February 2020 Gwern.net newsletter

This is the February 2020 edition of the gwern.net newsletter; previous, January 2020 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.

1 Writings

2 Media

2.1 Links











2.2 Books


2.3 Film/TV


  • Apollo 11 (2019 documentary on the 1969 Apollo 11)

    Apollo 11 revisits the NASA archives and, in an exercise somewhat similar to They Shall Not Grow Old in making the old shockingly new, extracts never-before-seen clean high-res color footage to stitch together into a single continuous contemporary documentary without any later props or talking-heads or interviews, using instead contemporary news commentary/narration. The Apollo program benefited from the knowledge they were making history, and could afford multiple roving camera crews with high-end film cameras; there are so many that (reminding me of The King of Kong), they can show scenes in parallel, like during the launch where each controller group apparently had its own cameraman. (The rapid back-and-forths also emphasize the degree to which NASA approximated a giant open-air computer and how organizations back then had to use a lot of humans & bureaucracy to control processes which we would now implement in software. I am pretty sure neither NASA nor SpaceX need such crowded control rooms or enormous contingents of nerds these days.) The sheer number of people and checks involved reminds one of the immense care and dedication to thinking through plans, testing, preparing, and sciencing the shit out of things it takes to audaciously let 3 monkeys in a can walk on the Moon and come back on the first try. (As ideologies go, Western science is a pretty good one.)

    Because we’re not used to seeing (non-fiction) footage from the 1960s which is so high-quality and tend to forget that the Apollo program didn’t just ‘happen’ but was carefully stage-managed and the best available equipment used, the footage of intimate details and narration is too good and produces a feeling of hyperreality—it was hard to shake the feeling that I was watching a large-budget Hollywood movie rather than the real thing. (“Such dedication to getting the handheld cameras & snacks for the spectators right! Props to the props department! And their hair, it’s so 1960s!” I thought inanely.)

    Similarly, who knew that the Apollo crew had so much time to mess around with cameras inside their space capsule, or that the lunar descent had been filmed so thoroughly? It is one thing to read about the last-minute error and Neil Armstrong earning his place by navigating the dust to land with just seconds of fuel left, and quite another thing to experience it.

    Strongly recommended for anyone with an interest in space, greatness, or reality.

  • Porgy and Bess (Met HD opera; Gershwin)

    Another unusually recent opera, Porgy and Bess is famous for not just focusing on African-Americans but legally discriminating against non-African-Americans in its casting (WP describes the white Gershwin stipulating this because “he believed that Metropolitan Opera staff singers could never master the jazz idiom, which could instead only be sung by a black cast”), yet, received as denigrating and insulting early on and its reputation rising as a beautiful portrayal of a marginal and long-gone community. (In its reception, it reminds me of Freaks, which similarly featured a mainstream creator/director spending time with a stigmatized and obscure group and trying to preserve them, only to be accused of exploiting them for public mockery.) The circumstances were surprisingly political too: the Met manager took to the stage to announce that while the lead Porgy was ill, he would still be performing, alluding to the ‘dark times’ we were experiencing in which spirits needed lifting (he was not referring to coronavirus, which was still being pooh-poohed as a purely Chinese matter); later, during the extras, an actress brought in to advertise Agrippina much later in February, noted its portrayal of lies in the search of the supreme executive power was sadly all too contemporary. Two such naked references to Trump, where I had seen none in all the Met HD opera broadcasts previously, makes me think people in NYC were taking Trump’s impending inevitable acquittal rather hard—they must truly had been convicted he would be convicted, and to see it whimper out, however utterly predictably, must be painful. Fortunately, the HD debut was damaged by neither disease nor disappointment.

    The plot is ostensibly like Manon, in which the beautiful but aging drug addict Bess, who has been enjoying the high life with her thuggish paramour (and pimp?) Crown, is abandoned when he impulsively murders another man after drinking & gambling at the end of the working day when all the employed men return and becomes a fugitive. She is scorned by the community, but taken in by the lonely crippled beggar Porgy, who discovers how much he needed to love and be loved. A third man, “Sportin’ Life”, slithers about the stage tempting people into buying drugs (cocaine), or just hanging about, waiting for an opportunity to take Bess off to the Big City and prostitute her out for a few years to make some real money, instead of peddling out in the sticks to poor fishermen.

    The murdered man is not forgotten, and his funeral proceeds (despite a lack of money for the undertaker), and Bess is accepted when she says she has become an honest woman and tries to make amends. The women try to knit things back together and keep the men on the straight & narrow (bourgeois) path, but are constantly set back by men like Sportin’ Life, extravagances like gambling (the funeral shortfall is similar to the amount we saw lost gambling), men taking unnecessary risks (like fishing in a storm), and female defectors like Bess or Manon.

    Crown, in hiding on an island, reappears during a picnic, and Bess is unable to resist his masculinity and alpha ways. He returns to claim her for good in the middle of a devastating hurricane, boasting of defeating God, and vaunting his strength with vulgar song. Another woman runs out into the storm, fearful for her hardworking (but now drowned) husband, and Crown leaves to show off further by assisting her. He survives but she does not, leaving her child an orphan (and perpetuating the cycle of poverty). Crown returns again that night, but Porgy chokes him to death. Porgy is arrested for Crown’s murder, but the community is reflexively silent (as it was for the original murder) and he is eventually released for lack of evidence. Unfortunately, Sportin’ Life has struck, and convinced Bess that Porgy would be locked up for life, and in despair she relapses into her expensive drug addiction, and they leave for the city. Porgy learns this, and having little choice, enslaved by his love, departs from his home for a distant city with no place for him; as noble as love may be, one feels that his love has doomed Porgy to years of misery, at best, before possibly a faded Bess returns to him (assuming she does not die of disease, drugs, or delinquents during).

    While ostensibly about Porgy & Bess from start to finish, it quickly becomes apparent that the opera is really about the community: the damage done by gambling, drinking, and extreme events like murder; the difficulty of surviving the elements in dangerous subsistence occupations; problems caused by well-intentioned but destructive intrusions from the outside, like the justice system; and falling back on religion as a crutch for weak willpower and defense against social pathologies. What is built over decades is demolished in an instant—a single stab bickering over nothing, a choice to fish in hurricane season, and leaving to follow a no-account woman.

  • Agrippina (Met HD opera; George Frideric Handel)

    A surprisingly ribald & ironic comedy of Agrippina scheming to make Nero the Emperor Nero, drawing on Tacitus & Suetonius (taking many liberties with characters, particularly Poppea/Ottone). I and the audience laughed regularly at the broad physical comedy. Spoilers: she succeeds.

    This production sets the drama in a vaguely-1980s Manhattan (but with smartphones), and leans in to the comedy and sexual manipulation. The MILF empress Agrippina, having secretly learned her husband Emperor Claudius has drowned, without formally naming an heir (Claudius’s other children, particularly Britannicus, never come up), summons her son (from an earlier marriage) Nero. Nero, cross-played by Kate Lindsey, is a heavily-tattooed club rat, a coke fiend, something of a break-dancer (Lindsey is given gymnastic choreography, including an aria while planking, which is just plain showing off), and a sociopath who hungers for the throne to better sate his desires, including his Oedipal ones. (The cross-play is not as arbitrary as it seems: Handel wrote the role for castrati.) Agrippina reveals the truth, and sends him out into the streets to bribe the masses and show his philanthropy for the cameras. Simultaneously, she rushes to recruit Claudius’s two primary supporters (Narcissus & Pallas), both of whom lust after her, and promises each of them her exclusive affections should Nero ascend; meta-fictionally, she meets the second at the opera, where the pamphlet helps cover up a handjob she administers to seal the deal. (Fortunately, she brought hand sanitizer in her purse.)

    The plot succeeds, and Nero is being acclaimed—when Claudius returns alive. He had been saved from drowning by a heroic officer, Ottone, and has decided to designate Ottone his successor. Agrippina’s scheme foiled, she lucks out when the guileless Ottone confides in her that he wishes only to marry the beautiful Poppea: who is the target of Ottone, Claudius and Nero. Agrippina seizes the opportunity of this love polygon, and tells the gullible Poppea that Ottone has betrayed her for the throne, and she should get revenge by telling the horny Claudius that Ottone was denying him her affections. Enraged, Poppea plays along. Claudius, played by the blinkered bear-like Matthew Rose (who plays the lecherous old man comedy-bits well, including the attempts at sexy poses), falls for it. Despite her success, Poppea is crushed by the betrayal of her love, ripping up old love letters and stuffing her face with a box of Valentine chocolates.

    The next day, instead of anointing Ottone, degrades him, proclaiming him a traitor without further explanation. All and sundry desert him, Agrippina slapping him on her way out. Alone in his despair, Ottone gets the longest segment of the opera. Nero finally gets named the heir, and Agrippina appears to have won. To tidy up loose ends, she orders the two supporters to murder each other.

    Drunk at a bar, Poppea laments Ottone’s betrayal, falling asleep. In an extended interlude, the barflies snap selfies with the drunk Poppea, and continue drinking and admiring the bartender’s juggling and dancing (to a harpsichord instead of a jazz pianist) when who should Ottone walk in and overhear her mumblings? He convinces her to hear him out, and Poppea realizes how Agrippina deceived her. Instead of unmasking Agrippina, she plots her own revenge, by telling both Claudius and Nero to come to her penthouse at the same time. She hides Nero in a closet (with Ottone in another—no wonder women need so many closets), and when Claudius comes, reveals she ‘really’ meant Nero was the one obstructing him, and as proof of how Nero was harassing her, pulls him out of the closet. Claudius is infuriated at Nero’s low morals, and expels him.

    The two supporters, having decided that trying to murder each other is not that appealing after all, throw themselves on Claudius’s mercy, revealing the original plot to put Nero on the throne. Claudius summons everyone, and enquires into what exactly is going on. Agrippina persuades him her intentions were benign and preserved the throne for him in his absence, and he decrees that—as in any proper comedy—everyone will get what they want, and there will be a marriage, with Ottone and Poppea wedding while Nero will ascend the throne.

    All’s well that ends well, happy music plays, and the curtain descends, as Claudius’s butler, who has killed time in between arranging arraignments by reading a copy of Tacitus, turns to the end and starts laughing. The End.

    The comic ending, of course, is ironic, as any viewer in 1709, steeped in the classics like Tacitus & Suetonius, would be well aware, because this is actually a tragedy, a tragedy of how Claudius failed in the vital matter of the succession: far from having cleared everything up and ensured a happy ending, Claudius set the stage for disaster—Claudius & both supporters were likely murdered by Agrippina after he began considering a different heir than Nero, Nero would then murder Agrippina and become one of the worst Roman Emperors ever, which would dismay the noble Ottone who thought only of the empire’s good and the love of Poppea, and who would be banished by Nero (ultimately committing suicide after his own bid for emperorship fell through post-Nero), a divorce forced, and Poppea taken for his own, only to be beaten into miscarriage by Nero. Nero himself didn’t exactly die in his sleep, either. The slapstick and sexual comedy emphasizes this by the contrast; as they pursue their petty lusts and schemes, they set in motion disaster on a vast scale.

    Compared to other later actions, it is striking how univocalic and straightforward the action is: every scene is dominated by the single voice of the character pursuing the action, and deceiving the other characters, often alternating between their spoken deceptive ‘dialogue’ and truthful monologue asides. Agrippina in particular always has a plan and is executing it, without a shred of remorse; it’s not so much that she’s evil as she is aimed solely at the goal of enthroning Nero, and nothing else enters into her amoral considerations (like Nero being a sociopath), as she dances to her own music with celebratory booze. (It is something of a uniquely female role: Agrippina is utterly invested in Nero, as she can have no more children; it’s harder to see a man quite the same, as they always have other options, and to be pursuing other intrinsic drives like conquest and prestige.)

    Entertaining, funny, and beautiful, Agrippina is worth a watch.