptions to the rule. Once the filter is in place, the individual's reputation will be robust and quite difficult to dislodge.

What about Teela Brown? She is one of Larry Niven's less successful creations in his many tales of Ringworld. Teela is born on a future overpopulated Earth where the right to bear children is subject to a lottery with very long odds. She is the product of several consecutive generations of winners in the birth lottery, so she is bred for good luck. When I read Niven's Ringworld novels, the introduction of Teela caused me to roll my eyes. We are all—each and every one of us—winners of the world's longest running birth lottery ever. If the recurrent mad sperm races have not bred shockingly good fortune into the human race, adding the artificial level of a formal birth lottery is not suddenly going to breed a race of the super lucky.

Larry Niven, by the way, was not especially lucky when he dreamed up Teela Brown. She was a difficult character to handle, especially when the author wanted to build suspense. By definition, things were going to work out for Teela. I guess she never lacked for a parking space.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Imaginary opera appreciation

Translating a nonexistent aria

"Fake opera" is not an oxymoron. There is a quite remarkable example of an ersatz opus that was made to order to fill some very special requirements. True, many operas were composed in accordance with commissions to celebrate special events (Aïda for the opening of the Suez Canal, The Ghosts of Versailles for the bicentennial festivities in the United States), but I have in mind a very special case.

The storyline of Citizen Kane includes the title character's strenuous attempts to remake his second wife, a sweet-voiced soubrette, into a dramatic soprano on the operatic stage. Thus we get to see Susan Alexander Kane depicted in multiple scenes of operatic disaster. Yes, she is performing in a tragedy, but the tragic part is her performance. Susan's small voice is drowned in a deluge of orchestral music, an outpouring of notes from an opera that never was.

The score of Citizen Kane was composed by Bernard Hermann. When it came time to interpolate the operatic scenes, Hermann considered the existing operatic repertory and did not find anything he regarded as suitable. He seized the opportunity to create his own operatic composition, a brief scene adapted from Flaubert's play Salammbô, a tragedy about a Carthaginian priestess. The play inspired two earlier efforts at composition, an unfinished opera by Moussorgsky and a complete but forgotten work by one Ernest Reyer. More recently, the Bastille opera house in Paris witnessed the 1998 debut of a version by Philippe Fénelon. At the time of the production of Citizen Kane, however, nothing suitable was at hand. John Houseman (later famous for his role as the crusty law professor in The Paper Chase) cobbled together some lyrics, borrowing from Racine's Phèdre, and the end result was exactly the sort of Franco-Oriental bombast that Orson Welles needed to depict Susan Alexander Kane's descent to the edge of suicide.

Once an aria is composed, its most natural fate is to be sung (if not forgotten, that is). While Citizen Kane was not a great success in its initial release, and although the aria from Salammbô was swamped by orchestral crescendi, still there were people who noticed it. Famed soprano Eileen Farrell is said to have been fond of including it as an encore to her recitals, no doubt enjoying the confusion as she tweaked her audiences with bravura performances of a piece that none of the opera cognoscenti recognized (and, as an encore, was not identified in the program booklet). What was that?

As a relatively obscure work with an unusual origin, the aria from Salammbô cannot be found in the usual musical reference works. Fortunately, it has been recorded multiple times, both as parts of Citizen Kane soundtrack recordings and recitals (see below), but always without text or translation. What is an aficionado to do? Well, one hardy spirit embarked on a quest to winkle out the aria's lyrics and learn at last what Salammbô is singing. Although he is not a musicolologist (as Peter Schickele would have it), Dr. Anthony Barcellos published the results of his investigation on Talking Hermann, a website devoted to the works of Bernard Hermann. Barcellos is a math professor with slender credentials for such an undertaking (like I should talk), but the diligent dilettante is not to be discouraged. With crucial help from Hermann maven Bill Wrobel, Barcellos came up with the following rendition of the aria's text:

The aria from Salammbô
(Citizen Kane)
Ah, cruel.
Tu m’as trop entendue.
Les Dieux m’en sont témoins.
Ces Dieux qui dans mon flanc
Ont allumé le feu fatal
A tout mon sang.

J’ai langui.
J’ai mouri dans les larmes.
J’ai séché.
J’ai désespéré dans les feux de tes charmes.
O quelle angoisse tes yeux
Ont donné à toute mon âme.
Ah, cruel!

Dîtes-moi comment que j’éxpie
Ce peché si fort.
Toujours remplie,
Je ne peux pas résister encore.
O Dieux, arrachez-moi!
Ce feu fatal
Allume ma mort!

Voilà mon coeur!
Voilà mon coeur!
C’est là que ta main doit frapper.
Voilà mon coeur. Frappe.
Prête-moi ton épée. Frappe!
Ah, cruel one.
You understood me too well.
The gods bear witness to me.
These gods who in my side
Kindled the flame that is fatal
To all my blood.

I languished.
I died amid tears.
I withered.
I despaired before the fires of your charms.
Oh, such anguish your eyes
Inflicted upon my entire soul.
Ah, cruel one!

Tell me how I may expiate
A sin so profound,
Always renewed;
I can resist no longer.
Oh, Gods, deliver me!
This fatal flame
Illumines my death!

Behold my heart!
Behold my heart!
Here is where your hand must strike.
Behold my heart. Strike.
Ready your sword. Strike!

There are a few interesting points concerning the aria that bear discussion. The French verb mourir is irregular, but the line "J'ai mouri" uses a regular conjugation for the passé composé. (The correct French would have been "Je suis morte," as Barcellos explains at the Talking Hermann site.) Did Houseman make a mistake, or was he invoking poetic license to make the lines scan? It would help if we knew more about Houseman's facility with French (which we don't). Alternatively, did Professor Barcellos reconstruct the lines incorrectly from the handwritten transcript? He did not see the transcript himself, but redacted Bill Wrobel's initial effort. Wrobel disavows any knowledge of French and Barcellos says he relied on one year of college French and advice from a francophone colleague.

Instead of guessing, we can do our own investigation. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has at least two recordings available of the aria. The first is the compilation of Bernard Hermann film music conducted by Charles Gerhardt in which a young Te Kanawa rendered the aria as it should sound instead of playing it for mordant humor as in the movie. (The original movie soundtrack featured Jean Forward, whose role was to sing accurately with a small-scale voice.) The second Te Kanawa recording is part of Dame Kiri's fiftieth birthday celebration, the album Kiri!. (She muffs the last line rather embarrassingly, singing "Dîtes-moi ton épée" instead of "Prête-moi ton épée," but perfection is difficult in a live performance, especially with such a broad repertoire.) I've also listend to Rosamund Illing's rendition (which used to be posted on-line but has since vanished) and Janice Watson's version. My conclusion is that everyone is singing "J'ai mouri." I leave it to you to decide if any other interpretation (preferably more grammatically correct) is possible.

Hermann later went on to compose his own full-length opera, a treament of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. However, Wuthering Heights was not a success and its performances are extremely rare. We can be quite certain that many more people have heard the aria from Salammbô, an opera that never existed, than have ever heard any music from Hermann's genuine operatic composition.

Postscript: If you go Googling for web wisdom on Bernard Hermann's opera fragment, be warned that many references are contaminated by the misspelling "Salaambo."

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Salting the creationist quote mine

[O]ne statement scientists often make but cannot justify is that the world was not created 6,000 years ago!

In the present contentious environment, the scientific community needs to cease making the indefensible claim that science shows the world was not created 6,000 years ago.

The statements come from Paul P. Craig's opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle (Creation and the limits of science: Universal questions aren't all answered). Craig holds a degree from Caltech (as a fellow alumnus, I find that highly credible, although my degree is undergraduate) and is professor emeritus of engineering at the University of California, Davis. I know what you're thinking: Ho hum, yet another engineer is out there shilling for the Discovery Institute, joining the crypto-creationist ranks of academic professionals with no training in the biological sciences. But if you thought that, you would be wrong.

Professor Craig is on the side of the angels, which I mean figuratively in the sense of "the good guys" as opposed to literally in the sense of God and his choirs. His essay is both an unambiguous dismissal of Intelligent Design as a claimant to the status of defensible scientific hypothesis and a cautionary note to his allies who are wont to stake out territory to which they are not entitled. In the first instance, Craig makes his point perfectly clear, "Intelligent design is a losing game for creationists, who will be repeatedly pushed into retreat as that which was previously unexplained is brought within the ambit of science." That is, it has no explanatory power, thus lacking the primary requirement of a respectable theory.

His second point is equally clear: As a matter of logic, we cannot say we have proved when the universe came into existence, we can only identify the time when it appears to have come into existence. Furthermore, despite the quotations with which I began this entry, the apparent time of creation is about fourteen billion years ago, not a piddling 6,000 years. Craig cites the example of Bertrand Russell, variously famous as a mathematician, logician, philosopher, freethinker, atheist, peace activist, and candidate for some Socratic hemlock:
Russell observed that it was entirely possible that the world was created 10 minutes ago and that he, Bertrand Russell, was created simultaneously, wrinkles and memory included.

We might note that Russell's "10 minutes ago" is now many decades in the past, of course, but it is still absolutely impossible to disprove Russell's playful example. The time stamp at the bottom of my computer screen currently says "11:45 AM Sunday 10/16/2005." My new hypothesis, just as good as Russell's, is that this is the actual time when a mischievous Intelligent Liar created the universe as a going concern, complete with the shelf of evolution and anti-evolution books in my library. Such a rascal.

I would like to offer an even earlier example of Russell's ten-minutes-ago hypothesis. Martin Gardner served up in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science the unhappy story of naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. Russell was aware of Gosse's Omphalos, a scholarly effort to reconcile faith in the literal truth of the Bible with the evidence of natural science. Gosse published his book in 1857 with high hopes of being recognized as the one who made it possible for faith and science to live in harmony, but it was at the price of turning science into a sterile mind game of uncovering spurious clues embedded in creation by a God who provided his handiwork with the appearance of age and history.

Gosse's starting point was the body of the instantaneously created Adam. Unless Adam was brought into existence bald, the hair on his body would be evidence of growth processes that never actually occurred, but were instead simulated by God. Adam's navel would be evidence of a gestation in a womb that never was. (Gardner points out that depictions of navels on Adam and Eve in religious paintings were controversial among some conservative Christians for this very reason. Omphalos, by the way, is the Greek word for navel.) As Gardner says, "Gosse's argument is, in fact, quite flawless." As a matter of strict logic, it cannot be disproved. Of course, it cannot be proved, either, but that's not the point. As intended, it is a perfect way to mesh Biblical literalism with scientific observation, all at the trivial cost of rendering science a sham. Logic has nothing to say about such a resolution of the problem. Common sense, however, might suggest that it's a shabby victory that renders the prize worthless. Gosse saw his hopes shattered when his fellow naturalists reacted with either indifference or scorn. Gardner cites the words of one Charles Kingsley, from whom Gosse had expected high praise. Instead, Kingsley denounced the idea that "God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie."

Professor Craig's opinion piece will undoubtedly stimulate the usual reaction from creationists of various stripes, among them the unlettered scholars adept at quoting talking points from their creationist fliers, the outraged believers who love to recite "The fool has said in his heart there is no God," and the intellectual poseurs who trot out a "fairness" doctrine in support of "teaching the controversy." We should also see a few letters from proponents of science and evolution who will (mostly) try to be polite and reasonable and will budge no one. However, the opinion section of the newspapers is not the real battleground. The real battleground is the classroom. We fight to protect science and the science classroom from incursions by advocates of non-science (which can conveniently and accurately be rendered as "nonsense"). Craig has pointed out the main reason that we must oppose the anti-science factions, which is also the main reason we are likely to succeed: "Science is a powerful way to organize observations about the material world." That power is evident to all (even to those who fear it) in the impact that science has on our culture and its technology. Science is progressive and annexes new territory from what was formerly terra incognita as new understanding is achieved. In its various guises, creationism is a dogma that explains nothing, crippled in its struggle to survive against the onslaught of science. While creationism has evolved into Intelligent Design in hopes of using mimicry to eke out an existence in an increasingly hostile intellectual environment, we need to keep up the pressure that will someday make it extinct.

Let me end my comments with a prediction. It takes no psychic powers to discern the future in this instance. Soon the quotations I featured at the top of this column will be taken out of context from Professor Craig's essay and used by creationists to insist that scientists be more humble and less combative. After all, an actual scientist has said that there are things science does not know! Yes, there is little that creationists love more than quote mining, an abuse of the written word that provides one of the principal weapons in their arguments. They are acolytes of the Liar God and emulate him in their practices.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Let slip the sharks of love

What are people afraid of?

The California legislative season has come to an end with our beloved governor's executive action on stacks of bills approved by both houses of the state legislature. One of the measures vetoed by Schwarzenegger was AB 849, a bill by Assemblyman Mark Leno to render California marriage laws gender-neutral. Since couples of the opposite sex are already permitted to marry, the effect of AB 849 would have been to authorize same-sex civil unions throughout the state. In a remarkable act of contortion, the governor said that same-sex marriage was an issue for the courts to decide, although he personally supports the idea. Let's give the Governator his due for standing the GOP platform on its head by endorsing the idea that the courts should usurp the role of the legislature.

While it's fair to argue that the majority of California voters intended to block same-sex marriage when they approved Proposition 22 in 2000, the governor uses the proposition as an excuse to avoid setting up exactly the sort of court test he claims to want. If he really supports the idea of state-recognized same-sex unions in California, the logical step would have been to sign AB 849 and let the courts thrash out the conflict between it and the voter-enacted proposition of five years ago. Instead, however, our Inaction Hero panders to the hard-right remnant of his electoral coalition by vetoing the measure and leaving the court to find the implication of equal marital rights in existing state law and the constitution.

Our cowardly governor is now taking his cue from such stalwarts of human rights as Pat Robertson, who absurdly declares "Now they want to destroy marriage" (where "they" in this instance referred specifically to lesbians). Yes, indeed. Those people working so hard to obtain the right to marry can hardly wait till marriage is destroyed.

Come to think of it, though, I believe it would be a good idea to destroy one aspect of marriage: namely, the government's involvement in it. Let's get the government out of the marriage business. Marriage is a religious notion, even to the point of being a sacrament in various Christian sects, so let's leave marriage to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, etcetera. Limit the state's involvement to civil unions. Michael Kinsley addressed this idea in some detail in his Slate opinion piece titled Abolish Marriage. As Kinsley pointed out, once there is separation of civil union and religious marriage, the religious groups can enforce all the rules they like about who may be married to whom and under what circumstances. (What fun they'll have.) On the other hand, civil unions can be just as flexible as its participants desire. Those who are united may vary in sex, age, number, and degree of affinity as much as they please. The state's interest would be limited to such minor details as setting a reasonable age of consent, the rights of children produced within a civil union, and some defensible limitations on incestuous unions between fertile partners (and I do mean "fertile" partners, who could produce offspring with an unduly heavy genetic load of recessive traits; I don't care what infertile partners of the age of consent want to do whatever their degree of affinity).

Wouldn't this all be terribly complicated? I can't see why it should. The civil union contract would be mostly a list of signatories, jointly responsible for all children, property, and debts. Do you imagine that attorneys would be reluctant or unwilling to set up practices specializing in multiple-partner civil union law and dissolution of union? It would all be covered quickly enough.

Defenders of same-sex unions have often been put on the defensive by marriage traditionalists who declare that gay marriage will lead to official recognition of polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality. Let us be defensive no more. These charges are easy to answer. We can dismiss the arguments regarding pedophilia and bestiality by citing the key aspect of civil unions: consenting adults. (Children aren't adults and animals can't consent. However, if you teach Fido to nod his head, good luck in court.) Infertile incest is none of our business and isn't going to catch on anyway. As for polygamy, strictly speaking that means multiple wives, just as polyandry means multiple husbands. I just argued that there is no legitimate state purpose in preventing multiple partners from forming their own combinations of group unions, provided that state law protects the equality of the partners and makes the partners jointly responsible for the care of any children.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Even among same-sex union advocates. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage featured a statement by E. J. Graff which argues that same-sex marriage of couples lies within "the West's contemporary marriage philosophy", an evolving notion which today features equality between partners. Graff further argues that polygamy would be a retreat into the man-owns-women feudal history of marriage. Nonsense. I am not arguing for a return of patriarchal Mormonism's "plural marriage" where multiple wives are subject to the authority of a ruling husband. I insist on equality before the law of all the partners, of whatever combination. If some cultists perceive in multiple unions the opportunity to establish old-fashioned personal harems, I hope they will discover otherwise when their dissatisfied partners use the law to escape (along with a personal share of community property). Remember those lawyers I cited earlier? They'll be on the job the moment the first drop of blood hits the water.

Group marriage, by the way, has an honorable literary history. It was long ago featured in the work of one of the icons of American libertarianism, although most of us appear to have forgotten about it. Robert A. Heinlein used it as a fundamental aspect of his lunar colony culture in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. His heroine, Wyoming Knott, is accepted into a group marriage with a response abstracted from her own nickname: "Wye Knott?" I concur.