Monday, September 30, 2013

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

First concert of the year.

The title the editors put on it is more enthusiastic than I intended to be. I was really looking forward to Lt. Kijé, which, despite its supposed warhorse status, rarely gets played. That was a real disappointment.

But I didn't intend to be unenthusiastic. What I was getting at in my praise of the orchestra's playing, but may not have expressed clearly - this review was written tucked into odd bits of time yesterday in between things like trips to San Francisco - was that they were securely in tune. Ensemble - playing together, and at the right moment - sometimes failed, but intonation did not. They're usually pretty good at that, but sometimes they bomb. None of that here.

Noting that there was no opening gala was not just to differentiate them from the San Francisco Symphony, but another delayed dig at the SJ Mercury reviewer several years ago who complained about their not having one. I'm happier without it.


Someone else will have to tell me if this is a normal sight.

Never mind why I was there, but yesterday afternoon I was walking down Maiden Lane in San Francisco, an alleyway famous for being lined with high-end clothing stores, most of which were closed on a Sunday. I don't get to that part of the City very often.

As I reached the end of the block, I could see, and hear, across Grant Avenue, a woman standing in the middle of the street at the start of the next block of Maiden Lane, not where I'd expect to see a busker. She was wearing a red-and-white stage dress, and she was singing something that I'd never heard a busker perform, an opera aria. It was Puccini's "O mio babbino caro." She may have been accompanied by a boombox, but if so it was inaudible across the street, whereas she was not. I stopped to listen. After going through it what seemed like 3 or 4 times (it's a short aria), she stopped. Applause from across the street.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

historical correction

I'm beginning to see this article defending Neville Chamberlain's capitulation at Munich cited with admiration as a audacious and compelling new interpretation.

It's neither compelling nor new, so let's have done with it. It is, simply, a restatement of what has long been known to historians as the "low case" for Munich, which is, "well, at least it bought Britain time to be more prepared for the war when it came."

The basic problem with this interpretation is that that's not what Chamberlain thought he was doing. When he came back to London waving his meaningless signed agreement with Hitler, he said he believed it was "peace for our time" and that's what he meant. Given the stakes at hand of peace or war, it would have been not just cynicism, but the criminal height of political irresponsibility, for him to have declared "peace for our time" if he was secretly thinking, "it will buy us a year to get readier for the inevitable war" and to have sacrificed Czechoslovakia, the only real democracy remaining in central or eastern Europe, on the altar of such a cold realpolitik. No: Chamberlain was a fool but not a criminal. He was sincere.

True that Britain was indeed better-prepared in September 1939 than September 1938, but not because of Chamberlain's calculations, and much of that preparation came after the invasion of Prague in the intervening March showed him how much he'd been fooled. And who was responsible for the earlier poor preparation? Well, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer - in charge of determining how much money the entire government raised and spent - and then Prime Minister for the entire previous seven years? Neville Chamberlain.

British military rearmament had been going on since 1932, but in a desultory, half-hopeless manner best illustrated by this warning given that year by Stanley Baldwin, Chamberlain's mentor and predecessor as Prime Minister: "I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through." In the event, it turned out that air defense was the turning point in winning the war, and that was done through a very late ramping up of defensive aircraft production. You can't be prepared if you take Baldwin's mournful view of military defense, and sharing it was the reason Chamberlain was so desperate for a peace agreement.

Baumann notes that Germany was also much better prepared in 1939 than 1938, and tries to cut off the question of Germany's and Britain's relative preparation - it's been argued by others that a 1938 war could have been more easily won than the 1939 one was - by claiming that the British military thought it wasn't ready in 1938 but would be in 1939. I haven't come across that combination of views in all my extensive reading on the subject, and it certainly didn't influence Chamberlain's thinking.

The "low case" for Munich, the one presented here, really only works as an "every cloud has a silver lining" backup to the failure of Chamberlain's "high case" (the argument that he really had brought peace). You can say, "Well, Munich was a total disaster, but look at the bright side: it gave us another year to get prepared." That's pretty pathetic, and not a moral argument at all.

The reason that appeasement was wrong in Munich was not that you should never appease anyone's legitimate grievances, but because Hitler was unappeasable. After having already broken public promises, not to mention the Treaty of Versailles, by occupying the Rhineland and annexing Austria, he suddenly announced that the oppression of the Sudeten Germans by the Czechs (which was at least 90% invented, and which, even if it did exist, he had previously ignored) was so outrageous that it must stop instantly and that the only solution was for Germany to annex the lot, which also happened to include all of Czechoslovakia's border defense and most of its heavy industry, and to do it right now.

Hitler acted this way as a deliberate ploy to stun everyone else into acquiescence, where a more reasonable complaint would have brought more reasonable consideration. His other tactic, which he also is on record as having specifically recommended to the Sudetens for their talks with the Czechs, was, once the other party has agreed to your extreme demands, to suddenly declare that that's no longer acceptable and up the demands. You can't negotiate with someone like that. You can't even say, "Tell us what you want and we'll give it to you," because they won't stick with it.

Chamberlain agreed to all of Hitler's demands of the moment, sacrificing Czechoslovakia's integrity without even consulting his supposed partner in the negotiations, the French prime minister (let alone the Czechs themselves, who didn't even have a seat at the conference), and in return received only a promise that this man who had already broken so many promises wouldn't ask for anything else. Hitler kept that promise for less than six months.

So let's apply this to the present-day claim by Republicans that to allow Obamacare would be like capitulating at Munich. When Obama began his negotiations by offering what Republicans had long said they wanted, a private-insurance-based health care system like the one they offered in response to Hillarycare in 1994 and actually enacted in Massachusetts, and then cut away provision after provision to woo Republican support which he never got, and once it was enacted without Republican votes, the Republicans started spouting Hitleresque lies as to its provisions, and then they demand more and more concessions, continually upping the ante, in order to prevent its implementation after it's been passed, even though they don't control all of Congress, let alone the Presidency, and then compare Obama and the Democrats to Hitler for not being reasonable, I think I know which side actually is the brazen Hitler and which the cringing Chamberlain in this metaphor.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

two museums

Today was Smithsonian Museum Day (and it probably still is, if you want to bestir yourself and go somewhere). So we collected our free ticket and went downtown to the San Jose Museum of Art. The current exhibits were worth the ticket price.

I liked best the video installation of a long series of shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, mostly from sea level and mostly in the fog. Very restful, and accompanied by recorded ambient music that sounded like a collaboration between Stephen Scott and Ingram Marshall, but wasn't.

The strangest exhibit was an entire hall taken up with thousands of photographs of roti, Indian round flatbread, cut into shapes representing the phases of the moon, grouped in frames by months. It looked like this. The artist, who is from India - thus, I guess, the roti - decided in this way to represent the span of his late father's life. What (I thought) a gigantic waste of time. But, it turned out, not the waste of the opportunity to give an astronomy lesson. "There's 22,000 moons," said a handy docent to me, brightly. "You mean individual days, right?" I said. "Not 'moons' as in lunar cycles," pointing to two consecutive full moons on the wall, "because there wouldn't be that many." She looked doubtful. "Well, the father lived 62 years," as if that were the number of lunar cycles. "But a year is a solar cycle, not a lunar cycle," I said, and suddenly I was off into a lesson in calendrical astronomy, with lots of hand gestures, about lunar phases and tidal lock and answering her questions whether everybody on Earth can see the Moon at the same time (no) and whether the moon shows the same face and phase at one time to everyone who can see it (yes) and she was just fascinated that I knew all this stuff and I was thinking it would be good for a docent at a display of moon phase photographs to know it too, and then she asked how old I was when I learned all this. I said maybe eight. "And you still remember it? I sure didn't go to a good school." But I said I didn't learn this at school. I learned it from reading books by Isaac Asimov.

One museum I've wanted to get to for a long time that wasn't on the Smithsonian list was the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco. So I bit the bullet and went there on Thursday before a concert. Let me tell you, this is some detailed museum, at a level I thought they didn't make any more in these dumbed-down days. Its subject is the life of Walt, and walking through it is like reading a richly-illustrated pictorial biography, with audio and video supplements. Even without taking everything in, I was there for over three hours.

Though the museum reminds you that it's a project of the Disney family and has nothing to do with the company, it has a lot of stuff that could only have come from the company or with its permission: original drawings by many staff artists, video clips, one of the original multiplane cameras, a huge - maybe 15 feet across - scale model of Disneyland, as far as I could tell as it was a few years after Walt's death. The weight of the company becomes particularly apparent when you get to the post-WW2 period, when Walt ceased being merely a successful entertainment executive and became a media mogul. Though he still inspired and oversaw everything, with a few exceptions the company products ceased being his personal projects in the way the early cartoons had been, and his life split into two parts: the company, and the private hobbies (he collected miniatures and ran a large toy-sized train, big enough to sit on, through his front yard) and vacations he took to get a break from the office.

There's some things the museum doesn't tell you, like when was the last time Walt picked up a brush and animated something himself. My guess from the evidence is, sometime not long before 1930. But it does tell a lot. You can hear the crossness in a recording of his voice as he tells of how his brother Roy, who ran the financial side, made him show the unfinished Snow White to a banker who might lend them the money to finish it - Walt hated letting outsiders see unfinished work - and how Roy contrived not even to show up for the screening. And then, way down the exhibits, the chortle as he tells of making Mary Poppins, 25 years later, with greater financial ease than any of their earlier big pictures, "and Roy didn't even make me show it to any bankers."

It also discusses the 1941 strike. This is unusual. Most material I'd previously seen on the strike takes the viewpoint of "Strikers: Good. Management: Bad." while previous Disney hagiographies have ignored its existence. But this shows both the anti-Disney view, including discussing the firing of Art Babbitt and showing some of the angry cartoons the strikers drew, and Walt's view, which he presented in a HUAC hearing a few years later. Basically Walt opposed unionization because he felt the union had been taken over by the Commies. The only really chilling item in the whole museum was at the end in someone's obituary for Walt, mentioning casually that he supported Republicans like George Murphy and Ronald Reagan because he believed the Democrats had been co-opted by the Communists.

But, though it's possible to read between the lines here and there, the tale is mostly celebratory and sympathetic. To read the museum's account, the 1920s in Disney's career consisted of Walt and Roy repeatedly dreaming up things that were good and real and true, and then evil bankers and distributors and middlemen would steal away their money, their ideas, their cartoon characters, and their animators. On the personal side, there are a lot of home movies from this period, but they're interesting because they're of this period. Disney was a pioneering moviemaker; he had film cameras at his disposal. (Many of his 1920s movies were mixed animation/live action.) Very few other people were taking home movies as early as he was; even fewer were taking color ones as early as he was.

Fascinating place; I'd recommend it.

Friday, September 27, 2013

more tv premieres

Two shows that frequently feature two characters talking over each other. Is that a thing now? Thank ghu for close-captioned subtitles, or else I wouldn't be able to make most of them out.

Agents of SHIELD. I don't follow the Marvel-verse, so I felt completely at sea for at least half of this. I only watched it because it had Joss Whedon's name on it. I was expecting clever, but what we got was: not clever enough. Clark Gregg was what he was as Leonato, the only other role I've seen him in: the straight man.
Speaking of casting, Skye would have been a perfect role for Eliza Dushku. She would have been more grounded, less the flaky airhead. That she didn't get to play this, but was saddled with Dollhouse's Echo, a role entirely ill-suited for her, is a shame.
Verdict: Maybe.

The Crazy Ones. You know, ever since I saw the first season of Mad Men, which is just about the only part of Mad Men I did see, I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if there were a TV show that actually was about an advertising agency?" (Since Mad Men ludicrously hardly even tried.) Well, now we have one.
Starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar: it's like one of those weird food combinations that actually works. SMG gets to be the wet blanket without sounding like she's whining about it, which she did too much of on Ringer.
I didn't get all of this one either, but at least B. was there to tell me who Kelly Clarkson is.
Verdict: Sure, I'll keep trying this show.

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Thursday's concert was organized like an old-fashioned instrumentalist recital. The biggest piece (in this case Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, with Emanuel Ax) was in the first half, along with a semi-hefty opener (Mahler's Blumine, a movement he deleted from his First Symphony, and which should have stayed forgotten). The second half was a series of six short pieces by different composers, which MTT insisted on playing together as a suite, without breaks for applause between them.

It wasn't exactly a collection of bonbons or encores. Five of the six were wistful, mostly quiet. They were all played exquisitely well, and most of them expressed the quiddity of their composers with profundity. Our Town was intensely Coplandesque, Valse triste graciously Sibelian, and On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (a piece not played here since Beecham did it 60 years ago) richly Delian. The only problem was that it was a little jarring turning from the quiddity of one composer directly to that of another.

Interesting concert. Ran long, despite the nominal 36-minute span of the six-piece suite.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Worse than the East Lansing Mythcon bathrooms. Another trend to deplore, from people who apparently wish us to believe they think it's actually a good idea and not a form of psychological torture.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Say! I like green eggs and ham!

Ted Cruz has been getting a lot of amused chuckles for reading Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham on CNN as a bedtime story for his children in the course of conducting his filibuster on Obamacare. (It's not the strangest thing that has been read during a Senate filibuster. Al D'Amato read the phone book. Huey Long read his favorite recipe for potlikker and encouraged his audience to clip it out of the Congressional Record the next day.)

It's what Cruz said afterwards that gets me.
"'Green Eggs and Ham' has some applicability, as curious as it may sound, to the Obamcare debate," Cruz said after he finished, to a few audible chuckles from the Senate gallery.

Americans "did not like green eggs and ham, and they did not like Obamacare either," he added. "They did not like Obamacare in a box, with a fox, in a house, with a mouse."
This proves that Princeton and Harvard do not equip the student with reading comprehension, if that student is a big enough jerk. The moral of Green Eggs and Ham is 'How do you know you don't like it if you haven't even tried it?'
You do not like them.
So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may, I say.
Isn't that the Republicans' actual fear, that once the public tries Obamacare, they'll like it, and then refuse to give it up?

One other point. Though not totally deaf to the nuance of the story, Cruz's reading is rather dull, bland, and hurried, not helped by the fact that, at the moment, he had virtually no live audience and that not very responsive.

You want to hear a good reading of excerpts from Green Eggs and Ham?* Friends, from a memorial broadcast after Dr. Seuss's death, here is the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

*Pages 40-41, 46-59, 62. What?

Monday, September 23, 2013

breaking late

It's only quite recently that we've begun hearing comments, all of them highly favorable, about a TV show called Breaking Bad, even though it's been on the air since 2008. I had not come across references to it before, though I knew its lead actor, Bryan Cranston, from a couple of movies.

So we borrowed the DVDs of the first season and watched them. The shows that B. was watching new at the time this one first appeared, like Pushing Daisies and Eli Stone, which I tagged along with for a few episodes, were surreal in a hallucinatory way, which I found disagreeable. I liked that they were strange, but not that they didn't feel grounded in anything.

The first episode of Breaking Bad begins with a scene as bizarre and surreal as anything I've seen on television. A pair of men's trousers floats through the quiet desert air, then lands on a dirt road where it's instantly run over by an RV proceeding at breakneck speed, driven by a man wearing nothing but his undershorts and a respirator. The RV runs off the road and gets stuck in a ditch, the man stumbles out and hears sirens approaching, and the scene keeps getting weirder for a couple minutes until it cuts off at a point of high tension.

Then the show does something I really wasn't expecting. It goes back in time and slowly, methodically, and clearly explains the background to everything weird you've just seen, including the airborne trousers. Even more amazingly, the explanation a) not only makes sense, but b) doesn't undercut or special-plead anything away.

In other words, it properly grounds the weirdness. However, then it ceases being weird. This is a grim drama, with distant humorous overtones, but without being at all actually funny, about a man who steps deliberately into deep trouble. So far it's like Fargo, except that Fargo's protagonist is a hopelessly incompetent nebbish. Except for those overtones, Breaking Bad is more like A Simple Plan, the movie in which Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are hunters who find a crashed small plane with a huge load of money in the snow. As with Plan, in this story the protagonist has control over his situation and some wits at his disposal, but not complete control, or complete knowledge, and it's in that gap that the complications arise.

This is where my limitations on this show also arise. I want to see a story like this as a movie, I want the movie to end, and I want to go away and shudder. I don't want a continuing series. Watching the seven episodes as if they were a single 5 1/2 hour movie - it ends on a tension point but not a cliffhanger - I liked that the show kept chugging along at speed and, unlike its RV, never ran into a ditch, a problem that killed Mad Men for me before the end of the first season; I liked that it had more space to explore various aspects of its plot than movies give, such as how to dispose of a dead body, a matter treated with a fine mixture of grue and a light touch; but it also had digressions. One whole episode, the one in which Jesse visits his parents, was essentially useless and could have been thrown away.

What's the problem? you might ask. Don't I like the stand-alone, non-arc episodes of Buffy? Yes, but there's two major differences. One is that Buffy, at least in its earlier seasons, was not so much about propelling the arc plot along that it felt odd to leave it be for a while. Not true in this intensely plot-oriented show. The other is that I liked the Buffy characters; I enjoyed spending time in their company. I don't like these characters, especially Jesse, whom I find basically annoying. To be fair, I don't think they're intended to be likable. But that does mean I want to see the movie and then go home, not to live in it.

Which is why, even though I was highly impressed by season 1 and enjoyed it, I don't think I'll be watching any more of Breaking Bad.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

legs together, knees apart

This is not the first article I've seen on an obsession that's recently hit the British press: men who sit in public spaces with their legs splayed far apart, taking up their neighbors' room.

Most of the discussion I've seen of this matter is far more dogmatic than the present article in insisting that it's a dominance issue, that the men do it deliberately to be aggressive and rude.

I was going to say that I'm sure that's not necessarily the case, because one of my brothers, the one who's now deceased, used to sit like that, and he was far from being a dominant or aggressive individual. He would sit with his legs splayed apart in the back seat of the car, with two of the others of us, who did not sit like that, trying to squeeze into the remaining space.

Because he was my brother, and my younger brother at that, I could address the matter directly in a way that London Tube passengers would be reluctant to do. I would reach over and grab his two knees, and pull them together. The other thing we would do was mock him. My other brother and I would splay our own legs apart, making electrical humming sounds as we did it, on the theory that some kind of high-voltage magnetic oppositional force was responsible for the reluctance of his knees to mutually associate.

Of course this annoyed my brother, as it was intended to do, but it didn't change the way he sat. He didn't spin any elaborate theories as to why it was necessary for men to sit like that. He was not one for elaborate theories about anything - I have another brother who specializes in that - and it wouldn't impress other males who didn't sit that way. All he would say was that this was how he most comfortably sat, so I'd guess he'd adhere to the male-pelvis theory, except that it was just his pelvis and not anyone else's.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cold War

The Cold War was so named because the guns were cold, i.e. not firing and therefore not hot to the touch. Yes, there were proxy wars between client states in which both superpowers were deeply involved, but they never took direct military action against one another, a most unusual situation historically and one deserving this distinctive name.

Therefore, please do not use the term as if it meant a chill in international diplomacy, talking about the war being especially cold when diplomatic relations were particularly frosty, or about it "warming up" or "thawing" on the arrival of détente. That's not what it means. Thank you.

Friday, September 20, 2013

just a preview

One of my suggestions when I signed up to write on classical music for the San Mateo Daily Journal was that I do them an annual preview survey of events scheduled for their home base, which is San Mateo County. This means cheekily omitting the brighter stars of San Francisco and Palo Alto/Stanford and just highlighting what's going on in between. (Actually, the Journal circulates in Palo Alto but not in the far north of SM County, but I'm ignoring that.) That makes a small enough coverage - only seven ensembles or presenters - that I can fit it all in in the assigned space. The concert season is just about to ramp up, so here it is. My reviewing selections for the Journal for the upcoming year will be taken from these, I guess, so I'd best start thinking about which ones I want to hear and write about.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

book review

The Port Chicago Mutiny by Robert L. Allen (1989)

On the evening of July 17, 1944, at a naval munitions station on the Sacramento River called Port Chicago, 200 black US Navy enlisted men - whites didn't have to do this sort of work in the segregated Navy - were loading bombs and other ammunition onto transport ships for the Pacific War. They were entirely untrained, though some of them had been doing it for a couple of years by then, and they were under pressure to work fast. They were told the munitions had no detonators installed and couldn't explode, but something went wrong. Nobody knows what, because in the ensuing explosion all 200 of them, plus their supervising (white) officers, the entire crews of two docked ships, and anybody else around were all killed. The ships disintegrated; so did the dock.

Three weeks later, the day shift, all of whom were awoken in their barracks and some of whom were injured by the explosion, were taking their morning march when for the first time since then they were ordered to march left, the direction of the ships - and they just stopped and wouldn't move. Nothing had been done to address the safety and training issues, and they just weren't going.

Were they civilian stevedores, this would have been a wildcat strike. Since this was the Navy during wartime, they were charged with mutiny, tried, and convicted. This book rescued their story from oblivion, and proposed that, instead of treacherous cowards, they were honorable men who were sick of racial discrimination and unsafe, impossible working conditions, who were willing to face death from enemy bullets but not this.

I already knew this story in outline, but among the details I learned from this book were:

1) The mutiny didn't take place at Port Chicago. It took place at Mare Island. The destroyed dock was the only one Port Chicago had, so the sailors were transferred to another nearby naval base.

2) The prosecutor at the trial was a naval officer named Coakley. This is the same J. Frank Coakley who, two decades later as Alameda County D.A., was to earn a little infamy for his fierce prosecutions of student protesters and Black Panthers, and for denouncing them as traitors and Communists.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sleepy Hollow

So I watched the premiere episode of this new supernatural-horror TV series. It struck me as a good premise and reasonably good execution for the first half of a low-budget two-hour movie, but the way the plot was stretched and pushed to make it the starting point for a continuing series threatened to run it in the direction of the ground in very short order.

Two things in particular:

1) The way Ichabod's dead wife shows up in his dreams to deliver expository lumps. I have the sinking feeling this is going to be a regular feature.

2) At the end, Ichabod tells Abbie that there's some sort of Biblical prophecy declaring that they're going to fight Evil as partners for seven years, which just happens to be the typical length of run for a successful TV series.

There are some other things I didn't quite understand:

3) I liked the idea that the Headless Horseman is on a quest for his head, but if it's been successfully hidden for 250 years, why upon learning its hiding place do the heroes a) blab the secret to everyone in sight, b) rush to dig it up without any particular new and better hiding place in mind, with c) the Horseman out looking for them?

4) If the Horseman will be so invincible and doom-bringing if he gets his head back, then how was Ichabod able to decapitate him so easily in the first place, and why hadn't the doom arrived then first? (Note that Tolkien specifically addresses and answers the comparable question: If the reason it's so vital to keep the Ring from Sauron is because he'll be so powerful with it back, then how was it ever taken away from him in the first place?)

5) If Ichabod and the Horseman have both been in a stasis box for the last 250 years, why have they returned now (maybe that'll be learned later), and what's with the supernatural events occurring during the interim?

We are told that there are two covens, of the good witches and the bad witches. Ichabod's wife was one of the good witches. Well, that's sure fortunate, isn't it?

Ichabod's arrival in the 21st century is one of the most matter-of-fact forward-leap time-travel scenes I've seen. He seems very fast at assimilating, and Abbie is very quick at accepting him. But what can one expect of a former history professor at Merton College, Oxford (let's let that solecism slip), who was drafted (!) to fight against the colonists and who then changed sides, a course of action that didn't endear Benedict Arnold to many when he did it in the opposite direction. I was immediately thrown off by his use of the word "triage", which I thought anachronistic and indeed it is: though the word did exist in the 18C, it meant sorting for quality (as wool or coffee beans); its use in field medicine, as here, dates from 1930, according to the OED. Let's just skip over the part a moment later where he says that his wife was a military nurse.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


The first time I visited The Other Change of Hobbit was before the bookstore even opened in May of 1977.

Today was probably the last time. Except that I didn't even get in the door.

It was my first chance to do so since their latest move, which, I'd known, was to quarters rented from a print shop in El Cerrito. Not, I gathered, a separate suite in an office building, but a back room of some sort in the shop.

I found the building, I saw the bookstore's sign in one window. I went to the one door, down by the print shop end, where I found the sign on the door. Beware of the dog. Presumably the print shop's dog, as the Other has cats.

When, with great trepidation, I opened the door, I found the dog to match the sign. Not a calm or friendly dog, which I could deal with, but a watchdog, determined to protect its ground from such dangerous beings as customers.

I shut the door and hastily retreated. Exactly how hostile the dog was, I didn't care to stay and find out. You want me to beware of the dog? Fine, I'll beware of the dog. I will patronize other establishments and not darken doors bearing such signs.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


My congregation's Library Committee, of which I'm a member, was called up (aliyah in Hebrew, same word as for immigrating to Israel) to recite the blessings over reading the Torah at yesterday's Yom Kippur services. About 6 of us were there, and we didn't make too bad a hash of it.

It's not too unusual for the committee to have this honor, as it's held to be, at High Holy Days, but I thought non-Jewish readers might appreciate a glimpse into this little ritual.

Reading from the Torah is the centerpoint of Jewish services, and if we have a physical object of veneration, it's the Torah scroll, a huge roll of parchment on two rollers, painstakingly hand-calligraphed with the Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses, and kept in an embellished cloth cover with various metal decorations. Wealthy congregations, like ours, may have 3 or 4 of them, and it's a great honor to have one that was rescued from a Polish or Czech synagogue destroyed in the Holocaust. We have blessings and ceremonials for opening the ark, the cabinet at the back of the bima in which it's stored; more blessings for removing the scroll, taking off the coverings, unrolling it far enough so that a couple columns of text are visible, holding it up so everyone can see, and setting it down on the reading table; another blessing before actually reading it; and more blessings for doing all this in reverse afterwards. There's an elaborate liturgical calendar by which, in theory, the whole Torah is read aloud over the course of each year (in my experience, Reform congregations just do excerpts); and a whole holiday, Simchat Torah, to celebrate the annual arrival at the end of the scroll and the pressing of the rewind button.

The Bar Mitzvah (f. Bat Mitzvah) is supposed to demonstrate that the celebrant is mature enough to participate as an adult in the congregation, so it includes a Torah reading. In my day, this meant reading aloud, but not chanting, a chunk from that week's Torah portion (chosen by my tutor: I wanted to read a tribal census list, but she said that was too boring). I knew the Hebrew alphabet, but my grasp on the language was weak at best, so I learned my portion by rote from a chumash (a codex of the Torah text, with vowel points added, plus portion markings and other commentary in English) and on the day used the Torah scroll, which you follow with a metal pointer - no greasy fingers! - as a crib, rather than really reading from it. I memorized the Hebrew texts, and the liturgical melodies, for the pre- and post-reading blessings, and chanted those. And I read a portion of the haftarah, a section from the Prophets geared to that week's Torah reading, in English, and chanted the Hebrew blessings for before and after that, which are even more elaborate than the Torah ones. Then I read a sermon of my own composition, which was no more than 400 words long and makes me wince today; I am so glad this was before the Internet.

But Reform congregations have turned more traditional in their practices, and our Torah reading customs have changed. Nowadays at our congregation the readers chant both the Torah and Haftarah in Hebrew, using a cantillation practice I've heard many times but know nothing about, and since they're busy dealing with that, somebody else chants the blessings. At High Holy Days, and other more elaborate services, the portion is broken into short parts, so there can be multiple readers and multiple repetitions of the blessings.

So at the start of the reading, we gather at the side front of the large college auditorium which we rent for High Holy Days because our own synagogue isn't big enough when everybody attends, then climb the little back stairs to the side of the stage and wait for our turn to be called. Then we gather around the reader and the Torah. There's a laminated crib sheet with the blessings, but I read from my prayer book, and in any case I still remember them fairly well. The blessings are basically just an elaborate way of saying, "Praise God, who gave us the Torah." If you're curious, here's our written and audio cribs. After the reading, we shake hands with the chief rabbi and the congregation president and file off stage.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Holy Grail: alternative trailers

The web has been passing around what calls itself a "modern trailer" for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Actually, depicting it as a serious action movie has been done before, and done better. This one came, I think, from a fad a few years back for misleading trailers: Mary Poppins as a horror movie, or The Ten Commandments as a teen comedy, or whatever. Anyway, this one of Holy Grail as an action movie is less technically accomplished than the "modern trailer", but I think it's far superior in its choice and juxtaposition of clips, and more effective as an example of the trailer-making art.

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

First concert of the season. The economy must really be improving, despite the stale job figures: traffic and parking were more congested than on any ordinary evening in the last five years or more. I may have to rethink some of my rules of thumb for managing my evenings in the City.

MTT conducted. First work, a short piece called Lineage by a 28-year-old Canadian grad student named Zosha di Castri, not a name to fade into the background. Hushed and ghostly orchestration, full of whooshes, twitters, and whirs, sounding rather like what I'd imagine Debussy would be writing if this were 2013 and not 1890. Occasional reminders of memorable moments from modern masterworks: the hovering ostinato of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony, an angular motif from Britten's Peter Grimes. Interesting piece (he said, chewing slowly).

Next, a dramatic shift into the first and - astonishingly, until you've heard the others - least boring of Tchaikovsky's piano concertos. Muscular, darting performance by the orchestra, making it sound more like Rachmaninoff. Yefim Bronfman contributed his own irregularly idiosyncratic figures to the whole.

Finally, Prokofiev's Third Symphony, a harsh and dissonant modernist product of his sojourn in the West. This is one of the few works of that kind that I really like. Also very fast, more a collection of passing colors and incidents than a welded whole. Fine work from the percussion, an especially notable achievement as the longtime chiefs of both the timpani and the batterie left after last season.

I took an excessively roundabout journey home so that I could try out the new Bay Bridge span for the first time. Very impressive aesthetic experience; more on this after I've had the chance to take it in the other direction and/or during the daytime.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Google, one for two

In mysteries solved.

1. News article recently about a man whose smartphone was stolen along with his other valuables from his car, so he called the cops and used a "find my phone" app to make the thing ring as the perp walked right past the cops. What was not clear to me was what he used the app on. His phone was stolen! Did he just happen to have the app on some other device that wasn't stolen? Did he borrow a device from the cops, or from J. Random Stranger, and did the app already have to be on it? I asked that question in comments, and was told I was a fogey who should just Google it. So I did, and it didn't answer the question. From the descriptions of these apps, it sounds like you put them on the device that might be stolen. But then how do you access the app when you actually need it?

2. On the other hand, I successfully Googled a non-textual pop culture query. The only TV I watch these days is Daily Show clips on the web, so the only commercials I see are the ones preceding them. This means I get some ad-based jokes, but one of the current ads was itself a mystery. It's a Pepsi commercial in which a woman walks into a dance rehearsal hall, but in all the reflections she sees of herself in the mirrors, she's wearing different clothes. She dances with the reflections a bit, and then all the glass explodes. I got the feeling this was a reference to something I didn't get, but I couldn't figure out what. To my surprise, Googling "pepsi commercial dancer" Explained All, including who the woman was, and what was with the clothes. (Yes, I've heard of Beyoncé, but obviously I wouldn't recognize her if she passed me on the street. I don't know any of her songs, and all I know of her offhand is, "Isn't she the one who sang the national anthem at the last inauguration?")

Monday, September 9, 2013

reference books

People talk about what research needs Wikipedia is actually good for. I find it most useful for the books cited on its pages, often treatises I hadn't known on subjects that interest me.

Some are better than others, though. I've been playing around with U.S. historical population statistics, and I've found a number of tables on Wikipedia city entries that cite Population History of Western U.S. Cities and Towns, 1850-1990 by Riley Moffat as a source. Sounds like a book for me, so I ordered it from the library on ILL.

It's terrible. Compiled as a hobby by a reference librarian over 30 years of work, it takes its data from census reports and from estimates in the Rand McNally Commercial Atlas, without any indication of which data comes from which source. It's full of typos in the place names, and probably in the data, too. What really gets me is that Moffat provides no information on the cities. They're just listed alphabetically by name under each state, with no indication of where they are, except that if there's two by the same name, he'll give the counties. He should have given at least county for all of them (this info would have been easily available in his source material), because a lot of these places are long-gone and/or very obscure. He makes a faint effort at combining entries when a town changed its name, but misses far more. What would you think of a town called Rust, which had a population of 375 in 1910, but thereafter disappeared? You won't learn here that in 1916 it changed its unpromising name to El Cerrito, under which it still flourishes today. Nor does he have anything to say about annexations or mergers, further undercutting the book's ostensible purpose, to enable readers to trace a place's population over time. I'm dismayed that this thing ever got published.

In trying to figure out where these places were, I wrestled on a library reference shelf with a huge volume titled California's Geographic Names by David L. Durham, which I also found on Wikipedia. This is a massive gazetteer of California place names, awesomely detailed, and, unlike Moffat, impeccably researched and thoroughly documented. Still, it has its weaknesses. Compiled by a geologist as a hobby over 30 years, it's great on topography, and thorough on such matters as whether a town had a post office, and when (often a surprisingly ephemeral distinction). But Durham is absolutely uninterested in governmental information or the needs of road map, instead of topographic map, users. He usually manages to say when a still-extant town was incorporated, but he says nothing of defunct incorporations or of annexations. He has an annoying habit of identifying the locations of non-municipality locales by listing the distance from the civic center of the nearest town, where the names of the streets at the main intersections would have been more useful. Nor is the nearest town necessarily the one that annexed the locale, if any did at all. Bayshore, for instance, the locale where the Cow Palace is (that's not mentioned either), is described as being N far north of SSF, and no mention is made that it's actually part of Daly City.

All this work, and they could have done a better job. Not a rare situation.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

l'shanah toast

A few days ago, I had Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner with my mother at the dining facility of her residential community, prior to services. A special accompaniment to this dinner was a vast circular challah, far more bread than we could eat. I took the rest of it home with a plan. This morning, relaxed Sunday day, I used the now slightly-aged challah to make French toast for B. and myself. I had eggs, I had milk, I had recipes with vastly differing ideas of the proportions thereof and of what, if anything, should be added to it. What I had forgotten to get was maple syrup. I'm getting better at remembering that, for instance, if we're having quesadillas or refritos I should get sour cream, but breakfast cooking being more unusual for me, this slipped my mind. So, rush out and return with bottle, successfully cook toast.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

bacon postmortem

I'd bought my ticket to the Bacon Festival online, so now I get a survey in the e-mail. A pretty well-designed survey, it asks relevant questions and doesn't require that you answer Question 1 before proceeding to Question 2. The cover letter explains that it knows some attendees were unhappy because of long lines (yes, I saw those) and that the vendors ran out of bacon (oh, really? that must have happened after I left, but I left at 1:30 and the thing was supposed to run until something like 10 pm). As I came early and got much of my food before the lines got long, those weren't my own particular complaints, but I gave them a few words on 1) the lousy food; 2) the awful DYNNE; 3) the broiling pavement.

I didn't mention in my post one item that was meant to annoy but only amused: the presence of a small covey of anti-meat protesters outside the entrance to the parking lot. They carried signs reading things like "Why do we love dogs but eat pigs?" It's a good question, and it may have been answered by another sign, this one on the facility entrance itself: "No dogs allowed." Maybe they're afraid we might eat them.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Frederik Pohl, 1919-2013

Farewell to the truly venerable Fred Pohl, the most-often misspelled author in science fiction, and, I believe, the very last notable surviving writer of the great blossoming of the field from the 1940s. But where his barely-out-of-(if that)-their-teens contemporaries, like Isaac Asimov and Cyril Kornbluth (both close friends of Pohl's, though not, alas, of each other), early made their names as prodigal writers, Pohl, though he did write stories at this time, became notable instead as a prodigal editor and, a little later, as a prodigal literary agent.* It wasn't until the 1950s, as his agency was running out of gas, that he really got going as an author, producing corrosive social satire that prompted Kingsley Amis in 1960 to call him "the most consistently able" writer in SF, a tag that has stuck with him to this very day.

What made Pohl especially remarkable among an increasing number of consistently able writers was two things: first, that he did much of his great writing while continuing to work as an editor, of anthologies, magazines, and books. During a period of over 20 years as an editor of top-ranked SF venues (his opening stint in the early 40s was for bargain-basement magazines), he published, and I'm just picking these examples from a plethora for chronological scope, Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God", Larry Niven's first story, and Delany's Dhalgren, which would be enough.

Second, the later 1970s and 1980s, about the time that some of his contemporaries were succumbing to self-indulgent gaseousness, is the time that Pohl really got going as an author, with novels like Man Plus and Gateway and Jem, which had interesting characters as well as plots, and equally powerful short stories, a form some successful novelists tend to drop. My most vivid Pohl encounter was his reading at the L.A. Worldcon in 1984 of a story he'd just written, titled "Fermi and Frost". Dealing with atomic holocaust and nuclear winter - typically cheerful Pohl topics - it deeply impressed the audience. It was published in Asimov's a few months later and won the Hugo the year after that.

And he kept on writing, both fiction and commentary, right up until the end.

Much of Pohl's fiction was dark and bitter, a warning of the various hells we are making for ourselves, a subject that, as his blog entries tell us, deeply concerned him non-fictionally as well. Of his stories that I know, the most searingly upsetting, if not the most immediately socially relevant, is "We Purchased People", which could easily have been one of those grim stories that Robert Silverberg was writing in the 60s at the behest of his editor, Frederik Pohl. If there's a single most famous Pohl story, though, it's the actually somewhat lighter, quite short, and rather chatty "Day Million". What makes this story unusual is not that it was published in a 60s men's magazine - a common outlet for literary SF at the time - but that it was written in a demotic language specifically addressed at the typical reader of such a magazine, and all to make a point that reader might not otherwise have consciously considered, which may be expressed simply as, "The future will be very different."

I like the conclusion of Jo Walton's memorial post, which gives an essentially science-fictional perspective on Pohl's death: "He should have lived forever. He'd have enjoyed that."

*BLB points out that the instances of "prodigal" here should be "prodigy of an"/"prodigies of" or something awkward like that. She's absolutely right, but there needs to be an adjectival form of "prodigy" and if it's not to be "prodigal", what is it? It's not like we don't have other words that mean two different things.

Monday, September 2, 2013


Beer has never appealed to me, whether the lowest swill or the finest imported brew. The problem with it is that it tastes like beer. Every decade or so I visit a fine brewpub and try one of their offerings, so exquisitely and tenderly described on the menu, to see if beer still tastes like beer. It always does.

When I first visited England, I was cajoled into trying cider, the apple-based drink with the same alcoholic content as beer, that's so common there (and quite different from anything by that name to be found over here, unless imported from there). I found I liked it, and that's been my sole alcoholic drink of choice ever since. Wine choices are more complicated than I can understand, and anything with hard liquor, whether neat or mixed, is right out as far as my tastes go, though I don't mind it used as flavoring in food.

The one question that nagged at me for a long time, though, was, what about ale? Another term rarely seen west of the pond, ale seemed to be considered in England something different from beer, and there were all these connoisseurs conducting a Campaign for Real Ale. I was comfortable in a strange country with my cider, though, which was always reliable, and I was rarely sure if I was in a pub that served Real Ale or not, so I never tried any.

Eventually I found an imported bottle in a liquor store near home. It reeked of authenticity, starting with the bottle itself, which was a replica of an 18th-century model, and the name, which was English Ale. The brewery was a converted medieval hall deep in the East Anglian countryside, and it used organically certified hops and barley, yadda yadda.

So I bought it, took it home, tried a few sips. It tasted like beer. I thought of throwing it away, but I have a chili recipe I occasionally make that calls for an optional half-cup of beer. So I put it in the fridge and, over the last few years, have been using it up. Yesterday I finally finished it, so perhaps I'll buy another one.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


I don't have anything to say about the Hugos. I know virtually nothing of any of the winners, and hardly much more about most of the nominees.

Three deaths over the weekend:
  1. Seamus Heaney, a poet who came to my attention with his translation of Beowulf, a work that's gotten less play in his obituaries than I'd have expected.
  2. David Frost, who ought to be honored not so much for his interviews with Nixon, which were actually a step on the crook's rehabilitation, than for the fact that, in the 1960s, he produced and hosted a tv show whose writing staff first brought together 5 of the 6 members of what would become Monty Python.
  3. James Wallace, not a celebrity but an old friend of mine from early Mythopoeic Society days, for many years now a resident of the Seattle area, with his wife Ginger; he worked as a college librarian in Everett. He'd stoutly survived a major cancer operation some years ago, but eventually it turned redux on him. I see that he was only 59, which means he must have been 20 or 21 when I met him, which surprises me as I always thought him several years older, though he was a student at UC Santa Cruz at the time. His knowledge and mature bearing gave him that effect. I was but a sheltered suburban high-school student who wasn't used to people who smoked hand-rolled cigarette stubs and said things like "Hot shit!" when excited or impressed. Still, we became friends. James, Jim, or Jamie, as he was variously known, was a loremaster of the fantasy tradition, a guide to my own understanding of Tolkien's theory, a font of raunchy song squibs, and the first of a number of Westerners I've known to take up the serious study of Japanese. Years ago I posted on LJ a list of my favorite non-classical songs, and naming "King Henry" by Steeleye Span among them, I told of "the charming memory of standing with my friends Jamie and Ginger waiting for the Mythcon cafeteria to open for lunch. It was running late, and we were hungry, so we spontaneously started singing, 'Some meat! Some meat! ya King Henry, some meat you give to me ...' and continued right on through to the end of the song. The rest of the people in line looked at us oddly." I last saw him a year-plus ago on my visit to Seattle for the most recent Potlatch; he and Ginger drove down and picked me up for one of our favorite group activities, exploring unusual dishes from a Chinese restaurant menu. He seemed still to be doing OK ...