Tag Archives: boston

2018 SCS Society for Classical Studies (SCC) Annual Meeting

Ever heard of the term ‘bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’? Lots of people haven’t. But on January 3rd, lots of people learned what a bomb cyclone and explosive bombogenesis are. The strength of a storm depends on the air pressure: the lower the pressure, the more intense the storm. Why is this? Air is being sucked up during the storm, so the lower the pressure at ground level, the more air is being moved up. ‘Bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’ is a measure of how quickly air pressure drops. If pressure drops more than 24 millibars in 24 hours, the result is a bomb cyclone or explosive bombogenesis. Between Jan 3-4, the pressure of the Nor’easter known as winter storm Grayson that was ripping up the east coast dropped 50 millibars. The result was over a foot of snow from Virginia to New Hampshire, flooding along the coasts, wind gusts of up to 120 km/h, and arctic blasts taking the temperature down to -30C (add wind chill to this and this is the chill that goes straight into the bones. Of course, during this time I was travelling to talk at the 2018 SCS in Boston. Not a good idea.

The flight was originally scheduled to depart Victoria Wednesday evening and arrive in Boston Thursday morning. The SCS Greek tragedy panel was scheduled to convene Friday morning at 8AM, so that gave me 24hrs. Lots of time. Or so I thought. The first indication of trouble was a call from WestJet Wednesday morning. They told me Pearson and Logan airports were shutting down. They wouldn’t be able to get me into Boston until 930AM Friday. That doesn’t work. After being on hold for an hour, they were able to reroute the flight: Victoria-Seattle-Detroit-Manchester, NH. The agent had travelled from Manchester to Boston before and remembered that this was a possibility. From Manchester, I would catch a bus. But the catch was I had to leave right away. Okay, it’s a few connections, but game on! I hadn’t packed yet, but I pack light: one backpack. I threw everything in and bolted out the door. Time: just after lunch on Wednesday.

Flash forward. Now it’s early morning Thursday, January 4. Made it into Detroit. Made it into the States. Made it past the customs officer who was having serious doubts about my motives. He asked me the reason why I was travelling. I told him I was presenting at a conference. He asked which university I was affiliated with. I told him I was a free agent, this was a hobby. He asked me if I was getting paid. I said no. It turns out if you travel on your own coin to present a really interesting idea, this raises flags! He eventually let me through after logging onto the SCS website to confirm I was really speaking. I also had to show him a copy of my speech, which, fortunately, I had on me. You know, now I reflect on it, maybe my case is odd. After all, who would spend their own money to tell people about interesting ideas? Silly me!

Now in Detroit waiting for the flight to Manchester. Buses between Manchester and Boston have stopped running. So I’d have to stay overnight in Manchester and catch the first bus out on the 5th. That’s cutting it close, but it’d still get me there in time. 2 o’clock rolls around. Manchester flight delayed, delayed some more, than cancelled. Ouch! But then there are two flights into Boston at 5:36 and 7:36 that are still a go. The storm in Boston ends 7PM so by the time the planes get there from Detroit, the storm would have subsided. Delta rebooks me for the 5:36. Flash forward to 5PM. Flight to Boston delayed once, delayed twice, and then cancelled! Everything into Boston is now cancelled until Friday, January 5. Now this is looking bad to get to SCS in time. Getting bummed out. But hey, one last hope. There’s a flight at 10PM going into Providence. I’d overnight in Providence and catch the MBTA train into Boston in the morning. 40 minute ride. Easy. Flash forward. 9:30 rolls around. No plane. No flight crew. No captain. Flight’s not cancelled yet. Delayed 15 minutes. Then delayed 1/2 hour. Nobody can give any straight answers. Then cancelled. This is the point of maximum despair. Helpless. Hopeless. I email Helene Foley (who’s presiding the SCS panel) to ask whether someone can act as a surrogate presenter. At least that way the paper can see the light of day. At this point I book an airport hotel. I’ve been on the road for 36 hours. One evening sleeping at the airport or plane is okay. More than that is hard. Getting old. I check into a Knight’s Inn. When I get there, it turns out they are overbooked too.

One nice thing about getting stranded in the airport is that you talk to people you’d normally never talk to. There’s one guy, Jignesh, he’s studying computer science in Boston, going for the mighty MA. He’s from India. His goal is to make a six figure income. We get talking, he’s asking how I passed the day. I tell him I’ve been trading stocks (some dividends rolled in and I ended up buying some Brookfield preferred shares BAM.PF.D, Clearwater Seafoods CLR, and American Hotel Income Properties REIT HOT.UN). So we start talking about stocks and he tells me to go onto Youtube. It turns out before he came to the US to study computer science, Jignesh was a stock analyst for CNBC in India–there he was, in a suit and tie, analyzing stocks on Indian TV! Then there’s a lady, Yvonne. She owns a farm in Zimbabwe with her son. She’s visiting her sister in Washington. She grows corn on her farm, it’s got an automatic drip irrigation system. Also grows ginger which she’s starting to export to Europe. She had some photos. The system is more sophisticated than I thought it would be. We talk some politics. It turns out Zimbabwe was ruled by a president-dictator who had just been ousted by the military. If the new guy enacts some democratic reforms, things could go really well there. Fingers crossed for her! This is the first time I’ve heard of a ‘good’ military coup.

Now it’s 4AM presentation morning. I’m back at the Detroit airport waiting for McDonald’s to open (sausage mcmuffin and coffee) and praying that the 5AM to Boston will depart as scheduled. Jignesh and Yvonne slept at the airport, they ask me if my nerves are getting frayed. I tell them I’ve been disappointed so many times now that the feeling is one of resignation. So now 430AM rolls around, the captain and flight crew are standing around but no plane at the gate. The gate moves, then moves back. Everyone’s still standing around. 5 rolls around. Then 530. A plane shows up at the gate. The crew get in. We’re told depart at 630. 630 rolls around they say the plane’s too cold. Too cold?–get us on the damn thing! Finally we start boarding a little before 7. Once on the plane, I have a little snooze. At this point, I’m passed the point of caring. The body is just tired. It’s been close to 48 hours of travel. That’s long enough to fly around the world! Too long.

I’m not even sure when the plane gets into Boston. Almost mechanically, I jump up and run for the taxi. Lucky for me, no checked baggage! Outside, there’s snowbanks everywhere and its damn cold (the sort of cold that hits your bones), but the road crews look like they’ve pulled an all-nighter. I jump into the cab, ask him to take me to the Boston Marriott post haste. When we get there, I notice the hotel is huge! Registration for the SCS is on the fourth floor. Out of breath, I ask for directions to where my panel is (SCS is huge: 84 panels, a ton of poster sessions, an publishers exhibition hall, a live play, awards ceremonies, and private receptions spread over four days and two hotels, it’s a zoo). Luckily, the seminar room is close by. I run in there like a bat out of hell.. and hear the words of my presentation!

As I burst in, everything stops. I must have looked like a madman. 48hrs on the road. Hardly any sleep. In my big winter jacket and all my travel gear. It turns out the SCS panel had thought the flight was still delayed. They had waited until the other speakers had presented, and then were nice enough to find a surrogate presenter. But there I was. I made a joke about low-probability events (since that was the topic of the presentation and the snow bomb cyclone was certainly low-probability) and there were some chuckles and nods. A fortuitous start.  I stepped up to the mike and delivered the presentation, relishing every moment of it. And though I felt beat, there was so much adrenalin, I felt the thrill of being up there. It felt like it was meant to be. This is what I live for! Though presenting isn’t theatre, there’s something very theatrical about it. Wow, what a rush! This is a campfire story for the ages!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work on the run.

Low Probability High Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes

Going to Boston in January 2018

If at first you don’t succeed, try again! Though my proposal for the Shakespearean Theatre Conference was rejected, my proposal to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Boston went through. Cool. I get to talk about my favourite tragedian, Aeschylus. And I also get to talk about my favourite tragedy, his play Seven Against Thebes. From what I remember, it’s a big conference. Hellenists and Latinists from all over the world converge on a hotel and fill it right up for the better part of a week. At any given time, there’s ten or twenty sessions going on, and they cover everything to do with the Greek and Roman world. There’s a ballroom filled with exhibitors: publishers with their books, travel agents (offering guided tours of Greece and Rome), and salespeople hawking software systems. Circus atmosphere. And lots of professors meeting up with their old buddies. And lots of boozing. One of my friends is a manager at Fairmont Hotels. The hotels circulate amongst themselves a report of how all these different organizations behave when they hold their conferences. The report on the Society for Classical Studies says that we’re a mild-mannered and generally well-behaved bunch that like the sauce. I can’t deny that, last time, to my amusement as I walked past the bar, this one old professor wearing a tweed suit happened to have one too many and fell off his barstool. His colleagues were picking him up, and trying not to laugh as they asked if he was okay. This is going to be fun! I’m looking forward to going.

 Lionel Pearson Fellowship

The last time I was there, the Society for Classical Studies was still known by its original name which was the American Philological Association. Philology is the study of languages and their development. I guess because the term “philology” overlaps with “linguistics” they finally decided to change it. Or perhaps the acronym “APA” created confusion because the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association uses the same abbreviation?Anyway, in 2004, I was one of the four finalists for the Lionel Pearson Fellowship. The winner got to study for a year in England or Scotland. That year they annual meeting was in San Francisco and they flew all the finalists down for the interviews. There were four of us. They sat us down together in a room. There were three judges. And for what seemed like a long time, they would ask us questions about the Greek and Roman world. I thought I was prepared. But, as I listened to the other finalists, it dawned on me that there are some exceptionally bright and well spoken students out there! I remember wondering thinking how they could be so knowledgeable. It was an eye opening experience. After the interviews, they gave us maps and set the finalists through the city to to a team building treasure hunt. And that night we had dinner together with the judges. The winner that year was Lauren Schwartzman, and from her performance during the interview (which I witnessed firsthand), that’s who I would have put my money on! Funny thing, the next year when I started at Brown, one of my colleagues was Robin McGill, who had won the Pearson Fellowship the year before.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

They were looking for a 650 word abstract and here’s my successful proposal:

The worst-case scenario in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes happens if Eteocles and Polyneices confront one another at the seventh gate. Because of the multitude of permutations possible with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is a low-probability event. The resulting miasma, however, makes it a high-consequence event. I argue that Seven Against Thebes provides an important lesson in risk management by bringing about, against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence outcome. The lesson is that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident.

By repeated references to gambling, dice, and chance, Aeschylus encourages us to consider the likelihood of the worst-case scenario in terms of probability. Lottery images abound. First, the attackers draw lots to determine their stations (55-6, 375-6). Second, Eteocles invokes Hermes as the god of chance and lots when he comments on the matchup at the fourth gate: “Hermes has brought them together with good reason” (508). Commenting on another matchup, Eteocles says: “Ares will decide the outcome with dice” (414). Third, Eteocles alludes to an ominous throw in dice games (6+1) when he says that he will assign six defenders “with himself as seventh” (Roisman, 22n.15). Gambling references invite audiences to ask themselves what the odds of the worst-case scenario are.

What are the odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate? The odds are 1:49, or roughly two percent: the probability, therefore, is low. Although Aeschylus’ audience lacked modern probability theory and a way to compute the exact odds, Aristotle makes it clear that they could indeed differentiate between likely and unlikely outcomes (Cael. 292a29). Because of all the possible permutations with seven defenders, seven attackers, and seven gates, Aeschylus’ audience would recognize that, in a random setting (i.e. one where captains are posted to their gates by lot), the likelihood of the brothers meeting at the final gate is low.

Eteocles’ confidence is also bolstered, paradoxically, by another low-probability event. The matchups from gates one through six, being random, should favour neither brother. But what happens is that the matchups, when taken in aggregate, overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. The odds, for example, that an opposing captain at gate four bearing the device of Typhon on his shield will be matched up against a defender bearing the device of Zeus (who defeated Typhon) is 1:16. But even though this (and other) matchups are unlikely, they do take place. The fortuitous matchups bolster Eteocles’ confidence.

Eteocles interprets the fortuitous matchups as a sign that the gods are on his side because randomness in ancient Greece was anything but random: randomness was a manifestation of an underlying order in the cosmos. The lot, imbued with numinous significance, was expected to reveal the grand design. When the Achaeans, for example, were looking for a champion to duel Hector, they drew lots. Ajax’ lot, as though by design, “jumps out” of the helmet (Hom., Il. 7.181-3). So too the Olympians drew lots to see who would rule the sky, the seas, and underworld (Apollod., Bibl., 1.2.1). They decided by lot because fate or destiny revealed itself through randomness. Thus, when Eteocles sees the random matchups from gates one through six going his way, his confidence goes up.

Against all expectations, however, Aeschylus brings about the worst-case scenario: both brothers are called to the seventh gate. By bringing about the low-probability, high-consequence event against all odds, Aeschylus dramatizes risk: the most unlikely outcomes can have the most serious repercussions. As risk dramatized, Seven Against Thebes may be read as a lesson in risk management. Its lesson is that, like Eteocles, we are in the most danger when we feel the most confident. In today’s age where confidence in technology and progress may lead to the downplay of manufactured risks (whether environmental, nuclear, biological, or financial), ancient tragedy can still offer moderns an important lesson.

I must say it’s an art in itself writing these abstracts and proposals. I’m still learning. What I like about this proposal are the catch terms such as “low-probability, high-consequence” and “we are in the most danger when we are most confident.” Successful proposals are the ones in which the writer can get the reader to remember some catchy phrase (e.g. low-probability, high-consequence). Another technique would be to make a bold statement (e.g. we are in the most danger when we are most confident) that causes the reader to pause. Of course it helps if they pause and decide that they agree with your bold statement!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work by commenting on Aeschylus’ masterpiece, Seven Against Thebes.