Nov 2019 newsletter

This is the November 2019 edition of the newsletter; previous, October 2019 (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









  • Giovanni Battista Piranesi (his prints, particularly Prisons, have been enjoying something of a pop culture renaissance; eg historical chronology conspiracy theorists now debate whether his Roman prints show the real Rome of his time—possibly not constructed by humans—and since falsely aged by a vast conspiracy, and whether Prisons too might be a true depiction of reality)


2.2 Books


  • Private Wealth in Renaissance Florence, Goldthwaite 1968 (slightly interesting book analyzing the surviving ledger books of several Florentine merchant families; because the books are often hyper-detailed, but also often survive incompletely or were not formally closed out at death, they offer a patchy look at fragments of careers but any lifetime assessment is highly speculative. Still, they are better documented than almost any business careers until quite recently, and Renaissance Italy is a fascinating time & place all its own. Perhaps the main takeaway for me is how difficult it is to transmit wealth and success inter-generationally: despite great success, most of the heirs of a successful businessman (and despite the selection effect here where the most successful clans are more likely to preserve their illustrious forebears’ ledgers as part of the family archives) are thoroughly mediocre. At least part of this seems to be a neutering effect of wealth: commerce has remarkably high returns, with ledgers recording annual profits as high as 14% being ordinary international trading & banking profits, but everyone’s impulse seems to be to dump it into the more prestigious land as fast as possible—despite land having returns closer to 2%!)

2.3 Film/TV


  • Akhnaten (Philip Glass; 2019 Met HD; libretto)

    Akhnaten is one of the shooting stars of history: a brilliant figure whose short career spans the world wreathed in flames and ending in agonies, like Alexander or Emperor Julian the Apostate or Napoleon. Posterity claims them for its own as their contemporaries could not. Akhnaten comes out of nowhere, declaring a new supreme god to dethrone Amun and a new city, only for it all to melt back into the sands of Egypt, damnatio memoriae’d & forgotten for thousands of years.1 Even without the connection to Tutankhaten (better known by his later name Tutankhamun), Akhnaten draws the eye of anyone interested in monotheism or ancient Egypt (such as Sigmund Freud) for how singular he is—how could such a monotheist (even if perhaps he was really just a henotheist) emerge in ancient Egypt, Egypt of the eternal cycles? Why did he worship the sun? Why did he seem to eventually turn on and persecute the old gods? How did he fall? What did he make of it all?

    Glass, wisely, does not attempt to answer this. We have no accounts from companions like Alexander, or chroniclers like Julian, or scores of volumes of letters & diaries like Napoleon. Egyptology struggles to infer the most basic facts about Akhnaten, like whether he fathered Tutankhamen or whether he co-ruled with his own father or when he persecuted the old gods. We have the striking “Great Hymn to the Aten”—which Glass makes the centerpiece of Akhnaten—but was that even written by Akhnaten? And we have nothing at all for Nefertiti (who may or may not have ruled after Akhnaten). With such scanty materials, the task is insurmountable.

    Instead, Glass aims at evoking a mood of Ægypt, as it were. Every scene is a ceremony (drawing on the Book of the Dead/Pyramid Texts), and movement is ritualized and slow, weighted with solemnity; the visual imagery, like Akhnaten’s ascent in front of a giant sun while singing his hymn, hits like a hammer. (Wagner would be jealous.) The music repeats with variation. In a particular stroke of production genius, a troupe of jugglers appears throughout as servants and soldiers etc; while initially a little perplexing, I soon realized that juggling was perfect, because the balls become symbolic of the heavens as they travel in orbits, always returning to the same point. (This was a risky choice because the juggling makes it difficult for the actors to move around safely, and even professional jugglers may drop balls over the course of several hours—as in fact they did several times. I do not blame them because while I liked Glass’s music, I’d find it staggeringly difficult to maintain my concentration & juggle in sync with the music for hours without an error.) The costumes are psychedelically weird: silk robes sweep blood-red across the stage during an ostensibly-romantic duet, and the idea to make Akhnaten’s royal robes out of gilded faces from baby dolls is inspired (although perhaps daemonically). Dislocatingly, the Met HD chooses to provide subtitles for neither the spoken English narration (commentary from Akhnaten’s deceased father Amenhotep III, the physically overpowering Zachary James, reduced to a passive observer) nor sung English (“Great Hymn to the Aten”) nor the various other languages.

    The net effect of the lighting, juggling, costuming, singing, and music is an altered state of consciousness and a religious awe. The sun rises, the sun sets; and there is always another meteor.

  • Madama Butterfly (Puccini; 2019 Met HD)

    Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas, and the crowded theater (both locally & in NYC) reflected it. The plot is trivial to summarize: in Act 1, Butterfly shows up and is married and bedded by a caddish American naval officer who bluntly admits he intends to abandon her; in Act 2, she denies that she has been abandoned and awaits her husband; in Act 3, she commits suicide upon realizing she has been abandoned. Even compared to some operas, this is remarkably simple: a handful of characters, a single setting, and scenes set on just 3 days.

    It’s interesting to contrast it to the two operas I watched last month, Turandot & Manon: all 3 share the same theme of a female protagonist who risks ruin in love, but the ruin is different each time—in Turandot, Turandot ruins countless men by refusing all of them in a particularly vicious way and nearly dooms herself to spinsterhood, and in Manon, Manon is ruined because she accepts a worthy man but spurns him for a brief but glorious life as a courtesan only to realize too late that she made the wrong choice, while in Madama Butterfly, Butterfly is ruined because she accepts an unworthy man but refuses to spurn him when she finally realizes her mistake. (To make this list exhaustive, we’d need an opera in which a woman accepted a worthy man and was then faithful to him as they lived happily ever after. But what fun would that be?)

    Turandot was unsatisfactory in examining Turandot’s psychology and motivation, but Madama Butterfly is more unsatisfactory, because its length gives it less excuse for providing less. Why is Butterfly so in love with a cad? What causes such fidelity? For that matter, why is the cad such a cad? He rather cheerfully plans his exploitation of Butterfly, and only in Act 3 experiences any remorse (far too late of course), and is too much of a coward to even see Butterfly again, depriving the opera of a potentially insightful scene. (Compare, say, Carmen, where the characters are almost too believable.) The characters are as thin as the paper of a shōji wall. Certainly, Butterfly is tragic, but it is the tragedy of watching a cartoon villain kick a puppy and not a person. The suffering of a dog like Hachikō is particularly pure, but if Puccini wished to compose an opera on that theme, he should’ve done so on Hachikō.

    And also like Turandot, it seems Madama Butterfly rises on the strength of its music and scenery rather than plot or psychological insight or realism. Here it is excellent. A mirror across the roof of the stage emphasized dramatic single-color lighting and characters mounting up steps to come onto stage, or hanging rope curtains of cherry blossoms. The production makes striking use of black-clad kuroko stagehands & puppeteers on stage to slide shōji walls to rearrange the stage and assist entrances/exits, or to carry paper globes or cranes, or to manipulate a bunraku-style puppet (used for Butterfly’s son in Act 2–3, and a dream sequence). As strange as it sounds to have 3 men clad in black hunched over a puppet of a little boy with a permanently surprised expression dressed in a sailor outfit as a major character, the puppet & Butterfly are entirely credible a pair—perhaps more so than Butterfly and her cad (the latter played by a last-minute substitution performing for the first time, interestingly). The 3 acts all end on visual high notes: surrounded by stars, kneeling into the sunset, and at the center of a cross of red silk. (I did notice that the Met HD production people screwed up the camera placements a few times, obstructing the view of one camera with another, which was odd given how simple this opera is.)

    If opera is “poster art”, then Madama Butterfly succeeds splendidly and deserves its popularity.


  • Porco Rosso (rewatch; the kinship with The Wind Rises is even more apparent now, but Porco Rosso IMO works better because it doesn’t try to force an answer. Anno half-seriously criticized it for being a Miyazaki self-insert fic where he’s the hero and the center of a love triangle, to boot, but maybe that’s not so bad; the beauty of seaplanes, who travel between the sea and sky, at home in both, is enough to justify it.)

  • The Tatami Galaxy (rewatch)

  • Belladonna of Sadness (ANN review)

    A relatively-recently rediscovered anime movie, this is an Artistic Movie. The overall impression it gives is someone watched Disney’s Fantasia and decided that what was necessary was to increase the psychedelia rate by 1000%, and increase the nipple rate by ∞% while moving towards a heavily Art Nouveau/Klimt-like aesthetic (“Art Nouveau on acid”?).

    But, unfortunately, their budget was wildly inadequate to the vision, and so a bunch of students from the local art school were hired to animate segments, given vague instructions, and told to come back with 20s of finished animation or else. So the film lurches from slow static pans to brief (often repetitive) animated segments of every kind. Also, the writer had a bad LSD trip and disappeared before the script was finished, so the plot hardly makes sense. (Something about oppression of peasantry leading the titular Jeanne—who may or may not have anything to do with Joan of Arc?—to make a deal with the Devil and then many sex scenes and orgies later, somehow, the French Revolution is involved…?

    The ANN reviewer is generous in interpreting this mishmash as a coherent feminist manifesto, and probably wrong in interpreting the Devil as a good guy. Both Jeanne and the Devil have too inconsistent motivation to be interpreted meaningfully: why, for example, does a powerful witch allow herself to be burned if she really wanted to rule the world?) Belladonna is ambitious, and the art is sometimes great, but its failures severely try the viewer’s patience.

    Like HELLS or Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space, I can recommend it to those willing to put up with severe flaws for the sake of seeing something rather different from the norm.

  • Ushio and Tora (revival of a shonen classic; thematically shows its age but, having only been familiar with the ’90s comedy OVA, I didn’t realize how dark it would get)

2.4 Music


  1. Curiously, Glass himself seems to have described Akhnaten as a success: “Akhnaten had changed his (and our) world through the force of his ideas and not through the force of arms.”. Shalom Goldman also mentions that Glass was interested in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, which (controversially and almost surely incorrectly) claims that Akhnaten’s ideas were preserved and ultimately created Moses & Judaism, so perhaps that is how Glass interprets Akhnaten as a success.↩︎