Thursday, May 31, 2018

Photographs of the Month

Homage to Franz Klein/Aaron Siskind, Art Insitute of Chicago, May 2

Before the Storm, West Ridge, May 2

Going Out of Business, Linconwoon, IL, May 4

Rogers Park, May 18

Wet Plate Collodion Portrait Session, Art Institute of Chicago, May 30

Wednesday, May 30, 2018


Tomorrow night, Thursday May 31st, there will be a one time performance, (for now at least) of a one act opera composed by Damien Sneed. Sneed created the work titled Empower, with the help of several high school students from the South Side of Chicago, many of whom are members of the cast. 

Ensemble with chorus in background
Drawing from their experiences growing up on the South Side, the story revolves around a group of high school kids who resolve to tell their own story about their lives and neighborhood in light of all the negative PR, as personified by a news reporter intent on creating a grisly picture of filth, crime, and all-round yuckiness.

The performance will be the fruition of a school year's worth of collaboration and rehearsals for the students and their professional partners. In addition to Mr. Sneed, the participating adults in the production are librettist Ike Holter, director Jess McLeod, Choreographer Tanji Harper, Visual Artist Ruben Aguirre, and Music Supervisor Kedrick Armstrong who directs an ensemble of ten musicians. Also appearing on stage will be Lyric Opera veterans, soprano Angela Brown and baritone Will Liverman. Tony Santiago and Melissa Foster from the company, were acting and vocal coaches respectively.

The opera is the collaboration between the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Urban League, the first of what hopefully will be a long term relationship. The Urban League has served the African American community of Chicago since 1916, during the time of The Great Migration. Since then, the organization has done great works, serving as an advocacy group emphasizing employment, entrepreneurship, fair housing and education.

Will Liverman with members of the ensemble
My role in the production was to photograph members of a Senn High School choral group at the final dress rehearsal last night. The Senn kids were enlisted to play the role of a traditional Greek chorus, commenting on the action and giving support to the protagonists. In this production, the chorus is ensconced inside the frame of a building behind translucent screens at stage left. Depending on the lighting, the chorus could either be revealed or hidden behind the screen. 

Angela Brown, left, with a cast member who plays the snooty reporter
It all works to great effect. The occasional lack of polish of the ensemble members, they are after all, non-professionals performing in one of Chicago's premier music/drama venues, is more than made up by their enthusiasm and the fact that they are telling their own story. And what a story it is. Behind the artifice of stereotypes and assumptions, life goes on on the South Side of Chicago. This is as real as it gets; you're never going to find anything this close to authentic life on the stage of a grand opera house than this.

Here is the link to the Lyric Opera of Chicago web site featuring Empower. Tickets are still available, the proceeds of which will be returned into future programs such as this. 

Check it out if you can. It's a win win for all. 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Carlos Kleiber

Here is another bit of information unintentionally gleaned while perusing the internet. My interest in orchestral music began long ago, probably back in elementary school when I first played clarinet in the school band and orchestra. It became an on and off passion after I put down the licorice stick after high school and began playing the piano in college. Since that time I've attended many concerts in Chicago and elsewhere, and was privileged to have seen in person a number of the great conductors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Those I haven't seen live, I've been made aware of, watching numerous performances on TV, and listening to the local radio station, WFMT, one of the few remaining broadcast stations in the country devoted to classical music. But one major conductor eluded me all those years, until now.

It wasn't that I was unaware of the name Carlos Kleiber, or never heard recordings of his performances. It's just that those recordings were so rare, and the discussion of his work so sparse, that I never bothered to give him a second thought.

The other day I was on YouTube, searching for performances of Beethoven symphonies. Say what you will about YouTube, but the fact remains that you can find on that site, along with every last bit of detritus the world has to offer, some of the most edifying, magnificent, elevating, and life affirming videos as well, despite the annoying commercial breaks inserted at the most inopportune times. This is what I found:

I may have heard Kleiber conduct but until last week I had never seen him at work. It's obvious from this film made in Amsterdam, I'm guessing in the eighties, that the folks in the "cheap seats" behind the orchestra had the best seats in the house. No they couldn't hear the "proper" balance of sound intended for the folks in the auditorium, but they got to see the maestro in all his glory, not just his backside.

No conductor, it has been said, had a firmer grasp or understanding of the music he directed than Kleiber. Many consider his recordings of the Brahms and Beethoven symphonies (especially the odd numbered ones in the case of the latter), and selected operas of Wagner to be the quintessential performances of those works. His tempi and dynamic range to some may be a bit excessive, but to my ears anyway, at least in the pieces I'm familiar with, his pulling out all the stops brings out the power, passion and the emotion of the music without being just for show, as it might have in lesser hands.

It's one thing to close your eyes and listen to the music, it is another to watch the maestro as he conducts. Kleiber had to be one of the most idiosyncratic conductors of his time. In contrast to the rigid sytle of his father, Erich Kleiber, a notable mid-century conductor, Carlos used his impossibly long arms to great expressive effect, sometimes in long, fluid motions, at other times generating tremendous velocity while conducting at his signature breakneck speed. And sometimes he barely moved his arms at all as he does at the beginning of the major theme of the first movement of the Beethoven Seventh, preferring to keep time with his hips, dancing along with the music, inspired by Scottish folk tunes. At times, the younger Kleiber while conducting looks as if carrying on a conversation with his players with his left hand on his hip or even his pocket while the right hand with the baton continues to keep time.

But the most distinctive part of Carlos Kleiber when he conducted was his face.

Many classical musicians, especially in their performances of the early and mid-nineteeth century Romantic repertoire, are given to excessively contorted facial expressions as if to convey the enormous profundity of the task at hand. Not so with Kleiber; his face conveys pure joy, It could be a knowing grin at one of the players as is they were sharing a secret, a bawdy laugh as if he were having a beer with several of his closest friends, or a broad smile of deep satisfaction, almost to the point of ecstasy as if he were, well I think you get the idea. In all my years of watching conductors, I've never seen a more honestly expressive face. Clearly the performance of music for Kleiber was not purely an academic endeavor, although it was that to be sure, but an exercise examining every emotion that life has to offer from the depths of the deepest sorrow to the soaring peaks of triumphal exultation. He wholeheartedly embraces the music he directs and if we are paying the slightest bit of attention, we embrace it along with him.

Here is a rare video of a Kleiber rehearsal:

It is said that few conductors set such high standards for their work and rehearsed their orchestras more thoroughly. But if Klieber was indeed a taskmaster as his reputation suggests, he did so with kindness and humor rather than what was customary for the era, authoritative detachment. As you'll see, pure joy comes through in the rehearsal as well as in the performance.

Yet few conductors worked as sporadically as Kleiber. Despite being one of the most sought after conductors of his time, Kleiber over the course of his career averaged only about two or three symphonic performances and ten operas per annum, a pittance compared to his peers . Turning down prestigious directorships, and gigs with the most celebrated orchestras and opera companies in the world, Kleiber liked to joke that he only conducted when his freezer became empty. He never accepted students or gave interviews.

He was an enigma to say the least.

There were at least two film documentaries made of his life. One was called "I Am Lost to the World" (the title of which alludes to a song by Mahler), and the other, "Traces to Nowhere" the beginning of which can be seen here:

Both films were made after the conductor's death in 2004 at 74, an age when many conductors are still in the prime of their careers.

We'll never know why Klieber who profoundly loved what he did, was so reticent to perform. Some speculate that his perfectionism got the better of him and that he could never achieve the music on stage that he heard in his head. Others claim that he was plagued with debilitating self-doubt while others said he just became bored with the whole thing. I find the last one hard to believe at least by watching his performances even late in life. His is not the expression of a man filled with that "ol' ennui" as Cole Porter once put it.

In a 2011 BBC Music Magazine poll of contemporary conductors asking them to list their greatest influences. Carlos Kleiber came in first with Leonard Bernstein coming in a distant second. There seems to be nearly unanimous agreement as to where Kleiber stands in the pantheon of great conductors of all time.

But he does have his detractors. In this article, published shortly after the conductor's death, the author, Norman Lebrecht waxes poetically about Kleiber's work at first, in marked contrast to the provocative title of the piece, Carlos Kleiber: Not a Great Conductor(!), (punctuation mark, mine), but in the end takes pains to burst the Kleiber myth, not altogether convincing in my opinion. 

The comments on the first YouTube video I posted are particularly enlightening. Reacting to the slew of hagiographic tributes, one comment on the video of the Amsterdam performance of the Beethoven symphonies, a woman named Svetlana writes:
Beautiful, charming, but moribund Europe. Yes, it is a decadence. Do you want God to give Carlos back to you, sirs? No, Carlos Kleber (sic) will never come back from Heaven. He was too tired here....
Perhaps that's true. We should just be thankful that God gave us Carlos Kleiber, albeit in small doses. And that we have YouTube to remember him.


One more video I just discovered of a Kleiber rehearsal including a rousing performance of a very familiar song. Enjoy:

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things...

...was the title of a regular feature written by the newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris. I suppose were he alive today, Harris might alter the title to better reflect the era in which we live, perhaps something like: "Information Unintentionally Gleaned while Perusing the Internet." A less thoughtful writer might call a similar column: "Useless Shit I Found Out While Surfing the Web".

I don't know if any knowledge can really be considered useless, as one never knows where that knowledge might lead. My daughter and I are currently reading a book together called The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt which is about a creative young woman named Penelope, around my daughter's age, whose sense of wonder at the world is all but crushed by her controlling mother who insists that every waking moment of the child's life be put to "good use." No foolish, or unproductive activity like daydreaming or even writing down her thoughts in her journal was tolerated.

Of course her mother had good intentions as Penelope's dad kept reminding her, she only wanted the best for her child. What that meant was doing everything she could to insist that her daughter prepare herself for success in a very competitive world. So far, we're only a few chapters into the book but I can see where it's going, my guess is that eventually the mother will come to her senses, lighten up, and recognize that there is indeed something to be said for letting the mind wander at times. After all, some of the greatest ideas in history came to people when they least expected it.

Anyway, if you've read the book, please don't spoil it for me.

In the past month I've let my mind wander to a place it's been before. Despite working on a number of projects that deserve my full attention, including this blog, I've been obsessed  lately with computer programming. If you don't know me, that may seem like hardly a pointless obsession, after all, computer programming is a useful and well-compensated profession. However at this stage in my life, I'm hardly a candidate for employment in that industry, having absolutely no working experience in the field, and having to compete with kids nearly a third my age, just a little older than my son.

It was in fact my boy's enrolling in a computer programming class in high school that inspired me to brush off my old computer books, well the ones that I didn't weed out of my admittedly overstocked collection of volumes on the subject. For me, computer programming has been an avocation, an obsession that has kept me up at night so often that I truly understand why they chose to name not one but two of the most popular programming environments around after the substance most frequently used by programmers to keep them from falling asleep at their keyboards, Java.

Since programming for me is something I pick up sporadically, often years after I put it aside, I have to re-learn the basics, but even at my advanced age it comes back fast enough. This iteration (to borrow a well used programming term) of my obsession was inspired by the need to help my son get out of his class with an acceptable grade, since he has not inherited this passion of mine, at least not yet. Despite that I completely understand his predicament. His frustrations remind me of my own many many years ago when a small section on programming was included in a math class in high school. That was back in the days before personal computers, when all we had at school were terminals into which we would type our code, in the BASIC language if my memory serves, which would then be output onto punched paper tape. The tape then had to be mailed to a local university, in our case Northwestern, where it would be fed the school's mainframe computer, the kind that in those days would take up a good sized room. The result would be returned to us printed out on a sheet of paper which more often than not, instead of producing say, a nice list of all the prime numbers between one and one thousand, informed us that our program contained an error, or dozen, and would be terminated. The process from typing in the code to being informed of our failure took one week. Then we would repeat the process until we got a successful result. (borrowing some common BASIC  key words). Sometimes our efforts would result in an endless loop. Clearly this process did not put the computer in its best light, and no explanation by the teacher that we were unlocking the vast potential of the power of computers could make up for the fact that we could go through every number between one and one thousand, do the arithmetic by hand using long division, and still come up with all the primes to one thousand far quicker than we could with this "new and improved" system.

It's much the same in my son's class. Cutting out the middleman makes the feedback much quicker, but that doesn't lessen the sting of being told by a dumb machine that you screwed up over and over and over again. Not to mention the fact that kids today spend untold hours in front of a computer screen, creating with a minimum amount of effort or skill, a whole world, or at least a virtual representation of it, before their eyes. I feel for the teachers who have to convince their young students that there is much value to be had in learning to write several lines of code just to make a simple message like "hello world" display on the screen.

Anyway, I think it takes a special type of person to cut through all the tedium and initial failure, in order to be able to write successful code. Those people, and I'm including myself only to a small degree as I'll never fully measure up to the really serious ones, are derisvely called geeks, a term they, (we), have proudly adopted. What other person would spend countless sleepless nights just to figure out things like how to make a dot move from one end to the screen, to the other on its own? I've been there and done that.

For the last month, while it would have behooved me to concentrate on other things, I've been contemplaing algorithms that sort numbers, have struggled to write my own, and beat my head against a tree trying to wrap it around the subject of just how recursion works. I think I finally got it. And much like making a successful golf shot, the excitement. bordering on ecstasy, of finally getting an algorithm to work the way you want it to, keeps you coming back despite the inevitable frustrations of the process.

If you know anything about programming, from what I just told you, you know that I'm still at a pretty basic level. Armed with that knowledge however, I remain undaunted, convinced that at the very least, the mental exercise is helping keep the few brain cells I have left, alive and well.

Last week I asked my son what they were doing in programming class. He said they were learning about double arrays and that the teacher mentioned that these curious things were useful in several applications including writing the code for a tic-tac-toe game. Then I asked him if tic-tac-toe would be their next project. I thought it would be a great exercize to teach computer logic if not being a particularly challenging game in its own right. (Writing a program to play chess would be much too achallenging for a beginner class).

He told me there was no tic-tac-toe program in his future, so I decided to work on the problem myself. Without going into details, the gist of writing a tic-tac-toe program where the computer makes strategic moves to try to win, is have the computer figure out every conceivable sequence of moves. rate them, then choose the sequence that has the highest chance of winning. In order to do that you have to first write a sub-program that will calculate all the possible combinations for a series of numbers starting with nine, the number of spaces in a tic-tac-toe game, then reduce that number by one after each space is taken up by an X or an O.

It's easy to figure how many possible combinations, or permutations (if not the program to actually generate them), that you can make out a sequence of a given number objects. You take the number of objects (n), and multiply it by (n-1). Then you multiply that product by (n-2)  then (n-3) and so on, reducing the number subtrated by one until you reach 2. That operation is called a factorial and the symbol for the operation is the exclamation point (!) following the number. So 4! = 4 x 3 x 2, which equals 24. That means there are 24 different ways or permutations in which you can display 4 objects.

According to that formula, 5! = 120 and 6! = 6000. The word exponential is used as a metaphor for a rapid increase of something. But as you can see, factorials get really big, really really fast, in fact exponentially faster than exponents. For example, the factorial of nine,  or 9!, the number of possible moves in a game of tic-tac-toe, is 362,880!

I first understood this years ago in high school after I spent what was for me a small fortune on a scientific calculator. I was well versed in trigonometry at the time but didn't know what the x! button meant. So I tried it out and discovered that most of the numbers I applied it to resulted in the error message. The reason as you can probably guess is that very soon, the result of the calculation was greater than the number of digits available on the calculator. The factorial of 13 is 6 billion something, requiring 10 digits. If the calculator only had 10 digits available to it, 13! was the highest factorial the calculator could handle, as scientific calculators in the day, or at least mine, ironically did not provide scientific notation.

With that in mind I tried to conceive yesterday on the walk home from the train, what the factorial of 52 is, the number of playing cards in a standard deck of cards. In that vein I wondered what the probability was of shuffling a deck of cards and having them come out in the same order they were when the new pack was first opened. I asked my daughter what she thought the number would be. A couple thousand she said. My son guessed something in the millions. At that point I didn't know the answer but I assured them that the number of possibilities was far greater. However at the time, I had no clue how inconceivably large that number is.

This morning on the way to work, I remembered the question then googled "factorial of 52." The word astronomical doesn't even begin to describe how large the number is. In the words of the writer of this site specifically on how large 52! is:
most numbers that we already consider to be astronomically large are mere infinitesmal fractions of this number.
According to the scientific calculator found on the web, 52! = 8.0658175e+67

In layman's terms, how big is that number?

From that same website, the number is:


All those zeros at the end just mean that the number is so large, you'd have to write special code to calculate the number to complete precision. In other words, the number of possible arrangements of playing cards in a 52 card deck is the number above, give or take about 500 billion, which compared to the actual number, is a mere drop in the bucket.

So how big exactly is 8.0658175 times ten to the 67th power?

Again from the site:
Start a timer that will count down the number of seconds from 52! to 0. We're going to see how much fun we can have before the timer counts down all the way.
Start by picking your favorite spot on the equator. You're going to walk around the world along the equator, but take a very leisurely pace of one step every billion years. The equatorial circumference of the Earth is 40,075,017 meters. Make sure to pack a deck of playing cards, so you can get in a few trillion hands of solitaire between steps. After you complete your round the world trip, remove one drop of water from the Pacific Ocean. Now do the same thing again: walk around the world at one billion years per step, removing one drop of water from the Pacific Ocean each time you circle the globe.The Pacific Ocean contains 707.6 million cubic kilometers of water. Continue until the ocean is empty. When it is, take one sheet of paper and place it flat on the ground. Now, fill the ocean back up and start the entire process all over again, adding a sheet of paper to the stack each time you’ve emptied the ocean. 
Do this until the stack of paper reaches from the Earth to the Sun. Take a glance at the timer, you will see that the three left-most digits haven’t even changed. You still have 8.063e67 more seconds to go. 1 Astronomical Unit, the distance from the Earth to the Sun, is defined as 149,597,870.691 kilometers.So, take the stack of papers down and do it all over again. One thousand times more. Unfortunately, that still won’t do it. There are still more than 5.385e67 seconds remaining. You’re just about a third of the way done.
Unfortuantely I don't have that much time on my hands. Less than five steps into our journey as described above, the sun having nearly consumed its fuel source, will begin expanding into a red giant, eventually extending beyond the earth's orbit and consuming our beautiful planet. The one question I do have is this, will Trump still be president then?

Certainly by that time human beings, if  inded there indeed is still such a thing, will have figured out a way to leave the planet and the solar system but there is another bigger threat only four steps into our journey. At that time it is expected, and astronomers have gotten pretty good at predicting such things, that the galaxy in which we reside, we call it the Milky Way, will collide with the Andromeda galaxy, currently about 2.5 million light years or if you prefer. 1.47 times 10 to the 19th power or 14,700,000,000,000,000,000 miles away, That may seem like an awfully big number but you'd have to multiphy that number by 5.4869507 times ten to the 47th power to equal the number of variations you can make out of a simple deck of cards.

Now imagine the smallest thing you can imagine, atoms (ok there are components of atoms that are obviously smaller than atoms but play along with me here), and the largest thing you can imagine, the universe.

It is estimated that there are between 1 x 10 to the 78th power and 1 x 10 to the 82nd power atoms in the known universe. Now take the factorial of the number 60. It is 8.321 times ten to the 81st power, about equal to the number of atoms in the universe..That means if you had a deck of 61 cards, (not sure what kind of game you'd play with 61 cards), you could arrange them in more ways than there are atoms in the universe.

What all this means I have no idea. All I know is that I had better not try to plug the number 52 into my version of  Heap's permutation algorithm, which generates all the possible combinations of the number you give it. At a billion calculations per second (an extremely generous estimation of my computer's performance) the program would take approximately, hummm let's see:

22,405,049,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 hours to complete.

That's give or take way more than a few trillion hours which is about the amount of time physicists predict, when time itself will cease to exist.

Talk about losing track of time.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Gambling in Sports? I'm Shocked!

If you paid only a passing interest in the recent decision in the case known officially as Murphy, Governor of New Jersey, et al, v. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. et al, you might assume that the Supreme Court of the United States in its 7-2 ruling this week against the NCAA has just opened the door to all legalized sports betting in the United States. Well perhaps yes and perhaps no.

It was one of those rulings that could produce the comment, the law makes for strange bed fellows. What was being disputed here was a 1992 Federal law called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which prohibited states, with the exception of Nevada, from authorizing betting on sports. The law's sponsor was then New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, a former NBA star and noted Senate liberal. Bradley's primary motive in his support of the measure was to "safeguard the integrity of sports."

Even in retirement, Bradley remains adamant that the law he sponsored over a quarter century ago was good and just. He's still convinced that the expansion of legal gambling will destroy sports, especially at the collegiate level, because of the temptations for athletes who do not receive menetary compensation for their efforts, to cheat by intentionally playing to lose games. Now unless Bradley was as shocked as I was when I learned that illegal sports gambling exists, ok not really, it's hard to understand why he thinks that legal gambling would contribute any more to players cheating than illegal gambling. After all, the most famous scandal involving athletes paid by gamblers to intentionally lose were my own team. the Chicago White Sox, back in 1919. Those gamblers involved in the Black Sox affair were hardly on the up and up with the law.

Gambling on sports has been around at least since Ben Hur rode that chariot around the Roman Circus in Judea, c. 30AD, and probably a lot longer. Spectator sports we know and love like baseball owe their very existence to gambling, as in the early days they had to compete with sports like dog fighting and rat baiting for the public's attention. Baseball didn't win out over those activities because working men (fans were mostly men in those days) valued spending their hard earned money and their one day off just to watch other grown men play a slow moving children's game.

There are all sorts of arguments pro and con for legalized betting, and quite frankly I'm on the fence on the issue. On the one hand, gambling like drugs can become a serious addicition that can destroy lives. On the other hand also like drugs, people are going to gamble, regardless of whether it's legal or not, so we miight as well sanction, control and tax the hell out of it.

However the Supreme Court this week was not ruling on gambling per se, but on an act of Congress that even from my own very limited understanding of the law, seems unconsitutional. To be specific, Congress cannot dictate to state legislatures how to enforce laws. So says the tenth amendment of the Constitution:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
In other words, in this case, Congress, in the words of Justice Samuel Alito in his majority opinion,
...can regulate sports gambling directly (and for that matter, take on the responsibility of enoforcing that regulation) , but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own,
So the answer to the question above on whether sports gambling will run rampant across this nation, is not exactly, it's up to each state.

This might be considered the classic conservative/liberal argument over states' rights versus federal jurisdiction, but the tenth amendment is unequivocal, so along with the dependable four conservative votes on the court plus William Kennedy's swing vote, two justices considered left of center also voted with the majority.

Like most Supreme Court decisions, this one has ramifications that go well beyond the issues that inspired the original case.

Despite the unanimous ruling from the Right side of the court, it turns out that the Trump administration greatly opposed this ruling. Why? Because it runs afoul of the administration's plan to punish so-called sanctuary states and cities by witholding Federal funds from jurisdictions who refuse to enforce federal immigration laws. By stating that the federal government cannot impose laws within the jurisdiction of the state, it would logically follow that the feds can't, at least according to the Supreme Court's interpretation of the tenth amendment, require local police to enforce federal statutes such as immigration laws.

Too bad for Donald Trump that he can't fire the Supreme Court. For the rest of us, it's nice to know that we are a nation goverened by the rule of law, and there is precious little the president can do to stop it.