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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Tuesday links

Composer Dimitri Shostakovich was born September 25, 1906: some quotes, history, and music.




This Is Your Octopus On Drugs.
 
A short history of Sleepwalking

ICYMI, most recent links are here, and include the physics of swirling your wine, Firefly's Unification Day, the 17th century Russian beard tax, seamless underwater-to-air communication, and the Great British Hedgehog Census. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

The 2016 Election as a Football Play

If the election had been a football play rather than a presidential election, and Hillary Clinton had been handed her position in it by Make-A-Wish rather than the Democrat establishment, the 2016 election would have looked something like this:


Composer Dimitri Shostakovich was born September 25, 1906: some quotes, history, and music

I always try to make myself as widely understood as possible; and if I don't succeed, I consider it my own fault.

Dmitri Shostakovich (quoted in Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music)

The composer apparently does not set himself the task of listening to the desires and expectations of the Soviet public. He scrambles sounds to make them interesting to formalist elements who have lost all taste... The power of good music to affect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.*

~ Pravda (on the Shostakovich opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, "Muddle Instead of Music," January 1936)

Shostakovich told me: "I finished the Fifth Symphony in the major and fortissimo... It would be interesting to know what would have been said if I finished it pianissimo and in the minor." Only later did I understand the full significance of these words, when I heard the Fourth Symphony, which does finish in the minor and pianissimo. But in 1937, nobody knew the Fourth Symphony.**

~ Boris Khaikin (1904-1978) (Discourses on Conducting)

The cover of a 1942 issue of Time Magazine with the
caption "Fireman Shostakovich: 'Amid bombs burning
 in Leningrad, he heard the chords of victory.' Refers to
the Battle of Leningrad in which he served
 as a volunteer in the anti-fire brigades
There may be few notes, but there's lots of music.

~ Shostakovich (on his film music for King Lear; quoted in Wilson, Shostakovich, A Life Remembered)

Particularly during the Cold War, Shostakovich was anathema to many Western critics:

The Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich always has been singularly irritating to this chronicler... Whenever I hear one of his marches, my imagination fastens upon a picture of the parades in Red Square and the banners of Uncle Joe, and my irritation becomes powerful.

~ Cyrus Durgin (? - 1962) (Boston Globe, 25 October 1952)

To anyone who knew his music, a first encounter with Dmitri Shostakovich could not fail to be startling. In contrast to the elemental force, bombast, grandeur of his works, he was a chétif*** figure, the perennial student, unassertive and shy, who looked as though all the music could be wrung out of him in a couple of song cycles.

~ Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) (Unfinished Journey)

September 25 is the anniversary of the birth of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (wiki) (1906-1975), considered by some as the greatest symphonist of the 20th century. Born in St. Petersburg, Shostakovich was an early piano prodigy and studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory during the early Soviet era.

At first recognized internationally as an exemplar of the best of Soviet musicianship, he ran afoul of the regime with his modernistic opera, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, which so outraged Stalin that he is said to have had a personal hand in writing the infamous Pravda editorial, "Muddle Instead of Music" that literally put the composer's life in jeopardy during the "Great Purge" of the late 1930s. 

Shostakovich somehow survived, even though he was recurrently criticized by the regime for his “modernist” tendencies. During his subsequent tumultuous career, he produced an enormous oeuvre: 15 symphonies, concertos, a great quantity of chamber music, song cycles, piano music, and several operas. Generally considered a serious - almost tragic - composer, Shostakovich nonetheless wrote a large amount of “light” music, including even a stage work – Moscow Cheryomushki (1959) – that might be described as a Russian musical comedy.

Harry Potter looks exactly like
 a young Shostakovich
For newcomers to the music of Shostakovich, I would recommend his 4th, 5th, and 10th symphonies, the two piano concertos, the "autobiographical" 8th strinq quartet, his several "jazz" and "ballet" suites compiled from light works of the 1930s, and his film score for The Gadfly, whose "Romance" was used to great effect as the principal theme of the TV series, "Riley, Ace of Spies."

During the last two decades, there has been a raging musicological debate about whether the music of Shostakovich reveals him as a loyal Soviet citizen or a closet dissident whose works portray a tormented man. No one really knows. He was clearly a quirky guy. In contradiction to the opening quotation above, he noted late in life,
"I've said what I said. Either you have it in you to understand, or if not, then it would be fruitless to try to explain anyway."
* N.B. In the first year of the Great Purge, this last sentence was a terrifying threat.

** After the uproar caused by Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich "redeemed" himself with his Fifth Symphony (1937), designated "A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism," still one of his most successful and popular works. However, his iconoclastic Fourth Symphony, which had been in rehearsal at the time of the debacle, was withdrawn and did not emerge again until 1961. It is now considered one of the master's most original works and a fascinating indicator of "the road not taken." By the way, Boris Khaikin was a Soviet-Jewish conductor.

*** Chétif - a French word meaning "puny."

Here is the romance from The Gadfly:



More typical of Shostakovich is the opening of his 4th symphony:


Parts of the text above are adapted from Ed's Quotation of the Day, only available via email - leave your email address in the comments if you'd like to be added to his list. Ed is the author of Hunters and Killers: Volume 1: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1776 to 1943 and Hunters and Killers: Volume 2: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

One of the reasons blogging has been light - welcoming a new grandchild to the world ;-)

Jack with his dad (my older son)
The most recent addition to my family is Jack Hunter Witt, fifth child and third son of my older son Charlie and his wife Mai Lea. He was born at 1:17 on the afternoon of Thursday, September 20, weighs 7 pounds and 6 ounces, and is 2.5 inches long. Jack has a small amount of light brown hair plus all of the appropriate body parts, in the appropriate amounts.

It is not a slight thing when those so fresh from God love us.


Infant Sorrow by William Blake

My mother groand! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud; 
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

Struggling in my fathers hands: 
Striving against my swaddling bands: 
Bound and weary I thought best
To sulk upon my mothers breast.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Wednesday links

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day, me hearties! Instructions, translators, and the Dave Barry column that started it all.

The Great British Hedgehog Census.

Swirling your wine is not pretentious; it's just good physics. My favorite part is how the analysis of the physics became someone's PhD dissertation.

Hey, Firefly fans - tomorrow is Unification Day


Found: A 1699 "Beard Tax" Coin That Stopped the Tsar’s Police From Shaving You.

ICYMI, Tuesday's links are here, and include Great Britain's network of secret nuclear bunkers, the Night of the Flaming Ballerinas, the man who cut out his own appendix, inventing a longer-lasting popsicle, and, for Dr. Samuel Johnson's birthday, a selection of his excellent insults and Scotland-bashing quotes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Tuesday links

It's the birthday of Dr. Samuel Johnson: here's a selection of his excellent insults and Scotland-bashing quotes.

Great Britain's network of secret nuclear bunkers. Related to London’s secret nuclear reactor.



Someone alert the Nobel Prize folks: Inventing a Longer-Lasting Popsicle.

“A Cacophony Of Hell”: The Story Of The Ramree Island Crocodile Massacre.

ICYMI, most recent links are here, and include the anniversary of Skynet self-awareness, drinking habits of Revolutionary-era Americans, how LBJ used to mark his territory (yup - just the way you think), and an excellent supercut of random items used as improbable weapons.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Dr. Samuel Johnson was born on this date in 1709: here's a selection of his insults and Scotland-bashing quotes.

September 18 is the anniversary of the birth in 1709 of that quintessential 18th-century curmudgeon Dr. Samuel Johnson (wiki), the literary lion of Georgian London for much of his lifetime (1709-1784). A poet, critic, lexicographer, and wit, Johnson compiled the first respectable English dictionary between 1747 and 1755, following several years of writing critical articles for London magazines such as The Idler.

From The Grub Street Journal (Oct 30, 1732), this cartoon depicts the “literatory,” a sort of publishing factory driven by beasts without artistic inspiration. Such was the perception of Grub Street writers like Johnson and Savage, who did indeed scrape together a living from commissioned writing.
Born in Lichfield the son of a book dealer, Johnson studied at Oxford and ran his own private school - where the actor David Garrick was a student - before removing to London and its literary milieu in 1737. There, in 1763, he met his companion and biographer, the Scot, James Boswell (1740-1795), to whom we owe the recording of most of Johnson's voluminous observations. 

He was no fan of Scotland:

"The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!"

I having said that England was obliged to us for gardeners, almost all their gardeners being Scotchmen; Johnson: "Why, Sir, that is because gardening is much more necessary amongst you than with us, which makes so many of your people learn it. It is all gardening with you. Things which grow wild here, must be cultivated with great care in Scotland. Pray now," throwing himself back in his chair, and laughing, "are you ever able to bring the sloe to perfection?"

He would not allow Scotland to derive any credit from Lord Mansfield; for he was educated in England. "Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young."

"There is in Scotland a diffusion of learning, a certain portion of it widely and thinly spread. A merchant has as much learning as one of their clergy."

"What enemy would invade Scotland, where there is nothing to be got?"

In “The Mitre Tavern” (1880), Samuel Johnson (far right)
converses with James Boswell (center) and author Goldsmith.
Asked by a Scot what Johnson thought of Scotland: "That it is a very vile country, to be sure, Sir" "Well, Sir! (replies the Scot, somewhat mortified), God made it." Johnson: "Certainly he did; but we must always remember that he made it for Scotchmen, and comparisons are odious, Mr. S------; but God made hell."

Mr. Arthur Lee mentioned some Scotch who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they would choose it. Johnson: "Why, Sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren." Boswell: "Come, come, he is flattering the English. you have now been in Scotland, Sir, and say if you did not see meat and drink enough there." Johnson:"Why yes, Sir; meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home."

Johnson and Boswell in Edinburgh
"Your country consists of two things, stone and water. There is, indeed, a little earth above the stone in some places, but a very little; and the stone is always appearing. It is like a man in rags; the naked skin is still peeping out."

"A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice. At St. Andrews Mr. Boswell found only one, and recommended it to my notice; I told him it was rough and low, or looked as if I thought so. This, said he, is nothing to another a few miles off. I was still less delighted to hear that another tree was not to be seen nearer. Nay, said a gentleman that stood by, I know but of this and that tree in the county."

[Of an inn in Scotland, SJ wrote...] "Of the provisions the negative catalogue was very copious. Here was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine. We did not express much satisfaction."

"He that travels in the Highlands may easily saturate his soul with intelligence, if he will acquiesce in the first account. The highlander gives to every question an answer so prompt and peremptory, that skepticism itself is dared into silence, and the mind sinks before the bold reporter in unresisting credulity; but, if a second question be ventured, it breaks the enchantment; for it is immediately discovered, that what was told so confidently was told at hazard, and that such fearlessness of assertion was either the sport of negligence, or the refuge of ignorance."

1781: Johnson (second from left), other members of "The Club".
(Written by an Irishman) The author of these memoirs will remember, that Johnson one day asked him, 'Have you observed the difference between your own country impudence and Scottish impudence?' The answer being in the negative: 'Then I will tell you,' said Johnson. 'The impudence of an Irishman is the impudence of a fly, that buzzes about you, and you put it away, but it returns again, and flutters and teazes you. The impudence of a Scotsman is the impudence of a leech, that fixes and sucks your blood.' 

Johnson also, of course, had little use for America or Americans:

"Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging."

"To a man of mere animal life, you can urge no argument against going to America, but that it will be some time before he will get the earth to produce. But a man of any intellectual enjoyment will not easily go and immerse himself and his posterity for ages in barbarism."

"I am willing to love all mankind, except an American"

A Blackadder clip on Johnson's Dictionary:


Here's a very well done bio of Johnson by the BBC:


A selection of his legendary insults:

Dr. Johnson in the ante-room of Lord Chesterfield. 
Of Lord Chesterfield:

"This man I thought had been a Lord among wits; but I find, he is only a wit among Lords."

And of Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son*:

"They teach the morals of a whore; and the manners of a dancing-master."

Of Thomas Sheridan:

"Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in nature."

Of the respective merits of the poets Derrick and Smart:

"Sir, there is no settling the point of precedence between a louse and a flea."

Of the criticism of one critic (Edwards) of another (Warburton):

"A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but the one is but an insect and the other is a horse still."

Of Lady Macdonald of Sleat:

"...she was as bad as negative badness could be, and stood in the way of what was good; that insipid beauty would not go a great way... and such a woman might be cut out of a cabbage, if there was a skilful artificer."

Of two disputants:

"One has ball without powder; the other powder without ball."

Of a man hired to sit with him during a convalescence:

"The fellow's an idiot; he is as awkward as a turn-spit when first put to the wheel, and as sleepy as a dormouse."

Of James Macpherson:

"He wants to make himself conspicuous. He would tumble in a hogstye, as long as you looked at him and called him to come out."

Of the new rich:

"Sir, they have lost the civility of tradesmen, without acquiring the manners of gentlemen."

Despite his legendary bile, Johnson did remark later in life,

"As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready to call a man a good man upon easier terms than I was formerly."

* My favorite quote from Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son (to his illegitimate son, that is; he (Chesterfield) was trying to raise him (the son) above his (the son's) lowly origins and inferior blood):
"I knew a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina*: this was so much time fairly gained; and I recommend you to follow his example.

It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments; and it will made any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind. Books of science, and of a grave sort, must be read with continuity; but there are very many, and even very useful ones, which may be read with advantage by snatches, and unconnectedly; such are all the good Latin poets, except Virgil in his "Aeneid": and such are most of the modern poets, in which you will find many pieces worth reading, that will not take up above seven or eight minutes."
Attribution for many of the quotes above can be found at the Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page. More on Johnson here and here.

Further reading: 

The definitive source for all things Johnson is, of course Boswell's book The Life of Samuel Johnson


Parts of the text above are adapted from Ed's Quotation of the Day, only available via email - leave your email address in the comments if you'd like to be added to his list. Ed is the author of Hunters and Killers: Volume 1: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1776 to 1943 and Hunters and Killers: Volume 2: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

September 14, 1861 was the Night of the Flaming Ballerinas

 Frightful scene in the dressing room of the Continental Theatre, Philadelphia, on the evening of Saturday, September 14, 1861 - Accidental burning of a portion of the ballet corps while preparing for the dance in Shakespeare's play of "The Tempest," resulting in the death of seven of the dancers - sketched by Mr. Oehlschlager who witnessed the catastrophe
For William Wheatley's first production at the Continental Theater in Philadelphia, the decision was made to present Shakespeare's The Tempest (wiki) in ballet form. From England, Wheatley imported a special effects expert, as well as four ballet dancing sisters, the beautiful Gales – Ruth, Zela, Hannah, and Adeline. Six other chorus dancers rounded out the ballet troupe. On the night of September 14, 1861, the cast only made it through The Tempest’s first act.

While the seas were raging at the end of the first act, the entire ballet company ran to change into gauzy costumes so as to be ready to welcome Alonso and the rest of shipwreck victims onto Prospero’s Island. At the Continental Theater the dressing rooms were above the stage itself, necessitating a fifty foot climb up a rickety flight of stairs. The chorus received their own dressing room, complete with lighting by means of gas jets close to the mirror, where their light could be reflected and doubled – if you look at the picture above, you’ll see the gas jets off to the top left.

Flaming Ballerinas Plunging to their Deaths 
Above the mirror, Ruth Gale had hung her dress for the second act; she climbed onto the back of the couch to pull down her dress and the hem touched the gas jet. Instantly Ruth’s clothes were on fire, and as she ran screaming through the room, she set her sisters’ clothes on fire, as well. 

Panicking, and on fire themselves, Ruth and her sisters plunged out the window and onto the street below, which was filled with pedestrians now under bombardment from flaming, screaming ballerinas who fell to earth with sickening thuds and the crack of broken bones.

Another member of the chorus, dress also ablaze, came running across the stage and fell into the pit where the stage crew simulated the storm that gave its name to the play. Tearing the cloths which represented the waves, they managed to smother the flames. Wheatley ordered the curtain brought down, and asked the audience to leave the theater peacefully. The remaining flaming ballerinas were extinguished.

Over the next four days, the six (one source says seven) ballerinas perished of their burns including all the Gale sisters. Wheatley was exonerated of any wrongdoing, and erected a monument to the perished ballerinas at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia. The inscription on the stone is barely legible now, but the New York Clipper preserved it. It reads:

IN MEMORIAM

Stranger, who through the city of the dead

With thoughtful soul and feeling heart may tread,

Pause here a moment – those who sleep below

With careless ear ne’er heard a tale of woe:

Four sisters fair and young together rest

In saddest slumber on earth’s kindly breast;

Torn out of life in one disastrous hour,

The rose unfolded and the budding flower:

Life did not part them – Death might not divide

They lived – they loved – they perished, side by side.

O’er doom like theatre let gentle pity shed

The softest tears that mourn the early fled,

For whom – lost children of another land!

This marble raised by weeping friendship’s hand

To us, to future time remains to tell

How even in death they loved each other well.

Maps: Top: 1858-1860
Middle top: 1875
 Middle bottom: 1895
Bottom: 1922 
Between the time of the fire described above and the end of the century, there were three additional fires at the same theater, although the name changed - on June 19, 1867, now known as Fox’s New American Theatre the group of ballerinas made it out safely and the audience was warned in time to leave the building. But, the front wall collapsed the onto volunteer firemen and others working along Walnut Street. As many as thirteen were crushed to death; at least four of them fire-fighters. The American Theatre was a complete loss.

The place was then rebuilt as the Grand Central Theatre (or just the Central Theatre) and suffered another major fire on March 24, 1888, a Saturday morning. No loss of life was reported, but the theater was, yet again, reduced to ashes. Plus, the stores and restaurants that faced Eighth Street from Walnut to Sansom were, once more, gutted. 

Then on April 27, 1892, the yet-again-rebuilt Central Theatre was destroyed in a huge blaze that also devastated the adjoining Times newspaper office on Sansom Street, as well as the shops and eateries on Eight Street. 

The audience members' exodus caused a stampede in which many were trampled underfoot. Those who lost their lives had ascended a stairwell that was one of two that led to doors in back of the theater, but unfortunately led directly to the fire itself. Confused when they found their escape route cut off, they were then overcome with fumes and died on the staircase. In a fit of hysteria, one man even forced his way out by slashing others with a bowie knife he had with him.

At least seven audience members and six performers died, and about fifty others were also hospitalized, suffering from excruciating burns and smoke inhalation. Some lost their eyesight, as their burns were mostly on the face. Many actors broke limbs when they jumped to the street from their dressing room windows onto Sansom Street, as the ballet dancers of 1861 had done.

Gilmore’s Theater, the fifth and final
 playhouse at 807 Walnut |
Image via 
The Roanoke Times,
February 1893
What remained of the structure was torn down to allow for recovery of the bodies, and immediately reconstructed as Gilmore’s Auditorium. It opened on August 26, 1893, with architect John D. Allen setting it back five feet from the old building line and placing a turret on the roof in front. It was advertised as “Absolutely Fireproof” and “the safest and probably the best built theatre in this country.” 

Perhaps it was absolutely fireproof, for the building did not burn again.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

"In your satin tights, Fighting for your rights": the theme song from the old 70's era Wonder Woman series

From the Wonder Woman TV series, not the recent movie. They just don't write lyrics like that anymore, do they? The entire set is below.

Here's the intro (with the song):



And a "mix" video:


The lyrics:

Wonder Woman!
Wonder Woman!

All the world is waiting for you,
And the powers you possess,
In your satin tights,
Fighting for your rights,
And the old red, white and blue!

Wonder Woman!
Wonder Woman!

Now the world is ready for you,
And the wonders you can do.
Make a hawk a dove,
Stop a war with love,
Make a liar tell the truth!

Wonder Woman!
Get us out from under.
Wonder Woman!
All our hopes are pinned upon you,
And the magic that you do.
Stop a bullet cold,
Make the Axis fold,
Change their minds,
And change the world!

Wonder Woman!
Wonder Woman!
You're a wonder!
Wonder Woman!

Smithsonian has an excellent article: The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman, which includes, as one of the illustrations, this:



In case you have trouble reading it, it reads:

With my speculum,
I am strong!
I can fight!