Thursday, February 22, 2024

more world according to cats

It's not going to eat you, Maia: it's only a laundry basket.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

world according to cats

The cats were sleeping in the lazy hours of the afternoon as I hoisted the remaining half-bag of cat food from storage to the upstairs bathroom where we feed them. I managed to keep it silent enough that the food did not rattle.

Closing the bathroom door, I no longer worried about sound as I opened the canister we keep up there, poured the food in, and sealed it up again.

So I was not at all surprised, on opening the door, to find two faces at the threshold patiently looking in. As I left, the cats were scouring the bathroom trying to figure out where the food went. They knew they'd heard it, so it had to be there somewhere.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

presidential greatness

A news item has been running around that historians have once again been asked to rank all US presidents in order of greatness, with the obvious one coming last and the relatives of James Buchanan thanking the scholars for getting him out of the bottom hole at last. However, it's hard to get at the actual list, and I had to fight my way past a series of "Danger Will Robinson" warning labels from my internet security provider to do it.

So as a public service, here's the list, enhanced by me with full names and terms of office. The authors forgot that there were two presidents named Harrison so they didn't distinguish them, so I just guessed which was which. Also, although Biden is called #46 there are only 45 names because there was a 19th-century president, Grover Cleveland, who served two separated terms and gets two numbers - a numbering practice not followed in any other case I know of office-holders more likely to experience repetitions.
  1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45)
  3. George Washington (1789-97)
  4. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09)
  5. Thomas Jefferson (1801-09)
  6. Harry S. Truman (1945-53)
  7. Barack Obama (2009-17)
  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61)
  9. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69)
  10. John F. Kennedy (1961-63)
  11. James Madison (1809-17)
  12. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
  13. John Adams (1797-1801)
  14. Joe Biden (2021- )
  15. Woodrow Wilson (1913-21)
  16. Ronald Reagan (1981-89)
  17. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77)
  18. James Monroe (1817-25)
  19. George H.W. Bush (1989-93)
  20. John Quincy Adams (1825-29)
  21. Andrew Jackson (1829-37)
  22. Jimmy Carter (1977-81)
  23. William H. Taft (1909-13)
  24. William McKinley (1897-1901)
  25. James K. Polk (1845-49)
  26. Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97)
  27. Gerald R. Ford (1974-77)
  28. Martin Van Buren (1837-41)
  29. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81)
  30. James A. Garfield (1881)
  31. Benjamin Harrison (1889-93)
  32. Calvin Coolidge (1923-29)
  33. Chester A. Arthur (1881-85)
  34. George W. Bush (2001-09)
  35. Richard Nixon (1969-74)
  36. Herbert Hoover (1929-33)
  37. John Tyler (1841-45)
  38. Zachary Taylor (1849-50)
  39. Millard Fillmore (1850-53)
  40. Warren G. Harding (1921-23)
  41. William H. Harrison (1841)
  42. Franklin Pierce (1853-57)
  43. Andrew Johnson (1865-69)
  44. James Buchanan (1857-61)
  45. Donald J. Trump (2017-21)
I would find it difficult to vote in a survey like this. How do you account for actual malignancy in presidents? I count five clear-cut cases, not all of which are ranked at the very bottom; plus about three more with malignant traits passing beyond foolish or erroneous policy, and no, I'm not counting "being a slave-owner in a slave-owning society" as evidence of malignancy. (Though it is notable that only 3 of our first 18 presidents were entirely free of either the taint of this practice or of fellow-traveling in its favor.)

Monday, February 19, 2024

Hugo, I'll stay home

"We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." - T.B. Macaulay

I'm beginning to be reminded of that by some of the reactions to the scandal regarding last year's Hugos. No question that it was very badly run and all sorts of rules both written and implied were violated. The question at hand is, Now what do we do about it?

Here's a proposal that makes me wonder. The author sweepingly denounces
the cartel of self-proclaimed "SMOFs" (secret masters of fandom) who treat the Hugos - and Worldcon more broadly - as their birthright, playground and personal fiefdom. The Hugo Awards are supposed to be democratic in nature and process; the behavior of the self-proclaimed "SMOFs" is fundamentally anti-democratic - and this is by no means confined to Chengdu Worldcon.
Note that last clause in particular. That being the author's belief, why is one of the proposals that
Individual Cons should no longer administer the Hugo Awards - this should be done by an independent, rotating committee.
Wouldn't that continuing committee be a "cartel" even more than having each convention run the Hugos separately? Sure, if it's rotating it wouldn't be the same people every year, but that's what we have now. There is an informal mass of people known as the permanent floating Worldcon committee, who keep turning up doing the job - and a good thing that often is: they have experience, they're not starting from scratch every year - but each Worldcon is a separate entity and has its own administration. That means that, a few specific overlapping individuals aside (and the relevant one has resigned), the upcoming Worldcons in Glasgow and Seattle are in no way complicit in or tainted by anything that was done by Chengdu. If we had a permanent Hugos committee, we'd lose that.

In any case, practice has been to hermetically seal off the Hugo subcommittee from the main Worldcon committee, for the purpose of protecting the main committee - which can be an awfully large number of people, with uncertainty as to which workers formally qualify as part of it and which don't - from the constitutional provision that those responsible for the Hugos are ineligible as candidates. The main committee can't make the Hugo administrators do anything. Whether Dave McCarty, the Chengdu administrator, accepted direction from above is unknown - we only have his e-mails to his subordinates - but, if so, that was his decision. And a permanent committee wouldn't have been immune to unwonted sensitivity to Chinese censorship.

The current situation is that each Worldcon appoints its own Hugo administrators. And these are either seasoned trusted experienced people who've done it before - which class included Dave McCarty until last month - or new people without any historical baggage, or, mostly these days, some of each. A continuing committee would have the same sort of people, because who else is there to do the job? And without being individually selected by the Worldcon committee, who would select them? Would the committee choose its own new members? Would the Worldcon Business Meeting? If we don't trust the Worldcons themselves to do it - they're selected by the members, who are the ultimate authority.

Perhaps it's clear, then, why I'm also dismayed by another proposal, which reads
No one involved in the administration of the 2023 Hugo Awards, or who assisted in the collection of political evidence, can ever be allowed to have any role in administering the awards ever again.
What exactly is the point of this stricture? It must be just to punish the specific individuals involved and to chill all future administrators with the threat of this very meek form of cancellation, because it can't be to keep maladministrators out of office. It's fallacious to think that only the people who did this, could have done it. Nobody would have suspected Dave McCarty of it until he did it. If someone else were in his place, maybe they would have done the same thing. Human fallibility isn't limited to identified miscreants, but it's convenient to identify a scapegoat and then think you've solved the problem.

I don't think any Worldcon is likely to appoint McCarty again, even without directives. Some of the lower flunkies were perhaps naive or ill-informed and not as responsible. My belief is that we should learn our lesson from this, as we did from the Puppies affair, and move on. A constitutional provision specifically prohibiting the erroneous acts of Chengdu couldn't hurt, but being aware that this flaw in administration could happen is the best way to prevent it from happening again.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

not entirely there

This weekend was the Mythopoeic Society's Online Winter Seminar, whose topic was queerness in all its manifestations, and the papers that I heard mostly stuck pretty closely to it. One of the more interesting, if provocative, speakers defined queerness by saying that the meaning was inherently unstable, but that basically it means "transgression from the normative." This is what it meant, for instance, when a crusty hobbit told Gaffer Gamgee that "Bag End's a queer place, and its folk are queerer." And that's the root of the word's application to specifically sexual transgression, which as a common usage is generally dated from the trial of Oscar Wilde, though it was less prominently used in that sense earlier.

So, since if there's one thing fantasy literature is full of, it's transgression from the normative, there should be plenty to talk about. And there was, but I didn't get much out of it, and bailed early. This was partly due to not liking online conferences. Somehow it's one thing to sit in a cramped classroom chair in a stuffy room and listen live to someone read a paper, but less appealing to sit in my own chair in my own office and listen to someone on a computer.

But it was also due to the style of the papers. These presenters have obvious passionate personal commitment to their subjects, to which their own personal identities are tightly wrapped. But they're also trained industrial-production academics, most of them working on their Ph.D.'s, and they write in stultifying heavy-weather academese. It's a shame: what I like about Tolkien scholarship, or used to like about it, is that so much of it was not written in the academic style, even if it was by tenured academics. Scholars like Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey and Brian Attebery and Diana Glyer write like real humans imparting their brilliant insights into the literature that you and they have both read, in ordinary comprehensible language.

The conference was also dotted with the kind of severe correctives of personal failings, especially of those of the past who were not so enlightened as we, that so alarm right-wing critics of this sort of academe. Indeed, some of these right-wingers are former leftists who have decamped in disgust. I, at least, would never do this. Over the top (as Joe Biden would put it) as some of these correctives may be, the right wing's own directives are vast orders of magnitude worse, and far more thorough and sweeping, and more hurtful to those they hit. I know the difference between what's occasionally overloaded and what's thoroughly rancid.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

concert review: Oakland Symphony

The Oakland Symphony still hasn't gotten past the death of its long-time music director Michael Morgan two and a half years ago. It hasn't hired a new music director; this concert was guest conducted by Kedrick Armstrong, the young leader of an orchestra in Galesburg IL; like Morgan he is Black, and he once worked as Morgan's assistant on a guest-conducting gig, so he knew the man.

And the featured work on this program was the premiere of a work that Morgan commissioned. (Musical compositions can be a long time gestating.) It's a half-hour cantata, basically, on the life of Paul Robeson. One thing that emerged from the pre-concert talk was how few people today, even Blacks, have ever heard of Paul Robeson; even Armstrong hadn't when he was asked to lead this concert, which is why I linked to Robeson's Wikipedia page. But people my age, or Morgan's, though we postdate Robeson's career, have at least picked up resonances and heard his recordings.

The music, basically neo-post-Romantic, was by Carlos Simon, and the libretto, mostly from Robeson's book Here I Stand (which also provided the piece's title) and his public statements, by Dan Harder. It incorporated references to some of Robeson's vocal repertoire: a verse of "Joe Hill," a couple bits of spirituals, and a brief thematic reference - no lyrics, you wouldn't want them - to "Old Man River." The solo part, which mixed singing, speaking, and some in between, was delivered by Morris Robinson, whose range went if anything deeper than Robeson's own, but seemed less powerful or resonant, but that may be due to my sitting in the back of the auditorium beneath the overhang. The text focused on Robeson's political and social faith to help the African American and other suffering peoples (it did not shy from Robeson's use of the now-outdated word "Negro", sometimes using it in melismas); the chorus mostly chimed in, except for a scene taken from Robeson's HUAC hearings where it played the censorious congressmen.

Anyway, an effective piece, and it was paired with two other works which could be packaged as showing the composer as social activist: Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 6, rushed and angry, and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, for which Armstrong took the slow and quiet parts of all four movements as slowly and gently as possible, the better to contrast with the fast and loud parts without overloading them. Also an effective performance.

Friday, February 16, 2024

concert review

Nearly fourteen years ago, I reviewed a Paganini concerto with a staggeringly talented fourteen-year-old boy named Stephen Waarts as soloist.

Yesterday, I heard him again at Herbst: in his late twenties, very tall, and playing Janáček's gnarly First Violin Sonata from memory (Juho Pohjonen, pianist). But the principal attraction of the evening was a pair of piano trios (Jonathan Swensen, cellist) by composers who were themselves teenagers at the time they wrote them: Dmitri Shostakovich's, which was incipiently modernist, and César Franck's, which was stealthy and hypnotic. This weirdly attractive piece (Op. 1 No. 1 in F-sharp minor) ought to be heard more often, or, indeed, at all. (Music@Menlo has just announced this year's festival, which is focused on French music but includes no Franck whatever. What were they thinking?)

Arriving in the Herbst lobby over an hour before showtime, I was genially accosted by an elderly woman in a wheelchair who wanted to talk at me incessantly. She was interesting enough, and even asked permission to follow me over when I went to sit on a bench, so I welcomed her company. She told me that she'd once been engaged to sing Tosca at La Scala, but canceled to return to the States to take care of her ailing mother. She told me this several times. She was also frantically looking through the plastic bags of stuff in her lap for her misplaced credit card. I suggested that she spread the stuff out on the bench to make it easier to look. This worked and she was grateful. Then she went off to buy a ticket and then came back. Not sure if she'd ever stop talking, at least if she had me to talk to, when the hall opened I pointed her towards the wheelchair seating and went myself off down some steps. Phew.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Hugo mess

(This will only make sense to people who've been following the controversies over last year's Hugo Awards. My apologies to anybody else: just skip it.)

So Kat Jones has resigned as Glasgow Hugo Administrator, presumably because she was complicit in the censorship decisions made at Chengdu.

The thing is, though, that she's been complicit all along, and she knew she was complicit. The rest of the world didn't know it, but she did. She knew what was going on. She knew what lay behind Dave McCarty's infamous non-answers to legitimate questions, and why he wasn't answering them. Perhaps she even knew why that long delay ensued before the release of the statistics (Diane Lacey did).

So, if this was so shameful, why didn't Kat resign earlier? If her reputation is so besmirched that she has to be "removed from the Glasgow 2024 team across all mediums" (e-mail from Glasgow announcing the resignation), why did she join Glasgow at all, assuming she did so after the Chengdu vetting period?

What bothers me is that the sequence of events says that it's not being complicit in Chengdu that's the fault here, but being publicly known to be complicit. Either that's the real reason for Kat's resignation, or else Glasgow has over-reacted to the revelations. (Not their transparency decisions: those are good. But the cleansing of any trace of Chengdu. If it was that dishonorable by those involved ... well, I've made my point already.)

actual age on election day, UK edition

I had so much fun compiling the historical chart of the ages of US presidential candidates that I decided to do the same thing for major-party leaders at UK general elections for the same period, since 1945. I'm assuming that the general election due in 2024 will be held towards the end of the legal eligibility period, which expires in December. As to the comparative age distributions, I'll let that pass without comment.

76 Churchill 1951
75 Churchill 1950
72 Attlee 1955
70 Churchill 1945, Corbyn 2019
69 Foot 1983
68 Attlee 1951, Corbyn 2017
67 Attlee 1950, Callaghan 1979
65 Macmillan 1959
64 Howard 2005
62 Attlee 1945, Starmer 2024
61 Douglas-Home 1964, Thatcher 1987
60 May 2017
59 Brown 2010
58 Heath Oct 1974, Wilson Oct 1974
57 Eden 1955, Heath Feb 1974, Wilson Feb 1974, Thatcher 1983
55 Johnson 2019
54 Wilson 1970, Major 1997
53 Gaitskell 1959, Heath 1970, Thatcher 1979
51 Blair 2005
50 Wilson 1966, Kinnock 1992
49 Heath 1966, Major 1992
48 Wilson 1964, Blair 2001, Cameron 2015
45 Kinnock 1987, Miliband 2015
44 Sunak 2024
43 Blair 1997, Cameron 2010
40 Hague 2001

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

precursor valentine's

B. and I have learned not to try to dine out on Valentine's Day; instead we go out on a shoulder day. Usually afterwards, but this year the day before worked better for our schedule. We picked a high-end Italian place that had gotten good rankings locally for romantic atmosphere. Well, the lighting was dim, and the service was (nearly) impeccable, but it was crowded and noisy and the food, though good, was not great. The best parts were the lobster bisque soup, and the chocolate mousse that I had for dessert. This came in a champagne snifter, and was accordingly a large serving, so why did the waiter look so startled and dismayed (this was the one peck in the service) when I asked to take the bulk of it home? Last time I had chocolate mousse out, it was a smaller serving but the servers didn't quail at the same request. Anyway, he did decant the mousse into a little box, and it's in my fridge now.

More sweets for our little nominal Valentine's presents. B. was delighted with what I'd found: a package of frosted animal cookies, not in the usual shapes of circus animals, but as mythical creatures: unicorns, dragons, mermaids, and sea serpents. What a cute idea, and there's nothing preventing them from being made this way, so why didn't someone think of this before?