Saturday, December 31, 2016

the annual year-end post

Here's the municipalities I've stayed in away from home over the course of the year:

Romulus, MI
Ashland, OR
Camarillo, CA (2)
San Antonio, TX
Innisfail, Alberta
Banff, Alberta
Eureka, CA
Medford, OR
Eugene, OR
Glendora, CA
Los Angeles, CA
Hillingdon, England
Bristol, England
Aberdare, Wales

The two trips out of the US were both totally unplanned as of the beginning of the year. The others were all at least penciled in as possibilities. Only the first trip, to Michigan, got me into other jurisdictions than the ones I stayed in: Indiana, Ohio, and Ontario. Apart from the one-afternoon mini-Potlatch in San Jose, I got to just one public convention, Mythcon in San Antonio: that's the new normal for me. But this year I also got to see Shakespeare performed in England as well as in Oregon, fly to LA for one quick overnight trip just to see an opera, hear 14 string quartet concerts in one week in Alberta, and walk among the seagulls on Anacapa Island (that's why I was staying in Camarillo, twice because the first trip I was scheduled for was cancelled due to inclement weather).

I wrote and published 27 concert reviews and other musical articles for my two reviewing venues, and also published one book review, in Mythlore. And I co-edited Volume 13 of Tolkien Studies, which has just been published, as well as writing various nuggets of the annual "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" therein.

my ghod, I did it: I predicted the election

I'd totally forgotten this, but I've been going through my posts of the last year in preparation for writing a year-end post, and found this: On January 31st, I predicted that, given a straight fight between Trump and Clinton, Trump would be elected President.

Let me repeat that: On January 31st, 2016, I predicted that Trump would be elected President.

Here's the relevant part of what I wrote:
The article's second argument is that "there are simply not enough struggling, resentful, xenophobic white people in the US to constitute a national majority sufficient to win a presidential election." The flaw in that reasoning is that, if Trump wins the nomination, he won't need merely that category. Unless the party splits over him, and I wouldn't count on it doing so, other Republicans will have nowhere else to go. Trump has high negatives, yes, but so does Clinton (if she's the Democratic nominee), and she doesn't have the enthusiasm of her party's base. Enthusiasm is what means turnout, and - as the difference between 2008 and 2010 amply shows - between two strong bases, it's turnout that wins elections. Combine that with the prospect of a sluggish economy, and in a straight fight between Clinton and Trump, it'd be a wonder if Trump didn't win.
Then I wrote, "Never say that a strong candidate can't win," with a link to a collection of quotes from as late as the day before the 2008 election saying that Obama can't, or won't, win.

My argument related to turnout, and I think it's clear that lack of turnout, relative to Trump's, was the massive problem that weighed down Clinton's boat to the extent that relatively minor problems, like the whole e-mail shebang, Russian hackers and James Comey and all, were capable of sinking it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

what else to read by Richard Adams

The author of Watership Down has died at the venerable age of 96. I don't have to spend much time praising that book. It's one of my favorite novels, and in my estimation the finest quest fantasy since The Lord of the Rings. I'd also call it one of the three greatest fantasies of any kind I've read from the last third of its century, and though it's a strongly male book, the other two - Fire and Hemlock and Always Coming Home - are much more female, and not just in their authorship, so it balances.

I'm guessing that the criticisms of Watership Down on grounds of its sex roles - some of them justified, some not - must have gotten to the author, because some two decades later he published a semi-sequel, Tales from Watership Down, which is so self-consciously and dutifully gender-egalitarian that it made my teeth ache. I think there's a lesson in that.

It also brings up an important point about Adams, which is that not everything he wrote is worth reading. But much of his subsequent work is excessively obscure - I've found a lot of people have never heard of Tales, though it's a staple at used book stores - so people may not know what to go for.

I, however, have read a great deal of his work, and here's three other books, in increasing order of quality, that I would also recommend.

The Plague Dogs. It has more of the human perspective than Watership Down does, and it's much more openly polemic. It's also about two dogs. And a fox. This gives it a different atmosphere. But it's as closely observant and detailed about its landscape - the Lake District - as Watership Down is about the Hampshire downs, and the story is gripping.

There was an animated movie of this, made by the same people who made the Watership Down one, and quite similar in style.

The Girl in a Swing. No animals in this one, a purely human story with a whiff of the creepily supernatural about it. It's the first-person tale of a shy antique dealer from Newbury (Adams' home town, and near where Watership Down opens, though this is of course not mentioned) who at a relatively advanced age suddenly finds true love and then has it snatched away from him. The story is drenched in a foggy mist of uncertainty and lack of clarity, and that's actually the book's strongest point. What's really happening, if it were spelled out clearly, would actually be rather stupid. But drenched in an atmospheric haze it gives a marvelous and memorable effect.

The US publication has a somewhat different text from the UK one, spelling out a few of the more cryptic allusions, and changing the name of the principal female character in a way that makes a more obvious clue to the meaning of the story. I prefer the original edition. There was also a movie starring Rupert Frazer and Meg Tilly that was more blatant still.

The Day Gone By. The unknown treasure among Adams' other books, this is not a novel but a memoir, covering his childhood, school and university days, and WW2 service, up to the age of 25. The quality of the prose, the engaging quality of the storytelling, and the evocation of each of the disparate settings is wonderful. This is where Adams alludes to using his war-time paratroop regiment as the model for his rabbit band, though he doesn't go into detail; you will also learn that the country doctor who helps rescue Hazel near the end of WD is Adams' father. My favorite set piece in the book is Adams' tale of how he and some university friends tried but failed to take a punt down an underground culvert in Oxford. The account of being plunged into war service and the responsibilities of a junior officer at a tender and untried age bears interesting resemblance to that by Christopher Milne, who was the same age as Adams, in his equally little-known second memoir, The Path Through the Trees.

Some people like Shardik and Maia, but I found that Adams' talent for evoking real places didn't extend to imaginary ones. I've read several of his other books, which I'll pass over quietly. But as Adams himself pointed out, if you can write Watership Down, that's enough. And he did do more good writing than that.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

daily special

(to the tune of: O Tannenbaum)
O Hanukkah, O Hanukkah
You coincide with Christmas.

(credit to B.)

Tis the season. Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 23, 2016

one more British gotcha

This is actually an Anglo-American gotcha, because it required bureaucracies in both countries to do it. This came to mind when reading a friend's account of bureaucratic woes involving her lost ATM card.

When attempting to purchase a visitor's Oyster card online - that's the electronic ticket card for London transport - I repeatedly got an error message when making the actual purchase. The message read as if the problem was with their system crashing, which is why I kept re-trying it, but eventually I followed a link to a phone number, which when I called it told me they were somebody else, not responsible for Oyster cards; but they gave me another phone number. After much expensive transAtlantic talk, they suggested I check with my bank.

I didn't see how that would help, but sure enough, it did. My card issuer had flagged that a purchase was being made in another country and blocked my card for suspicious usage. I said, "Oh" (this had happened once before with genuine fraud, and they'd reissued my card, which was a bear to deal with, since this was the card I had all my automatic payments on), "were you planning on calling me to let me know this?" Apparently the answer was, "Eventually."

It emerged - and I checked with my other card issuers and my ATM-card bank about this too, and they said the same thing - that nowadays they may block as suspicious any transactions out of country or even out of town (though they couldn't tell me how far out of town you have to go before this kicks in) unless the cardholder has previously informed them of travel plans. This puzzled me - I use my cards across the country all the time, and went to Canada four months ago with no problem - but I filed my plans with all of them. Dates; and country: UK only.

But that didn't save me, and this is the gotcha I came to tell you about. One of the things I did was drive the Dartford Crossing. This is the tunnel under the Thames at the eastern end of the M25 beltway around London. I didn't really have to take it: I was coming back to my hotel near Heathrow from Orpington, which is almost halfway around the belt, and decided to take the slightly longer route so that I could say I'd driven the entire M25.

The Dartford Crossing charges a toll, but it's electronic and with cameras, and the signs were clear: if you don't have an account, go online within 2 days, enter your license plate, and pay by credit card. So I did that, and it was declined. This time, unlike with the Oyster card, the error message was clear that it was my credit card that was the problem. Puzzled, I used another card, and it worked.

Next time I talked with B. on the phone, she told me that the first credit card's fraud department had called. Again. It turns out - get this - that though the Dartford Crossing is in England, the company that charges your credit card for the toll is in Ireland. And I hadn't filed a travel plan for Ireland. So they blocked it. My other credit card was less punctilious, it seems.

So does this mean that every time I buy books online from overseas, from now on, I'll either have to alert the credit card issuer first, or else use the other card? Apparently. In the past I've used only the first card for all online purchases, for security reasons, but until the Oyster card it was never a problem.

At least I got used to using the Oyster card and figured out how such cards work. There's a similar card for Bay Area transit, but I've never gotten one because I don't ride public transit here very often - about once a month on average, I'd guess - and because the instructions for using the cards sounded fearsomely complex. But now I feel slightly tutored. However, I read that, by the time I return to the UK, the Oyster card may have disappeared and been replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

and it will be yesterday morning tonight

Over the years since we moved here, the bottlebrush bushes that overlook the parking spaces have become larger and more top-heavy. Some time ago, a large branch from one toppled over and landed in my parking space, fortunately not while I was parked in it.

It took four days for someone to come and clear it out, and it's taken 2 1/2 years (I know, because I mentioned the incident in a post at the time) until someone showed up yesterday saying he was going to trim the bushes. On the other hand, though they said it might take 3 days to do the job, it took only one.

Now they look pretty bedraggled, because they shouldn't have had to wait this long to be trimmed. I should have taken before-and-after photos.

In other news: I am used to seeing signs painted on the roadway reading LANE BIKE or CLEAR KEEP. Today, in the tony suburb of Los Gatos, I found a variant, new to me, of the latter: BLOCK NOT DO.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

concert review: Palo Alto Philharmonic

Fumbling around after my return from the UK for a concert to review for the Daily Journal, I skipped all the holiday concerts, which 1) I wasn't in the mood for; 2) would require prior study on my part; and picked a local amateur orchestra that was doing Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto, an old favorite, and some other stuff I mostly already knew. Easy as pie. What was hard was 1) figuring out where the space lines were in the parking lot in the dark and pouring rain; 2) finding the rest room, somewhere halfway down the high school campus that the auditorium was on the edge of; 3) suppressing a rapidly developing cough which ruined most of the next week for me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

electoral collage

I see that more electors defected from Clinton than from Trump. It seems to me that this is an excellent example of "You're not doing it right." In the absence of anything substantive I can do about it, I turn to historical trivia:

I have seen, but unfortunately did not keep links to, some lists of past Electoral College defectors. These lists erroneously include two cases where a candidate had died before the electors met. Those weren't faithless electors. In fact, when James S. Sherman (Republican, VP, 1912) died and the Republican electors that year voted for Nicholas Murray Butler in his place, they were being the opposite of faithless: they were following the instructions of the RNC, which had hastily met and chosen Butler as a substitute.

In the case of Horace Greeley (Liberal Republican & Democrat, Pres., 1872), nobody issued any instructions and the electors were on their own. Some bumped up his running mate, Gratz Brown; some chose other candidates; and the 3 who held fast and insisted that they'd been chosen to vote for Horace Greeley so by gum they were voting for Horace Greeley had their votes thrown out when Congress counted the ballots, on the grounds that you can't vote for a dead person.

On a similar topic of confusion, there seems to be some perplexity on the question of, if Melania stays in New York, can Ivanka be First Lady? But the answer is a simple yes, of course. Despite the pretensions of some things claiming to be official lists, "First Lady" doesn't mean "wife of the President," it means "official White House hostess." Normally they overlap, but they don't have to. Presidential daughters and sisters and such have taken that role before, due to the illness or other unavailability of the President's wife, or her total non-existence: we've had 2 bachelor Presidents and several widowers. In fact, the term First Lady was first popularized to describe bachelor President James Buchanan's niece, Harriet Lane, who had also been his formal hostess when he was Ambassador to the UK before he was President (where she charmed Queen Victoria, reportedly not an easy thing to do). The most recent case was Clintonian, when Chelsea served as First Lady for the last few months of Bill's term, while Hillary was off running for Senator.

Monday, December 19, 2016

radio stationary

When I replaced my car radio a couple years ago, I found the new device allowed me to pick 18 FM stations. What was I to do with so many stations? I'd had the old one fitted with the various frequencies of the local classical station (it doesn't own a powerful signal, so it's acquired various smaller-wattage transmitters in different places), and filled it out with the local NPR station plus a few classic rock or adult contemporary stations that I thought I might listen to for a break.

But it turns out that I never do. The last time I deliberately turned on a pop music station was 1985, and the first time was 1981; my knowledge of top-40 songs as a group is consequently limited to the intervening period. (I had an interesting time a few years ago looking up on YouTube the often-amusing music videos for songs like "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Down Under", none of which I saw when they were new, because all I had was a radio, not MTV.) I actually do listen to a fair amount of popular music, but what I want to listen to and what radio stations want to play do not often mesh, which is why after a brief period of occasional meshing I gave up in 1985. So on radio I stick to classical, where, the execrable Doug Pledger having mercifully long since passed on, the meshing is usually pretty good.

When I go on a trip, I use this site to locate the classical stations and memorize or jot down their frequencies; but I recently realized that I have enough informational space on my own radio to keep the ones I'll be encountering that way. On my last couple of trips I set the buttons ad hoc beforehand, and now I've decided to make it systematic. Between the various frequencies of KDFC in the Bay Area and KUSC in SoCal and CapRadio in the Valley and Jefferson Public Radio up north, I have coverage of most of where I'm likely to drive to, and enough stations to fill my dial. And I'm keeping a little card in my glove compartment to help me remember what I've put where.

As for the 6 settings for AM, I'm stuck. There's one all-news station that I turn to when I'm on the road when a major earthquake strikes (which last happened in 1989) or for real-time traffic updates (which, not being a commuter, I need almost as infrequently), but otherwise there's nothing on AM I remotely want to listen to.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

in Gilroy

Gilroy is a farming and commuter-bedroom town in an inland valley about 40 miles south of here. I don't get there very often, and when I do it's usually to pass by on the freeway on my way somewhere else. It's best known as the Garlic Capital of the World, and hosts an annual Garlic Festival, which I avoid assiduously. I like garlic, but I detest enormous crowds.

Today, however, I fulfilled a desire to visit Gilroy. My favorite local used bookstore, forced to close in Mountain View early this year due to rising rents, had reopened in downtown Gilroy. Time to get down there and see what was up.

What I found was a large space, occupying two storefronts, not quite as big as the old MV one but large enough, and more spaciously laid out. So not as big a selection as at MV, but big enough, and largely a new selection. First visits to used bookstores are usually the best; keep coming back, and you get used to not seeing much you haven't already seen. But I saw a lot here I hadn't seen in MV. Our cats found a Christmas present to give to B. and me.

Even more important: they've preserved the old store's trade credit accounts. So I will have to be back: I still have credit there.

But I'll find somewhere else to have lunch. I tried a taqueria that Yelp had assured me was excellent. It wasn't. That's unusual for Yelp.

While there, I circled around to one of the roadside tourist-trap garlic shops on the highway south of town. There I bought a couple jars of crushed garlic, the kind that Trader Joe's doesn't carry any more, and no other markets I know around here ever did. They have chopped garlic, but I prefer crushed. It was overpriced at the tourist trap, but at least they had it, and now again so do I.

Outside of the shop, there were eight - no, nine - nine chickens pecking away at the grassy verge. B. would have enjoyed seeing those chickens. Wished I'd had her with me, which I had been glad I didn't during lunch.

Friday, December 16, 2016

concert review: Richard Thompson

"The bucket is a cruel mistress," remarked Richard Thompson as he dipped his hand into the one into which the staff of the Freight & Salvage had placed the audience's paper slips for the all-request show he played there in Berkeley on Thursday. It was the second of a four-night run, but I was only dedicated enough to go to the one. Four was enough to meet the demand, it seems, for the show was not entirely sold out. If it'd been just one, tickets would have vanished in a flash: RT is a legend among singer-songwriter-guitarists, which is why I felt moved to go, even though I'm not all that familiar with much of his work.

Judging from what he pulled out of the bucket, the audience divided into three categories:

1. People who wanted to hear RT perform his own compositions. Half of these requested "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," his romance of outlaw motorcyclists cast in the form of a traditional tragic English folk ballad. It was the first song he played, and then he kept tossing aside further slips naming the same song. "Ooh, 'Vincent White Lightning,'" he read at one point. "I haven't done that one yet," and he improvised a few cheerful bars on the subject.

Other songs of his own that I recognized were "Sam Jones" (a really outstanding performance), "Gethsemane", and one of his rare comic songs, "The Hots for the Smarts". Unfortunately he didn't get to my own choice, which was "The Poor Ditching Boy".

2. People who wanted to hear him play old Fairport Convention numbers, whether he sang them originally or not. He did both the long ballads "Tam Lin" and "Matty Groves", the latter of which he described as a more coherent story than the former; and Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" which he framed as a tribute to her.

3. People who wanted to hear him play any old thing, the more unlikely the better. He struggled through the Beatles' "Something", which he said he'd never played before, giving up before the middle eight. After that he started tossing a lot of slips aside: "Lovely song, but I don't know it," i.e. well enough to play. Lovers of RT's guitar virtuosity could admire his attempt to reduce another Beatles song, "A Day in the Life", to that compass, giant orchestral crescendo and all; again he gave up after the middle section and jumped straight to the closing chord.

Probably the most impressive cover performance of the evening was "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", the same Dylan song that Patti Smith sang at the Nobel ceremony. But otherwise the requests started to feel disintegrated by the end, and someone called out, "Play what you want!" But RT replied, "Sorry, it doesn't work that way." After two hours, 'twas enough.

Monday, December 12, 2016

cats of old San Francisco

"This visit to San Francisco, a most strenuous one requiring two major speeches and two lesser ones, holds poignant memories. One was of speaking after dinner at the Press Club. It was to be a private and confidential speech, what in other press circles is called 'off the record.' In San Francisco it is called 'speaking behind the cat' - a large carved ebony cat carried in with ceremony and put before the speaker after the tables are cleared. The custom, I was told, began after the great earthquake and fire had destroyed the city in 1906. When the first daring spirits reached the ruins of the old clubhouse, all that remained to identify it amid the general devastation was the large fireplace in the lounge. Curled up beside it was a half-starved and badly singed cat, which was promptly adopted and lived out its remaining eight lives near the hearth of the new club. The cat was famous for its discretion, for although it listened carefully to all that was said, it was never known to have repeated a word. When in time it went to its multiple rewards, it was reproduced, larger than life size, with eyes and mouth tight shut, looking altogether inscrutable, an outward and visible sign of the security pledged to one who spoke behind it."

- Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (recounting events of 1950)

Sunday, December 11, 2016


1. In memoriam, Vaughn Howland. Tolkien scholars knew him as the domestic partner (that's the term they preferred) of Verlyn Flieger, and thus one of the small band of meta-scholars, including the redoubtable Janice Coulter and my own B., who keep their scholar-partners going. Vaughn was always relaxed and cool about it. He was a tall, rangy fellow with a quiet, slightly raspy voice. Go have some barbecue in his honor, because that was his favorite avocation.

2. Also gone from us, John Glenn, last of the original astronauts. Some day I may try to tell you the story of why his house moved. He lived a good, long life. Godspeed.

3. Also gone, 36 people in the Ghost Ship fire. This has gotten a lot of space in my paper because it's local, but aside from sorrow, my reaction to that angle is to be struck by how little I knew about it. I was vaguely aware that artists were working in warehouses in Oakland - even Jerry Brown lived in a converted loft when he was mayor there - but I'd never heard of the Ghost Ship or the music scene it was part of or any of the people involved. There are worlds beyond worlds in the naked city. What a shame it took this to bring it out.

4a. Britain is advanced: Everywhere I went, the credit card readers took chips. My own credit cards have only gone chipped within the past year or so. If you pay with a card for a restaurant meal, the server brings a portable machine which will even calculate your tip for you, instead of taking your card off god knows where.

4b. Britain is retarded: It has something I hadn't seen in the States for over 30 years, at least. Pay toilets.

4c. Britain is middling: Turns out New York is not the only city with overhead signs using arrows pointing up, meaning "proceed forward," right next to escalators that literally go up. So does London. Taking an escalator up to exit from the Hammersmith tube station, or so I thought, I found at the top another sign indicating that the exit was back down the escalator again. Did Lewis Carroll design this station?, I thought.

5. Half the time I start to read an article about Trump appointing somebody, it turns out that he hasn't actually appointed anybody: this is just speculation about whom he might appoint. The headlines don't make this clear a lot more often than they do. I don't want to read speculations, so I'm just ignoring the whole thing.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

a pictorial trip to Britain

Click on the links for the pictures; there's more than I want to upload here.

At the feet of the statue of Dorothy L. Sayers is a statue of her cat. (This is in Witham, Essex, the town where she lived in her later years, and the first of many I visited that had no mobile phone stores. I even visited the town tourist office which told me, "We used to have one, but it closed.")

The village of Dedham, also in Essex, often considered one of the most beautiful in England. Where Constable painted. More. More.

Benjamin Britten's house, in Suffolk. His concert hall, nearby. The rather astonishing all-wooden interior (not by me).

Tolkien's Kortirion, alias Warwick: the town centre, the ancient church of St. Mary's, a glimpse of the castle.

Stratford-upon-Avon is a neat, bright, clean town (and where I finally found a phone store), with only one dilapidated Elizabethan building, on the left here: Shakespeare's purported birthplace.

This factory-like edifice is actually the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre, where I saw The Two Noble Kinsmen.

The Swan of Avon.

My faithful rental car, parked by the village green of Brill - alias Bree Hill - Buckinghamshire, near Oxford.

A place-name nearby, appropriated by Tolkien for Farmer Giles of Ham.

The grave of CSL and WHL and the church by which it lies. Also present, Mrs. Moore. (There are actually two Mrs. Moores in this grave; she's the second one.)

The tower of St. Peter's College, Oxford, a truly strange attempt at imitating "Cotswold domestic architecture" by an architect with the iron of modernism in his soul; a possible model for CSL's Dark Tower.

Just to illustrate what a wonderful place Blackwell's is, here's less than half of its sheet music department.

I just happened across this pub and recognized the name: The Jolly Farmers. This is the pub where Oxford student Richard Adams, later the author of Watership Down, gave his 20th birthday party in 1940. Despite it also being the day the Germans invaded France, it was a great success. "No one had ever thought of giving a party in a pub before," Adams writes in his memoirs. "I can't think why not: it was the easiest way imaginable to give a party. You simply handed the landlord a capital sum and told him to serve the company free until it was exhausted."

In the village of Sutton Courtenay, south of Oxford, you may find the tomb of H.H. Asquith, notable British Prime Minister in 1908-16. And, to make this one churchyard doubly notable, just behind those trees in the background is the stone marking the grave of Eric Arthur Blair. Oh, come on, you know who he was, yes you do.

Out in deepest Sussex, somewhere near Cold Comfort Farm no doubt, is the grave of Mervyn Peake. Its church. The Sussex downs that overlook it.

A bookcase in Jane Austen's house in Hampshire. The dye garden. The resident cat. (Lives across the road, the staff told me, but spends its time over here.)

Ty Newydd Country Hotel, at the foot of the Brecon Beacons, where I stayed in Wales. The head of the long road leading up to it. The view out my window. Despite the age and isolation, a nice room, with a huge wardrobe and a functional bathroom. One warning: Dim ysmygu!

You gotta love Aberdare, the upper valleys town just below: the only town I know where the statue in the middle of the town square is of a choral conductor. Details. This is also where you can ask, why did the hedgehog cross the road?

On to Bristol: steepholm at the Clifton Suspension Bridge. (I hope some day to have her photo at the Golden Gate Bridge.) Me at Mrs Moore's house where CSL spent his leave during WW1. Various attempts at photographing steepholm's cat.

And then we decamped to Oxford for a special treat: a talk by scholars Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins on Tolkien's "A Secret Vice" paper on language creation, given on the 85th anniversary of the paper's presentation in the place - Pembroke College - where Tolkien gave it, date and place established by Fimi and Higgins themselves and discussed in their recent book containing the essay and associated papers. My own photos did not come out well, so here's the noble scholars, the rapt audience (I'm in front of the door opposite), the aftermath, and the seething celebration from the website that also has the video of the talk.

My favorite tourist site in London on this trip was an Inigo Jones monument, the Banqueting House, site of most state occasions in the 17th century, and the only surviving part of Whitehall Palace, then the monarch's principal home. What made it so great was the ingenious tourist aids visible in this photo I found online: the beanbag chairs and mirror-topped tables (on wheels, so you can move them around) for the better viewing of Rubens' allegorical ceiling paintings. A truly clever idea (though no cleverer than allowing Rubens to paint in his studio and hoisting the paintings up after he was finished, instead of making him hang from the scaffolding like Michelangelo). I told the staff they should write to the Vatican and suggest the same accoutrements to the Sistine Chapel; I got such a crick in my neck in there.

Also in London, Old Abe in Parliament Square. I'm not sure what he's doing there, but I was glad to see him. Churchill taking a ride on the top of a van. Monty, looking insufferably pleased with himself. Theresa, and Larry the cat, hang out in here. Monument to the women of WW2. Lastly, I came across this in the heart of the City: he's everywhere.

Monday, December 5, 2016

concert review: China Philharmonic

Yes, yes, I've been close to 3 weeks in England and Wales, and I'll report on it soon, once I get my photos and my sleep schedule organized. I didn't have any trouble adjusting to the time going there, but coming back has been a bear, as it usually is for me going west, and even the caffeine equivalent of two cups of coffee barely kept me going through tonight's concert at Davies.

I know why I went to the UK, but I'm not sure why the China Philharmonic and its artistic director, Long Yu, traveled all this way to give bog-standard performances of bog-standard repertoire like Beethoven's First Piano Concerto and Dvorak's New World Symphony. They're great pieces, but we can hear them any time from anybody. All that was unusual tonight were some emphases in the Dvorak and a bizarrely wooden way of playing the "weeping" ending of his slow movement.

And the pianist in the Beethoven, whose name is Serena Wang and who is Twelve. Years. Old. with feet dangling from the piano bench. Her performance was entirely competent, so it seems churlish to have to report that it was also rather stiff. She gets an A for learning her part, but she's not going to win any piano competition votes from me, not this year. Come back in another few and we'll see.

As with most such programs, there was an imported curtain-raiser, Enchantements oublies by Qigang Chen. As the title suggests, this is, like much Western music by East Asian composers, heavily influenced by French impressionism, and in particular in this case by Chen's teacher, Messiaen.

But what most impressed me was the encore, a little piece of Chinese folk music whose characteristic bent notes and micro-glissandi were handled with a confident assurance by the Chinese violinists that no non-native could match. This is the kind of music they're good at, and it's more of this they should be playing, not trying to best Westerners at a European game.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

trip notes

Although the UK does not have Thanksgiving, weirdly it does have Black Friday. You took the wrong part of American customs, guys.

Rumblings Underground: Staying out near the end of the Piccadilly line becomes exciting when a broken signal causes a blockage just out from where it starts crossing other lines. Stumbling out onto the street in some unknown suburb called South Ealing, blessings fall in the form of a bus whose destination sign reads Ealing Broadway. A lightbulb goes on when I remember that's the name of the station at the end of the Central line. However, chaos re-emerges in town. The District line is half-closed, and the Circle line is entirely closed, facts only revealed in the form of inaudible station announcements, and more slowly in the form of trains that don't arrive.

Thing I brought with me that I turned out not to need: a voltage converter. Turns out the chargers I use for my tablets are 240-friendly. Could have used a second plug adapter, though. As for my electric toothbrush, first off it holds a charge for well over a week, which I hadn't expected; and second, there's a 115-volt outlet in the bathroom of at least two of the hotels I've stayed in, and it takes the American plugs, too. It's labeled "shaver only," but I won't tell if you won't.

Thing I didn't bring enough of but should have: the unfoldable gauze dressing I use on my skin condition, which every pharmacy chain in the US carries in various quantity boxes, is completely unknown in the UK. I have to make do with tiny little pads, which I rip off from the bandages they're mounted on and apply in large numbers. (It goes under my compression socks, which is why I don't need anything else to hold it in place.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

concerts in two iconic locales

I was admiring the large, famous, and cathedral-like King's College chapel in Cambridge - the informational leaflet says the roof is 80 feet high, but it looks taller than that - when I noticed the sign listing the musical program for that evening's Evensong service. The college singers would be performing Bruckner's Locus iste as the introit. Locus iste is my favorite motet of all time, so I decided to go.

Not the first time I'd attended a Christian religious service, but the first time I'd attended an Anglican one in a medieval edifice. The chorus (two colleges' worth, combined), about 50 strong, were excellent, and the acoustics were reverberant. We guests sat in the stalls, facing inward from the two sides, at the lower end of the church; the chorus sat likewise in the middle, with their conductor standing in the aisle between them; and the ministers were up at the top somewhere, where we couldn't see them but could hear them.

Earlier, in London, on a lark I went to one of several performances of a "Classical Spectacular" program at the Royal Albert Hall, a building I'd never been inside before, though I've seen plenty of videos of concerts there. It's an enormous Victorian circular-shaped monument with something of a football-arena vibe to it. What the acoustics are like I've no idea, as everything was under tinny amplification, even the Royal Philharmonic, a normally respectable orchestra which formed the bulk of the musicians. Some quieter pieces, like "Clair de lune" and "The Lark Ascending", were perhaps poorly chosen for the festive atmosphere, which seemed intended to re-create The Last Night of the Proms in November. The most interesting part of it was the odd feeling one gets as a foreigner sitting among Brits being wildly patriotic over "Land of Hope and Glory", Parry's "Jerusalem", and "Rule, Britannia" with a baritone, clad in the British equivalent of an Uncle Sam coat, doing the hard-part verses from Thomas Arne's original. Does being a flag-waving Brit today indicate that one is pro-Brexit? I'm not sure.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

things I've learned in Britain

that are not related to mobile phones:

1. At the feet of the statue of Dorothy L. Sayers, there is a statue of her cat.

2. Sheep may safely graze on the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo.

3. Materials conservation at a historic house converted into a museum is a lot more like housekeeping than it is in the academic libraries where I know it.

4. If the essential eating-while-standing-outdoors food in Hawaii is a shaved ice on the beach at Haleiwa in August, the equivalent in England is fish and chips on the shore of the North Sea in November. I have now had both.

5. The only dilapidated building in the entirety of Stratford-upon-Avon's neat and clean town centre is Shakespeare's (supposed) birthplace.

6. There is an entire book on the history of the London Underground map. I now have a copy of this book. (Are you not surprised?)

7. The Two Noble Kinsmen, by Shakespeare and Fletcher, is a much better Fletcher play than it is a Shakespeare one.

8. On the other hand, the unpromisingly dry Milton Comus was alchemized at the Globe Theatre's indoor playhouse into a riotous hoot.

9. When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, he had not yet grown his famous beard. You'd never recognise him.

10. A transplanted Yorkshirewoman explained to me that the last words of the song lyric "On Ilkla Moor baht 'at" mean "without a hat." I had had no idea, and had guessed it meant "about eight o'clock."

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I'm disappointed

The greatest lie in Britain isn't the idealized Brexit terms that fooled gullible voters. The greatest lie in Britain is the claim that it's easy to find a shop that will sell you a mobile phone.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Turned out there was a reason God took Leonard Cohen from us at the moment He did. It was so that we could get the full effect of this double memorial.

Pay particular attention to the third verse. (There are different versions of the lyrics. These are all authentic Cohen.)


(This is intended to be a non-spoiler. I hope to thoroughly confuse anybody who's not already familiar with one or the other of the prose fiction or film I'm discussing.)

A couple weeks ago, as reported here, I went to a preview showing of the film Arrival, and was impressed with this thoughtful, intelligent, cerebral SF film. Of course, I'd already read "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang on which it's based, so I had a leg up on the actually profoundly disorienting plot. (It is a Ted Chiang story.) But the publicity people told me that others who'd seen the movie without knowing the story had found it intelligible.

Now it's been released, and I'm reading the reviews and I'm not so sure.

San Jose Mercury News: "Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics called in by the U.S. government to attempt communicating with the visitors. Banks still wrestles with the guilt of losing a daughter to an incurable disease and is immediately presented as a complicated and passionate character."

The Guardian: "Unknown to anyone, there is a secret tragedy in Louise's life: a lost child, dead of cancer in her late teens. Her attempts to communicate with the aliens cause painful, illuminating echoes in her consciousness."

Are these misdirection to avoid spoiling the ending, or did the reviewers actually not get what's going on? The Guardian might be the former, though I'd guess not; but the Mercury News definitely the latter, even though the reviewer also wrote, "as in “Interstellar,” the point remains hidden until nearly the end." I wonder what the reviewer thought the point was.

I'm dismayed, because I thought the filmmakers handled this really well. Not only did they include verbatim my favorite moment from the story, the vertiginous shift in perspective pivoting on a single term that occurs between p. 295 and 296 of the original publication, but, just in case anyone missed it, they used it as lead-up to a more blatant appearance of the same effect later on that was entirely invented for the film. (The phone-call scene.) What impressed me about this is that it's the opposite of what Peter Jackson would do. One of the besetting sins of his Lord of the Rings films was repeated anticipation and flattening: he'd copy Tolkien's most striking effects and add them to scenes earlier on in the storyline, thus undercutting the drama of Tolkien's part of the story when it finally arrives.

Arrival does the opposite: by putting its invented scene later, it underlines and emphasizes what it reproduces from Chiang's original. See, it really does matter what order you experience events in, doesn't it?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

opera review: Akhnaten

Open are the double doors of the horizon.
Unlocked are its gates.
I'm not much of an opera-goer, and it's unprecedented that I would travel out of town just to see an opera. But it's not out of character for me if that opera is Akhnaten by Philip Glass. I only know Glass's earlier theater works, and there are parts of Satyagraha and The Photographer I cherish most. But overall, Akhnaten is my favorite. A production by the LA Opera was a golden opportunity for a work rarely staged, and I made a quick trip down to see Thursday's performance at the Chandler Pavilion, a hall I'd been to before when the LA Philharmonic was still playing there, before they moved to the newer Disney Hall across the street.

Akhnaten was the Egyptian pharaoh who essentially, at least as Glass understood the history, invented monotheism. At a pre-show talk, conductor Matthew Aucoin described him, as depicted in this opera, as a visionary reformer whose achievements were erased by his successors; sound like anybody we know? Without getting further into politics, Aucoin suggested that this performance would be a catharsis that we all needed. He described Glass as also a visionary reformer, ridding music of unneeded complexity as Akhnaten had the pantheon of gods, in revolt against the serialist orthodoxy (Aucoin used that word) of the previous generation.

Akhnaten is not a plot-based opera; it's a series of near-static tableaus, focused on the music rather than the action, which is part of why I like it so much. I also like the dark sound quality; as with the Brandenburg Sixth, another favorite work of mine, there are no violins; but this is otherwise a big orchestra with a full sound.

This production was imported from the English National Opera. The sets and costumes, though not Egyptian-inspired, were weird and fascinating. The special feature was a troupe of ten silent juggler/acrobats integrated into the story; the repetition and shifting patterns of their juggling reflects the music. Except for the jugglers, however, everyone on stage moved extremely slowly. Even Akhnaten's violent overthrow at the end took place in such slow motion that it could seem motionless moment-by-moment.

This too reflected the music; but I found it not at all boring, but beautiful and gripping all the way through. Not all agreed, though. After each intermission the audience was slightly smaller, but most of us appreciated all 3.5 hours of it. It was an enrapturing performance that was worth the effort I took to get there.

SFCV's review of the premiere last week has details and photos. And the LA Times review has more; I thought the orchestra was fine by the time I heard them, though the Chandler acoustics hadn't improved; but then, that I was prepared for.

Here's a recording of the part of Akhnaten with the most interesting vocal work, though it's still totally unlike anything opera-lovers would normally expect to hear. It's a trio for Akhnaten - a counter-tenor, an eerie voice type meant to come as a surprise after his silent appearance in the previous scene for his coronation - his mother Queen Tye (soprano) and his wife Queen Nefertiti (mezzo). By using the high range of the man's voice and the low ranges of the women's, Glass intertwines them fascinatingly. What language is that they're singing? Ancient Egyptian, of course; what else?

Friday, November 11, 2016

late review

Last weekend (seems so long ago now), The Peninsula Symphony, fortunately playing only works they were capable of playing, which made it easy to review. I thought of covering the Masterworks Chorale in Rachmaninoff's Vespers instead, and putting the PenSym off till March when they're doing Anna Clyne (whom I like a lot) and Scheherazade, but I fear they won't be able to be very adequate in Scheherazade, and writing disappointed reviews of amateur ensembles is painful. Also, I don't know the Rachmaninoff Vespers and lacked the time to learn it, whereas Masterworks' March concert is the Verdi Requiem, which I don't have to worry about.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


The response of those I know who were on the losing side of this election has overwhelmingly been grief. That's interesting. Those who lost eight years ago responded mostly with anger, and have gone on responding that way ever since. I think that says something of the differences between us.

I respond to grief by retreating into research. After my mother died, I stayed up most of the night selecting photos from her collection, and copying them at the all-night copy store in Palo Alto, for the memorial board at her funeral.

Now I'm researching election statistics. This is interesting, and you can see county-level (town-level in New England) statistics here. Can you find the counties that went 85% for one or the other?

The big Wednesday-morning quarterbacking question is, did the 3rd-party vote turn the election? And the answer is, it could have. The only state for which, if all the Jill Stein voters had gone Hillary, she would have won, is Wisconsin. That's not enough. But if a goodly portion of the Libertarians had done so as well, it could also have taken Florida, Pennsylvania, and, interestingly, Arizona, and that would have turned to a 302-EV Clinton victory.

But I don't think that's likely. Turnout is the real issue here, the same turnout that lost the Democrats the 2010 midterms. That, and voter suppression and intimidation, which I await measurements and estimates of.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

whole lotta voting going on

Both statistics and anecdotes are reporting large turnouts in today's US elections. I can add my mite to that. I went down to the neighborhood polling place about 9:30 AM. Usually the morning commuter rush is gone by then, and there's one or two other voters around, if that. Not this time. Three people already in the booths, one ahead of me in line, and two more behind me by the time they were done with that guy. It's not a long line by any means, but it's lot more than I've seen before.

This despite the long ballot. We vote here with pen markings on bedsheet-sized pieces of paperboard, and this year there were three of them, all two-sided. There were 3 federal offices, 2 state legislative ones (the state executive offices come up in two years), 7 school board seats (and weren't those hard to get real information about), 4 city council seats, 17 state propositions, and 4 local ones. That comes to as many votes as there are Shakespeare plays.

The official at the counter struggled to tear the receipt stubs off all three ballot sheets at once, slid them with fair versatility out of the protective sheath into a zipper slot in the big orange canvas rucksack that serves as a ballot box, handed me the stubs and an "I Voted" sticker, and off I went.

Monday, November 7, 2016

the king is duller than the queen

I started to watch Netflix's new series The Crown, but I couldn't abide more than about 20 minutes of it. Not only is palace life lovingly depicted as of unsurpassable dullness, but the royals, and also the politicians, spend their time standing around telling each other things they already know, so as to make sure the viewing audience is up to speed. Let me out of this march of the morons.

an unworthy thought

Janet Reno died.

I hope she voted early.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

concert review: Warsaw Philharmonic

Last week, I went to Davies and heard SFS play Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. So what do I get when I go back to Davies for the visiting Warsaw Philharmonic? Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. Like 8 Bartok quartets in 2 days, that's more than I want.

Nor is a Chopin piano concerto exactly a showpiece for a visiting orchestra. Undoubtably they played it because they, like Chopin, are from Poland. The soloist, whom the concerto is about, was not from Poland. He's one of those 22-year-old virtuosi with names like, in his case, Seong-Jin Cho. The audience thought vehemently well of him, and he was certainly fluent. In the Romanze movement he achieved a distinctive liquidity of tone which I thought was very fine. His encore was the Op. 53 Polonaise, a banging piece not designed to replicate that particular virtue.

The orchestra's big showpiece was the Brahms First Symphony, in a lean, energetic performance nevertheless notable for what seems to be Warsaw's most distinctive characteristic, a fat, heavy, almost crass tutti sound. For an encore, they acknowledged the country they were playing in and offered Bernstein's Candide Overture, which they didn't sound unfamiliar with.

Also on the program, something else Polish - sort of - and more for the connoisseur. It was the Polish Melodies by Moisei Weinberg, born and raised in Poland, moved to the USSR where he studied with Shostakovich and spent the rest of his life, and considered by cognoscenti to be one of the great unsung composers of the last century.

Not for this piece, though, which is a brief exercise in Soviet populism that could have been written by Kabalevsky, and doesn't even sound all that Polish. It does, however, begin with a long horn solo over a pedal point, so putting it at the start of the concert, with the horns not warmed up yet, was daring. A single flub could have spoiled the entire effect that the visitors were aiming for. However, there were no flubs. Good show.

Friday, November 4, 2016


Watched the Ghostbusters reboot, because the DVD was there. I liked the camaraderie among the four women. Made up for a lot of boring crap.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I'm not a big fan of the Chopin piano concertos, but I am a big fan of Yuja Wang, and she gave a sparkling, highly inflected performance of the Concerto No. 2 at Davies last night.

MTT preceded this with a brief work of his own - Bernstein, modified by academic modernism - and followed it with Bruckner's Seventh, to show how he can do what Blomstedt does. His colors are brighter, his canvases are even vaster, and while his energy doesn't flag he has just as much trouble finding coherence in the finale.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

88 lines for father

Today is my father's 88th birthday anniversary. How about that? I want to commemorate the occasion by elaborating on something on something I recently told him in appreciation of two rare gifts he gave me in my adolescence: two useful skills I now have which - so far as I can tell - few others my age possess.

First is, to drive a stick shift car. Even before I was of age to legally practice-drive, my father took me and his trusty Volkswagen out to a deserted college parking lot one weekend and drilled me in the mysteries of this device.

The stick shift is the ideal illustration of the fact that understanding the principle of an action and actually being able to perform it are entirely different things. The clutch is merely the enabling switch for the gear shift. Depress the clutch, shift the gear, release the clutch. Simple, right? No, not at all. Coordinating the clutch and accelerator pedals to do this smoothly and efficiently without grinding, stalling, or causing the car to hop and jerk requires enormous practice and building up of muscle memory. My father is a straightforward man: describe, listen, do. He had to show great patience as I slowly stumbled my way to mastery of this skill.

But master it I did, and it's something you don't forget, even after years away, though it may become a bit rusty after long disuse until one's sea-legs return. It's proven useful over the years. Not just in Britain, where - at least up through my last visit - the default rental car is always stick, and an automatic has to be specially arranged for. Once when I was in college, an elaborate plan involving the moving of many cars around between various places nearly foundered when nobody available could drive stick. Except me.

Second is, to knot a long necktie. This is not a simple skill, and since I only wore a tie two or three times a year to formal occasions, I kept forgetting it and had to be re-taught. Again, it needed patience. But eventually it stuck, and though as an adult I still don't wear one often, I am the more likely to do so because I know how. Most of my career as a librarian was in the back office behind the "Staff Only" sign, but whenever I was on duty at the reference desk, I always wore a tie.

I was rather amused when I found that few of my male friends could do this, and even ones who often wore a tie as a fashion accessory just kept a pre-knotted one hung up in the closet. Once I attended a party where the visiting guest brought a collection of ties along as party favors, and someone handed them out at the door to the men who entered. All the other men had just draped theirs around their necks as if the tie were substituting for a tallis. I hadn't yet noticed this when I came in and was given one: I was dubious, as my shirt wasn't appropriate for wearing a tie with, but I quickly knotted it up roughly. The woman who was handing out the ties was slack-jawed in astonishment. Even her husband, a figure of some note in the computer industry, couldn't do that.

I don't have many unusual skills, and some common ones defeat me. (I cannot hit a ping-pong or tennis ball over a net, or usually hit it at all, though a volleyball I could manage when I was still limber.) But I owe my ability to type fast to my mother's insistence that I learn touch-typing, and these two I owe to the wisdom and patience of my father. Thanks, Dad.

Monday, October 31, 2016

hollow e'en

About 7:30 this evening, our doorbell was rung by two small girls, accompanied by their father. That they appeared to be of Indian descent perhaps explains why they were the only callers we had all evening. Indian has become the principal ethnicity in this neighborhood - something guessable from the inevitability of a cricket game going on in the park whenever I walk by of a weekend afternoon - and Diwali is on right now: a holiday which, I'm told, includes much eating of sweets, so you're not really looking much for any more of them.

We've had other years about this quiet, and others still that were rather busier, especially the ones where mid-evening is dominated by rapacious teenagers. But not this year.

two exquisite concerts

And in one day, yesterday.

Afternoon, to Stanford with B. for a song recital. It was the title that caught my eye: "Witches, Bitches, & Women in Britches." Mezzo Naomi Louisa O'Connell didn't wear britches, but a red gown, and she sang a wide variety of songs (all composed by men, though a few of the lyrics were by women) about uppity women of all kinds, from Charles Stanford's mournful setting of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, through dramatic pieces by Wolf and Poulenc, to a gorgeous mock-Irish ballad of a selkie by Granville Bantock, a set of Weimar-era cabaret songs (one of which, "Raus mit den Männern aus dem Reichstag" by Friedrich Holländer, would have saved Germany infinite trouble a few years later if its advice had been taken), through Tom Lehrer's "The Irish Ballad", the only time I've ever heard anything by him on an art-song program.

A large set of well-chosen and well-researched songs, extensive program notes, a strong voice and well-acted movement, plus excellent accompaniment by Miles Graber, made this a winner of a program.

It was over at 4.15, I took B. home, then dashed up to the City in time for a relaxed dinner before the 7 pm start of the evening concert at Herbst. (A feat accomplishable in that time frame only on a Sunday.) This was the Dover Quartet, whom I just heard two months ago in Canada, with double bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, one of the few classical soloists on that instrument who can actually play it in tune.

The big work was Meyers own Quintet, four movements, half an hour. Asked to write program notes, the composer declined to describe what his music sounds like, so I'll attempt it. It reminded me of the kind of rough-hewn, plain-spoken American experimentalism practiced in music by Henry Cowell and (weirdly enough) Glenn Gould. Insistent choppy rhythms gave a sense of minimalism (more Terry Riley and - without the distinctive harmonies - Philip Glass than Steve Reich or John Adams), and in the scherzo there was a touch of jazz. There were only a few passages in which the bass was dominant, and then mostly just to propel the rhythms.

Meyer also joined the quartet for a one-player-per-part rendition of the orchestral score for Mozart's impossibly beautiful K. 136 Divertimento, which clarified the lines and gave weight to the sound. And he came on with Dover cellist Camden Shaw for the one piece I've heard at every concert I've ever attended that featured a solo double-bass player, Rossini's Duo for cello and double-bass.

Additionally, the Dovers gave a fine energetic performance of Dvorak's American Quartet, probably the most straightforward quartet in the repertoire and one consequently in need of finesse. It might have been an odd choice, given that Dvorak is by far the most famous composer to have written a string quintet with a double-bass in it, so they could have played that; but perhaps Meyer did not wish to be over-exposed.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

book read

Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (William Morrow)

Essays and talks on the importance of libraries, the meaning of fantasy, on prose writers and comics and movies. Includes his Mythcon Guest of Honor speech, which is about his childhood discoveries of Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton, and what their individual characteristics as writers meant to him as an aspiring writer.

Here are the two shorter of my three favorite anecdotes from this book.
Shortly after [Stardust] was published, I wound up defending it to a journalist who had loved my previous novel, Neverwhere, particularly its social allegories. He had turned Stardust upside down and shaken it, looking for social allegories, and found absolutely nothing of any good purpose.
"What's it for?" he had asked, which is not a question you expect to be asked when you write fiction for a living.
"It's a fairy tale," I told him. "It's like an ice cream. It's to make you feel happy when you finish it." (p. 428)

I was six years old and my father mentioned that, in America, there was a Batman TV series. I asked what this was, and was told it was a series about a man who fought crime while dressed as a bat. My only experience of bats at this point was cricket bats, and I wondered how someone could convincingly dress as one of those. (p. 263)
The third is on p. 60-62. Read this book. It's good.

Friday, October 28, 2016

C.S. Lewis, still detective

Remember my review of two 1930s-style "cozy" mystery novels featuring C.S. Lewis as sleuth? Well, the author sent me the manuscript of his next book, requesting comments. Now it's been published, so here's the story.

early Arrival

Through the courtesy of Anonymous, I was at an unknown movie theater in a forgotten locale for a preview showing of an upcoming SF movie, Arrival, based on Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life." The Powers That Buzz have asked me not to review the movie before its release, so I'll just say that this is an intelligent person's SF movie, with only one small explosion. It's still interesting if you know Chiang's story, and is reportedly intelligible if you don't. It's being released in three weeks. That is all.

After that I drove in an undefinable direction for an indeterminate distance to exit Schrödinger's box at Stanford's Memorial Church, for the annual Daniel Pearl World Music Days Concert. Peaceful and contemplative music highlighted by Ubi Caritas for unaccompanied female choir by Ēriks Ešenvalds, the Requiem for three cellos and a piano - a most striking sound - by David Popper, and a mournful Elegy by Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, the last played by the St. Lawrence Quartet, who also closed things off with the healing Heiliger Dankgesang from Beethoven's Op. 132. This is the only concert I attend that eschews applause. We sit in silence, and come out richer for the experience.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

experience is

Much of the polemic supporting Hillary Clinton for president focuses on how qualified her experience makes her. I wish there would be less emphasis on that. It's a point, yes, but not a very strong one. What matters is what's been done with that experience, and while Clinton's abilities and policies can be robustly defended, dispute over that is what the argument over her is about.

Experience alone doesn't qualify. The most broadly and lengthily experienced president in US history was James Buchanan, also the worst president in US history; and Obama was elected for his judgment and gravitas, despite a notable lack of experience. Indeed, some pointed out at the time that Obama's resume - a lawyer from Illinois with a certain amount of state legislative experience and a couple years in Congress - was not as thin as it sounded. We'd once previously elected a president with that resume, and he'd turned out to be pretty good.

More seriously, I'm reluctant to go back as far as Lincoln to draw comparisons, since the duties of both President and other offices has changed so much since then, but it might be useful to compare post-WW2 presidential nominees in simple cumulative time of relevant experience. The question is, what counts as relevant experience? Of course a wide variety of personal experiences, including in business, can help prepare a candidate, but I'm going to focus mostly on high government office, though noting other leadership positions.

1948, Truman v. Dewey. Truman had already been president for almost four years, of course, and there's no preparation for the presidency like being president, but it's worth noting for comparative purposes that he'd previously been senator and vice president for 10 years, and that his 8 years as chief executive of his county might also be relevant. Dewey had at this point been governor for 6 years, and before that had been a leading prosecutor for about another 6 years.

1952, Eisenhower v. Stevenson. Eisenhower was nominated for his generalship, and he'd been a commanding general for a total of 6 years, starting with his appointment to Operation Torch, up through his time at NATO. He'd also been president of Columbia University for about 4 years. Stevenson had been governor of Illinois for 4 years.

1956, Eisenhower v. Stevenson. By this time Eisenhower had 4 years as president, while Stevenson hadn't done much during the same time except campaign, as far as I can tell.

1960, Kennedy v. Nixon. Kennedy, 14 years in Congress (both houses). Nixon had spent the same 14 years with 6 in Congress and 8 as VP.

1964, Johnson v. Goldwater. Johnson had nearly 24 years in Congress and 3 as VP. Goldwater had been a senator 12 years. He'd been running the family business for over 20 years before then, though.

1968, Nixon v. Humphrey. Governmentally, Nixon was still the same 14-year man he'd been in 1960. Humphrey had been a big-city mayor for 3.5 years, a senator for 16 years, and VP for 4, totaling 23.5.

1972, Nixon v. McGovern. Nixon was now incumbent. McGovern had served in Congress for 14 years and had been director of a big federal program for 1.5.

1976, Carter v. Ford. Carter had been governor for 4 years and previously in his state legislature for 4. He'd also, like Goldwater, been running his family business for over 20 years. Ford, before becoming president 2.5 years earlier, had been in Congress for 25 years and VP for over .5.

1980, Reagan v. Carter. Reagan had been governor for 8 years. I'm not sure whether to count his almost 6 years as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

1984, Reagan v. Mondale. Mondale had been a senator for 12 years and VP for 4, plus his state's attorney general for 4.5, making 20.5.

1988, Bush v. Dukakis. Poppy Bush may have been the first modern candidate to run on his resume. He'd been in Congress for 4 years, an ambassador (under varying titles) for 3, a cabinet-level executive for 1, and VP for 8, totaling 16. Previously, he'd been active as an oil executive for about 12 years. Dukakis had been governor for 12 years and in his state legislature for another 8.

1992, Clinton v. Bush. Clinton had been governor for 12 years and his state's attorney general for 2.

1996, Clinton v. Dole. Dole had served in Congress for an awesome 35.5 years before resigning during his campaign, and previously in his state legislature for 2.

2000, Bush v. Gore. Bush had been governor for 6 years; he also spent 5 years as managing general partner of a baseball team. Gore was in Congress for 16 and VP for 8, totaling 24.

2004, Bush v. Kerry. Kerry had been a senator for 20 years and previously lieutenant governor for 2.

2008, Obama v. McCain. Obama, 4 years in the Senate and 8 in the state legislature. McCain, 26 in Congress.

2012, Obama v. Romney. Romney was 4 years as governor, the least governmental experience of any candidate since Stevenson. But he spent 3 years running the Salt Lake Olympics, plus approx. 15 years at Bain Capital.

2016, Clinton v. Trump. Clinton has been a senator for 8 years and Secretary of State for 4, making 12; add in 8 years as an activist First Lady and that makes 20; if her 12 years as First Lady of Arkansas also count, it comes to 32, the highest figure yet on this list except for Dole. If business counts, however, Trump seems to have been in charge of his own businesses for 45 years now, so he's either the lowest or the highest.

So we get, counting first runs for president only, governmental and military command only and giving two figures where questionable:
37.5 Dole (high)
35.5 Dole (low)
32 Hillary Clinton (high)
28 Ford
27 Johnson
26 McCain
24 Truman (high), Gore
23.5 Humphrey
22 Kerry (high)
20.5 Mondale
20 Dukakis (high), Kerry (low), Hillary Clinton (low)
15.5 McGovern
16 Poppy Bush
14 Truman (low), Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan (high), Bill Clinton
12 Dewey (high), Goldwater [also in business], Dukakis (low), Obama (high)
10 Eisenhower (high)
8 Carter (high) [also in business], Reagan (low)
6 Dewey (low), Eisenhower (low), W. [also in business]
4 Stevenson, Carter (low), Obama (low), Romney [also in business]
0 Trump [also in business]

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

3 concert and 2 expeditions

I was sent to Symphony Silicon Valley to review Scriabin's Piano Concerto. Have you ever heard Scriabin's Piano Concerto? I hadn't even known that there was a Scriabin's Piano Concerto until I was handed this. At first I was dismayed. I've battered my head against Scriabin's music before, often without success particularly for the orchestral music. Then I listened to this concerto. It's really good! Like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff concertos, only without the surplus fat. I enjoyed this performance.

I went to Stanford last Tuesday to hear the Quartetto di Roma in Mendelssohn's Op. 13. I learned to love this quartet, essentially a very early homage to Beethoven's Op. 132, under the tutelage of the Pacifica Quartet, which played a Mendelssohn cycle at Menlo some years ago. That stuck with me so strongly that whenever I closed my eyes during this performance, I saw the Pacifica Quartet before me in my mind's eye, and whenever I opened them, I saw these guys instead, a disconcerting experience.

Then up to the City on Sunday for a special SF Performances concert in honor of their newly-retired founding impresaria Ruth Felt. The Alexander Quartet, which can be gritty when they really want to be, applied that to Beethoven's Op. 95, followed by Marc-Andre Hamelin in a tentatively soft version of Brahms' piano intermezzi, Op. 117. This was the Brahms who composed the Lullaby. Hamelin crossed over to the rougher side of the force for a fairly harsh run through of Schumann's Piano Quintet. In between, Midori (that's Midori Goto, the violinist) played some solo Bach, and they managed an encore with all of the above, a movement from Chausson's concerto for solo violin and piano quintet, another work I know from Menlo.

A new shopping center has opened deep down in the Silicon Valley industrial district, which I knew about because they sent me some coupons, for a Whole Foods and a branch of Books Inc., the local independent bookstore chain. They turned out to be hard to find in a poorly-marked sprawled-out mostly-office complex. At Books Inc. the clerk, who did in fact look vaguely familiar, claimed he recognized me from another branch. I have in fact appeared there occasionally, but he also said he remembered me without a beard, which I've had far longer than that branch has been in existence, so I may have another doppelganger, an occasional problem in the past.

After much travail involving websites that send unhelpful error messages and shipping agencies that automatically generate arrival announcement e-mails for the wrong day, I've acquired a Visitor Oyster Card for London transport for my upcoming visit there. Now I have to tutor myself in how to use it, having never gotten myself the local equivalent due to the complexity of the rules - touch this, not that; touch now, not then - and the rarity of my need for it. But I expect to have a busy week in London shuttling back and forth on the Tube, so into the future we go.

However, the amount that AT&T employees don't know about whether my phone plan will work in the UK, or even whether I can charge the phone on UK voltage, would fill the British Library. This despite my responding to every statement of "I don't know" with "Then who would know?" and repeated declarations that, since I cannot be the first customer in AT&T history to wish to travel to the UK with a cell phone, somebody in their organization must know something, and that is the person I wish to speak to. I think I'll have to buy something when I arrive, though whether it'll just be a SIM card or a whole new disposable phone - and I know nothing about disposable phones; I've never had to inquire about one before - I have no idea.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Han, solo

So I see that the franchise's response to having killed off Han Solo is to offer an upcoming movie about his earlier years. I can't help feeling that this is a mistake, in terms of the artistic integrity of Star Wars. Just as the plot function of Luke Skywalker in the original story was to be raised from backwater obscurity into greatness, the plot function of Han Solo was to be rescued from self-serving irrelevance and made, for the first time in his life, to work for a cause greater than himself. (And Leia? She's the princess. Her function is to be rescued. I don't like that either, but we knew this was an old-fashioned story when we took it.)

It follows that any earlier story of Han's would be just a trivial adventure with no greater significance. You can make a popular movie this way - it worked for Indiana Jones - but it'll feel shoddy. If you try to charge it with significance by making it a turning point and personal revelation for Han the way that the first Star Wars was, you undercut the significance and meaningfulness of that first Star Wars. Now you're saying he already went through that, and either backslid (in which case he could do so again) or else just needed reinforcement. Either supposition trivializes.

Also: Luke, Han, and Leia are a triad. They work best together. This was why Force Awakens didn't work: its treatment of the iconic characters was too fragmented, and, unlike the original movie which was a complete story as well as first of a trilogy, TFA wasn't enough of a complete story to make anything iconic out of Rey, Finn, and Poe (characters I remember so well I actually had to go and look their names up just now).

I suppose the best way to deal with all this for the impending movie would be to make a story that shows how Han became such a cocky bastard in the first place. It still wouldn't have any larger significance, but at least it'd be a complete story with a plot function end point.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Aiee! There are llamas!

Today we paid our annual visit to the vacant lot in Saratoga that mysteriously turns into a "pumpkin patch" in October, to select our jack-o-lantern to be. We like this particular place because, for the amusement of the kiddies and the delectation of B., they always host a small petting zoo with baby animals. This year, in addition to the usual pigs (the cause of the smell that kept me viewing this from the outside), goats, rabbits, and chickens, there was a llama. Hadn't seen one of those, at least outside a regular zoo, since stumbling across a llama farm out on the Montara coast years ago.

Waited at the register behind a young mother buying a ticket for her 3-year-old for the "cow train," a tractor with a trail of single-passenger child-sized cars shaped as cows, with offset axles so they wobble up and down amusingly as they go. She was concerned about her son standing up and possibly ejecting himself as it went. The clerk assured her that the driver keeps an eye on the children, and that she could run after the thing, which doesn't go very fast, if she wanted. However, as we left, we saw the cow train going, with Mom having somehow inserted herself into the first car with the kid on her lap. I hope they had a good time.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

concert review: Late Style 1

Come along, earthman, or you will be late.
Late? Late for what?
Late for the Beethoven "Late Style" concert, of course, which I nearly was, owing to the difficulty of finding parking in San Francisco on a Saturday evening. I count nabbing a space in an alleyway only a block and a half from Herbst, ten minutes before the concert, as one of my greatest achievements.

The concept of "late style" is a fashionable one, "of interest to writers and philosophers from Adorno to Said," as the program book puts it. It applies to all the arts, but seems especially notable in music. Doesn't matter how old the composer was at the time, something about accumulated mastery plus, perhaps, the sense of impending death, makes for a gestalt considered worth chewing over.

The gimmick for this one is that the Brentano String Quartet and pianist Jonathan Biss would play Beethoven's final work in each of the three large-scale genres in which he was most prolific: piano sonata, string quartet, and violin sonata. (Actually, depending on how you count the number of works, Beethoven could be considered as having written more piano trios than violin sonatas, but let that be.)

The last violin sonata, Op. 96, is not very late, dating from 15 years before the composer's death, but the last piano sonata, Op. 111, is much later, and the last string quartet, Op. 135, was his last completed full composition. Although each work had its dramatic passages - raised to violence in the quartet, which played them as if it were ripping something not easily repairable - what struck me was the resignation and peace throughout long stretches of all three works, something again emphasized by the quartet with a light but clear, feathery tone.

All three, however, were highly abstract and, though consonant, not at all ingratiating. I'd expect a concert of late Schubert chamber music (which would ideally consist of the G-major Quartet and the String Quintet) would feel very different. There's another of these coming up, by a potpourri of composers, but no Schubert.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

2001: a musical odyssey

I don't quite get the current fad of accompanying movies with a live orchestra. I can understand it for silent films; I once attended a screening of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin with the San Francisco Symphony playing a score stitched together from chunks of Shostakovich symphonies, less because I wanted to see Battleship Potemkin again than because the prospect of hearing a nonstop wad of 75 minutes of Shostakovich thrilled me to the bone. It was as good as I'd hoped. And the movie wasn't bad either.

But a recent film, usually a crappy adventure blockbuster, with the high-quality music track stripped out but the dialog left in, and a live orchestra trying to match the precision timing of the original? It seems pointless to me.

There's just one sound-era film I thought worthy, both musically and cinematically, of being performed this way: 2001: A Space Odyssey. This week the SFS did it, so I went. It was the first time I'd seen the movie on a big screen since the original release in 1968 (though not, this time, in the original Cinerama format). Seeing it for the first time back then was one of my formative experiences. I was awed by the whole thing, not least by the music, all of which I was hearing for the first time, even the Blue Danube Waltz (hey, I was eleven). As for the Ligeti, I didn't realize it was supposed to be music until I got the soundtrack album.

The live performance this time, conducted by Brad Lubman, was actually at its best in the Ligeti pieces. The Blue Danube was a little too dance-band in style and less of the cool elegance of the Karajan recording on the soundtrack. But the live music did bring a vividness that contrasted with the slightly canned sound of the soundtrack. I shudder at the thought of the contrasts to be heard when they do Casablanca, a movie whose music is not at the top of the list of its memorable qualities, later this season.

Nearly half a century on, 2001's dialogue is rather hokey and often unintentionally funny (the cost of Dr. Floyd's phone call caused particular amusement, as did HAL's overweening self-assurance). But the special effects still hold up beautifully, in a way that Star Wars' don't. Even the ape-men still look like real ape-men more than what they actually are, which is mimes in ape suits. And the space sequences, including the lunar surface, are awesome.

There was a special pre-concert treat, a brief interview with Keir Dullea, the actor who played Dave. He told us three things of interest, all having to do with sound. First, he suggested that the reason for the terseness of the dialog in the spaceship scenes is that Dave and Frank have been in space together for weeks already - "there isn't a lot to talk about." Second, that Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL was dubbed in during postproduction. On the set, the person who read HAL's part to cue the other actors was the assistant director. Dullea then performed for a us a few of HAL's lines as this guy did them: purest Cockney. To this day, he says, he thinks of HAL with a Cockney accent.

Third was that, when they were filming Dave's reaction shots to the Stargate scene (the infamous "light show" sequence), Kubrick played music to set the mood. But it wasn't Ligeti. It was the cold, slow "Landscape" movement from Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica. (Which was, by the way, derived from a film score, so we've gone full circle.)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

shall have prizes

So Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This might or might not be much of a new extension of the prize's coverage of literature: I'm familiar with the poetry of virtually none of the previous poets who've won the prize, so someone else will have to tell me whether any of them wrote on the same scale as Dylan's lyrics.

I would just like to say that I would far rather see Bob Dylan win a prize in literature than one for music.

ETA: And I should have added this from the beginning:
I heard Eric Bogle sing this at an outdoor folk festival in Vancouver in 1982, and we were all rolling on the floor laughing. Literally: we were already sitting on the ground, so it was easy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

weee are Lucy and Suzzy

Last Friday I went to a folk music concert, I did. I headed up to the Freight to hear Suzzy Roche, old favorite from the days she was in a group with her sisters, now touring with her daughter instead. "Hi," the latter said from the stage, "I'm Lucy Wainwright Roche." "And I'm her mother," added the former. I don't know how much stage work they've done as a duo, but they have put out two albums together. I didn't have those, but I do now.

Suzzy was always the most flamboyant of the Roches, and her clothing still is. In what I guess is still a typical look for her, she was wearing tennis shoes over black leggings, along with a lot of other stuff not convenient to describe. Her voice has only graveled a little with age. But her song-writing has sobered, mostly, and there was a lot of serious quiet stuff here, good stuff for a folk concert.

Lucy, more conventionally folky in jeans with a shirt-tail hanging out, has a high light voice like her Aunt Terre's, though not as stratospheric. Her songwriting too suggests the same mode. The two made interesting vocal harmonies together, sometimes abandoning the melody entirely for descant and harmony. Some of this could be heard in the two covers of songs I actually know, "Both Sides Now" and the Beatles' "For No One." (There was another cover that made everyone laugh except me: since I didn't know the song I didn't get the joke.)

One other person there I knew, Rachel H.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bill Warren

Word is spreading that Bill Warren has died. I hardly know what to say. Bill's writing was encyclopedic in its display of knowledge, captivating and entertaining in its style, and above all voluminous, mostly on subjects on which I really had no interest. His specialty was trashy 50s skiffy films, which most of them were (50s skiffy films, I mean). He was so good on this that he's worth reading even though the movies aren't worth seeing, in fact even better than he is on the few that are worth seeing. His epic tome on this subject, Keep Watching the Skies, is two huge volumes and entirely comprehensive. I wish he'd chosen to devote more of his mighty talent to other topics.

But he and I mostly did not get along personally. He seemed to find me irritating, and I certainly found him so. I once spent an entire convention panel trying to fight off his simplistic belief that "The book is still on the shelf" is a satisfactory response to complaints about a movie adaptation. He once described in my presence a scene from an experimental movie so disgusting that I've never been able to forget it, even though I've never seen the movie. And he was my first encounter with the opinion, among people who hold that a comparison to Hitler is a Go Directly To Jail card that means you've comprehensively lost the argument, that defending the reasonableness of your position by saying "It's not like I compared you to Hitler" counts as a comparison to Hitler. (There have since been others. A couple of times since I've tested it deliberately, because I couldn't believe the response the first time.)

Regardless, his presence enriched the world, which will be a lesser place without it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

in memoriam, Kate Yule

Yesterday afternoon many of us lost a spirited friend, a wonderful mind and captivating personality, curious, incisive, intelligent, witty, and an ideal mate for her David. They bore her long illness as a shared burden, together.

As I alluded in an earlier post, I went up to Portland to see them last Monday. Kate's state was grim, but she was hanging in there. I've done my share of vigils by the bedsides of people dying of cancer, and from those experiences I could tell from this, and from the reports David has been posting, that the end was near, though of course I said nothing of the sort, hoping that I was wrong. Even I didn't expect that it was quite this near.

I may have been the last person outside of family and caregivers to see her walk - she could only manage a few steps - or to have an actual conversation with her - a bit abortive in getting words out, but the voice was the same and one could feel the same mind behind it. These finalities are chilling and sad, but also make me even more certain than I was at the time that taking the extra leg on my trip was the right thing to do.

On that occasion I did something I'd been meaning to do for a long time. A few years ago Kate wrote of attending a classical concert with Tchaikovsky's Serenade, and wishing that classical music came with a road map, to tell you what was going on and where you were. I could help with that. I brought along a CD of the Serenade, and we played the first three movements - one at a time, with breaks - as I narrated the events of the music. There wasn't time for the finale, so I promised to send that in written form by e-mail when I got home.

I did, but I doubt she was able to listen to it. So you can do it for her. Here's the recording I linked to of the finale of this piece she enjoyed, played by my local favorites, the New Century Chamber Orchestra, with my road map to the music.
0.03. Begins with the same high note with which the previous movement ended.

0.12. SLOW INTRODUCTION, theme. This is actually a Russian folk song, a Volga boatmen's song.

0.39. Repeat, now with the theme in cellos, and the violins playing counterpoint on top.

0.52. Here you can start hearing, embedded in the theme, the three falling notes that began the introduction to the first movement. Remember I said at that point that they'd be important later.

1.02. Here, closing off the theme, are those three notes open by themselves.

1.10. Now they're being repeated with smaller, less emphasized notes added between the main notes. What's actually happening here is that the introductory theme is being metamorphized into:

1.30. The MAIN THEME of the movement. This is fast and bouncy, and it includes those three notes in its opening phrase. This is another Russian folk song, so rather than being built out of the three notes, the three notes were actually extracted from it.

1.42. Repeat, louder.

1.52. Repeat in cellos, with the other strings playing pizzicato.

2.02. SECOND THEME, more lyrical. This one is a Tchaikovsky original.

2.20. Since that appeared first in the cellos, this time the repeat is in the violins, with the cellos playing the curlicues underneath.

2.34. Now it's beginning to close off into the coda of the exposition, reintroducing phrases from the main theme.

3.09. DEVELOPMENT section. This is an important part of sonata form that was left out of the first movement. Here bits and pieces of the themes are played around with and varied in different keys. Listen for bits of the second theme being played over bits of the first theme.

3.22. The second theme opening phrase being played over in higher and higher pitches to increase tension. Very typical Tchaikovsky development style.

3.48. Now it mixes the first and second themes together and rises to a climax.

4.27. And it merges into the RECAPITULATION, the return to the original themes.

4.53. Second theme.

5.28. And closing off into the coda, except it's more elaborate this time, because it's the end of the entire movement. Except not quite, because:

6.10. Surprise, the return of the FIRST MOVEMENT INTRODUCTION, original and unaltered.

6.50. But what's it doing now? It's metamorphizing into the main theme of this movement again. Remember how they began with the same notes? So even though they're in different styles, they're really the same theme. And that leads directly to

7.20. The real end of the movement, and of the entire work.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

concert news and reviews

I wanted to go hear this, but did I buy a ticket? No, I convinced my editor to send me to review it. Heh. This is why I tend not to think of having a forum to express my thoughts as "work."

Meanwhile, I learn that one of my favorite Bay Area venues caught on fire while I was out of town over the weekend. Best wishes to all those who perform there and those who host them.