The Adventure of My Last Job Interview

To find out how I answered this, the trickiest of all job interview questions, read the following short story, which I had gotten published twenties years previously.

My last job interview occurred at Cisco Systems. I’d been working as a contractor, and soon afterwards was offered a “permanent position.” I walked into the HR office and was greeted by a chirpy young woman, perhaps in her late twenties. After some pleasantries, she settled down to serious interviewing. Continue reading “The Adventure of My Last Job Interview”

The Sarasota Opera’s Manon Lescaut: Handling a Flawed Masterpiece

Much creativity and planning went into the Sarasota Opera’s stage settings, casting, and musical conducting.

Manon and Des Grieux in the Louisiana Desert

Manon Lescaut: Sandra López; the Chevalier Des Grieux: Matthew Vickers; Lescaut: Filippo Fontana; Geronte: Costas Tsourakis; Conductor: Victor DeRenzi; Stage Director: Stephanie Sundine; Scenic Designer: David P. Gordon; Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan; Lighting Designer: Ken Yunker; Chorus Master: Roger L. Bingaman

Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1894) had much going against it from the start. His previous operas had been lukewarm forays, not exactly successes. A previous (and successful) version, Manon, had been completed just 10 years previous by Jules Massenet. Puccini kept changing librettists and in the end nobody even wanted their name on the opening program. He pared down the plot of Abbé Prévost’s novel Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut so much that even today, audiences scratch their heads over its awkward transitions and strange omissions. For some reason, he concentrates all of the gaiety in acts one and two, and all of the gloom in acts three and four.

But in the end, very little of this matters. Nineteenth century operas are rarely strong arguments for sterling plot creation. Later in life, Puccini did improve significantly, as any opera fan can see from his last and greatest opera Turandot (that of Luciano Berio’s ending, not Franco Alfano’s). The Sarasota Opera performance dives gleefully into ML’s optimistic first act and beautifully conveys the spirit of youthful infatuation. As Des Grieux, Matthew Vickers pours out his feelings beautifully in the famous soliloquy “Donna non vidi mai,” made famous by Enrico Caruso and attempted by every other tenor since. As Manon Lescaut, Sandra López sings her brilliant and joyous aria while living with the libertine Geronte,“Lora, or Tirsi.” The audience suddenly senses it’s not going to go on forever.

Much creativity and planning went into the three stage settings. While done in period style, the opening village street scene is kinetic rather than static, buzzing with life, and the resulting intrigue is exciting from the start. In Act II, as Manon luxuriates in her mansion with Geronte, the very walls cry out “nobility.” But the final act in the Louisiana desert (don’t ask how they got there) is most stunningly well designed. A huge twisted fallen tree in the foreground underscores the twists and turns that their love affair has taken and contrasts with the gloriously ruddy sunset behind them. Dense emotional expression is reached in the final duet between Manon and Des Grieux. In “Tutta su me ti sposa,” Manon succumbs to grief and despair, realizing how her selfishness has brought tragedy upon her and her lover. As Geronte, Costas Tsourakis is the right kind of vile and cursed scoundrel. Filippo Fontana’s Lescaut is convincing as an unreliable ally, shifting his loyalties back and forth.

The orchestra – through the tidy wand of conductor Victor DeRenzi – showed its skill in the Act III instrumental “Intermezzo,” which is one of Manon Lescaut’s most unusual features. Why does it even exist? Good question. Some believe that it abstractly conveys Manon’s sentencing and her transportation to Le Havre. Seems plausible. Toward its conclusion it grows tempestuous and seems to careen toward disaster. But it avoids tragedy and lulls us with a descending motif that deceptively shimmers with hope. However, as clever as the device is, it’s a bit subtle for the uninitiated. In later years, Puccini made sparse use of such lofty intermezzi (Suor Angelica, 1918). Perhaps he realized that straight plotting conveyed emotions more efficiently?

So is Manon Lescaut “grand opera?” Not quite. But parts of it are pretty good. In focusing on the show’s highlights, like the inherent spectacle of the lovers’ plight, the Sarasota Opera made us realize that its cracks & flaws, Puccini’s youthful “experiments,” were not really that big a deal.

Review of Prokofiev’s Ballet Romeo & Juliet

An astounding Blu-ray disc of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, featuring an energetic and talented cast.

 

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

Here’s my review of a Blu-ray recording of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, as it appears in Audiophile Audition (www.audaud.com).
Continue reading “Review of Prokofiev’s Ballet Romeo & Juliet”

Non-Dairy Vs. Dairy Consumers: Dueling Studies

It’s difficult to choose whether the dairy industry or the vegan movement is right about whether milk products are healthy or not. How do you choose?

What do you do when beliefs you thought you’d researched to death years ago are suddenly contradicted by fiendishly convincing studies? Do you adjust your beliefs? Or do you investigate further to confirm them?

Recently I participated in a discussion on Facebook about dairy consumption. I questioned whether it was healthy for humans to consume dairy (at least beyond infancy). I then produced a link to “7 Reasons Milk Is Bad For You” (Bustle, Rachel Krantz, 1/25/2016). I was then challenged by my Facebook friend Kevin Smith who produced his link, “Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence” (Taylor & Francis Group, Tanja Kongerslev Thorning, Anne Raben, Tine Tholstrup, Sabita S. Soedamah-Muthu, Ian Givens and Arne Astrup, 11/22/2016).

Technically, neither article is a “study” in the classic sense. They both just contain links or references to actual studies. Neither article knows about the other. Thus there’s no point-counterpoint discussion going on (although there is some overlap on several points).

Rachel Krantz’s article did not appear in a scientific journal but a popular one that also contains articles about veganism, lifestyle choices, relationships, celebrities, etc.; however, she stripes her text with multiple hyperlinks to supporting studies.

The Taylor & Francis Group article is three times as long and is top-heavy with references. It has 114 footnotes, compared with less than half for the Bustle article.

Contradictory Views of the Same Subject

These two contenders widely contradict one another. For example on the issue of dairy products causing or exacerbating osteoporosis, T&FG says: 

Osteoporosis has been described as a 'paediatric disease with geriatric consequences’ as low milk, and hence, low mineral intake during childhood and adolescence has been associated with significantly increased risk of osteoporotic fractures in middle and older age, particularly in women
 (49, 50).

Krantz references this article by Dr. Neil Barnard:

A study published by the American Medical Association in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine this year showed that active children who consume the largest quantities of milk have more bone fractures than those who consume less. This was not surprising. Prior studies show that milk consumption does not improve bone health or reduce the risk of osteoporosis and actually creates other health risks." (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) 

The two articles go on like this, one hard-hitting – and convincing – reference after another from sources that contradict each other whenever they intersect. So where’s the truth? Alas, hard to find. It would take weeks of surfing just to track down all the studies referenced. Only then could you take apart the assertions, one by one, and try to spot any cherry-picking of results, confirmation biases, and null hypotheses. Neither article evaluates information in the studies they reference: the control groups used, critical theories employed, data mining, ethnography, deviation, population size, focus groups, life histories, and a score of other arcane factors. There are people who make their livings analyzing these things! In short, whenever a study’s results are reproduced in any article you read, there is no way to tell if they’re trustworthy or not. Except if you read the original study. And you’re trained to spot irregularities.

Another Strategy in Order?

Why not find out more about the studies themselves? Do either of them directly address the results from their adversaries? Was there anything unethical or sloppy from the data-gatherers? Who benefits from the conclusions and how?

There is no sparring with adversarial research in Krantz’s article. No pro-dairy article was analyzed and criticized. (Too bad, spirited debate is always entertaining.) Same for the T&FG study. Both sides obsessively presented their points of view. Neither Krantz nor her magazine got back to me with questions I had, which I found rather crass. I felt ignored, I really did.

A Yellow Flag Awavin’

T&FG produced this disclaimer in its “Conflict of interest and funding” section at the end of the study. 

Anne Raben is recipient of research funding from the Dairy Research Institute, Rosemont, IL, USA and the Danish Agriculture & Food Council. Tine Tholstrup is recipient of research grants from the Danish Dairy Research Foundation and the Dairy Research Institute, Rosemont, IL.

Interesting. While it’s nice of them to admit this up front, can you imagine this disclaimer being mentioned when a dairy industry brochure quotes their favorable findings?

Then there are the travails of  T&FG itself. According to Wikipedia:

In 2017 Taylor & Francis was strongly criticized for getting rid of a public health journal editor in chief who accepted articles critical of corporate interests. The company replaced the editor with a corporate consultant without consulting the editorial board. [Also], the publisher has been accused of processing articles in a speedy manner without proper peer review.

While neither of these “whoopsies” necessarily raise a red flag, they do raise yellow ones. Sometimes such controversies are just the tip of the iceberg. T&FG may have gotten nailed for these two indiscretions, but are there are others lurking the wings? We just don’t know. Also, to be fair, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the research in their study is flawed because of these events. However, it can’t help but muddy the waters.

Who Benefits?

Finally, who benefits and how? A study that exhaustively and eloquently refutes the claims of the pesky anti-dairy folks may be appreciated by the dairy industry. Things are not looking good for them. 

A recent Mintel report says the US dairy category will see a continuous sales decline, in contrast to its strong growth in 2014 when there was a combination of high milk prices, increased international demand, and dairy milk repositioning itself to align with health trends.

Who benefits from the Bustle article? Well the Bustle webzine of course. Anything that can boost readership must be smiled upon by their advertisers. Also Rachel Krantz, the author who wrote it. (Hopefully she got paid for it.) And possibly companies like Silk, the folks who make that thinly flavored almond milk. Any darts thrown at the dairy industry surely must delight them.

Conclusion

Which of these two articles can you believe? With so many contradictory studies in tow, they end up confusing rather than helping us.

Truth is ever elusive. For me, it boils down to personal experience. Half my life ago I stopped consuming dairy and almost immediately felt the effects.  I felt less sluggish at the end of the day, and lost weight and managed to keep it off. Others on the internet have reported similar (but unquantifiable) effects: more energy, decreased sugar urges, fewer and less severe colds. Try going off it yourself for a month and see what happens.

What also helps me decide is the bad state of my credulity. It was dealt a knockout blow a long time ago by a healthy skepticism toward powerful corporations and interest groups like the American Dairy Association. Remember them? Fifty years ago they flooded the airwaves with ads like this: “You never outgrow your need for milk.” These days I don’t know anyone who still drinks their recommended three glasses of milk a day. This skepticism has served me well during my 9-to-5 years working for big corporations, and today, whenever I watch the national news.

In the end, deciding what to believe and consume is up to you, not research articles.  You’re going to have to do your legwork with a skeptical eye. I can’t do it for you because frankly, I don’t have the time.

Jobsite Theatre’s Threepenny Opera’s Worth More Than That

Each new production of The Threepenny Opera is worth seeing. This one is no exception.

THE THREEPENNY OPERA. Opera by Kurt Weill, libretto by Bertolt Brecht. Directed by David M. Jenkins. Cast: Jennifer Casler: Bob the Saw / Ensemble; Colleen Cherry: Streetsinger / Betty; Spence Gabriel: Crookfinger Jake / Ensemble; Amy E. Gray: Jenny Diver; Jonathan Harrison: J. J. Peachum; Chelsea Hooker: Rev. Kimball / Coaxer / Ensemble; Chris Jackson: Macheath, “Mack the Knife”; Fo’i Meleah: Celia Peachum; Spencer Meyers: Streetsinger / Readymoney Matt; Giselle Muise: Polly Peachum; Maggie Mularz: Lucy Brown / Ensemble; Derrick Phillips: Tiger Brown; Alex Rivera: Smith / Walt / Ensemble; Olivia Sargent: Dolly / Ensemble; Katrina Stevenson: Molly / Ensemble; Ryan Sturm: Filch. 

Each new production of The Threepenny Opera is worth seeing. This one is no exception. Continue reading “Jobsite Theatre’s Threepenny Opera’s Worth More Than That”

Book about a Beautiful Bridge

Not just a tribute to a beautiful bridge, but a thorough history of it.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge: Spanning Tampa Bay. By Nevin D. Sitler and Richard N. Sitler. Paperback. The History Press.

Ten years ago my wife and I toured Tampa Bay, looking for a place to retire. When we passed over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, we were amazed at the breathtaking ride across this stunning suspension bridge that unites Pinellas County with Manatee County. But my first thought was: “How exotic! We’re not in New England anymore. This is Florida.” Continue reading “Book about a Beautiful Bridge”

A Wry Look at the Indignities of Life

Why not write your autobiography? Don’t. Try this instead.

Keith Connes’ Latest Book

Not Your Everyday Memoir! : Humorous Essays, Lies, Rants, Short Stories and More! by Keith Connes

You’re a writer and you’ve clawed your way to the senior rung of life. But you probably haven’t gotten there without hearing at least one acquaintance suggest: “You have such wonderful stories! Why not write your autobiography?”

Don’t. Autobiographies are boring. Continue reading “A Wry Look at the Indignities of Life”