Blog: May 2014

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Trip to DC

Dani and I went to Washington DC for a few days. (I start a new job next week so vacation time will be limited for a while, hence this timing.) Here are some random notes.

The Smithsonian is big. Really big. Actually it's a bunch of museums. We knew all this, and knew that we'd barely scratch the surface, but knowing it and experiencing it are different. We knew that "museum fatigue" would be a challenge and we figured we'd just cope with it as it happened (instead of trying to carefully orchestrate things). Sometimes the answer was "um, want to see this possibly-interesting half-hour show in the planetarium/Imax theatre?".

The Air & Space Museum was a priority for both of us. On our first visit, after wandering around for an hour or so on our own, we were able to join a guided "highlights" tour. As with the British Museum, this is totally worth it in my book. Yes, we spent more time on the Wright brothers than I would have on my own, but we learned cool stuff that was worth learning. And because the tour was only about an hour and a half long, we could then explore more on our own. (And as you might have picked up, we came back for a second round another day.)

I've read a lot about the space program of the 60s and 70s, watched the documentaries, listened to the music ( :-) ), and was glued to the TV for parts of it. (Yeah, like many others, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.) Even so, even having seen the pictures, I was a little blown away by how small the early capsules were. Standing next to a Mercury capsule was quite educational.

We also made two visits to the National Gallery (and still didn't see most of it). Part of it we dispensed with quickly -- there we were wandering through some rooms when each of us realized that the other doesn't care for impressionists either. Great; let's go see something else. :-)

Having Wikipedia on tap was valuable in the gallery. There were lots of religious paintings with random saints who -- as far as we knew -- weren't part of the scenes being depicted. Being able to look up who those guys were was handy, even if it didn't answer the question of why they were there. Saint Jerome (from, IIRC, the 4th century, but that doesn't stop him from being in all of Jesus's major events) was extremely common, like that guy who insists on getting into all the family photos.

They have a large painting -- seemed like about 8 feet tall by 12 feet wide, or thereabouts -- of Daniel in the lions' den. It made us wonder where such a painting was hung originally. If it were something about Jesus I could imagine it being over (or near) an altar or otherwise in a church, but Daniel and the lions? But would a painting that size have been practical in someone's home in the early 17th century? Where was this painting intended to be hung?

We went to the National Zoo on what turned out to be the hottest and most humid day we were there (oops, but we were expecting rain for the rest of our visit). Very disappointing -- the only big cats I saw were a lioness and two of her cubs (no tigers), the pandas were likewise not in evidence, and the ratio of paths we had to walk down to animals to be seen was high. I understand, of course, that the animals should be given nice enclosures with hiding places and I certainly want the animals to be treated well. I was just disappointed by the resulting experience for us. (On the other hand, the small mammals were quite nifty and some of the apes were interesting to watch -- yes indeedy, tool use is not a problem.)

We noticed that the Spy Museum and the Crime Museum were near each other and thought to do both in one trip. The former was rather disappointing and we didn't go to the latter. I was hoping for more about modern techniques, particularly electronic stuff. I felt like I didn't learn much about surveillance, identifying threats, and such that I didn't already know from watching Burn Notice and Person of Interest. Oh well.

Other places visited:

  • American Indian Museum (brief visit): very interesting restaurant, which was recommended to us.
  • Natural History Museum: I wanted to go into the butterfly habitat but the line was long, no one was around to sell me a ticket, and it was the end of a long day. But we enjoyed some of the other exhibits, particularly the bones.
  • Tour of (some) monuments. The FDR monument (more elaborate than he wanted, we were told) was quite nice. It also had a progression of waterfalls, leading us to identify all other waterfalls we saw (like one at the zoo) as extensions of the FDR monument.
  • Bureau of Engraving: they have a ~45-minute tour where you see how (paper) money is made. You have to get tickets in the morning and then come back later for the tour, which is a bit of a hassle, but we were able to get the last tour of the day so at least that didn't break up the rest of the day. (It's a significant walk from there to anywhere else we wanted to be.)
  • We tried to go to the Museum of Industrial Arts but it turns out it's been closed for a while. Oops.
  • No, we did not try for the White House (requires planning far in advance, and the benefit-to-security-hassle tradeoff seemed unfavorable). I kind of wanted to go to the Capital but that requires tickets via your congressfolks and we probably left that too late too.

We saw two shows, The Magic Flute (which I previously wrote about) and Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which was fun and I hope to write about later.

We are both comfortable with plenty of walking, yet we felt somewhat worn down at times. (Temperature and humidity in the upper 80s probably affected me; I've never been good with wet heat.) The Metro is certainly helpful, but there's still a lot of walking. We needed to be able to mix in some things to do while sitting down, but there didn't seem to be much of that. (We'd tried and failed to get an evening riverboat tour; in retrospect we should have tried for an afternoon one.)

By the way, yes we know lots of people in DC and I'm sorry we missed you all. We were a little gun-shy about trying to add "organize all the social stuff with all the people there" to our list.

The Magic Flute

We were in DC for a few days and, while there, we went to a performance of The Magic Flute (performed in English, not German) at the Kennedy Center. The performers were excellent, and they obviously had fun "updating" the script here and there. The costumes were very good, as was the sound. The set design was rather unusual; the implementation of their design was excellent, but I'm not sure what I thought of the design.

There was a short (optional) lecture before the show, which I'm very glad we went to. Here we learned some of the historical background for the show; while most operas of the time were written for aristocrats and in Italian, this one was written for a for-profit theatre catering to "just plain folks". It's more accessible and less hoity-toity. I don't know what's original to the script and what was added by this performance, but this had more of the feel of (high-end) street theatre in some ways, including humorous wordplay and some physical comedy. It also has spoken dialogue, so it felt kind of like a modern musical.

The story (very briefly; click the link for more): Tamino is recruited by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil sorceror Sarastro. She sends with him Papageno, a nutty bird-catcher who dresses as a bird and really only cares about wine, women, and song. (Tamino has nobler goals.) It turns out that Sarastro isn't so evil, and he kidnapped Pamina to save her from her (in his opinion) evil mother the queen. (At this point I expected it to turn out that Sarastro was the father, but no.) Tamino (who has fallen in love with Pamina) will be allowed to wed her if he passes certain mystical trials, and Papageno has to play too because he's there -- but ok, if Papageno behaves he'll also be allowed to wed Papagena, who seems a perfect fit for him, solving his "can't get women" problem. Trials happen (with bumps along the way) and there's a happy ending. (Oh, the flute? The queen gives it to Tamino as a magical aid and he uses it to get through some of the trials. Really, for something that makes the title of the show, it's kind of minor.)

Papageno provides a lot of comedic relief and the performer was very good. (It may be harder to do that kind of role well than that of a serious character like Tamino.) Sarastro was also very good as both actor and singer; he struggled a little with the lowest note, but Wikipedia tells me it's an F2, so I can understand that. (Deep bass.) Tamino and Pamina were well-done; I wasn't as impressed with the queen of the night and Papagena (both sopranos).

There were obvious adjustments in both the dialogue and the lyrics; the former is easy to do but the latter would seem to require a little more work. One of Papageno's songs included references to Twitter, and there was a bit of dialogue where somebody tells the three spirits (played by children) that they'll understand something better when they reach adolescence. (There were other changes too, but you get the idea.) I enjoyed these tweaks, though it made me wonder what is actually in the original script to begin with and whether it included hooks for this sort of thing.

The orchestral score was done well and mostly acted as support for what's going on on stage (as opposed to taking center stage itself, which I understand sometimes happens). The score did not strike me as overly complex; it was a good solid score, performed well.

The set design was rather abstract; backgrounds of colored lines and swirls at times, sometimes suggesting a setting (like "night" or "inside a temple") and other times not. There was one point where the background had animated circles/elliptoids moving around to no clear purpose and I found it a little distracting; I don't know what that was meant to be. There was also an opening number (before anybody was on stage) where they had animated lines moving around on a screen for several minutes, which left me wondering why. (It was only once the show proper started that I would realize that this was part of their overall design.) Lighting design (beyond this) was generally pretty good, though the follow-spot operators were sometimes a little off in tracking the leads. (The leads almost always had spots on them, even when the stage was brightly lit. I don't know if that's typical.)

A word about visual aids: This was only my second (live performance of an) opera (excluding Gilbert & Sullivan, if you count that), and the first was a dismal failure because it was in Italian, we were sitting too far back for me to read the supertitles, and having read the plot synopsis in advance hadn't been enough to really follow it. So this time we splurged on the second-best class of tickets (the price point for the best tripped our "you've got to be kidding" alarms). I mean, it's the Kennedy Center; it's likely to be good, and how often are we going to do this? Data point: the second-best class of tickets, which put us four rows back in the first balcony, allowed me to just barely read the supertitles about three-quarters of the time. (So I definitely missed some jokes, including, I later learned, a Twitter hashtag.) And this opera was in English, so I had extra input. (Operatic sopranos and children are a loss; I can't understand what they're singing regardless of language. The male leads were better, and there was a good alto mezzo-soprano.) So, it looks like it's only viable for me to go to an opera if we get seats up close; I doubt I'll bother again.

Environmental themes in Genesis

On Shabbat we had a visitor from Kibbutz Lotan (in the Negev desert in Israel). Their focus is on environmental issues -- sustainable development etc. I was there several years ago as part of a tour and they're doing some pretty cool stuff with agriculture, building construction, and even composting toilets (which I'd not heard of before then). After morning services he led a text study on the first two chapters of Genesis (naturally, focusing on the theme of sustainability).

There are lots of differences between the two tellings of the creation story -- chapter one is more "macro", the orders of some events are different, how Chava (Eve) gets created is very different, and more. Those weren't the focus. Here are some things I noticed (in no particular order and certainly not complete, as I wasn't taking notes).

In the first chapter Adam (who is "male and female", so both of them) is told to rule or dominate the earth. The verb here is radah; this is different from kingship (malakh). Radah seems to be a stern sort of rule.1 In the second chapter, on the other hand, Adam is told to work (sometimes translated "tend") and keep (or "guard") the garden, which sounds way more custodial. The word translated "work" is 'avad (like in "avodah"), and the second word is the familiar shamor (like guarding Shabbat).

This might not be what our environmentalist visitor intended, but it seems to me that radah could be used to justify an attitude of "the world is here for us to use as we see fit". The language used in the second chapter, however, suggests an actual duty to the earth. Both approaches are supported in Genesis. (I've heard people make the chapter-2 argument, but I've not heard the chapter-1 one on the other side. Nor am I myself arguing that either is superior; I'm just observing.)

One of our high-school students made an observation that surprised many people in the room: she pointed out that the latter instructions apply to the garden. It doesn't say to work and guard the earth. So, she asked, did this apply only in Gan Eden, and once they were kicked out it's not in play any more? I wonder if there's rabbinic commentary on this, but I haven't looked yet. (Certainly sometimes the rabbis understand a specific directive to be more general; what I'd like to know is whether this is one such case.)

I noticed something I hadn't picked up on before in the second chapter: there is absolutely no utilitarian purpose in play. Adam and Chava have access to the Tree of Life; they don't need to do anything to the garden in order to be able to eat. So the command is a command for its own sake, not a "work and guard it so you can eat". Once they're expelled, on the other hand, they're told they'll have to work the land if they want to eat.

Overall, it was an interesting discussion. He was originally going to talk about his kibbutz and so I wasn't going to go (I've heard a lot of that already), so I'm glad he changed topics.

1 The verb in Genesis 1:26 (and also v28) is יִרְדּוּ (yirdu), which is from reish-dalet-hei (radah), which BDB gives as "have dominion, rule, dominate". Note that there is another word for "rule", malach, from mem-lamed-chaf "king". This is the word used to talk about God's rule over the world. So whatever radah is, it's probably a different kind of rulership than that.

Another place radah shows up is in Lev 25:43, when talking about one's indentured servants:

לֹא-תִרְדֶּה בוֹ, בְּפָרֶךְ; וְיָרֵאתָ, מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ. Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God.

This passage uses lo (no), suggesting that radah means to rule "with rigor", a stern rule. Another use is in Bilaam's blessing/prophecy in Num 24:19:

וְיֵרְדְּ, מִיַּעֲקֹב; וְהֶאֱבִיד שָׂרִיד, מֵעִיר. And out of Jacob shall one have dominion, and shall destroy the remnant from the city.

All of this suggests to me that radah means a stern sort of rule -- "dominion" in the "top dog" sense. Going back to Genesis, the text seems to be saying that humans are in charge of the world and everything else exists to meet their needs, at least at that time in the garden. Whether it applies post-expulsion is another question.

Day-trip: Oxford, Warwick Castle (and passing mention of Stratford-on-Avon)

I enjoyed this day-long bus tour. Our first stop was Oxford, where the university is made up of 32 individual colleges. Our guide told us that students apply to Oxford and are assigned to colleges, though I think applicants can indicate preferences. Many lectures are open to the entire university, and according to our guide you can study most subjects at most colleges -- it's not like there's a math college and a fine-arts college and so on. Anyway, he took us to one of them, Christchurch.

The dining hall may look somewhat familiar to some of you: Read more…

Paris day trip

A coworker pointed out to me that if we were going to London anyway, we might consider a day-trip to Paris. I hadn't realized that it was only about a two-hour train ride. So we did that.

We booked a tour package that started/ended in London, so they arranged train tickets and the local guide. That was absolutely the right thing for us beginners to do -- and I would not do it again. Lesson learned: book our own train tickets (and get to choose the times and the seats) and either find a local tour or use the on-and-off tour-bus loop. This worked ok, but I would have allocated the time differently. Read more…

London trip (A few photos)

I'm having some trouble with Picasa tonight, so the other two albums (Paris and Oxford/Warwick) will have to wait, but meanwhile, a few pictures from our trip to London in January: Read more…