Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sacrifice, Monogamy and Altruism

From the perspective by Karla Hoff.
Excellent sermon this morning on the need for humility in leadership ("a king, riding on a donkey"). For the OT reading we had Psalm 118 and I noticed that there is a fascinating variant reading given for v27: instead of "With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar." it can be read as "Bind the festal sacrifice with ropes and take it to the horns of the altar."

The Septuagint has συστήσασθε ἑορτὴν ἐν τοῖς πυκάζουσιν which means "celebrate the festival with the close covering": my version has "celebrate the festival with thick branches, binding the victims even to the horns of the altar".

The point of course is that not only is this the triumphal entry but it also points to Jesus' sacrifice of himself on the cross.

I've been meaning to blog for a while about a couple of papers:

  • "Altruism, Spite, and Greenbeards" Science 327 (1341-1344) points out that "strict lifetime monogamy, in which females only mate with one male in their entire life, is crucial for the evolution of eusociality." This provides a very natural scientific basis for understanding the critical importance of "thou shalt not commit adultery"
  • "Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment" Science 327(1480-1484) shows that adherence to a Major World Religion (Christianity/Islam - they don't distinguish) correlates positively with increased altruistic behaviour across many societies, and had by far the highest effect of the variables studied. (see the Perspective by Karla Hoff)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Paul Nurse and the Great Ideas of Biology

To the RI for Paul Nurse's talk on The Great Ideas of Biology. His list is:
  1. The Cell as the basic unit of life. He traces this back to Hooke in 1775.
  2. The Gene as the basic unit of heredity, going back to Mendel. He praises Mendel for focusing on material you can understand, for having a bold theoretical hypothesis and for being quantitative. He notes that Darwin found the same 3:1 ratio when studying snapdragons in 1868 but just noted it, without having a theory. Mendel was ignored for 35 years and then three separate groups rediscovered his results in 1900-1: the discovery of Chromosomes helped people see why this was important.
  3. Evolution by Natural Selection. He points out that evolution per se dates to Lamark and Erasmus Darwin, but Charles did the careful observations to bring it all together and added Natural Selection. Though he notes that Patrick Matthew had a few paras on it in his 1831 treatise on Naval Timber, as well as Wallace discovering it independently.
  4. Life as Chemistry. He dates this to Lavoissier and Laplace.
  5. Biology as an Organised System. By this he means that we have to understand biology in terms of system behaviour, feedback, dynamics and information. I think he is pushing the computer analogy a bit too hard, and in my question in the Q&A drew his, and the audience's, attention to Denis Noble's excelent The Music of Life. He points out that a systems view of life can be traced back to Kant.

His key point was that we need to get people to think about biology in terms of big ideas: there is too much focus on micro-detail and the Peer Review system has something to answer for in that respect.

He was aslo asked in the Q&A what his 6th great idea would be, and he thought something around ecology and evolution, specifically mentioning Bob May. For a 7th he'd suggest that there is more to Evolution than just Natural Selection.

Althogether a very stimulating evening.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Kate Gould Cello Trust Concert

Concert last night by the wonderful Kate Gould to raise money for her cello. She was accompanied by the Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson. They began with Brahms' 1st sonata and then the Beethoven A Major: pieces I know well and used to play.

The Beethoven was a truly wonderful performance: hard to see how it could have been better, and especially the last movement. Kate is a superb player and Beatson has a tremendous and delicate technique and musicianship - they were really in the zone for this. The Brahms was also of course very good - how could it fail to be: a masterpiece played by two such talented musicians? It would have been even better if they had remembered* that it is a "Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello", seated themselves so that they could see each other and played it as more of a partnership. Perhaps Beatson, who seems very nice as well as talented, was so conscious that this was a concert to show off Kate's Cello.

I met Nigel Brown whose admirable Stradivarius Trust has enabled so many talented instrumentalists to acquire their instruments, and who is a Trustee of Kate's Cello trust. A great evening.

* I edited the Wikipedia article this morning to make these points clear.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gifts of the Spirit and Brendel on Schubert

Lifegroup last night was a v joyful occasion. Our leader the Associate Vicar was back having been leading a course that clashed with the group. Good talk on the Gifts of the Spirit and then an interesting questionnaire trying to help people identify the ways in which we are best suited to serve.

I'm reading Brendel's wonderful essay on Schubert's Lasrt Sonatas, exploring the extraordinary connections between the last three. Not only fascinating from a musicological PoV, but has many gems, such as:
  • When they appeared in print 11 years after Schubert died they were dedicated by the publisher to Schumann. "Regrettably, the last sonatas disappointed him. He criticised their 'much greater simiplicity...[These pieces] ripple along from page to page...' It is to be hoped that Schimann, in later years, became better acquainted with the works and regretted his verdict. Not even from him will I accept that Schubert's sonatas 'ripple along'" (my italics).
  • Dvorak and Brahms on repeats. Dvorak writes of the symphonies "If the repeats are omitted, a course of which I thouroughly approve and which indeed is now generally adopted, they are not too long". And Brahms "told a young musician ... 'when the piece was new to the audience, the repeat was necessary; today the work is so well known that I can go on without it'"
  • "Haydn springs surprises, while Schubert, I think, allows himself to be surprised"

There is also in the next little essay A Footnote on the Playing of Schubert's Four-Hand Works the wonderful anecdote: "During a perforamance I once became entangled in the evening suit of Daniel Barenboim becasue we had spent all our rehersal in shirtsleeves"

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Rover

To school production of The Rover where Daughter is playing Don Antonio the Viceroy's Son - not a huge part but a fun one, esp when you get to wear a Zorro costume. Once again she gets to spar with Emma Hall, also in a Zorro costume. They are a terrific double act and both hope they will do at least some acting together at Cambridge. Peter was at school with John Polkinghorne, and remembers him as a bright mathematician and philosopher even as a schoolboy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Messiah for Lady Margarets

Yesterday did a "come and sing" Messiah with C - organised by Lady Margaret School as a fundraiser. It was conducted, excellently, by Ralph Allwood, who is Precentor and Director of Music at Eton and organises the famous Eton Choral Course. A fine team of young soloists: Jenny Bacon (Sop) and Richard Wilberforce (Countertenor) who read Music at Cambridge and knew Sasha there.

Messiah is such a great piece and it always reveals new riches, and is just a knockout so often. And I had forgotten how much I enjoy singing choral music. Through it, the glory of the Lord can indeed be revealed.

Also very unusual to have a work-free Saturday!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Enron, Lehman and Constructive Engagement

Last night to Enron - a very interesting play well worth seeing. Went with an American Investor friend so everyone well clued up. Accents are not good, but who cares. The second act perhaps lags a little.

Then today it is announced the Lehman Bros was using Repo 105 techniques to hide its true financial condition - strangely reminiscent of Enron where 3% external capital allowed it to keep the "raptors" off their books. Amazing.

Publisher wants to do a 2nd Edition of Constructive Engagement so this should be coming out in 2011.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

NYC and a stunning Boehme

Very intense but highly enjoyable visit to NYC. Flew in on Thurs night and spent Fri am preparing for a meeting which had been fixed on Weds night. Stayed at the Algonquin and for no reason I can imagine they upgraded me to a suite named after a famous actress and singer. Certainly a bit easier to work with a separate bedroom.

The meeting went well but limited recovery time before enjoyable dinner with business contact. Sat ran in Central Park then prepared breifing note for a delightful and brilliant (Nobel Laureate) economist who has become an adviser and friend. He and his wife joined me for La Boehme at the Met where my friend Nicole was singing Musetta.

Opera house is huge (3,900 seats, RoH is only 2,268) rather stunning, modern-ish (opened 1966) and part of a complex which includes Fisher Hall, the Julliard and 2 other 1,000+ seat theatres, one of which is home to the NY City Ballet and the NY City Opera. There are two magnificent large paintings by Mattise, the Triumph of Music and The Sources of Music. The Zeferelli production is indeed wonderful, and the whole cast were superb. Netrebko has an extraordinary voice, all the men (a Pole called Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo the lead Tenor, a Canadian (Gerald Finley), an Italian and a Chinaman called Shenyang who won 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World) very good and Nicole was superb as Musetta: the flamboyant strong-willed beauty who is the counterpart to Mimi the shy consumptive.

I am glad I hadn’t seen it before: I would find it annoying if it were not done superbly. I’m not really an admirer of Puccini and the libretto is so obviously written by a 19th C Italian man, the male friendship is done very well but the women are psychologically ridiculous. When after having met for 10 mins Rodolpho says to Mimi “tell me you love me” and she says “I love you” there were audible titters in the audience and quite right too. Musetta is rather more credible, at least today, one wonders whether there really were such people in the 1850s, but this is after all Opera.

Our seats were widely dispersed, but it turned out that the couple in front of the best of our seats were leaving at the end of the 3rd act so for Act 4 we all sat together which was great.

Backstage past three separate sets of security guards and walking round many cavernous corridors and we saw Nicole who was in great form. She signed one of her CDs for my friend and one for me. I also bought the DVD of her and Netrebko doing Boheme.

Sunday went to a said eucharist so that I could get in another run in Central Park: vital for marathon training. The sermon contained an interesting riff on the parable of the fig-tree that had been barren for 3 years, but was given a final chance with extra manure. Although clearly in the historical context this is a warning to Israel the preacher used it to suggest that we need God's help to be fruitful, and cut off from God we can do nothing. The fig tree cannot repent on its own, but needs God's help. So fundamentally a pretty good conclusion (though one can quibble) but drawn from a misreading of the text. What is the term for drawing true conclusions from true premises by faulty reasoning?

A number of people I would really like to have caught up with in NY but sadly there just wasn't time. Very annoying.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Wonderful Midsummer Night's Dream

Went on Weds to the wonderful Peter Hall production of a Midsummer Nights Dream at the Rose, with Judi Dench playing Titania. It is without doubt the finest production I have ever seen or am ever likely to see.

The opening conceit of Judi as Queen Elizabeth handing out the parts to the players is delightful, but nothing prepares you for the freshness and vitality of the speaking and acting. This is truly Peter Hall putting into practice his lifetime of experience (much of it in his superb Shakespeare's Advice to the Players). Every actor gives great performances - this is often associated with having Judi in a play, I suspect not coincidentally. Charles Edwards, who I last saw as King Magnus in The Applecart (where Janie played his mistress) makes an excellent Oberon. He has gone from having Janie as a mistress to Judi as a wife - as I could not resist remarking to Judi afterwards. Rachel Sterling plays Helena and the tall, handsome and very good Bottom (Oliver Chris) is apparently her boyfriend IRL. Peter has borrowed some of the costme props from his 1960s Glyndebourne production of Britten's Dream - which I suspect includes the light and feathery asses head.

The mechnaicals were really, really, funny. This is much harder than it seems. And there is a particularly delicious moment when Bottom as Pyramus says "since lion vile hath here deflower'd my dear" and Qunice, on stage as prompter, furiously corrects him to "devoured".

Lovely to see Judi ( who I do not know nearly well enough to call Jude) in her dressing room afterwards. She kindly offered us champagne but we had to go back because I had a very busy day on Thurs finishing in the US around 3am UK time, and Daughter was slightly unwell and needed to be in school in the morning. Next time.