March 2010



I need to work on plenty of things, but today I was reminded of one in particular: impertinently pointing out mistakes (or worse, “mistakes”). Especially when I’m being a know-it-all, and especially when no lives are in danger. This afternoon, deep in know-it-all, no-lives-in-danger territory, I impertinently pointed out a “mistake.”

The reminder came a few hours later when I tripped over my own recent commission of the same “mistake” (blue arrow). Ouch.

Last Sunday, Dessoff Symphonic Choir, in which I’m a tenor, sang Beethoven’s Ninth at Avery Fisher Hall with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer conducting. Orchestra gigs are always a thrill, and in that respect, this one was no exception. In most every other respect, however, this gig was an exception … it was exceptional beyond belief.

As a few friends put it, a big fucking deal, with emphasis on the big, fucking, and deal parts.

We sang from in front of the orchestra, four feet below the stage, where the first two rows of audience seats usually are, our backs to the conductor. (There were monitors for us on the side walls.) It was brilliant. “Beethoven’s spirit rang out with an explosive jubilance.”

That was exceptionality #1. Another exceptionality was that we had no friggin’ idea where we would sing from until the day of the concert. Our first rehearsal with the maestro was Friday, two days before the concert, with piano. From our perch on platforms across the back of the stage, Dessoff Symphonic’s 106 singers sang a few bars. Mr. Fischer said very little but seemed pleased enough. We sang a few more bars.

“Can the chorus platforms come up any higher?” the maestro asked. No, it turned out. “The chorus should be higher.” The Budapest Festival Orchestra, “my orchestra,” will be on risers, with string basses rear, center, and elevated. Singing through a rank of basses was out of the question.

“Let me try something.”

“Something” was having us sing from further forward, across the center of the stage and well in front of the raised platforms. Then another something, singing from the very front of the stage. For each of his somethings, we sang full out like we would do on Sunday. You don’t become a Hungarian musical genius guessing what a choir’s tutta forza sounds like when you can ask for and listen to the real thing.

We sounded “three times better” from the front. Not that we sounded bad from the back, Maestro added. As we had marched forward and forwarder, someone made a joke about lemmings.

“Try singing from down there.” Mr. Fischer was pointing at the first rows of audience seats. Only the stagehands prevented us from actually leaping off the lip of the stage to get there. We sang again, and we sounded spectacular (especially when we turned to face the audience). This was where we were destined to be on Sunday.

Except for a couple of details. The maestro had ordered a stage extension, but it was too small to free up enough seats for us. Only two rows, comprising 72 seats, were unsold because of the extension. There was also the issue of us singing with our backs to the conductor.

More somethings. Men back on stage and all against the stage left wall. Sing. Women move center, men stay put. Sing. Tenors stage right, basses and women stay put. Sing.

Then, “Thank you.” No friggin’ idea where we’d sing from on the day of the concert. We weren’t even sure we’d be able to see a conductor. As it turned out, when we arrived for the Sunday morning dress rehearsal, the 72 unsold cushy seats in rows A and B of the orchestra had been removed, and 106 folding chairs were squeezed into their place without compromising fire regulations. We were all able to fit in front of the stage where we had sounded so spectacular on Friday. And we could see Maestro Fischer, thanks to monitors that had been installed practically overnight on the side walls of the hall. On Friday, Maestro had asked for ecstatic singing in a few places; given what had transpired to accommodate us between Friday and Sunday, together with the fact that we all had front row seats for the Ninth’s first three movements, ecstatic was a piece of cake.

Chorus master James Bagwell later mentioned that a chorus-in-front setup wasn’t without historic precedent. Donna M. Di Grazia, Professor of Music and choir conductor at Pomona College (my alma mater) documents the practice in her 1998 article “Rejected Traditions: Ensemble Placement in Nineteenth-Century Paris,” and passionately laments its disappearance. She was “aware of only a few instances where placement issues have been considered for performances of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music regardless of the presence or absence of a chorus.” I sent her email to tell her there’s been one more, and that it rocked.

There are plenty more things to share about this Ninth, and if I can, I’ll post updates.


Top: Budapest Festival Orchestra (on the stage) and Dessoff Symphonic Choir (in front of the stage), after performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at Avery Fisher Hall on March 28, 2010.

Bottom: A seating plan for orchestra and chorus in nineteenth century France, chorus in front of the orchestra. [Di Grazia, 1998, p. 197, with callouts replacing legend]

I’m in New York this weekend to sing Beethoven’s Ninth on Sunday with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under the baton of Iván Fischer. Further details of this breaking story are embargoed until late Sunday afternoon.

NoGas NoGas0

In January, 1985, Bob Moody and I visited Dick Slansky at Los Alamos National Laboratory to begin collaborating on what would eventually become a book. Driving back to the Albuquerque airport, we stopped to fill up at a NewMexigas service station. This is what I saw at the cashier’s window.

I lost it. Doubled over laughing, I stumbled back to the car, managed to grunt and point Bob towards the sign (he immediately lost it, too), and, thanks be to god, controlled the convulsions well enough to grab my camera and take a photo. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger uncropped version.]

This being the funniest thing ever, I jumped on the chance to share it later when I started posting stuff on the internet Bitnet. You can see the quote in my signature in this 1989 post to comp.dcom.telecom. (Also available in the TELECOM Digest & Archives.)

I used the quote in my signature off and on for some years, and in 1995, I contributed it to a web collection of funny signs. You can find that contribution here.

Unfortunately, an apparent misquoting of this sign (“We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.”) now appears in many places on the web. The misquoting makes no sense to me as a funny thing, and I’ve seen no photo to back it up.

Here’s for setting the record straight.

Today’s word is manier.
man·i·er / ˈmɛn i ɛr/

Comparative form of many. More numerous; more; of greater number: The town’s recent immigrants voted overwhelmingly against the lottery, yet the will of the manier natives prevailed.

2010: intentional coinage by Steve Kass (

Related form:
: superlative form of many. Most numerous; most; of greatest number.

A recent numerical expedition led me to these summary statistics from a 2009 Pew survey on Religion and Public Life.


Looks like a typo to me. At a glance, the breakdown by age seems inconsistent with the aggregate result.

Most (about 85%) of the survey participants fell into one of the three oldest age groups, all of which favored gay marriage at a lower rate than the general population. The 65+ crowd, numbering 507, favored gay marriage at a rate a full 17 points lower than the rate for all ages combined. Although young’ens favor allowing Adam¹ and me (or Autumn and Eve) to get married legally, and they smile with approval at a rate almost 20 points higher than the rate for all ages combined, there are too few of them (only 283) to balance out the manier² old grumps and middle-aged semigrumps.

I have no reason to suspect the Pew folks of vulpigeration, so I tried to find an honest basis for these apparently contradictory figures.

Pew’s full report on survey question Q146a revealed one potential source of slop: the number under “Favor” seems be the sum of two individually rounded percentages: one for “Favor” and one for “Strongly Favor.” The actual survey instrument included both possible answers. Therefore, 39% could mean anything between 38% and 40%. Survey percentages are routinely rounded, but one expects 39% to mean somewhere between 38.5% and 39.5%.

Even allowing for extra slop, the numbers don’t agree. Here’s a tabulation (using the increased slop allowance) that gives the minimum and maximum numbers of favorers in each age group and (by summing) the minimum and maximum number of favorers among those in any age category.


According to these numbers, between 34.8% and 36.8% of 1,980 respondents would be cool with my marrying Adam legally.

According to Pew’s summary chart (at the top), though, between 38% and 40% of 2,010 responses, or between 764 and 804 people, answered “Favor.” That’s quite a bit higher than the breakdown figures show, and even if the 30 people in no age category (who presumably withheld their age or were under 18) all favored gay marriage, the maximum (and an unlikely maximum, because it would require all the rounding and missing information to be skewed favorably) number of favorers is 759.

As another plausible scenario, I calculated a Total percentage based on the age breakdown but weighted according to the actual histogram of age in the U.S. Still no dice. If anyone has an idea, let me know.

¹ For the record, I’m currently Adamless and available

² manier, adjective. Comparative of many; more numerous. To be coined presently. Many and numerous are synonyms; if things can be more numerous, I see no reason they can’t also be more many, or manier.

A letter to the editor about Daylight Saving Time is today’s most-viewed article in the Panama City (FL) News Herald today, and it deserves more attention than it got over at Letters to the editor routinely begin with their first sentence, but Gene Cabot’s letter begins with its first and longest sentence.

It’s daylight saving time again — called “summer time” in some of the many countries around the world that yearly move their clock hands and pretend that it’s earlier than it really is according to the sun.

Except that we don’t pretend it’s earlier than it really is according to the sun when we move our clocks forward for daylight saving time. We pretend it’s later than it really is. So much for Gene’s viewpoint that we should move daylight saving time to winter. If we had it backwards like he seems to think, it might make sense to move it to winter, but we don’t have it backwards.

Gene goes on to write,

The rationale now for daylight saving time is to save fuel, as people wouldn’t use as much electricity in the mornings because the sun was up.

Except that it’s in the evening, not the morning, that daylight saving time can cut down the amount of electricity used for lighting. With or without daylight saving time, in most parts of the U.S., the sun is up when people start their day, so there’s no effect on morning energy use.

Gene wraps up his confusing argument against a misconception by noting,

… in Miami with a Dec. 21 sunrise of 6:41 a.m. and sunset of 5:15 p.m. — they still had more than 11½ hours of sunlight, plus the twilight hours.

Except that in Miami (or anywhere else on Earth), 5:15 p.m. is only 10 hours and 34 minutes after 6:41 a.m. Unless I missed the news about Miami slipping into the Bermuda Triangle.

In today’s number news (State-by-state cremation rates in U.S.), we learn that “slightly more than a third of all persons who died in 2006 were cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America.” Happily, the article contained the raw data, but only as an alphabetical-by-state table of numbers.

Here’s an illumination, as MapPoint is my amanuensis. Click to embiggen.


Explanation: Pie areas are proportional to the number of deaths; the yellow slice is cremations, the red non-cremations.

Pies for our nation’s two newest states are not shown. Alaska’s looks like a two-thirds size Vermont pie; Hawai’i’s looks like a one-third size Oregon pie.

I’m happy to headline the first Trying Zeugma prize winner: “Neckwear Ties Presidents to Universities,” in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education.

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