23 09 2012

I don’t consider myself a gambler, though I obviously am, simply because I am a human being. I gamble on not choking every time I eat something. I gamble with my social standing with every new relationship I form or let slide. Few things in life are absolutely certain (especially those relationships!!) – except of course that it will end one day.

As a kid, I took an optional class in statistics when I was about 15. Can’t say I remember much about the point of standard deviation and all that, but I do remember a few principles. One was the effect of sheer volume of numbers on the result; another the human trait of taking recent history and extrapolating it unreasonably.

The numbers thing had two neat examples. One was the origin of why Indians offer Paal Paysam (rice pud!) to visiting pilgrims. Basically it was an illustration that starting with a single grain of rice on one square of a chess board, and doubling it on each subsequent square, you finished the last (64th) square requiring enough rice to cover the whole of India with a metre depth of rice!

The other example was challenging someone that you can identify any word they can find in a dictionary with only 20 questions. Find a good thick dictionary for someone to look in and select a word for you to find. Take back the dictionary, open it roughly in the middle, identify a word and ask whether their word is alphabetically higher or lower. Instantly, you have discarded half of the words in the dictionary from your search. Split the remaining pages, repeat the question, and you are already down to 1/4 of the recorded words with only 2 questions gone! Twenty questions allows you to “binary split” and identify any individual word in this way, as long as the dictionary has less than a million words or so (2 to the power 20). Plenty of leeway for even a chunky Oxford English Dictionary.

“Was there a point to all this?”, you ask. You didn’t? Oh, I’m sorry – you must be a regular reader then, comfortable in the point being gradually made apparent. This particular point was that unreasonable things are possible with enough numbers.

The second recollection was about our sense of “reasonable”. If I ask you to pick heads or tails as I flip a coin, you’d be reasonably comfortable in picking either, I think. Over say 6 or 10 flips you are ALMOST certain to have seen both heads and tails appear with around similar frequency. Assuming “a fair flip” and an honest minting, then over an infinite number of flips, the statistical average will tend to exactly 50% of both heads and tails, but we’ll already be reasonably comfortable with that within much fewer. It’s “reasonable”. But, alas, we are human. WE are not reasonable. We have short memories and judge things on a human timescale and size. Like global warming – we’re bleating on about global warming, and totally ignoring the fact that humans came into being at an atypical moment in the planet’s temperature cycle. The scale is too big for most of us to grasp.

We struggle with big numbers – even those of us who are good at maths. So, if something is very unlikely – say 1 in 7,000,000,000 we tend to say “well, it’s almost zero – let’s ignore it!” That would be a shame though – that’s how likely you are to be one of the current human inhabitants of earth. Suddenly feel a bit more likely?

15-25% don’t seem like GREAT odds, but that’s the odds of getting pregnant (assuming you’re trying to!) each month, according to babymed.com. I bet you’re glad your parents weren’t hung up on stats!

This logic of “very very small is not the same as zero” is what leads some to be confident that there’s life on other planets: NEAR zero chance of ET being on any given planet… but near infinite planets, so likelihood is actually pretty high…

So I put my name into a free draw. Sure the odds of winning can be vanishingly small… but not actually zero! It’s way easier to cope with the large numbers if there’s no cost involved of course, and I regularly put my name in the hat with the local Arts paper, The Georgia Straight. Last week, I got a call to tell me I’d won. It took me a couple of attempts to fully understand the concept of winning from the delightful lady who was trying to tell me, because despite the regular entries, I had never ACTUALLY expected to win anything!

And so it was that I came to be taking Mrs Elephant to the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday night. It was a dance presentation as part of the Vancouver International Flamenco Festival, and co-sponsored by The Georgia Straight. I delighted in wearing my favourite Converse and skinny jeans amongst the collars and ties and fancy frocks.  As I waited in the “will call” queue to collect my free tickets, a perfumed, petit latin gentleman oiled past everyone to the other ticket booth and said “I’m on the guest list – can I have my tickets?”. I couldn’t help but smirk as he was politely but firmly asked to join the end of the queue I was in. Art – the great social leveller! One other small, well scented middle-aged chap had what appeared to be a length of upholstery fabric over his shoulder. He spoke with a most affected French accent and when joined by his female acolyte, with a similar piece, I realised it was actually a cashmere scarf, and he was most definitely, quite unequivocally not her sexual partner. ‘Nuff said.

So,  when my turn came to get my tickets from the booth, I gave my name, and a quick search of the envelopes found no result. I felt a little disheartened as I was actually quite looking forward to being the odd one out in such a pretentious gathering. “For the Flamenco?” asked the lady with a quizzical expression, obviously not believing that “someone of my type” could possibly be in the right place. I offered that I’d won them with Georgia Straight, and voila, there they were on the small and discrete VIP pile. Presumably the other tickets were for smaller, swarthier, more aromatic gentlemen in sharp suits and pointy shoes. Of which there were many – typically accompanied by what I can only describe as stunningly dressed women.

So – we were in. We joined the short line at the inner door and the prior couple were dispatched unceremoniously in the direction of their seats by the middle-aged usher. I handed her our tickets and said “good evening, how are you today?” Her demeanour changed in a flash, and with a beaming smile she said all was well, and politely pointed us to our seats telling us they were amongst the best in the house, and hoping we enjoyed the show.

Such a powerful thing, I’ve always felt: simply acknowledging another human being.

We quickly found our seats, which did indeed seem to be in the “really quite good” category. Row 3, aisle. I like aisle seats. Ever since I was told how hard it is to get off a burning plane if you’re stuck behind an overweight person.

Flamenco Rosario: Artistic director Rosario Ancer

The lights went down and proceedings began with some announcements from yet another diminutive bloke. Plainly Flamenco followers are typically on the short side. And then we were off…

The opening act was by “Flamenco Rosario” – which is a registered charity promoting Flamenco in BC, with artistic director Rosario Ancer.

Going by the title “La Monarca, The Monarch and the Butterfly Effect (Excerpts)”, it was influenced by the Monarch Butterfly, and had a video backdrop of the Monarch’s caterpillar on a leaf and the clouds of gathered Monarchs. These butterflies fly in great clouds in Rosario’s native Mexico.

Wikipedia: Monarch butterflies

Now, I had no preconceptions really. Perhaps of red swishing frocks and castanets. Bright red lipstick and Spanish guitars. Frilly shirts and… OK, OK, I had LOTS of preconceptions.

As the lights went up, we were met by what looked like a giant cocoon, which slowly became apparent as the layered underskirts of Rosario’s dress, as she revealed herself from behind them, sat on a box. She was barefoot, and I was struck with her graceful movements – she was neither young nor typically “dancer anorexic”. She had grace and style in bucketloads though, and as the pieces went on she was joined by husband and Musical Director Victor Kolstee on the guitar, and Momi de Cadiz doing vocals.

In a heartbeat the set was over, with lots of what I (being British-born) considered rude people in the audience yelling out “¡Olé!” at various points, and a good 30 minutes had actually passed. It turns out it’s traditional to yell at the dancer to encourage them. (I wonder if it works at performances of Swan Lake…). As the lights came up, I was left mulling over the experience. Not what I’d expected, if indeed that was anything particular. It was new, and modern, but with Flamenco style moves. I think I quite enjoyed it!

After the break came the real show: Angeles Gabaldón performing “Del Quivir”. I actually found a recording of a previous performance here for those that might be interested. I recommend the third piece particularly. Read on to see why.

Angeles Gabaldón

A little better prepared this time, I was not so shocked when the lights came up to see the star of the show lying on the ground. “Oh dear – she suffers from narcolepsy” left my mouth before I could stop it, and Mrs. Elephant administered an embarrassed elbow jab. Things got going pretty quickly and again, Flamenco style dancing was melded with other styles in this piece based on water and flow. Again, great elegance and style in the performance from this Spanish dancer. The third piece had her coming on stage with dripping wet hair, and the soundtrack was actually various water sounds rather than music. In time to the “natural music” she wrung imaginary water from her long dress, shook real water from her wet hair, and generally made a wonderful interpretation of the fluidity and power of water.

To use a phrase I heard often in the pub last Friday: “I was blown away”. Follow the link above to see a video of the dance.

One of the things that struck me with the dance style is the authority with which the women use the medium. There would be long flowing sequences than a very abrupt stop with a pose and expression akin to “Yeah?! And what you gonna do about it then?!” Power and grace all in one.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening. Worth every penny. 🙂

Thank-you Georgia Straight! I appreciated the opportunity to sample something I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.



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