Thursday, February 25, 2021

fried out

Many of the deaths that cause great mournings to pass out from my community - Gary Gygax, Stan Lee - don't mean very much to me personally. I can't say that for Fry's Electronics. That was a store that was once essential for my everyday life.

Although by the time it shut its doors a couple days ago, I and many others had been wondering what had been keeping it alive, because for several years it had been worse than useless, it was a waste of time to go there. Its vast shelves were virtually empty, and of course the employees had been clueless ever since it turned into a glossy retail establishment from its initial incarnation as a computer nerd warehouse.

I first encountered Fry's in the mid-80s, when my hardware guru sent me there to buy the parts for what he then turned into my first computer. Fry's was at its first location then, tucked into a corner of one of the tiny industrial parks that made up Silicon Valley, a big warehouse mostly of unlabeled computer parts in bins. I went up to the counter, one of those glass counters with more parts on display inside, handed them the slip on which H. had written my requisites, and bought the results.

Soon Fry's moved into a bigger facility across Lawrence Expressway, and introduced their first clever store packaging: giant "Enter" and "Escape" keys pasted on to the front doors, and a giant diode mockup in front. There were still bins and shelves with miscellaneous unpackaged parts, and most of the packaged ones were in plain boxes with identifying labels pasted on. There was very little designed packaging in computer parts in those days.

Literally anything you could possibly want in electronic or electrical parts or equipment was for sale at Fry's. And that was reinforced by their choice of what else to sell, the life-sustaining material for computer engineers: food/drink, mostly bags of chips and refrigerated cans of soda, and magazines, of two types, computer tech and men's erotica. It was kind of a parody of what they thought engineers wanted.

Around that time, as I've told before, a computer tech friend of mine (but we'd bonded mostly over English folk music) from the midwest came to town with a colleague for a conference. When I picked them up for dinner, they asked me to take them to Radio Shack so that they could pick up some supplies - I think they wanted to hack their hotel room phone or something. I said no, I've got a better place, and I took them to Fry's - then still the single store and unknown outside of the Valley. They were delighted, and spent considerable time exploring its wonders.

Gradually over the years Fry's altered, but not entirely for the worse. More stores opened: besides the original in Sunnyvale, there was the Western-themed one in Palo Alto and the Mayan temple in Campbell and others. The sales force became less knowledgeable. Huge counters with dozens of stations appeared for purchasing. Security persons to compare your sales slip with your purchase showed up at the exit door. On the shelves there were more packaged products. In the days when packaged software flourished, Fry's had lots of that. In the days that VHS and DVD and CDs flourished, Fry's had lots of that too.

Eventually the Sunnyvale store moved to a new facility with a Disneyland-sized parking lot. The store inside was cavernous and now filled with household machinery like washing machines. The electronics were all still there, but tucked into the back. It wasn't quite the same, but I kept shopping there, until the point where I could no longer find obvious items that Fry's ought to carry. That was about five years ago, and I gave up trying.

I don't see Fry's as having been killed off by online suppliers. I turned to online suppliers because I could no longer get what I needed at Fry's.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

historical controversy

The topic is "How did Winston Churchill become Prime Minister in 1940?" and I'm going to be assuming some background knowledge on your part here.

Churchill once said that he would be treated well by history because he intended to write that history himself, and the received account of the decision to make him PM is in the first volume of his WW2 memoirs (published in 1948, so he wasn't long about it). When Neville Chamberlain decided, after the Norway debate, that a National Government was necessary, and it became clear that the Labour Party would not accept one with him at the head of it, he called in his two principal ministers and likely successors - Churchill and Lord Halifax, who was Foreign Secretary - to decide whom he should recommend as his successor. This is what Churchill writes:
I have had many important interviews in my public life and this was certainly the most impotant. Usually I talk a great deal, but on this occasion I was silent. ... As I remained silent, a very long pause ensued. It certainly seemed longer than the two minutes which one observes in the commemmorations of Armistice Day. Then at length Halifax spoke. He said that he felt that his position as a peer, out of the House of Commons, would make it very difficult for him to discharge the duties of Prime Minister in a war like this. He would be held responsible for everything, but would not have the power to guide the assembly upon whose confidence the life of every Government depended. He spoke for some minutes in this sense, and by the time he had finished, it was clear that the duty would fall upon me - had in fact fallen upon me. Then, for the first time, I spoke. I said I would have no communication with either of the Opposition Parties until I had the King's commission to form a Government. On this the momentous conversation came to an end.
That's what Churchill wrote, and some version of it has become the accepted and usually-repeated story. That being the case, I was quite surprised to be browsing Andrew Roberts' The Storm of War (2011), his history of WW2, to find this:
Churchill was impatient for the premiership, and he took it, bluntly telling his rival for the post, the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, that he could not be prime minister from the House of Lords. (He later invented a story in which Halifax almost offered him the premiership out of embarrassment after a long period of silence.)
Invented? This was the first I'd heard of anything of the sort. Roberts gives a source note. I turned to these only to find I'd alreadly marked it in my copy on a previous reading of the book. This time I got around to borrowing a copy of the cited book. It's Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy, edited by Amanda Smith (published 2001). Kennedy was US Ambassador to the UK at the time of these events, but why would he have definitive knowledge of what happened at a private meeting of the principals of the government? The source turned out to be a memorandum Kennedy took of an interview he had with Chamberlain five months later. (By the time Kennedy met with him, Chamberlain had already resigned from the government due to ill health, and he was to die less than a month later.) Here is what Kennedy recounts of what Chamberlain told him, errors copied from the transcription (Edward was Halifax's given name):
He then wanted to make Halifax P.M. and said he would serve under him. Edward, as [is] his way, started saying, "Perhaps I can't handle it being in H of Lords and Finally Winston said, "I don't think you could." And he wouldn't come and that settled it.
What Kennedy, or Chamberlain, meant by "Finally" (with a capital F), is not clear, whether that meant Churchill waited for Halifax to finish before speaking, but the only thing it adds to Churchill's account is having him agreeing with Halifax's point. It matches with Churchill's statement that Halifax spoke first, and while not outright declining the office, doubting that he could operate as prime minister. It doesn't include the long pause, but it's hardly a full and detailed recounting of the meeting. This doesn't make Churchill's account "invented," by any stretch. Roberts has something of a reputation for being a little loose with facts, and this could be an example.

I turned to a definitive biography of Churchill, Roy Jenkins' tome of 2001. Jenkins finished writing the book in February of that year, the Kennedy letters were published in January (and this bit is a very small note in a very large book), so Jenkins is unlikely to have seen it before finishing the book. But he might as well have. He quotes from and paraphrases Churchill's account, and then writes: "This account is not without a certain central truth, but is wholly inaccurate as to times and participants." Jenkins then corrects Churchill's statement of when the meeting took place, and informs us of something Churchill omits, that the Chief Whip was also present (his job here would have been to pass along the views of the party's backbench MPs). Now we get to the central question of, did Halifax jump or did Churchill push him? This time it's Halifax's account that we get:
It required no determination not to break a long silence on Churchill's part to get Halifax to exclude himself. He had already done so at a 10.15 bilateral meeting with Chamberlain on the Thursday morning. There he stressed the great disadvantage he would suffer as a Prime Minister who was a peer, and for the first time used the phrase that the thought of being so 'left me with a bad stomach-ache'. THis position he maintained at the 4.30 quadripartite meeting. As a Prime Minister in the Lords he would rapidly become a 'cipher' in the position to which Lloyd George had tried to relegate Asquith in 1916. 'I thought Winston was a better choice. Winston did not demur, was very kind and polite but showed that he thought this was the right solution. Chief Whip and others think feeling in the House has been veering towards him.' This somewhat telegraphese account was recorded by the Foreign Office permanent under-secretary, Cadogan, who saw Halifax immediately on his return from 10 Downing Street.
So here we have the same thing as with Kennedy reporting on what Chamberlain told him: Halifax demurs, Churchill agrees. This time the reporter is Alexander Cadogan giving what Halifax told him, and on the same day even. And Cadogan's diaries, from which this comes, were published as long ago as 1971! So the alteration of Churchill's version is not news. Roberts has given us a big scare and told us nothing that we didn't already know.

Nor, by the way, was Kennedy's memo the only record of Chamberlain's view of the meeting, as Roberts elsewhere implies. The newspaper proprietor Lord Camrose saw Chamberlain on the same day and made a typically precise note:
He had considered the question as to whom he should ask the King to send for, and had discussed the matter with Halifax and Winston. ... [Halifax] had said he would prefer not to be sent for, as he felt the position would be too difficult and troublesome for him. He (Neville) would therefore advise the King to send for Winston.
That was published in Churchill's War Papers in 1993, and is quoted by Jenkins.

Two more things, one of which Jenkins raises. To what extent was Halifax's membership of the Lords merely a screen? Surely, some have said, in the emergency, some workaround could have been found to enable him to sit in the Commons. Most likely, I'd guess, though I don't know what it would have been. The writers I've seen discussing this point say that it was a screen to an extent. Roberts, in his much earlier (1991) biography of Halifax, puts it the most generously:
In different circumstances he would, especially if it had been presented to him by friends as being his patriotic duty, undoubtably have accepted the Premiership. The supreme prize of British politics was there for the taking and he had merely to nod for it to be his. But he knew in his heart that he was not of the calibre required for a wartime premier, and that Winston Churchill was. Proposing Churchill in his stead was a supreme act of self-abnegation, one for which history has afforded him scant credit. It was perhaps Halifax's greatest service to his country.
By "knew in his heart," Roberts probably means the same thing as what Halifax meant by saying the idea of becoming PM "left me with a bad stomach-ache." But there is also the possibility that he knew that, even in the Commons, he wouldn't have the real power in the government. Not with Churchill in his cabinet. Churchill would have to be Secretary for Defense (a post he did in reality take on in addition to the premiership), the control of the war would be his, and that would be the whole story. That could have been what Halifax meant by "the position would be too difficult and troublesome." Even when Churchill was younger and less senior, Prime Ministers under whom he served found it difficult to keep him from taking over whatever he wanted and saying whatever he cared to say.

The other point: It is often written nowadays that the Labour Party vetoed Halifax. That is not the case. They were formally asked two questions, would they join a national government under Chamberlain, would they join under someone else not specified? The national committee met and considered these questions (in Labour, it wasn't considered something for the leader to decide on his own), and returned the answers of no and yes to the respective questions. I'm not sure if it's recorded whom they actually preferred, but (in passages I didn't quote) we have contradictory information on what Chamberlain thought Labour preferred. Cadogan says that Chamberlain "was informed" that they'd "swung against Halifax." Churchill says that Chamberlain implied in their meeting that he feared Labour would not accept him, Churchill, because of the arguments he'd had with Labour members during the debate. But that was overriden by Halifax's statement.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

English suites and others no. 40

I wrote earlier that there was one indisputably major 19th century German composer who wrote suites, and that we would get to him eventually. Today is that day, and the composer was Richard Strauss. Before he was converted to post-Wagnerian Giganticism in his mid-20s, Strauss began as something of a Brahmsian composer who actually earned a few pats on the head from the gruff old great man.

And one of the most Brahmsian things he did in those days – he was 20 when this came out in 1884 – was to write a Suite for Winds, Op. 4. This is a delightful little neo-classical piece and one of my favorite works by Strauss.

Movements: Praeludium (0.28), Romanze (6.54), Gavotte (12.40), Introduction and Fugue (17.05)

Monday, February 22, 2021


Today was B's appointment for the first vaccination. She got her place from the county website, not from our health-care provider which is running behind. The county's coverage is up to the second tranch, which B. barely qualifies for, while I barely don't.

When they phoned to confirm the appointment - which was good because, what with Texas-caused shortages, we otherwise wouldn't have known whether it was on or not - B. asked if I could be brought in also. They said maybe: it would be up to the staffers on duty and the availability of vaccines that day. We could ask when we got there.

Fine. The appointment was at a medical office building adjacent to the city hospital of the big town down the road. I was going to drive anyway because the instructions were a bit confusing, I know the place (I was last there to visit the Big Name Fanwriter when he was taken to hospital from the last local Worldcon), and I'm generally geographically enabled.

This was also an opportunity for B. to use her newly-arrived Alinker in actual practice: she put it together and tried it out on our culdesac yesterday. She calls it her bumblebee (it's yellow). It's a walking bike, essentially, though it has three wheels. The idea is that she can walk faster and not have to put weight on her weak ankle, without resorting to a wheelchair. But both of the larger wheels and the seat have to be removed, and the frame folded up, to fit it in her car trunk, so it takes some time to get it ready.

So we left in plenty of time, parked in the next-door garage as instructed, put the bumblebee together, and set off for the front door of the medical building. There we met a doorwarden who was rather shirty but not impolite about it when we asked about my getting a vaccine. So it was no go on that. Nor would I be allowed inside the building, which was fine by me because I didn't want to go inside unless I was getting the vaccine.

So I waited in the car. B. returned with stickers on her and a report that the bumblebee got a lot of comments and worked fine, even shifting around into various lines while she was waiting. She got the Pfizer vaccine. Due to a computer glitch making the appointment for the second shot, hers is 29 days from now instead of the specified 21. By that time they should have opened the third tranch which is mine, so we'll see. Just in time for the takeover by the new variant virus which is reported to be semi-immune to the antibodies, tra la.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

another false fallacy

I wish to make an addition to my list of false fallacies: that is, things that are commonly cited as fallacies but maybe aren't.

One of my classic examples is the tu quoque, in the form of pointing out that your challenger doesn't abide by the consequences of their argument. This is called a logical fallacy of argument because it doesn't prove wrong what it's arguing against. What this criticism misses is that the tu quoque is not intended as proof. It's triage. What it says is not "You didn't apply your own argument to yourself, therefore it's wrong" but "You obviously don't really believe your own argument, so why should I give it consideration?"
Another form of the tu quoque is when the challenger points out you've made the same mistake you're accusing them of. You should admit your own errors, but you can also say, "I know I'm prone to it; that's why it's easy for me to see it in others." (C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters on this principle, criticizing no sin that he didn't recognize in himself.)

Another is "moving the goalposts." You make a statement, others challenge it, you change what your statement means. What may actually be happening here is that the challenger has misunderstood the original statement. The "change" in what it means is actually a clarification of what it originally meant, and it only looks like a change to the challenger because of their mistaken idea of what it meant.
Another possibility is that the original statement was badly phrased, and left open possibilities its maker didn't intend. Again, they're clarifying what they really meant all along, not changing it.

My latest addition is sealioning. This is defined as asking supposedly clarifying questions in bad faith to provoke an argument. It shouldn't be too surprising that if the questioner really doesn't understand, and needs an explanation in a different mode from that the others are prepared to give, or missed the earlier explanations somewhere far up a complicated thread, or the answerers consider the answer so obvious they're unwilling to expound on it, then the questioner will be falsely accused of sealioning.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Music@Menlo concerts review

Having done two reviews of Kohl Mansion's online series, I said I'd get over to Menlo's eventually, and now is that time. Here's a review of their last two concerts; this time I was able to find my notes for the first one when it was time to write up the pair. I thought the premise for the first one was a little shaky and the between-pieces chatter by the musicians to be ... skippable, though for the sake of reviewing I didn't skip it. Nor was the music tremendously to my taste. However, the publicist read it and called it a very favorable review, so I guess I was kind enough.

On the other hand, a dark and somber hour of Purcell and Beethoven with the Emerson Quartet was right up my alley. This time the talk was confined to a half-hour pre-concert interview, which not only had some interesting things to say about Beethoven which I referred to, but also contained the quartet's account of how they'd been about to embark on an extensive European tour when the pandemic hit, and for several days wondered how much of it they'd be able to salvage as the bookings slowly and then completely crumbled away. I remember that feeling. There was B's scheduled string camp and how at one point its survival seemed briefly dependent on which side of a county line it would be held on. That distinction didn't last long.

Friday, February 19, 2021

how the mind works

Here's a little something I recently discovered about how my mind, at least, functions.

Assume there are two options for a choice I frequently make. Call them A and B, and specify that I always prefer A.

When I'm presented with the choice, I'm always asked, "A or B?" and I reply, "A."

This time, however, I was asked, "B or A?" And I said "B" before immediately correcting myself.

This shows that I've learned to memorize my choice's place in the order rather than internalizing its name. Though I did know what I want, and as soon as I said "B" realized that something was wrong.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

of all the silliest ...

“If I had been less stunned, I would have asked why no one was more concerned that a man of these remarkable dimensions was slithering around south Liverpool. But he was very apologetic and really nice and I think he was just relieved that I found it so funny.”

- quote from one of the silliest articles of the year, and the silliest vaccine eligibility story ever

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

English suites and others no. 39

Joachim Raff is a pretty obscure name today, but in his own time he was considered to be one of the great composers. Once I read a reference to an article, probably dating from the 1870s, extolling the supremacy of then-contemporary German music. In opera, the article said, the greatest living composer was Wagner. In chamber music, it was Brahms. And for symphonies - Raff.

If that testimony is enough to whet your curiosity, I'd suggest trying Raff's Symphony No. 5 "Lenore", especially the extremely catchy March movement that it has in place of a scherzo. And then, keeping up the wind music tradition of Mozart and Brahms, there's his Sinfonietta for winds.

Here, though, is one of his suites, a rare example of a folk-based, nationally-inspired work from Germany in days when most folk-inspired composers were Slavic or Scandinavian. Raff called it his Thüringian Suite, Thüringia being a region in central Germany where Raff was working at the time. It was then known for its rural life in heavily wooded countryside, which this music does something to convey. Bach was from Thüringia, as was Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, but you won't hear them in here.

The movements are: Salus intrantibus (0.08), Elizabeth's Hymn (9.30), Round Dance of the Gnomes and Sylphs (14.41), Variations on a Folk Song (18.27), Country Festival (27.38).

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Mythopoeic Awards

What would have been last summer's Mythopoeic Awards were finally announced today. The delay was not directly related to the cancellation of a Mythopoeic Conference (where the awards are normally announced) last summer; the problem was that the closure of libraries made it difficult for members of the awards committee to locate copies of the nominees, particularly the broad spectrum of first-ballot nominees. (Several of the finalists were distributed to the committee by the publishers on request.) As usual, I was on the scholarship committee and B. was on the fiction committees; I didn't read any of the fiction myself.

Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies
Amy Amendt-Raduege, "The Sweet and the Bitter": Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (Kent State)
I recused myself from voting on this award this year, because I have a contribution in a collection which was one of the other finalists, but though this wouldn't have been my first choice, I'm very pleased with the result. Not just a survey of the deaths in Tolkien's story, it explores them in the larger context of the meaning of death in our culture, and how they resonate for the reader. I only wish it had broader coverage, because the death in Tolkien that most moves me is Thorin's in The Hobbit.

Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Myth and Fantasy Studies
James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (ELS Editions)
On the other hand, I was extremely disappointed with this choice, not that most of the other finalists were much better. Gifford's prose is described as "dense" by those who like it, but I found it turgid, convoluted, and almost unreadable. It's rather embarrassing to give it an award in honor of the clear critical prose of Tolkien and Lewis. Further, what Gifford has to say in his turgid prose, insofar as I could follow it, was equally unappetizing: he appears to be trying to force fantasy into a series of Procrustan beds, alternately Marxist and anarchist. Ugh. In Gifford's acceptance speech, he describes the book as a historical survey of classic 20C fantasies in conversation with modernism and anarchism: that would have been a much better book than the one he actually wrote.

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature
Theodora Goss, Snow White Learns Witchcraft (Mythic Delirium Books)
B. liked this one a great deal.

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature
Yoon Ha Lee, Dragon Pearl (Rick Riordan)
B. says this one was OK.