Novel: Bright Air Black

Bright Air Black is a much more detailed imagining of Medea’s inner life than we get from the ancients (the element that she killed her own children was likely tacked on by Euripides; in previous sources she kills only her younger adult female rival with poison (and then the king/father of the victim dies accidentally from contact with the poison) and then her children are killed by an angry mob).

The male-named author (David Vann) is careful to offer his feminist bona fides before purporting to mansplain:

I first read Medea when I was an undergraduate at Stanford, in a year-long Great Works of Western Literature course (the final year it was offered). The instructor, Leslie Cahoon, was a classicist and feminist who shaped nearly all my future interests. Because of her I took a feminist thought workshop with Adrienne Rich, learned Latin and am currently translating Ovid, studied all of Chaucer’s works in graduate school, learned Old English and translated Beowulf, became interested in depictions of hell from Bede to Dante to Blake to McCarthy, and of course became influenced by the Greeks. My novels are all Greek tragedies, I’m a neoclassical writer, and it was a particular pleasure to try to bring Medea more fully to life after twenty-five years of thinking about her. So I want to thank Leslie for her enormous and lasting influence.

Medea is dirty. She has sex with Jason in public and surrounded by the bloody corpse of her brother. While sailing away with her father in pursuit:

I let him have me, she yells to her father over the water. Here on deck, in front of his sailors. The daughter of a king. Or what used to be a king.

Medea takes a piece of her brother, a thigh, heavy and tough, muscled, and licks blood from it, dark and thick. She spits, licks and spits again and again, three times to atone. Mouth filled with the taste of her family’s blood, and she throws this piece of Helios into the waves.

Greeks put themselves at the center of the world, but Vann reminds us that they were pathetic when compared to Egypt:

What she realizes is that they haven’t built the Argo. This is an Egyptian ship, somehow captured or given or bought. The Argo not something these people could have built. She looks again carefully at the wood worn smooth at the locks, walks back to the mast to see how the deck has chewed into its sides, walks back farther to see the rudder posts worn and infirm, loose. An old ship, not new. The bow and stern platforms gone, the heavy rope that runs the length of the deck, held up by forks, gone. Crude short benches added along the sides for the oarsmen to sit. But otherwise this is the same as Egyptian ships that have come to Colchis. She has given up everything to live with scavengers.

Vann writes a strong scene of Pelias and circle laughing at the tales of the Argonauts. It takes a long time before she can finally prevail over this foe, with the help of his daughters. I don’t think these details are in the ancient tales:

Your father can be made young. We can rejuvenate him. That’s the gift that will set you free. Asteropeia’s eyes open. You can do that? Bring another of your sisters, and bring an old ram. Tomorrow night. We must hurry, before the moon changes. I will make this ram young, and then we’ll do the same for your father.

What makes him old is in his balls, Medea says [to Pelias’s daughters]. Old ram same as your father. His children have taken his life. But if you break each one in your teeth and then spit into the cauldron, all that constrains him will be broken. This is how he will be made young again. Death will lose its hold. Peisidike looks at the dark meat in her hands, wet hide, testicles unsheathed and wrapped in vein or worse. But she raises this horror to her mouth, bites into a testicle, breaks it, and vomits onto the floor.

Medea with a long thin paddle made of wood stirs the great vat, pushes the pieces of the ram under, chants to Hekate in her barbarian tongue, song unintelligible to the sisters. Hekate, she calls. Tonight I kill a king. My sons will not be slaves. I will not be a slave. My husband will not be a slave. Tonight I kill a king and feed his balls to his daughter. Hacked into pieces with no burial, no funeral rites, fed to his family. Son of Poseidon cooked in a stew. The only great waves to form will be from whatever I stir. I will rule Iolcus, and all will be my slaves, and my sons will walk on streets of flesh. Torches, Medea says to Asteropeia and Peisidike in their ugly tongue. Light torches in the fire and go outside to pray to the moon, to Hekate, for this old ram to be made young. We must pray to Hekate until a young lamb emerges from the cauldron. That body is forming now, but we must help it along, help Hekate and Nute give birth in night.

There is a sexual relationship between Medea and a daughter of Pelias that the ancient Greeks probably wouldn’t have recognized.

The competition is introduced:

Jason held close between Kreon and his daughter, Glauce, who stretches her neck and tilts and coos and studies his arms and eyes and mouth. Young, very young, hardly more than a girl, and never made a slave or mother. Her only concern is ornament. Glancing at her own wrists, at gold bracelets, how they fall, folds of thin Egyptian cloth over her breasts. If her breasts were cauldrons, she would fall in, drawn by her limitless desire for herself, and Jason would fall with her. He speaks with Kreon and never sees him, sees only young flesh.

Their children will inherit Korinth and have a claim, also, to Iolcus, surrounding Athens. Kreon’s dreams, but Jason will want only that ripe young body and release from a wife who has been difficult from the first. Night without end. Rise and fall of breath, her sons’ hearts beating beneath her hands, feel of their ribs. Her own body engorging, filling with hate and hollowed, void under pressure increasing in her head and chest, unfairness so enormous nothing can be done. Jason does not return. Sounds dying away, no more music, no more shouts, quiet of night, and still no husband but gone to another bed. Medea’s breath fast, in panic, though she only lies here holding her sons. Glauce in some royal bed very close, only a few arm’s lengths away, lit in torchlight, baring herself for Jason, spreading her legs, untorn by children.

Jason is not a hero in this book:

I know who you are, bitter woman, butcher, barbarian. I’ve brought you to this civilized place. I’ll marry Kreon’s daughter, and our sons will have royal brothers. You should thank me.

Be grateful, Jason says. A woman is never grateful but always wants more.

Definitely recommended if you’re interested to see how an old story can be told in the modern style.

More: Read Bright Air Black.

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Can rich parents move to a poor neighborhood for a year before their brat applies to college?

We know from the recent college bribery scandal that wealthy parents are willing to commit (federal!) crimes to get their brats into a good college (apparently contradicting the assertion that being born into a wealthy family guarantees success due to “privilege”).

Now the SATs will include an “adversity score” that considers the neighborhood and the school of the test taker (NYT explains the 31 factors). What stops a rich family from renting an apartment in a poor neighborhood starting in August of the applicant’s senior year of high school. The kid then takes the SATs in September, after enrolling in the local public school.

The NYT article is fun because it shows that American educrats aren’t interested in academic achievement:

“If you’re a really well-educated, higher-income family living in a poor neighborhood, this measure is going to overstate the disadvantage you face,” said Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford University.

But, he added, “The question is not whether it’s perfect, but whether it’s better than the alternative of what colleges have had access to, to date. It sounds like this will be better than nothing.”

I.e., nobody questions the idea that students from unsuccessful neighborhoods are to be preferred and students from successful parents and neighborhoods should be admitted only as a last resort. (But if The Son Also Rises is correct, in the long run this means that the most successful people in a society will be graduates of universities that don’t discriminate against children of the successful!)

The long-term goal is to pry into the individual student’s situation:

Among the scholars who consulted for the College Board was Richard D. Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation and a proponent of class-based affirmative action. He said he would like to see the College Board tool evolve to also include information on a student’s individual family. Still, he called the measure “an enormous step forward.”

Doesn’t that open up more opportunities for resourceful parents to game the system? Big factors are “single parenthood” and parental income. A one-income married couple living in Nevada, for example, could avail themselves of the state’s no-fault divorce laws and get divorced just before the child takes the SATs. The non-working parent will be getting the $13,000/year (tax-free) child support cap and therefore qualify as low income. The applicant can tell the SAT folks that the working parent is nowhere to be found and that the working parent’s income is unknown.

[Is this already happening for financial aid? The non-custodial parent (a.k.a. “loser parent” the winner-take-all states) is not considered by the Federales for financial aid, though says that private colleges can “require a supplemental financial aid form from the non-custodial parent”. But the typical child of an American divorce hasn’t seen the loser parent within the preceding year, so how is the child supposed to get that person to fill out a form? Massachusetts is a classical winner-take-all state and Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority says:

What if there is no contact with the non-custodial parent?

Colleges that require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA understand there are cases when a second parent is not involved in the student’s life. For students in this situation, colleges have a waiver process. Students should go to the college website or call the college and ask about a non-custodial parent waiver form or process. Students will need to do this for every school that requires the non-custodial parent to submit a Profile. Colleges are understanding of cases when the other parent is truly not a part of the student’s life at all, but will not waive the requirement for a case when the other parent simply does not want to complete the application or contribute toward college costs.

Since children of single parents are preferred by colleges, why would any applicant whose parents aren’t married admit to having spoken with the loser parent?]

This would seem to penalize children of low-income parents who make the effort to move to public housing in nicer towns with better schools. I know a few immigrant “single moms” who live in Newton, Massachusetts for example. Upon arrival in the U.S. they realized that there was no stigma to being divorced and promptly sued their husbands. As these guys were low-income immigrants themselves, the child support revenue from the divorce did not disqualify them from public housing. So they live in taxpayer-subsidized apartments in Newton and send their children to the Newton schools. Their SAT scores will come with a “no adversity” tag even though they (a) did not speak English as their first language, (b) did not have two parents in their home, and (c) did not live in a high-income household.

If the mission of American universities is to educate young people (God forbid they should admit anyone significantly over the age of 18!) who have suffered from adversity, why would they admit anyone who grew up in the U.S.? An American on welfare has a greater spending power (housing, food, health care, smartphone) than a middle class family in most parts of the world.

In a global economy, what’s special about residents of the U.S.? Why are they entitled to take a spot at Harvard, for example, ahead of someone with a similar SAT score who grew up in Vietnam (excellent academic scores, but few people living better than an American on welfare).

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How is the Great American Sex Strike going?

It has been a little over a week since “Alyssa Milano calls for sex strike as protest over Republican abortion laws” (Guardian):

The actor Alyssa Milano ignited a social media storm with a call for women to join her in a sex strike, to protest against strict abortion laws passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures.

Have readers noticed any difference in the behavior of Americans who identify as “women”? The challenge of defining who will be on strike is crystallized nicely in this Twitter exchange:

Also, is it men specifically who are to blame for anti-abortion legislation? “Alabama Governor Signs Abortion Bill. Here’s What Comes Next” (nytimes) doesn’t mention the gender ID of the person who is the current Alabama governor until the reader scrolls down quite a bit, but eventually it turns out to be “Ms. Ivey”, i.e., a person whom the NYT believes identifies as a woman. (Unusually, there is no photograph of the governor signing the bill, so a casual reader might well believe the person who has restricted abortion in Alabama identifies as a man.)

If the sex strike persists, will it be time for investors to buy airline stocks? Prostitution is legal in some countries in Europe and some counties in Nevada, for example. (Recent events show that it is illegal to pay for sex on an hourly basis in Florida, but the same elderly rich guy had a young girlfriend in California who was reportedly paid on a monthly basis and that was apparently legal. So maybe U.S. law is more about the time period than the sex/money exchange per se?)


  • “Only 48% of married women want regular sex after four years.” (Good Housekeeping)
  • From Real World Divorce: “The Supreme Court made abortion legal with Roe v. Wade in 1973 and Congress made abortion profitable in 1988 with the federal Family Support Act [that required states to develop child support guidelines],” is how one attorney summarized the evolution of law in the last quarter of the 20th century. The new state guidelines made an out-of-wedlock child just as profitable as the child of a marriage. Our interviewees report that it did not take long for people to put these two legal innovations together and thus began the age of women selling abortions to men. “If the child support guidelines make having a baby more profitable than working,” a lawyer noted “it only makes sense that 5-10 years of the average person’s income is a fair price for having an abortion.”
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Statistics-informed approach to marriage goes awry

A story of math and romance… “Local professor says he lost $50,000 after being deceived by a Russian mail order bride” (WMAR, Baltimore):

Dr. Jonathan Farley met his wife through a Russian online dating site. He was after true love, but he believes his wife was after a Green Card and his money. He estimates he lost close to $50,000.

Farley, an accomplished mathematician, looked at finding love like a statistics problem.

“There are 10 million more women than men in Russia,” said Farley.

He liked his odds, so he traveled to Siberia where he met a woman in an unconventional way.

The website delivered a match. She was 20, he was 42.

Within two weeks of getting married, Farley said his wife’s behavior completely changed.

Perhaps the problem is that he didn’t work from complete data? Wikipedia does not show that dramatically more 20-year-old Russians identify as female compared to the number who identify as male.

I wonder if this being featured by a TV station shows Americans’ fascination with Russian villains. “America, Home of the Transactional Marriage” (Atlantic) suggests that more Americans get married for the cash than do folks in other countries (in a lot of other countries, it is almost impossible to turn a substantial profit on a past sexual relationship).


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Storm King, Donald Trump, and DC-3s

An afternoon in the Northeast, occasioned by a friend needing a ride from KBED to KSWF.

Over Bradley Field in the Cirrus SR20

Parked in the family airplane area…

After a 13-minute ride in the crew car (Thanks, Signature!), the Storm King Art Center. (Note curved wall by Andy Goldsworthy and the all-glass ice cream sundae “folly” by Mark Dion.)

Learned something new about one of my favorite artists. Louise Nevelson sometimes used gold instead of black!

For the kids, another Mark Dion:

On to KOXC where a squadron of DC-3s are preparing to leave for Europe to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Then an easy flight home over Hartford, Connecticut:

Fuel burned: About 25 gallons (on the trip home, with a bit of a tailwind and the mixture set for lean of peak operation, the Cirrus was getting roughly 20 mpg).

On returning home, I found that Mindy the Crippler was #Concerned about the trade war with China:

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Meet in Ireland?

I’m planning a trip to Ireland, arriving Tuesday, May 28 and returning on June 5. Would any readers like to meet up there? If so, please email:


(The plan is to teach a couple of classes at a flight school in Dublin, do some helicopter flying, possibly visit the Isle of Man, and check out Belfast before it is swallowed up into the ocean like the Brexit doomsayers predict. Experience regarding the Isle of Man would be especially welcome. My local guide in Ireland is not a fan…)

Here are some ideas that I pulled from a guidebook

Dublin (2 days)

  • National Museum of Ireland-Archaeology
  • Trinity College (arrange Book of Kells?)
  • Dublin Castle and Chester Beatty Library?
  • Hugh Lane Gallery
  • Irish Museum of Modern Art
  • Tenement Museum

Helicopter Trip to Cork?

  • Cork
  • Cobh
  • Kinsale
  • Skellig Islands
  • Lakes of Killarney (orbit in heli)
  • Bantry House (if extra time)

Lower Shannon

  • Cliffs of Moher
  • Foynes
  • Lough Gur
  • (maybe) Roscrea

Helicopter Trip to Galway?

  • Galway
  • Aran Islands
  • Connemara National Park (get some exercise!)

Northwest Ireland (helicopter up there?)

  • Sileve League (only if WX perfect)

Drive to Belfast (2 days)

  • Carlingford way up or down
  • Belfast downtown (1 day?)
  • Giant’s Causeway
  • Glenariff Forest Park
  • Seamus Heaney HomePlace
  • Mount Stewart
  • Mourne Mountains
  • Castlewellan Forest Park
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Don Giovanni by Boston Opera Collaborative

Mozart’s Don Giovanni is seriously out of step with our times. The producers at Boston Opera Collaborative realized this and posted a trigger warning on the door to the theater:

The original libretto, written without the benefit of the latest batch of Marvel female superhero movies, has Donna Anna’s honor defended (to the death) by her father. Mom is nowhere to be seen. In the modern B.O.C. version, it is a single mom who defends Anna at the cost of her own life, then comes back as a vengeful ghost to kill Don Giovanni.

The Boston Opera Collaborative’s update does not address one of the more problematic parts of the story for a modern audience, i.e., that nearly all of the women (2,000+) who had sex with Don Giovanni apparently did so voluntarily, attracted by his wealth and position or his fine words:

With blondes it is his habit
To praise their kindness;
In brunettes, their faithfulness;
In the white-haired, their sweetness.

As former Harvard Winthrop House dean Ronald Sullivan might be saying soon at Harvey Weinstein’s trial: “He had thousands of satisfied customers and just a handful of complaints.”

B.O.C. gives Don Giovanni (played convincingly by Junhan Choi) a modern way to reel in the females: he is a fashion photographer with a studio. He has a female enabler assistant (played silently, yet dramatically, by Felisha Trundle), just like a lot of the guys who’ve been #MeTooed. convincingly delivered the love/hate situation of Donna Elvira.

Sarah Cooper as Zerlina has some of the most troubling lyrics, delivered with an amazing voice and acting talent. In “Là ci darem la mano” she is considering abandoning her fiance for the just-met Don Giovanni because he is rich, has a fancy castle, and can raise her standard of living:

I would like to, and I wouldn’t,
My heart is trembling a little.
True, I could be happy,
But it could trick me again.

The only thing that she knows about this guy is that he is richer than the person she has promised to marry. Rich guy says “I will change your fate.” and she is coming around to the idea (“Soon…I won’t be strong anymore.” then “Let’s go!”), but Donna Elvira (Isabelle Zeledón; great), the spurned earlier lover, intervenes and proves Don G’s villainy by showing Zerlina evidence from a smartphone (texts?).

Her apology to Musetto (acted with appropriate frustration by John Bitsas) is what should generate a trigger warning. “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto”:

Batti, batti, o bel Masetto, Beat me, dear Masetto,
La tua povera Zerlina; beat your poor Zerlina.
Starò qui come agnellina I’ll stand here as meek as a lamb
Le tue botte ad aspettar. and bear the blows you lay on me.
Lascierò straziarmi il crine, You can tear my hair out,
Lascierò cavarmi gli occhi, put out my eyes,
E le care tue manine yet your dear hands
Lieta poi saprò baciar. gladly I’ll kiss.

The sets were spare, but reasonably effective. Quotes from men in modern headlines were projected during the overture. Big Harvey made the list and, of course, Donald Trump (full quote used: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.”).

As with previous Boston Opera Collaborative productions, I enjoyed not being one of 3,800 (Metropolitan Opera House seating capacity). In the age of 4K video and good microphones, I would rather see the big productions electronically and get up close to rising stars.

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Boeing 737 MAX runaway trim scenario in a sim

“Ethiopian MAX Crash Simulator Scenario Stuns Pilots” (Aviation Week) describes an American crew given a comparatively trivial challenge. They were put into a sim and advised in advance that the MCAS system would go haywire. They started from a 10,000′ moderate speed (250 knots) cruise.

This is analogous to the crews that were given the “Skiles and Sully” US Air 1549 scenario and were able to do a 180-degree turn and land back at LaGuardia on a dry runway.

Piece of cake, right?

What the U.S. crew found was eye-opening. Keeping the aircraft level required significant aft-column pressure by the captain, and aerodynamic forces prevented the first officer from moving the trim wheel a full turn. They resorted to a little-known procedure to regain control. The crew repeatedly executed a three-step process known as the roller coaster. First, let the aircraft’s nose drop, removing elevator nose-down force. Second, crank the trim wheel, inputting nose-up stabilizer, as the aircraft descends. Third, pull back on the yokes to raise the nose and slow the descent. The excessive descent rates during the first two steps meant the crew got as low as 2,000 ft. during the recovery.

(i.e., they would have crashed if they hadn’t started with at least 8,000′ of altitude above the ground)


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Why no power indication on an airliner primary flight display?

Aircraft performance is a function of attitude (pitch and bank) and power. So you’d think that, in an ideal world, these two items would be displayed prominently right in front of each pilot.

This wasn’t possible in the old days because each item was presented on a different instrument. Thus the Boeing B-17 or B-29 cockpit with attitude indicators in front of each pilot and some engine gauges in the middle.

Why not combine this information and summarize it today on the “glass” (LCD) panels that are in front of today’s pilots?

Who does this right? Cirrus! The Perspective system that they co-designed with Garmin for the latest SR20 and SR22 airplanes show percent power at the top left of the primary flight display (regular G1000 does not have this). It isn’t perfect because a lot of space is wasted, e.g., “65% Power” has information only in 2 out of 9 characters, since the “% Power” never varies. I would rather see “65 CRUISE”, “95 CLIMB”, “25 DESCEND”, and “15 APPROACH”.

Who gets this wrong? Boeing, I think. People have wondered why the pilots of the latest B737 MAX to crash didn’t pull the climb power out. One possible reason is that nowhere on the primary flight display (PFD) images that I’ve been able to find is power indicated:

Power is displayed in the Boeing B-17/B-29 location: in the center of the panel (dashboard).

It fascinates me that decades after the obvious user interface became easy to implement (microprocessors have to paint the pixels, so why not put in the information that matters?) we still don’t have the obvious user interface.


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With enough undocumented immigrants, we can reduce crime rate to zero

“Is There a Connection Between Undocumented Immigrants and Crime?” (NYT):

Areas with more unauthorized migration appeared to have larger drops in crime, although the difference was small and uncertain.

For undocumented immigrants, being arrested for any reason would mean facing eventual deportation — and for some a return to whatever danger or deprivation they’d sought to escape at home.

According to Mr. Adelman and his team, however, the impact of undocumented immigrants is probably similar to what the research indicates about immigrants over all: They tend to bring economic and cultural benefits to their communities.

In other words, a true flood of the undocumented should reduce crime to zero!

Why don’t other countries figure this out and outbid us for these valuable folks who “bring economic and cultural benefits”? Citizens of Canada are not as smart as the writers and editors at the New York Times, which is why there are no Airbus A380s picking up caravans in Central America and bringing them to clean up the grittiest neighborhoods of Toronto and Montreal? (does Vancouver have any grit?)

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