Monday, October 31, 2011
The other good news of late is the discovery that Pandora's internal distress, which had expressed itself in irregular emissions from both ends only barely controlled by various regular shots from the vet, appears actually to have been an allergy to the dry cat food she was scarfing down to add bulk to her diet. (You are mercifully spared the graphic description of how we discovered this.) Now that she's on canned food only she's eating it a lot more heartily than before - there'd been times she'd gone off it altogether before, though she'd always eat the dry food - and indeed she now demands feeding every 3 or 4 hours. We can't give her larger helpings, because either she won't eat that much at once, leaving it at risk of being eaten by Pippin who, unlike Pandora, does not need the fattening up, or else will eat that much and make herself sick again. Despite the near-constant begging - and oh, she can make her displeasure known if it's not responded to - it's relieving to see her enjoying and not picking at or going off the canned food.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
The valleys in the north bay run mostly north-south, and the south is the direction I usually approach them from. To arrive from the east is to leap over a succession of low-lying but rugged mountains. To Calistoga first, where the geyser is still operating and where lunch at a trattoria would have seemed even better had not the waiter, who looked like Stanley Tucci, kept overselling everything on the menu.
Then by way of the Russian River to Bodega Bay, where we were not attacked by birds but did take an afternoon coffee break and get a little rugged-Pacific-coast fix. The back-roads route first intimated to me by the Wonderful Beard got us south to civilization.
Friday, October 28, 2011
2. Vaguely on the same subject, I once wrote a post on evaluating conspiracy theories. So I was delighted to discover that there's a British tv show called That Mitchell and Webb Look that neatly expresses these points in satirical comedy sketch form. The one on the Princess Di assassination theory is especially good; I liked the one on the Moon landing hoax theory as well, though it's not as crisp: for one thing, the cost analysis bit is inaccurate. There's more.
3. Not a book review: The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown by Paul Malmont (Simon & Schuster, 2011) is a retro-pulp thriller novel set among the SF writers who worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during WW2: Heinlein, Asimov, de Camp, with a special appearance by (sigh) Elron. A fanciful story set firmly in a basis of reality sounds like great fun, but it isn't. Set firmly in a basis of reality, I mean. I got as far as the chapter introducing Asimov (p. 24-34), which is full of factual clankers, completely unnecessary to set up the plot - I mean, why say Asimov was 21 when he was 22? - and ends with him meeting de Camp for the first time when the latter walks into the Navy Yard chem lab. No. These could all have been avoided if Malmont had read more carefully the first two or three books on his acknowledgments list on p. 417. I'm not finishing this.
4. Let us specify that Joe the Plumber is an idiot. Nevertheless, I'm baffled by the continuing belief that he's somehow not legitimately entitled to call himself "Joe" because Joseph is only his middle name, not his first name. The news stories of his announcement that he's running for Congress call him Samuel "Joe" Wurzelbacher. Why not just Joe Wurzelbacher? I am not expecting the newspapers to start any time soon referring to James "Rick" Perry, even though he has exactly the same moniker situation - known by a nickname based on his middle name (Richard). Dan Quayle, same thing.
5. My only comment, that hasn't already frequently been made by others, on the distrewssing events in Oakland is to note that I'm old enough to remember Chicago in 1968. I wonder if any of the Oakland police are.
6. Resolved, not to be put off or distressed by people who chide me for tones of comment which they conspicuously overlook when committed to a greater degree by certain other people. Especially when they use it as a randomly-grabbed excuse to avoid answering a point in an ongoing discussion. I've seen such raw incivility before; it seems a good way to identify the Second Foundation spies in the room.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
The rest of the cast in this production was adequate, if sometimes a little dull when the Big Bad was offstage. The strongest of them was Gemma Jones (the other name film actor in the cast: she was Renée Zellweger's mother in Bridget Jones's Diary and Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet's mother in Sense and Sensibility) as Queen Margaret, whose curse the director designated as the presiding spirit of the show: she spends a lot of time lurking at the back of the stage even if the script says nothing about her being there.
Spacey had flaws: his ranting was too monotonously-pitched (oh, for a little Pacino here), and his portrayal of Richard's descent into terror near the end was unconvincing. But as a crafty schemer, he gave a delightfully captivating, often comic performance, hot where Pacino (and Ian McKellen) were icy cold. To heck with critics who say Spacey doesn't have the classical acting chops to carry it off. The line readings were very carefully considered, with the humorous effect often achieved through ingeniously placed pauses. For instance:
- "For then I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter. / What though I kill'd her husband and her father?" came off, with the key word rendered rather like in the clip linked to, as "For then I'll marry Warwick's youngest daughter. [pause, looks at audience] What? [longer pause, looks more challengingly] Though I kill'd her husband and her father?"
- Instructing Buckingham to impute the bastardy of King Edward, Richard's elder brother: "But touch this sparingly, as 'twere far off, / Because you know, my lord, my mother lives" transformed by one tiny casual contemporary inflection and the addition of a comma: "... Because, y'know, my mother lives." (I think he cut the "my lord" but I don't remember for sure.)
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
This relates to the Windows 7 I'm using at work. I've set up an account with parental controls, and a default allow of "off", so that only the programs I designate can be used.
For a while this worked fine, but then all of a sudden, every time I logged into the program, I would get some 12 or 15 warning screens informing me that various programs were being blocked. These programs were indeed not on the "allow" list, but I never asked for them to run, and they'd never showed up before. They were mostly various programs associated with Acrobat or Java.
So I put them on the "allow" list. Then, the next time I logged in to the account, another couple of programs sent "I'm being blocked" messages, that hadn't showed up before, because I'd let in all the programs that showed up before. So I put them on the "allow" list too. Then, the next time, yet another couple of programs did this.
This is getting ridiculous. How can I make it stop doing this, and how can I get programs I don't want to use from trying to load? As I noted above, they originally didn't do this, and the programs I did want to run worked fine without them.
2. Immediately from there, dashed up to the City because Gustavo Dudamel had brought his LA Philharmonic to town. Despite the hair, he conducted soberly. Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams: a cheeky choice, as MTT had given the world premiere of that work. Magnetar by the Mexican composer Enrico Chapela, had gotten its world premiere at the LAPO's home concerts that very week. It's a concerto for electric cello, an instrument which can sound like anything it wants, and does. This piece was flaky to the max, but coherent and entertaining. Prokofiev's Fifth: loud enough, and fast enough, but it could have been more ruthless, and the climaxes in the slow movements felt a little underpowered given the resources available. The LAPO is the only orchestra of which I can say: the percussion is too loud.
3. Modern-music piano wiz Gloria Cheng gave a free concert of John Cage in the ancient precincts of Stanford's computer-music lab. The tiny hall was filled to overflowing because, it turned out, someone had signed it up as a Meetup.com event. Consequently the conversations in the lobby beforehand were mostly among people who knew nothing of, or had never even heard of, John Cage, and were just there from curiosity. I hope they were satisfied. Repertoire: Water Music, a performance art piece starting with turning on a radio to a specified frequency (it was emitting "Proud Mary", which it wouldn't have done when Cage concocted the piece in 1952), after which the pianist hits occasional keys and performs random acts like pouring water between vases and throwing playing cards onto the piano strings; and Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, an hour of soft, distant, strange, almost gamelan-like sounds.
Monday, October 24, 2011
1. Lecture on the SF Symphony's history in recordings, in honor of its centenary. Basically consists of lecturer Scott Fogelsong showing off his record collection. At least he manages to be entertaining while doing it. Takes an audiophile approach: the history of advances in recording technology as demonstrated by SFS. Biggest jump: the invention of electrical recording in 1926. Previously, recordings had been made by singers sticking their heads into the recording horn and yelling. As an orchestra could not stick its head into the horn, acoustic recording quality of orchestral music was very bad, mitigated only slightly by beefed-up orchestration, like having heavy brass double the cello and bass lines, in a desperate attempt to made them audible. Most charming piece in the collection: SFS's very first electrical recording - crystal-clear compared to the acoustic - made with the acoustic-era beefed-up orchestration, because they hadn't yet realized they didn't have to do that any more. Fairy-light Delibes ballet dance with oompah brass added; hilarious. None of the recorded excerpts were long enough to judge the quality of the orchestra.
2. Concert of the Sphinx Virtuosi, reviewed here. This is a chamber orchestra from a program that sponsors Black and Latino classical musicians, who play Bach and Mozart as well as they do Afro-American and Latin American composers. Best piece, a string quartet by Ginastera. The review gives me a chance to stick a pin in the Clarence Thomas attitude that special programs for minorities stigmatize them as inferior.
3. Exhibit at the SJSU Beethoven Center on "America's Beethoven," i.e. his popular image in the U.S. Peanuts cartoons, natch. Posters for movies featuring Beethoven and/or his music, including A Clockwork Orange. Readable exhibits of the most amazingly vapid 1940s music appreciation articles, giving me a sourer view of the golden age of the mass popularity of classical music.
4. Concert by the Palo Alto Philharmonic, a local community orchestra. Held in a theatre so small the back wall of the stage had to be taken down so the players could spill over into the backstage and fully occupy it. The audience part of the hall was no larger, so in effect everybody had a front-row seat. Then, in the middle of the concert, they brought out a grand piano and tried to fit that on stage, too. Uh-oh.
Pianist Peter Toth played Liszt's Totentanz in honor of Liszt's bicentenary birthday. It's a piano concerto consisting of a set of apparently randomly-ordered variations on the Dies Irae. In a hall like this one, any pianist will sound like Frederic Chiu. Then, Tchaikovsky's Pathetique. Interesting interpretation: in most performances, the third movement is incongruously cheerful, which is why audiences applaud at the end. This one wasn't like that at all, nor did anyone try to applaud. It sounded raw and desperate, wanting to convince itself of its own cheerfulness but failing. This not only fit better, but led smoothly into the finale. The disadvantage of this approach is that the movement can sound whiny and overlong, but in a world which likes Mahler, that's not a problem.
Monday, October 17, 2011
It's time for city council elections again in the medium-sized suburban sprawl of my residence, and since I don't go to council meetings myself - I'm not that masochistic - and the local newspapers are of no help for smaller-scale local politics, I'm at the mercy of cryptic ballot statements and the glossy flyers that about half the candidates send out in profusion.
Unless I attend the candidates' forum, which is where I was last night. We have four seats up, all at large, one with only an incumbent running, the other three all open seats with 2-3 candidates each. It became clear very quickly that there are two kinds of candidates: the establishment candidates (these are the ones who send out the glossy flyers), who offer their experience rather than their policies as their selling point, and who think that our problems are easily dealt with if we just get good people to put their heads together and solve them, and the insurgents, who are full of dire specifics, and who think that the sky is falling and everyone but them is corrupted and in the pockets of the big developers. (They may be right.)
Actually, there was a third type. Sitting at the far end of the table was the only candidate who hadn't submitted a ballot statement, and when she spoke I could see why. Had she been J. Random Citizen dragged up with no warning and told to act like a Council candidate, I'd have given her pretty good marks for faking it, but I think she was there on purpose, so: no credit.
But though there were strong differences of opinion on some issues, like how to restart the long-stalled downtown redevelopment whose developer was recently foreclosed on by the bank (good grief), leaving pretty much the same hole in the ground we've had for 15 years now, on some they're in agreement. All of the candidates think our budget should be balanced on the backs of our greedy civil servants, who have the gall to demand a middle-class salary in return for, if they're police and firefighters, risking their lives in our service. So, no workers' advocates in this town. To the question of their stands on a misconceived ballot measure to give us a separately-elected mayor (instead of the rotating council chair we have now), all the candidates, both establishment and insurgent, said no, except for J. Random who was, no surprise, undecided, and one establishment candidate with a particular knack for meaningless blither, who talked but never revealed his position. Amazing.
The problem with the insurgents is that they tend towards incoherence. The ones who've run before are less so than they were last time, which I consider an encouraging sign. The one neo insurgent still has a ways to go. I asked him afterwards about the bit in his ballot statement to the effect that a notorious murder here a year ago (the victim was found in a trash bag by a homeowner in his front yard) was the result of inconsistent city code enforcement - what? - and finished no less baffled than when I started. But even though I find some of his positions questionable, his kick in the city's pants might do some good. Besides, he's so pure he's taking no contributions from anybody, and as a result is hardly campaigning and so will never win.
Time to ruminate.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
Often, a famous composer's last works will assume a retroactively valedictory air. But there's nothing in the classical repertoire more obviously intended as its composer's final word than Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony. He was in his early sixties and already in seriously declining health when he wrote it in 1966-69, and what should he turn out but a song cycle - for two singers and a small chamber orchestra of strings and percussion - of eleven poems, all of them on the subject of Death. Talk about morbid. Some of the settings are active in a frantic, danse macabre kind of way - a mood Shostakovich found easier in his later years to depict than genuine wit - but most of them are just ose. ("Ose, ose, and morose," as we used to say about stagnant, downbeat songs in filking circles.) So powerfully depressing is this work that a major Soviet official rushed out of the hall in the middle of the first Moscow performance. People thought he was expressing his disapproval, but no, he'd just suffered what would shortly become a fatal heart attack.
At yesterday's performance, Sergei Leiferkus had just the kind of deep, hollowly echoing baritone voice needed to put across these spit-spewing Russian syllables. He was not well matched, however, with Olga Guryakova, whose rounded soprano was too smooth for the material, as well as being frequently too weak to be heard over the restrained accompaniment, and so pearly in diction that the words were unintelligible. Despite conductor James Conlon's admonition to the audience that this is a work that's about its words, so we should follow the transliterated and translated lyrics in our program books, I lost my place early in song #3 and never quite got it back.
(Ironically, unlike that Soviet official, Shostakovich did not die immediately after completing this work. He lived for another six years and wrote, among other things, a fifteenth symphony, emotively as cryptic and undecipherable a work as exists in the repertoire. After knifing yourself in the Fourteenth, what else is there left to say?)
Because Shostakovich had modeled his work on Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, it was followed by no, not that, but Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (another death-oriented work, as the exhibition it depicts was of an artist, a friend of the composer's, who'd just died), as mediated by the colorful orchestration of Maurice Ravel. Good performance: technically impressive, interpretatively satisfactory, nothing more to say than that.
Except that, although the Shostakovich was played first and the Mussorgsky is much briefer, half the audience didn't show up until after intermission. They really, really didn't want to hear the Song Cycle of Death (whereas I really did), but they were willing to wait over an hour to pop in for a piece only 30 minutes long. Wait till next week, when Conlon conducts Verdi's Requiem - a mass for the dead, don't forget - and nothing else. (I won't be there; I traded in my ticket for this one. As I said, I really wanted to hear this.)
Saturday, October 8, 2011
A football fan of my close acquaintance writes, "I expect his funeral will initially be scheduled to take place in Oakland, will be rescheduled for Los Angeles, and then at the last minute moved back to Oakland."
Friday, October 7, 2011
San Francisco Symphony: Vasily Petrenko rather won me over with his account of Elgar's First Symphony, a work I've always found stiff and problematic. The Big Tune was noble and not just pompous, and the end of the slow movement actually approached the beatific pathos that everyone always says this movement is supposed to have. One might not expect a Russian conductor to take interest in insular English composers, but I'm glad he did.
The rest of the program was Russian. Glazunov's Violin Concerto, dispatched briskly (good: it's not one of my favorites of his works) with Joshua Bell, all butter and no sinew, rocking back and forth from one foot to the other throughout the whole goddamm twenty minutes. Tchaikovsky's Meditation, Op. 42 - the excised original slow movement of his Violin Concerto - orchestrated by Glazunov in Tchaikovsky's style rather than his own, same thing. And Shostakovich's Festive Overture; why this worthless potboiler that even the composer hadn't a good word for gets played so much, and in such a bloodless fashion, eludes me. Playing throughout was SFS's routinely excellent, but in what cause, guys, to what end?
I don't review restaurants much, but my experiences on the way to SFS are worthy of record. I'd had some business off in the further East Bay, so I took the opportunity to try out Sichuan Fortune House in Pleasant Hill for lunch. It's located well within the lunchtime radius of the job I once had in those parts, during which I tried out every Chinese restaurant within driving distance that I could find, but I didn't know about this one then, so perhaps it's newer than that. Yelp reviews recommended the Szechuan boiled fish, so I tried that. Fillets of tender plain fish, plus bits of cabbage, submerged in a bowlful of the most dangerous-looking chili sauce I'd ever seen. I approached it with caution, but though it was spicy, it wasn't that spicy. Have to come back, try the Mongolian lamb next time.
A quick dinner at the Boxing Room, the "southern Louisiana" restaurant that's replaced Citizen Cake, which fortunately has not closed but which did move away so I can't stop in any more for a quick gingerbread treat before the concert, was less successful. It's terribly yuppie in feel, and the staff tried to direct me to a nonexistent seat. Neither very hungry nor flushed with cash, I just went for a bowl of gumbo. The fillings were of good quality, but the roux was terrible: dark and bitter. The waitress offered to change it when I said I didn't like it very much, but I finished it for my sins.
Since I'm mentioning that, I should add that our customary dining place on the way to SSV in San Jose has become Taiwan Restaurant in that hidden shopping district, downtown Willow Glen. I never much cared for its lunch offerings, but for dinner it's excellent, with interesting specials like Aromatic Chicken with Apples.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
For once in his life, Steve Jobs was upstaged.
In this morning's paper here in Silicon Valley, the announcement of his death was dwarfed on the front page by the saga of yesterday morning's workplace shooting at the cement quarry up in the nearby hills. After which, the shooter fled, past Apple HQ, right down to my neighborhood, if you please, where he abandoned his car in the parking lot of a Vietnamese pho restaurant where I often have lunch, and tried unsuccessfully to perform a carjacking a couple blocks away, shooting the driver in the arm.
After this, nobody saw him for about 24 hours, while a dragnet went on for him around where he was last spotted, but early this morning he was reported shot and killed by police on a residential street about a block from the carjacking attempt. Naturally, everyone who knew him says he was a peaceful guy whom you wouldn't expect to do something like this, so now that he's dead we'll never know what made him snap, though I'm sure there'll be no shortage of media blitherers willing to guess.
Our home was outside the immediate search area, so instead of being locked down, all I had to do was worry about it and listen to a lot of helicopters hovering overhead.
Meanwhile, Steve Jobs. I never met him (I've met Woz a couple times, in a brief passing manner, but not Jobs) and he didn't affect my life as closely as he did that of many other people. I've never bought an Apple hardware product, and I'd like to see if I can keep that string up for the rest of my life.
But you couldn't live in Silicon Valley or be affected by the computer world without being captivated by the vivid story of this driven man and how he enacted on the world what he wanted to do, whether you liked it or not. He had visions, but I think a key to understanding him is Pixar, where, unlike Apple, the vision was not his own. He just recognized its quality and gave the responsible people room to create it.
Jobs was, among many other things, a showman who knew how to package his ideas properly. And nothing demonstrates this better than his early departure from life, a topic that many otherwise talented people screw up on. When he saw that his health would no longer let him work, he resigned calmly and with dignity, he made sure that he left his company in ship-shape condition, and he didn't whine in public about his circumstances. That was true class.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Darrell's analysis of Bellairs' writing is typically acute and reminds me of my own close encounters with Bellairs and his books. First on the list is St. Figeta and Other Parodies, his Catholic humor book. Like Darrell, I used to make a habit of buying up copies, once easy to find cheap at book sales, and spreading them around, particularly after I gave one to a friend who knew Bellairs' other work but exclaimed that he'd never seen this one before.
Then there's The Pedant and the Shuffly, which was decidedly not easy to find in those days. I have a copy of the Mythopoeic Press's offset edition in softcover, which probably came into existence because of the occasion that put the book in Mythopoeic Society lore. When Bellairs was Guest of Honor at Mythcon in 1987, characters from Pedant were the ones that master costumers Ellie Farrell and Deb Jones decided to depict in the masquerade, with the help of a couple friends including Sherwood Smith. And since hardly anyone there knew the book, they decided to turn their presentation into a short skit outlining the plot, with the help of a narration which they asked me to read. It was a success, Bellairs was delighted, and it began a tradition of putting on a similar skit, usually inspired by the works of the Guest of Honor, at Mythcon every year, by a troupe which became known as the Not Ready for Mythcon Players. And I still read the narration ... every year. Though I sometimes wonder exactly what I am doing.
Finally, The Face in the Frost, his masterpiece. Darrell is correct that this obscurely-distributed book came to fantasy readers' attention when Lin Carter praised it in his fantasy survey Imaginary Worlds. But it too was hard to find. I first read it from the library. It became easier to find some years later when Ace published a paperback for which Ellen Kushner was responsible. I didn't buy that edition; I already had a hardback by then. But it's not clear from the review whether the account in the book's editorial matter includes what I understand was another key part of the story.
A year or two earlier, Tom Whitmore of The Other Change of Hobbit had stumbled on a stack of remaindered copies of the hardcover in some book wholesaler warehouse. Knowing of the novel's legendary reputation, he procured them all and they sold like hotcakes, one of them to me. They sold so well, in fact, that although no additional payments were due on the remaindered copies, he decided to offer the author a royalty. My small part in this was to track down the identity of Bellairs' agent, so that Tom had someone to give the money to. (In those pre-Web days, author contact information could be elusive.) My understanding is that the news of this conflagration of a sale of his apparently forgotten book convinced Bellairs' publishers that there was still a market for it, and at least contributed to the paperback sale, though I don't know anything more about the details than that.
This is far too personal and fragmentary a comment to be worth a letter to the magazine, so I put it in this personal and fragmentary forum instead.