Saturday, March 18, 2023


Yesterday's edition of the neighborhood mailing list (I get a daily digest) was full of reports from pockets of our neighborhood that still haven't gotten their power back. That was Friday, and the windy storm that knocked all those trees down was on Tuesday. Today's paper confirms that there are still several thousand customers without power in the immediate area, and some of them are in our town.

The reason for the delay, of course, is the vast number of incidents overwhelming the crews that need to clean them up (and, the mailing list reports suggest, the exhaustion of workers who need to commute hours to get here, as people in such lines of work can't possibly afford to live here, but that's another matter). It hasn't hit us personally, which is good, because right now I'm buried in collating all the corrections for the proofs of the next issue of Tolkien Studies (that's the long-delayed 2022 issue), including some confusions that the publisher made of the illustrations (mostly musical scores) in one article, rendered more hazardous by their having renumbered them all. We missed one of the glitches ourselves; fortunately the author noticed it. Read your proofs, authors! Deadline is tight, and I don't need inaccessibility to my computer right now.

I had to dodge some fallen trees on a drive home from the City after the previous storm cycle last month, but this one hasn't been much to me personally, except for the twice-canceled Sondheim show. I did have to go out in the height of the rain for a medical appointment some distance away, but having repeatedly to hold my breath while they ran the ultrasound was more discomforting than anything involved in driving there. It currently looks as if our area will be spared the brunt of the next storm coming in a couple of days, though down south the San Bernardino Mountains towns that were socked in with snowfall may be getting more of it; the news article didn't specify that. In the meantime, between storms, it's cracking 70 F for the first time this year. There will be plenty more where that came from. I almost didn't need a jacket last night attending a concert by the Philharmonia Baroque and Apollo's Fire presenting a variety of diaspora Jewish ethnic music. Next week I'm attending a concert of wind chamber music by victims of the Nazi Holocaust, and this seemed like an appropriate prelude. Some of it was pretty haunting.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

no show

Last Thursday, B. and I had tickets to see a production of Sondheim's Into the Woods at a local community college, up on the edge of the hills. In fact, "Foothill," that's the name of the college. What should hit that day but one of the giant storms we've been getting lately. Fortunately I checked my e-mail before we went out, and found a notification that the power was out on campus so the evening's show had been canceled. But not to worry: they were adding a new performance the next Wednesday, and anyone who could make that day was welcome to transfer to that.

We were, so we did.

So on Tuesday, what should we get but another giant storm. And on Wednesday, a notice that power had gone out on campus again, and it was still out, so the replacement performance was also being canceled. Maybe it's being in the hills, and with lots of vulnerable trees around, that did it.

Show's about to close anyway: no more replacement performances, few tickets for the remaining shows (if the power comes back on for them) and we can't make them anyway.

So, scratch Into the Woods from my spring Sondheim festival. One down (Assassins, last month), one canceled, three more to go.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

concert review: Vienna Philharmonic

Once again, the most renowned orchestra in the world has come to just about the worst large auditorium in my area. And I was sent to review it.

The selection of works - Brahms and Mendelssohn - was delectable. The sound quality was beautiful, though the acoustics did their best to negate that. The conducting was wayward and eccentric. I've heard a lot better from the VPO in other hands. I fancy they might have done better with Strauss's Alpine Symphony the previous night; it's the kind of work that might respond to this approach. But how Bruckner's Eighth, which requires the most careful of shaping, came out the next evening I shudder to think.

This was an unusual form for a review from me, because - concentrating on the sound quality - I discussed the concert as a whole instead of the pieces individually. How I knew the word "intercalary" I can't remember, but it must have been right because the editors left it in.

Monday, March 13, 2023

concert review: theatrical song recital

The weather forecasts had led me to expect a heavy downpour when we returned from Stanford at 9 pm, but not a trace of rain. We'd headed out to the large lounge facing the foyer of one of the older Stanford dorms for a concert by an ensemble billed in the Music Department calendar as "Students of Music 183C: The Interpretation of Musical Theatre Repertoire." It was easy to get to, it fit our interests, so we went, although I think we must have been the only off-campus attendees.

Seven students each sang two or three songs in the damp acoustics, accompanied by their professor at the piano. You don't expect much from an undergraduate class; still, one would like heart-throbbing ballads like "Somewhere" or "I Dreamed a Dream" to be rendered with a little less wispy mousiness. And there was plenty of stuff like landing on your high note and then skidding around until you find the right pitch. But the one male student, though his intonation could use help, had a great sense of stage presence. The singer who tackled "Think of Me" from Phantom nailed the cadenza (better than Sarah Brightman, said B., though that's not a high bar *meow*), and the other one who sang "Vanilla Ice Cream," surely the best song in She Loves Me, was wonderful in pitch, projection, and character, with her smartphone standing in for Amalia's letterpad. Overall, a worthwhile hour out.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

everything one after the other

We hosted the quarterly MythSoc book discussion meeting this afternoon, and only two other people showed up. Fortunately we'd all at least partly read the book, which was Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki. As this story prominently features a donut shop, I went out and bought a dozen donuts, which didn't get quite half eaten.

The book was mostly enjoyed, though I found it it clotted and unnecessarily messy in a way that was apparently deliberate but didn't work for me. In which it struck me similarly to the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, which was about to have a big night.

Some of the people who might have come to the meeting but didn't had to excuse themselves because of family emergency, health issues, or not being able to get home in time for the start of the Oscars broadcast. We were already home, so we didn't have that problem, and watched the whole thing.

By now, anyone who cares will know that one movie won just about everything, everywhere, all at once. In fact: there are by one definition eight major Academy Awards (Picture, Director, the four acting awards, and the two screenplay awards). It's only possible to win 7 of these, as the two screenplay awards are mutually exclusive. Everything Everywhere All at Once wasn't nominated for Leading Actor, but it won all the other six. No other movie has ever done this, in the entire history of the awards. The last one to win as many as five was nearly 40 years ago, Terms of Endearment in 1984. (Up until 1956 there was a separate writing award for Story, but only one picture ever won 6 major awards if you include that, Going My Way in 1945.)

I wonder if this is the first time anyone has won an acting Oscar for playing an IRS agent.

I'd also like to give Everywhere another award, for best acceptance speeches.

Thoughts on some other awards: Having seen all the Documentary Short Subject finalists, I agree, The Elephant Whisperers was the best. The Animated Short Films didn't inspire me as much. I detested The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, but that was for the inanely sappy story. I'll admit it was well-animated and the voice cast did their jobs well, so since I wasn't tremendously excited by any of the others either, I'll give its win a pass.

The only other award I can comment on in full is Best Song, as the finalists were all played in the ceremony. The actual winner, "Naatu Naatu," I think could have won Best Dancing, but I didn't think much of it for Best Song. Out of a generally uninspiring lineup, I thought the best was Lady Gaga's "Hold My Hand." Wait a minute, that was from Top Gun: Maverick? I saw that movie, but I don't remember there being a song.

Best host joke by a long shot was Jimmy Kimmel's comments on the Best Editing award: "Anyone who's ever received a text message from their father knows how important editing is. Editors do amazing things. Editors can turn 44,000 hours of violent insurrection footage into a respectful sightseeing tour of the Capitol." (Twitter video link: the delivery does help make it)

Which is of course a zinger at Tucker Carlson's selection of footage, but an even better zinger was the one delivered by the not-always-reliable Bill Maher, which has to be seen to be appreciated (YouTube link).

Saturday, March 11, 2023

out in the world

First in a very long time today: a casual social event, a friend's birthday party, he having reached a very large and very round number. Instructed not to bring gifts, most of us brought bottles of varyingly exotic beers anyway, because we know what the celebrant likes. I'd found one of English oatmeal stout, i.e. beer with actual oatmeal in it, or so the label claimed.

Guests were from various areas of his life, so many of us didn't know each other, hence a lot of introducing ourselves going around. I think I won the informal contest for guest who'd known the celebrant for the longest, our acquaintance going back at least as far as taking a medieval history class at university together, if not further.

Found myself in a conversation with people reminiscing about the bands they'd seen in various long-defunct dives, the bands being the likes of the Ramones and Motörhead which I know only by name. The only vaguely relevant contribution I could make was to recall that in my college days, which slightly predated theirs, my principal popular music outlet was going over to the Great American Music Hall to see the likes of Martin Carthy. If I'd been asked who that was, my standard way of defining Martin Carthy for people who've never heard of him is, "He's the guy who taught Paul Simon 'Scarborough Fair'."

Friday, March 10, 2023

plain about the plane

So I watched Netflix's 3-part documentary, MH370: The Plane That Disappeared. It's oriented not to tell the story of the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight to Beijing that vanished and has never been seen since, but to tell the story of the unfolding of the evidence. It starts by recounting the day itself, emphasizing the confusion over the gradual realization that something had gone wrong, and then turns to the development of various competing theories: a suicide mission by the captain (end point, the south Indian Ocean); hijacked by Russians eager to drive the invasion of Crimea off the front pages (end point, Kazakhstan); shot down by US spy planes to keep sensitive equipment in cargo from reaching Chinese hands (end point, South China Sea).

The documentary presents all of these in counterpoint and doesn't take sides, though it leans towards the last. The conspiracy theorists admit they don't have a definitive answer or any proof; they just strongly doubt the official story. But I did get very tired of the way they backed their stories by conjuring up ulterior motives for the supporters of the other stories: oh no, Blaine Gibson (the guy who's been finding wreckage on Indian Ocean beaches) has done business with Russians; oh no, Inmarsat (the tracking company whose pings indicated how far the plane traveled) also works for the US government. The Russian theory in particular requires the plotters to have the sort of omniscient pre-knowledge of the plot that's characteristic of bad conspiracy movies.

But the stories all leave lots of holes that aren't addressed. Nothing I already knew about this story isn't covered in this film, and it does include a lot I didn't know. Assuming that it's accurate, and that it's complete - and I'm expecting that the answers to my questions will include a lot of denial of those assumptions - here are some questions that raised in my mind that weren't settled.

1. When the Malaysian military initially reported that the plane had turned southwest, they weren't certain that the signal they saw was of the same plane. Later they reported that they had now confirmed this. What was the basis for the confirmation?

2. When the first piece of wreckage, the flaperon, was found on Réunion, it was not at first certain that it came from MH370. Later, investigators reported that they had now confirmed this. Florence De Changy, the French reporter, says that this confirmation came from 12 ID numbers stamped on the piece, but that only one of the 12 actually matched the records for the plane in question. Can that possibly be true? If so, where's the confirmation from?

3. The theorists are suspicious that Gibson has so easily found so much wreckage on various beaches. Have other people been looking and not found any?

4. Why is Gibson's wreckage only from the shell of the plane? Hasn't any of the contents - like passenger belongings that might also float - been found? (Lack of this might support the theory that the wreckage was actually salted and came from a decommissioned plane.)

5. Any discussion of how such small pieces survived the rough ocean and great distances in time and space from the presumed crash site to being found (over a year?) later on the coasts of Africa and Madagascar?

6. Cyndi Hendry is a volunteer who scoured imagery of the disappearance area in the South China Sea and found pictures of what she claims is wreckage. If this is the answer, then: Why wasn't any of that wreckage found in the initial physical search of the area, before it was proposed that the plane flew somewhere else? Why hasn't any of it washed up on beaches there?

7. If the plane had sensitive computer equipment being sent to China and the US wished to stop this, is this the only time such equipment had been shipped to China? If this happened all the time, there ought to be many stories about planes being intercepted.

8. Why do the conspiracy theorists consider it so damning to the Indian Ocean theory that the plane hasn't been found? Isn't it a huge expanse of ocean? Isn't it tremendously rough waters, thus making it hard to search, with a highly mountainous and irregular bottom? These are not typical of the waters in which planes have crashed in the past, and their locations were more precisely known than this. Not finding it doesn't surprise me at all.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

saved by the e-mail

Today the next blustery rainstorm hit our region. Not a day to go out in, yet B. and I had tickets for a musical production at a local community college this evening. As I was about to get started on an early simple dinner (Sicilian lentil soup mix, with chicken sausage and spinach), I checked my e-mail. Item: power outage at the college, show's off. Good thing we learned about it in time. Substitute performance arranged for next week, so with luck you'll read about it then.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

concert review: Paul Huang and Danbi Um

And then my editors sent me up to the City to cover a recital for two violins, featuring a bunch of works I didn't know, though at least I knew something of the composers. But I listened to them all, mostly with the scores, ahead of time, and was able to jot down a functional descriptive review.

Only afterwards did I find from my files that I'd reviewed the Moszkowski Suite once before, over a decade ago, and said pretty much the same about it then.

Monday, March 6, 2023


The New Yorker, 6 March issue, the one with the cover depicting DeSantis about to fillet a book.

Article on the decline in humanities majors in US universities, sees fit to explain what STEM stands for.

Article on the role of phosphorus in life and fertilizer, tells how important phosphates are to human biology but says nothing about what a phosphate is.

Article on using chatbots as mental health therapists. (The human ones are all booked up.) Meets a developer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and mentions as an aside that the lab "supplied plutonium to the Manhattan Project." Well, no. There was a pilot plutonium facility at Oak Ridge, but most of the plutonium came from Hanford. Oak Ridge's main role was to produce enriched uranium. The distinction makes no difference to the article, but if you're going to mention it, why not get it right? Or did a chatbot write the article?

The article on humanities majors interests me, because it shows the imperatives as having changed so much since my own university days nearly half a century ago. The increased cost of tuition and the increased difficulty of finding a well-paying job afterwards, both increasing the pressure to train for a hot career in engineering or the like, even for people who'd rather study literature.

Though it says it's about the humanities in general, the only field of study it discusses at all is English literature. There it loses me. I was a history major, which my univ classed as both humanities and social studies. I chose it both because I loved to read history and because of my excellent school training, with an Advanced Placement teacher who encouraged me to run rampant in doing research. My father had an adjunct position at the Stanford Medical School, so I was eligible to borrow books from the Stanford library, a privilege I took advantage of.

Whereas English lit - no. I hated that in school. Some authors I liked: I liked Shakespeare and Steinbeck. But I was forced to read Joseph Conrad, Hemingway, Dickens and Melville, as well as drippy nonsense like A Separate Peace, and I detested it all. Even worse was the directions for how to write about them. Not about the plot or the characters or the writing style, but the hidden symbolism: that was the only acceptable topic. The New Yorker article says that it's only recently that literary criticism has gotten hermeneutic, but this is how it actually was where I sat way back then. I got so fed up I wrote a paper denouncing this approach, rehearsing (had I only known it) the arguments in Susan Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation," which had been published a decade earlier. I got an F on the paper. As there was nothing wrong with my writing ability, this reflected my teacher's disapproval of my arguments, so I suspect she would also have given Sontag an F.

So no English major for me. Despite the university's requirement for a literature writing course, I got through my years without taking a single class from the English department (the secret was that other departments also gave qualifying courses). Thus I was much amused when, decades later, I was the guest lecturer for a university English department course. The topic, of course, was Tolkien, someone who would not have made the list in my day.