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Ideas

Brainiac

Should we eat swans?

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Food taboos have their own particular stories. Last year Ideas wrote about the reasons we shy away from eating horse meat (because we view horses as “comrades, pets, working animals”), and earlier this month Modern Farmer ran a fun post by Monica Kim on another animal that has received special exemption from our dinner tables: the swan.

Unlike horses, which aren’t obviously delicious, swans are a plump game bird little different from others we eat. A couple years ago superchef Mario Batali told Esquire of a single time he’s eaten swan, describing the meat as “deep red, lean, lightly gamey, moist, and succulent.”

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So why no swan at Thankgiving? Kim writes that the taboo owes both to their cultural status and a quirk of British law. Culturally, we think of swans as pure, beautiful, and rare (though rare they’re not—more on that in a second), a bird too good to be sloshed in gravy. Legally, swans have received special protection at least as far back as 1482, when King Edward IV authorized the Act Concerning Swans, which made all swans in Great Britain property of the Crown. (He signed the law—which remains in force today—because he loved eating swans, not because he wanted to conserve them.)

Swans may have once been exotic, but in many places they’re now considered a mean-spirited pest. Kim notes New York conservation officials have been looking at ways to eliminate altogether the state’s population of mute swans, which threaten native birds and take a toll on wetlands. So far swan-hunting isn’t on the table, but with meat production so fraught these days, why let an (apparently) good thing go to waste?

Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

The power of a potting shed

Gardening is a fairly low-tech pursuit. This spring planting season, The University of Chicago Press has a new book out by writer Bill Laws called “A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools.” There might not be much in its pages to disorient an 18th-century gardener dropped into a 21st-century raised bed—a rake’s a rake, a hoe’s a hoe, and even the rubber hose, an advance of the mid-19th century, is pretty intuitive.

But Laws’s book offers the delight of reminding us of all the different kinds of advances that can reshape simple activities. Label stakes (18th century) and the potting shed (19th) contributed directly, while wireless radio contributed more subtly, providing music or baseball broadcasts that completely changed people’s experience of time spent digging in the yard.

Your own insta-orchestra

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Classical musicians practice endless hours, but unless they’re really elite or lucky, they rarely get to have one of the most remarkable experiences in music: playing the repertoire written for a soloist with an accompanying ensemble. Unlike playing along with a recording, there’s a subtle give-and-take between a soloist and a real orchestra that may not be apparent to listeners, but that makes each live performance irreproducible.

Now, um, there’s an app for that. Cadenza, developed by Christopher Raphael, a computer scientist at Indiana University and former professional oboist, begins with recordings of dozens of iconic scores, minus the soloist line—pieces like Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings and Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in E Minor—and augments those tracks with modeling algorithms that give the recorded music a flexible, adaptive dimension. As a musician plays along, Cadenza can slow down, speed up, and adjust tuning, in response to the notes you actually play.

On his website, Raphael has posted video clips of musicians playing along with Cadenza. In one, a young woman in a sleeveless purple shirt sits at attention before her cello, as Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations begins playing over the loudspeaker. There is a futuristic dissonance to the whole scene. Symphony music is such a uniquely human, collaborative achievement. If a musician can really solo with a computer, what need do we have left for each other?

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

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