February 2019 news

February 2019 gwern.net newsletter with 2 essays/projects, site improvements; links on genetics, AI, propaganda, and typography; and 1 opera review.
newsletter, GPT, opera
20 Jan 201901 Jul 2020 finished certainty: log importance: 0

This is of the gwern.net newsletter; previous, (). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my & ; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.


  • (; )

  • “Origin of ‘Littlewood’s Law of Miracles’”

  • gwern.net CSS/HTML/JS changes: click-to-zoom images (using image-focus.js); headers are now self-links; Tufte CSS-style epigraph support; Table of Contents: Wikipedia-style section numbering, margin & size tweaks, lightweight subset of (for Mac users); nicer diamond list icons; sleeker sidebar (especially nice on mobile); PDF/internal/section links are now annotated with icons; borders on tables, image figures, and blockquotes; in text & tabular numerals in tables; (but not in Chrome due to decade-old lack of hyphenation); narrowed maximum body-width in characters & made line-height responsive to body-width (hopefully addresses the perennial complaints that pages are always too wide/too narrow/lines too close); quote highlighting disabled by default; collapsible code-blocks; inline smallcaps support; optimized SVG logo & favicon; page-specific CSS overrides enabled; list paragraph bugs in Pandoc fixed; compressed JPEGs; changed code syntax-highlighting scheme to match overall esthetics better; miscellaneous responsive design/mobile improvements

    • image-focus.js (JS/CSS): release of new, correct, lightweight, dependency-free JS library written by Obormot for implementing “click to zoom” on images (useful for large images/graphs)




  • Practical Typography, 2013 (a useful if idiosyncratic introduction to typography with a word processor/HTML focus; reading through this was helpful in understanding possible CSS/design improvements while improving gwern.net this month)




I attended a live broadcast in my local movie theater of the performance of Carmen on 2 February 2019 in the (the titular role played by with malignant splendor), which was part of their long-running broadcast series, one of a number of special screenings distributed through Fathom Events.

While watching in December 2018, I noticed it was done through a “Fathom Events” rather than the usual movie distributors, and made a note to look that up afterwards. I did and realized it was actually something I had intended to look more into almost a decade ago, way back in 2008, when I noticed that the local university theater had live opera broadcasts. Opera, while more of a topic for parody these days than anything else (even among urban elites), is nevertheless one of the major Western art forms and a major influence (or at least, assumed common knowledge) on so many important Westerners like Friedrich Nietzsche, and I’d always felt the lack of seeing one. Even if I did not like them, I still ought to see at least one to know what they are like. But actually going into NYC to the Met would be an all-day trip on the train, quite expensive, and requiring advance planning. (I was not bothered by the need for subtitles, as I have always needed & preferred them.) The broadcasts were a better approach, but I still needed to figure out when exactly any of them aired, how one gets tickets for them, which ones I might want to see, and so on, and unsurprisingly, I never did wind up going & soon enough forgot entirely about the Met broadcasts. Once in a while I might think about finding a filmed version, but watching one on a TV or computer screen seems unfaithful enough to the original & sufficiently diminished/unrepresentative to hardly be worthwhile. So when I saw them on the Fathom Events website, I resolved to not let it slip this time, and fortunately for me, the first opera was Carmen, which I knew to be one of the most popular & exciting operas, and an excellent first choice, and scheduled a reminder to go.

Day of, I showed up, and behind a crowd of elderly people, bought my $22 ticket. (Expensive, but it is not your ordinary movie, and much longer as well: 3h40m nominally.) I was surprised how large the audience was: I counted at least 120 people in the auditorium. I was not the youngest person there, but I was not far off.

The broadcast began sometime before I showed up as a live feed of the audience in the Met Opera House, switching between multiple angles and parts of the audience; modern opera-going audiences appear to not dress up much, and selfies were much in evidence. The live audience was far younger than my remote audience, and I suspect most of them were tourists, benefiting from a tourist-friendly 1PM–5PM Saturday scheduling to see big city opera. It was quickly clear that this was no cut-rate broadcast with one or two fixed perspectives zoomed back to cover the whole stage being aired at low resolution and jittery streaming, but one with a full complement of cameras & crew and dynamic movie-style directing yielding a rock-solid high-res video stream. The broadcast switched over to some introductions with our host set backstage among the technical crew like the sound engineers. (Hunched in front of their giant consoles with all the knobs and widgets, they reminded me of the air traffic controllers in the NY TRACON, or sailors in control rooms.) Then the opera began in earnest.

The opera was amazing. How could one get up? It’s such a vivid tragedy, watching Margaine’s Carmen casually seduce another woman’s man for the challenge and then, growing bored after forcing him to sacrifice everything, discarding him, dooming them both. The directing of the cameras was skillfully handled, and the subtitles (doubtless drawn up in advance) threaded the fine line between distractingly translating every last spoken fragment or repeated chorus & translating so little one became confused. The time flew by to the intermission, where the broadcast again went above & beyond—where the live audience sees the curtain fall and presumably must kill time by wandering off to the bathroom or idling on their phones, the broadcast audience instead goes behind the curtain again, to watch the Met Opera House’s famous technical features in action as the stages and sets rotate, pieces descend on wires to fit in place, sets get trotted in piece by piece by a small army, nervous actors assemble in their place and do little routines to psych themselves up, and a few of the actors or staffers get interviewed (like the child actors, 11–13yo, whose interview may not have shed tremendous light on anything, but they certainly handled it better than I would’ve at their age & they did seem to be having fun scampering around on stage). I always like seeing behind the scenes, so I didn’t even get up for the intermission.

The ceaseless assault of music, singing, choreography and sets, while not necessarily superior in every point of detail (there are musicals whose best songs or lyrics are better than Carmen’s best songs or lyrics, ballets or dances whose best dancing is better, dramas whose best writing is better, symphonies whose best music is better etc), adds up to more than their sum. At first glance, it seems strange to have such long scenes which consist of a few lines sung over and over again, and to have such extreme shifts in characters, like falling in love at first sight or becoming murderous in an instant; no play or movie or novel, even ones which aren’t trying to be realistic, would dare such rapid shifts. Even source material for operas like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which do have rapid development of changes which normally would require decades, or at least months, have lengthy speeches detailing character evolutions to make them believable. Perhaps the evolution is cut short and characters change largely by fiat, and repeat lines so much, because it’s extremely hard to write 3+ hours of good music corresponding to a comparable amount of text as a regular play; it is difficult enough to write great music which is just a few minutes long and can be on any topic, and it must be even harder to write 3 hours of transcendent music covering things like Juliet bickering with her nurse. The opera, however, is like a waking dream: just as a dream compresses centuries of epic drama into a few minutes of REM sleep, because our critical faculties are shut down by sleep and we will accept any illogic and go along with what it meant, an opera combines the singing and music to power through the plot and create the necessary effects in the audience. We can accept that the heroine has fallen madly in love with the hero for no reason other than a letter, because the combined effect of her singing with the orchestra reinforcing her in the midst of the on-stage pageantry overwhelms us with her emotions and forces us to believe (while reading the libretto would leave us rolling our eyes). Taking any breaks for play-style dialogue or attempting to be more realistic risks breaking the spell by slackening the intensity.2

Watching Carmen brings home to me why opera survives, and why it was for so many centuries the pinnacle of European art, a sacred sacrament at Bayreuth, a fixation of intellectuals like Nietzsche, and a challenge to composers like Mozart: the opera form is indeed the par excellance, in combining all the art forms into one. Consider an opera like during the victory march scene, and what it requires: massive Egyptian sets, which must be changed every act, constructed and operated by scores of stagehands, using mechanized stages and rigging to allow ascents & descents & rotations; a specialized stage with an orchestra pit in a large opera building located centrally in a major city (the only places an opera can be supported); a full orchestra full of >70 (or 120 for Wagner!) professional musicians capable of playing the most technically demanding music for at least 2 hours in concert with the singers on stage, with expensive instruments and finely-typeset musical scores; a dozen equally opera singers for the major roles, who must memorize and sing hours of lyrics, and then typically scores of extras singing in chorus (for a Met production of Aida, at one point I counted over 100 people on stage singing before I gave up); financial support for all of this during months of rehearsals which will yield a handful of performances during the opera season, after which the opera house will shut down for months, and much of the work must be redone for the next production. Just the scenery and infrastructure is highly demanding—it’s no accident that one keeps reading about opera houses like the aptly-named burning down. All of these art forms must in a seamless unity and maintained at the highest pitch of perfection for several hours, and any failure will be screechingly obvious. Performing an opera like the is an esthetic Manhattan Project. It tasks the entire artistic establishment of a nation, and putting on a successful opera must have functioned for developing countries somewhat like building a particle accelerator or launching a rocket or holding an Olympics does now: proof of wealth, competence, and the ability to coordinate and combine many disparate technically-demanding task.

I stumbled out impressed and regretful I hadn’t followed through a decade ago. Am I an opera fan? I don’t know, but I’m giving it another go.

I immediately checked for the next broadcasts on Fathom Events, but was not too interested by the description of 3, the is sadly not being broadcast at my theater, but there is of Wagner’s I am excited about—I enjoyed reading as a kid, so how much better should it be to see an actual production of it? (It may not be Bayreuth, but at least I don’t have to & travel halfway around the world only to get a heavy-handed environmental parable with copulating crocodiles).

  1. Further reading from “Genomics of human aggression: current state of genome-wide studies and an automated systematic review tool”, Odintsova et al 2019:

    Reviewed papers from Table 2:

    Other papers from Table 3:

    See also:

  2. How then do Broadway-style musicals—which usually intersperse long play-like segments in between the musical numbers—still work? I think they may work by concentrating all the musical effort into making the musical numbers even more catchy than the music in an opera, which must fill time.↩︎

  3. I would watch some of it in March 2020 and wasn’t impressed.↩︎