Thursday, November 28, 2013

report of the day

Crab dip.

Relatives' something-something-something relatives from North Carolina.


Conversation about superhero movies. (How did that happen?)

Green bean casserole.

Walk around the block.

Pie. Pecan for others, apple for me.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013


It's present-gifting season, so I managed to hand off to appropriate hands some of the treasures I picked up in Portland last June.

From Powell's, I had a sturdy old copy of Things That Have Interested Me, a book collection of 1920s blog posts (really, that's what they read like) by the novelist and social commentator Arnold Bennett.

From Classical Millennium, I had the slightly misleadingly-named A White House Cantata by Leonard Bernstein, which is in fact the surviving releasable music from his infamously disastrous last musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It wasn't the music that was disastrous, although Bernstein's reaction was to withdraw the score and not allow any of it to appear during his lifetime. I hadn't realized that any of it had escaped perdition since then until I saw this CD on the shelf.

These went to hands that will most appreciate them.

In return, I got a variety of things, from a monogrammed bathrobe to a new biography of T. Woodrow Wilson by A. Scott Berg.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

from the sublime to the

or, another musical weekend

Saturday, up the hill to the Redwood Symphony's precarious little college auditorium for a rousing runthrough of The Planets and a not-so-exciting Mozart piano concerto.

Sunday, I put on my dutiful husband hat to accompany B. to a potluck lunch at her church. The food was good, and the company agreeable, but I could have done without the karaoke machine and the guy continually operating it. The repertoire consisted of what sounded like 50s and 70s pop songs, none of which I'd ever heard before,* with the sole exception of the dreadful "Y.M.C.A.", a "song" which has been examined by scientists under high-powered microscopes without giving up any trace of a tune. Fortunately nobody tried to drag me up to sing anything, because I would have had to stand there in mute incomprehension.

*This included an almost-catchy number particularly beloved of the karaokists, something called "Achy Breaky Heart." I was aware of the existence of a song by this title, but I'd never heard it before. B. tells me that it was recorded by Miley Cyrus's father. I had no idea she even had a father. If so, where has he been?

Monday, November 25, 2013

oh to be a blogger

1. Yeah, this is about how it went down, in mirror image.

2. Nevertheless, anybody who's really serious about the holiday will look at this.

3. Typos, impressed into cement.

4. So this is the "hope and change" that Obama had in mind. Tell that to the next sneerer, and watch their heads explode.

5. Ta-Nehisi Coates finds a good analogy to explain why Blacks get to use the N-word and Whites don't.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tolkien headdesk

1. News report that a bio-pic of Tolkien's life is in the works.

Of course, the chances are still high that this will never happen. I'm encouraged to think it won't by the fact that Tolkien's life, rather than "complicated and colorful," was - at least once he got back from WW1 and settled in Oxford - so domestic and uneventful (no, he wasn't a codebreaker in WW2, good grief) that his biographer struggled to find a story worth telling in it, deciding that the real action was in what was going on inside Tolkien's head. They already made a few movies of that.

2. Comics blogger finds Tolkien references in The Wizard of Id.

The news here is not The Wizard of Id, still less its writers' decision to give up on figuring out what the quotes mean. It's the blogger's statement "that all three quotes are from J.R.R. Tolkien."

No they aren't. Yes, the first one is from Chapter 2 of The Lord of the Rings. And the second one is from the last few pages of The Silmarillion. But the third one is FROM THE MOVIES.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

neglected anniversaries

As I generally keep a rule of posting only one substantive post a day, and I used yesterday's up on music written in memory of JFK, I was unable to point out that yesterday was also:

1. The 50th anniversary of the deaths of both C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. The coincidence of all three of them dying on the same day had one unfortunate consequence besides the latter two being overlooked at the time. That consequence was that, a few years later, one Lewis enthusiast had the idea of writing an imaginary conversation in which the three of them meet up in a waiting room in Limbo. The discussion consists largely of the author's Lewis figure (not much like the real Lewis, I hope) pompously and wordily lecturing the other two on the ultimate meaning of life, the universe, and everything, in a detached manner almost Kafkaesque in its lack of a sense that the participants are grappling with the idea that they've actually just turned into cockroaches died. It's a good nominee for the position of the worst book ever published about Lewis, although there's a lot of competition. (Don't miss the Freudian analysis of Narnia.)

Ironically, although the coincidence of the deaths may have overshadowed Lewis's at the time, the weight borne by JFK anniversaries has since drawn Lewis's along with it. I don't recall anybody in the Mythopoeic Society making a note of the 50th anniversary of Charles Williams' death, or any anniversary of Tolkien's death (although the Tolkien Society does like to commemorate the anniversary of Tolkien's birth), but Lewis's gets noticed. I am not aware of any Aldous Huxley societies.

2. The 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. This has been celebrated all year, but yesterday was the actual day. Benjamin Britten, when he was still very young, wrote this:

Friday, November 22, 2013

a JFK memorial concert

I was interested by the news that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, biting the bull with the teeth (or whatever the metaphor is), is playing this weekend a JFK memorial concert, and I was no less interested by the program.

Of course they're playing Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, without whose Funeral March no orchestral memorial concert for anyone would be complete. (And here's proof from the day itself.) They're also playing Sibelius's Violin Concerto, apparently for "its brooding Nordic character," a quality for which it is not at all outstanding among Sibelius's works. It's actually an ironic choice, as, the day after the assassination, the great violinist Isaac Stern abandoned a scheduled performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (in San Antonio, Texas, by the way) and played the Bach Chaconne instead.

Also on Dallas's program are a newly commissioned work by a very young composer in memory of JFK, and they're also resurrecting Darius Milhaud's Meurtre d'un grand chef d'état (Murder of a Great Chief of State). Now that interests me as a curiosity, because such specific pièces d'occasion rarely get revived. So I found it satisfying that I could dig out recordings of five JFK memorial works written by well-known composers in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Somehow these have a tang of immediacy that works written in longer retrospect lack. So here they are: two by foreign-born composers who lived in the US, one from England, and two by composers who were natural-born US citizens. Between them, they typify the conventional music styles of the 1960s. Most are not particularly ingratiating, but then, the assassination wasn't an ingratiating event.

They're all quite short, and it'll take just over half an hour if you want to listen to the lot.

1. Darius Milhaud, Meurtre d'un grand chef d'état
First out of the gate, Milhaud was a French composer who, because he was Jewish, spent the World War II years as a refugee. He came to California and began teaching at Mills College in Oakland, and spent half his time there for most of the rest of his life. He happened to be back in France, though, when Kennedy was shot. Always a fast and prolific composer (this is his Op. 405), Milhaud wrote this mournful little elegy the Monday after the shooting on commission from the Oakland symphony, which performed it one week later.

2. Igor Stravinsky, Elegy for JFK
Stravinsky commissioned a text from W.H. Auden, with whom he'd collaborated before, and set it for voice and three clarinets in his most uncompromising late style. This performance is sung by Cathy Berberian, the indispensable soprano for anything avant-garde in the 1960s.

3. Herbert Howells, Take him, Earth, for cherishing
This unaccompanied motet, setting a translation of an early Christian hymn, is probably the finest and certainly the most often performed of these immediate JFK memorial pieces. Howells was an English composer, an associate of Vaughan Williams and Holst, who specialized in choral music, usually of an elegiac quality already.

4. Roy Harris, Epilogue to Profiles in Courage: JFK
Though born in Oklahoma, Harris spent most of his life in the Los Angeles area. Mostly self-taught in music, he was one of the composers who shaped the American nationalist style in the 1930s. This orchestral elegy, of a similar mood as Milhaud's but in a distinct musical dialect, is typically rugged Harris stuff. It's in three sections: dramatic, anguished, and more quietly mournful.

5. Roger Sessions, Piano Sonata No. 3, "Kennedy"
The epitome of a 20th century American academic composer, Sessions spent most of his life teaching at Princeton. This is typically bristlingly formidable music from him, but I have to admit it grew on me.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

and who shot him?

It may be telling that, in responding to comments to my previous post on remembering JFK's assassination, I twice found myself moved to quote from The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's possible that absurdist philosophical satire is the most sane response to the tragedy that is the human condition.

We could do with some good satire on the assassination conspiracy theories. Oswald's motivations remain murky and I doubt we'll ever get to the bottom of them - heck, it's hard enough to explain Guiteau, and we know everything about him - but the actual physical facts of what happened are clearly established: three shots, one rifle, sixth floor, nobody else, nothing mysterious. Anybody who claims that there was anything impossible about this scenario - that Oswald couldn't have shot that fast, or that the bullet that hit both Kennedy and Connally would have had to turn in mid-air (the "magic bullet" theory), or that the movements of Kennedy's body mean he must have been shot from the front (the Oliver Stone theory)1 - is selling you a bill of goods. Here's a little something about that.

At this point I get to declare a personal interest in the matter. David W. Belin, one of the Warren Commission lawyer investigators who concluded that one bullet hit both victims, was a close family friend of ours. He'd known my mother since they were in college together, and he married her BFF (to use today's terminology).2 Here he is, with his characteristic bow tie, looking as I remember him from my childhood, on the job in the Texas School Depository building, with his colleague Howard Willens.

David wrote two books3 expounding the Warren Commission's conclusions about the facts of the assassination; he was particularly keen on pointing to the Tippett shooting as a key to Oswald's actions. The books are not easy reading, I'm afraid, and you might prefer Gerald Posner or Vincent Bugliosi for more lucid expositions. But David was as adamant as those authors that the Commission had come to the right conclusion. I remember once telling him about Greg Benford's novel Timescape, whose alternate-history plot depends on Oswald being Kennedy's sole assassin, as proof that not all of popular culture was against him. Friends who were at his deathbed say they knew he was gone when they'd whisper "Oswald didn't act alone" in his ear and not get a reaction.

So: yes, a lone assassin can kill a President. It doesn't require a world-spanning conspiracy or corrosive internal treachery. The world really is that tragic, and that preposterous. Time to break out the absurdist philosophical satire.

1. This would in any case point to the triple overpass rather than the grassy knoll, and that was originally considered, but there were too many people on the overpass and not enough murky shadows in photographs of it, so that was out.
2. B. and I still have on our coffee table the crystal bowl that David and his second wife (his first wife, my mother's friend, had died) sent us as a wedding gift. It's this bowl that keeps coming to my mind when I try to describe the shape of the auditorium in Disney Hall.
3. Yes, the third book is by him, too.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

remembering JFK

All over the web and even newspapers that I read, people have been posting their memories of learning of the assassination of JFK. Except in LJ. Well, I'd been thinking of writing on this anyway, and I'd better do it now, because by Friday the topic will feel stale already. (Besides, I have something else appropriate for then.)

I recall as a child feeling annoyed at the media assumption that everybody remembered where they were at Pearl Harbor, because some of us were not around then. The open invitations to post memories of JFK's assassination must be equally annoying to anyone younger than I am, and I'm not young. I was six at the time, and that's about as young as it's possible to remember such things. It's not my earliest memory, but it's my earliest precisely dateable one.

Kennedy was shot at 10:30 AM our time, and his death was announced an hour later, but nobody had a radio in our school, so the news didn't arrive instantly. I must have gone off for lunch, either home or with a bag lunch to a far corner of the schoolyard to be by myself (as socializing with my peers was my lowest priority throughout my school years), because what I remember is coming back to the playground area and finding everyone standing around in clumps, rather than off playing. I asked what had happened.

I knew this was big news - I couldn't remember the last time there was a change in President - but what I could not grasp at all was the enormity* of it. I knew who the President was, but I didn't know enough to have any particular feelings about him, nor did I have the emotional experience to be shocked by assassination. What did draw my attention was a self-irritation at the fact that, although I knew that, if the President dies, the Vice President succeeds him, I could not remember or did not know the current Vice President's name. I felt I ought to have known that, and, ever since, I have kept up to date on such things. It is still typical of me to be drawn to such fine points.

Naturally, I spent the weekend in minor annoyance at the pre-emption of my favorite TV shows. All right, this was a big deal, but did it have to be on all the channels?

But one grows up quickly. It was not much more than a year later that Churchill died, and, while I'm not sure I had ever heard of him before, and he was, in any case, full of years, I was by that time equipped to appreciate what a momentous passage this was. (And I remember avidly reading about it in the newspapers: this tells me that I was already reading newspapers at seven, which I was apparently not - though I could and did read - at six.) If you wanted me to actually feel stunned by a tragic event, the assassinations five years after JFK's did that.

*And yes, I'm using that word correctly. Look it up.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

concert reviews

Yes, it was a musical weekend for me. On Friday, the Afiara Quartet, a visiting ensemble at Stanford - whose main concert on Saturday was sold out already, at dear prices - was giving a free noon concert at Campbell, the little recital hall. And it was only half-full! They played one of Haydn's weirder late-middle quartets (Op. 33/3), and one of Dvorak's slightly less garrulous early efforts (Op. 51).

I returned for the first part of a master class they gave later that afternoon, but didn't stay for the whole thing, partly because I wasn't that attracted to the repertoire, but also because, as teachers, the Afiara were more than usually pedagogic. I did get to hear a massively muscular reading of the first movement of Prokofiev's Flute Sonata, though.

Saturday evening I lured B. back to Stanford with me for a Chamber Chorale concert in Memorial Church of unaccompanied "motets of the millennium," kind of the motet version of "1000 years of popular music." I liked the wide variety of repertoire: from the older half of the millennium, Josquin, Ockeghem, and Palestrina (whose gloriously simple Alma redemptoris mater was the highlight of the evening); from the newer, Brahms (yes, Brahms wrote half-a-dozen motets), Bruckner, Frank Martin (one of those "composers' composers" vastly admired by the few people who know his work), and a couple by the guest conductor himself, Jameson Marvin of Harvard. Interesting music, strongly and vividly sung.

I didn't know for sure till Saturday which chamber music I was going to be reviewing Sunday afternoon, piano quintets in San Francisco or string quartets in Berkeley, or, indeed, if I was going to be reviewing anything at all. That made prep more than usually exciting. It finally turned out to be the string quartets, so I drove to the City, picked up the friend I'd invited when I thought that's where I'd be going, turned right, and headed to Berkeley across the new span of the Bay Bridge for the first time during the day. (Awesome open feeling. As a work of art, it meets my approval.)

Here's the review. I felt more than usually a sense of having a specific reaction to the playing but not being sure how best to put it in words. This is the fifth professional review I have written of Beethoven's Op. 132. All right, this work does never get old, especially considering how many different ways there are to play it, but it's outnumbering even the other late Beethoven quartets by 5 to 2, 5 to 1, even 5 to 0. So what's with this, anyway?

And paired with Mendelssohn's Op. 13, making about as dour a pairing as imaginable. Fortunately I know them both well by now, but this did not look to be a really fun concert in the offing. It was, however, interesting and impressive.

Friday, November 15, 2013

fast day

Working as a reference librarian, which I used to do, requires an ability to juggle a lot of unrelated activities in real time. It was like that at home yesterday.

I came back early afternoon from an outing with more data for the Potlatch restaurant guide to find B., who was off work that day, reporting that the DVR wasn't working. Playing around with it myself suggested that the problem was that the batteries in the remote were dead, but that turned out not to be it. I called up customer service and got stuck on the automated system's question, "Is this problem only on one TV?" We only have one TV, so either answer is misleading. When I got a human, we ran through various tests with no luck, so she got us a repair appointment for 4-8 pm.

The repair guy actually arrived early, and not only was I in the middle of adding the restaurant info to my database on my computer, a delicate matter of shuffling around info from a lot of scribbled notes, I was actually downstairs on the phone dealing with a call from my editor about upcoming review assignments when the doorbell rang, so I pointed the guy at the TV and finished the conversation, but I couldn't return to the computer, because there turned out to be a lot more to the repair. The guy had to check where the line came in and looked totally disgusted at the way the phone box had been wired up (and I flashed back to memories of the disagreeable time we had getting that work done, several years ago, and how much better everything was going this time), so he had to redo all of that, incidentally cutting off both internet and phone for a while, and then he got to look at the back of the TV set and resume his look of total disgust at how that had been wired up. So he installed a new cable and gave us a new remote, and I handed it over to B. who watches 90% of the television in the household and consequently is the far better person to ensure it's all working right.

This had lasted long enough that I also made and we ate dinner in the middle of all of it, and it was only after he left that I finally got to finish everything up with the restaurant and send an e-mail to the friend I'm attending this weekend's concert with to OK a change of plans from the phone call and then get that confirmation back to my editor, and feed Pippin who'd finally come out of the closet that he'd disappeared into when the doorbell rang. (Pandora, on the other hand, had had to be physically removed from nosing around in the vicinity of loose pieces of insulation she might try to eat.) So all around it was a very fast day.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

when is Thanksgiving?

It's a simple question. In the US, it's the fourth Thursday in November. You'd think that'd be easy to figure out. But apparently it's difficult.

This year, for instance, because November starts on a Friday, the rest of Thanksgiving weekend, from Friday on, is the fifth week of November. This seems to have confused a lot of people into expecting Thanksgiving on the fourth weekend, i.e. the 21st instead of the 28th. (Remember, remember, fifth weekend November / football games, leftovers brought / I see no reason the Thanksgiving season / Should ever be forgot.)

For instance, the glossy, attractively-designed, nicely-printed holiday garbage and recycling collection schedule that the city just sent out on a large postcard. As usual, collection services for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, and the rest of the days of that week are all pushed to the following day. That much is on their web sites, but the specific dates for this year are only on the postcard, which says "Thursday, Nov 21 -> Friday Nov 22; Friday Nov 22 -> Saturday Nov 23." Oops. I hope a sufficiency of people are phoning them up to say, "You clowns, didn't you check a calendar?"

But checking a calendar may not help! My pocket calendar for this year has it right, but I was just transferring info to next year's and discovered that it tells me that Thanksgiving will be on Tuesday, Nov. 25.

The prize for awesome stupidity in calendar-making, however, goes to a decorative appointment book I once saw which put 31 days in June and made up for it by omitting July 6. Even Pope Gregory would have been baffled by that one.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

media report

1. Is it by Brahms? Read. Listen.
I'll go along with the critic so far as to agree that it certainly sounds like Brahms, but not that the alternative has to be "a completely unknown composer." I'm not the first one to suggest: what about Brahms's friend Albert Dietrich? Here's some Dietrich for comparison.

2. A silent film (with period music) on the manufacture of books in 1925, taken at the printing facilities of the Oxford University Press (the Clarendon Press, in Jericho, Oxford).
What's particularly interesting is the combination of tasks rather fearsomely automated with those still requiring painstaking hand work. (And the bizarrely rigid sex segregation thereof.) Any old-time SF fanzine fan will heave a sigh of recognition at 11:00: they're collating!

3. We're up for the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address next week, so here it is.
Listen: Read by Stephen Colbert. Read by every celebrity Ken Burns could get, backed by Ken Burns music. Read by somebody who really knows how to read it.
Read: As if it were written by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin. And a classic: as if Eisenhower had written it. Finally, As Abraham Lincoln wrote it.

4. Just read: announcement of the death of John Tavener, British composer of "holy minimalist" sacred choral music without parallel. Here's a work of his.

revivified concert review

The falling banner ad to the right, for a new CD from the San Francisco Symphony, appeared on an ad-driven website I was reading. If you want to purchase the CD, click on the ad; but what attracted my attention was the blurb at the bottom from San Francisco Classical Voice, because it was written by me: it's from my review of the live concert last spring. My words, if not my name, in lights.

Of course, in the review I was referring only to the Symphony No. 2, of which I also said, "This performance is being recorded, and should make a honey of a CD." Unfortunately, they paired it with its concert partner, the Joseph Cantata. Of that I wrote instead, "The instrumentalists and singers alike did what they could to do this work justice. It simply doesn't merit much revival." That wouldn't make much of a blurb.

For some reason, this piece nevertheless gets dragged out on occasion. What hardly ever gets heard is its sister cantata, for in addition to this one on the death of the Emperor Joseph II, Beethoven also wrote a Cantata on the Accession of the next Emperor Leopold II. And it's even a much better work as well as, unsurprisingly, a lot cheerier. (Leopold in turn died only two years later.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

veteral day

I stumbled into a Veterans' Day public event today. Various local politicians walked up to the podium in quick sequence, each testifying to having younger relatives in the service if they did, or just offering three cheers to the veterans if they didn't, and sitting down.

Meanwhile, at home, here's TMCI (Too Much Cat Information): Pippin barfed after breakfast today. This is unusual for him; Pandora is the principal cat barf producer in the household. I heard these unusual coughing-like sounds and thought, "That's a cat doing something we'd rather it not do," and went over to his favorite nesting spot to find Pippin sniffing with curiosity at these strange objects that had somehow appeared on the floor in front of him.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

musical outing

This looked like it'd be fun, and it was. B. and I wandered over to Stanford this afternoon to park ourselves in the airy commons room of Toyon Hall, one of the old and colorful dorms, to hear a little program from the Music Department. We had a lot of company, including quite a few small children, only some of whom looked bored.

It was billed as "Romeo and Juliet as told by Charles Gounod and Leonard Bernstein" and consisted of a dozen undergraduate singers and a small instrumental group performing selected arias and ensemble numbers from Roméo et Juliette and West Side Story tossed together in a flash-cut sequence roughly outlining the mutual plot. Juliette sings "Je veux vivre dans le rêve qui m'enivre" and then Tony sings "I just met a girl named Maria." Roméo steps over the corpses of the Jets and Sharks after their rumble to climb a wheeled construction platform, standing in for a balcony, for his final duet with Juliette, in which they sing silly operatic lines like "O joie infinie et suprême - de mourir avec toi!" The corpses lay twitch-free for the entire thing, R & J joined them in immobility, and then everybody stood up for enthused applause.

The singing ranged from passable to very good. Maria was seriously underpowered compared to the rest of the cast, and Roméo wobbled a bit, but senior Praveen Ramesh as Tony made a brave showing in a part that'll test any tenor's manhood, and junior Christina Krawec as Juliette was good enough to go on a local opera company stage right now. B. looked delighted.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

library visit

Went to the public library to turn in a book, and then stand in line at the desk to have my account fiddled with.

Stopped in at the new book shelf when finished, as I usually do, and, as I often do, found an interesting book. Went to check it out at the automatic machine and found that I'd checked out two books, the other one of which I'd never heard of.

Back to the desk. Apologies from the clerk, who had inadvertently helped the next customer with my account and had just fixed that.

The book I checked out was Parkland by Vincent Bugliosi, the what-happened-on-the-spot abridged edition of his Reclaiming History on the JFK assassination. Detailed enough to tell us what Oswald had for breakfast and about the bumpy railroad crossing on the road to the hospital. Scene of Governor Connally in the emergency room reminds me: always know your loved ones' blood types. One question so far: If Bugliosi has this amazingly precise command of facts, why does he not know that nobody who actually knew him called JFK Jr. "John-John"?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

ten miscellanies make a blog post

  1. Huge book sale going on in Berkeley this month. You might want to know.
  2. Nine things I already knew about The Hobbit, and one thing I didn't care about because it's actually about the movies (via JDR)
  3. In the 1920s, C.S. Lewis was a silent partner in a secret gang with a diabolical plot to -- buy up properties for the National Trust. (via MJW) This revelation sent me into research mode. It's known that Lewis knew Margaret Pollard (née Gladstone: she wasn't W.E. Gladstone's niece, btw, but something like his great-great-grand-niece); Lewis's Collected Letters has casual friendly missives he sent her in the 1940s and 50s. But their earlier history was new to me. She isn't mentioned in the diary he kept then, but he didn't mention lots of things in his diary. What most intrigues me is her secret gang pseudonym, "Bill Stickers." For at just about that time, Lewis's friend J.R.R. Tolkien began telling his children tales about a crafty villain named Bill Stickers. (You knew he was bad because of the signs around that said, "Bill Stickers Will Be Prosecuted." And who would prosecute him? That righteous military man, Major Road Ahead.) Coincidence ... or something else?
  4. PNH is mildly irked when people don't get his name right, but he figures it's because he's not that well-known outside of SFnal circles. Yeah, but it happens inside those circles too, like at a WFC. Alas, fame will not save you. What about all the people who can't spell Tolkien?
  5. Gay Talese annotates his famous anecdote about Frank Sinatra and Harlan Ellison.
  6. Photos and more photos of the Crissy Broadcast.
  7. The lousiest opera singer that people think is good. Includes video link so you can hear it for yourself. (via Lisa Irontongue, who would rather you didn't) She's terrible, but she's nine years old. As Dr. Johnson put it (never mind what he was comparing this to), it "is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
  8. So which eleven counties in northern Colorado are voting today on whether to secede? Most news stories are surprisingly reticent. Here's a map. (And the news story it comes from.) That's Weld north of Denver; Logan, Sedgwick, and Phillips, in the northeast; Washington, Yuma, Elbert, Lincoln, Kit Carson, and Cheyenne in the east; and Moffat all by itself in the northwest. I've been in eight of them, though not recently.
  9. A while ago I wondered why the once-ubiquitous Douglas R. Hofstadter had vanished from public discourse. I wasn't imagining it; he really has and this is why.
  10. The Worst Person in the World. What should you do if your friend has a tacky character trait that really bugs the heck out of you? A: Steam in silence for years, then wait for him to be off-guard - like when he invites you to accompany him to the opera, so he obviously has no clue he's annoying you - and lash out and storm off. Then write a self-righteous blog post about how it was his responsibility to read your mind and know your preferences. All right, the friend may be crass and tasteless. But that's no excuse for responding by being evil.

Monday, November 4, 2013

concert review: Estonian National Symphony Orchestra

An Estonian orchestra. How about that? Like an American orchestra of the 50s playing Adagio for Strings as the opener for a more generic program, they began theirs with the most famous adagio from their country, or indeed the greatest from anywhere the last half-century, Pärt's Cantus. They followed it with the mighty Fifth of their neighbor Sibelius, which they played a little less mightily than I'd prefer, and Dvořák's Cello Concerto, a work which is capable of interesting me, but not if you play it as a meandering rhapsody.

So, not a great concert, but pretty good, and I'm glad I heard it. The San Francisco Symphony fairly blew out Bing's sound capacity when they played at the opening festivities in January; this orchestra is much smaller, and turned out to be just right in size. (At the other end of the scale, chamber groups tend to get swallowed up unless they're prepared for it.)

Neeme Järvi is one of those elderly conductors of the old school who leads as much by just standing there and staring at the musicians with great intensity as by any cues he might give with his arms occasionally. He froze them into shaping up when they tripped over their own shoelaces.

Two of the works have very odd endings, and it was interesting to hear the audience's reaction. Cantus ends with a single bell note reverberating away. You're supposed to be absorbing the overtones. Although Järvi didn't move even when the bell ceased ringing altogether, the audience stayed silent until then, and then applauded.

Sibelius' Fifth has one of the great applause tripper-upper endings: five tutti dominant chords, each played with an echoing space of two bars of silence after it, followed by one tonic chord and that's the end. If you're not paying attention to the harmony, you applaud early by not realizing that the cadence hadn't resolved yet. At this concert, though, it had resolved and the audience still was silent. Again, Järvi was providing no physical cue. So I quickly realized that nobody in the audience was absolutely sure the music was really over now, except me, because I know this piece. Somebody had to start the applause, so I did.

My SFCV review.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

dire-book report

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (Norton, 2010)

Which are more exasperating, books extolling our glorious flawless information future, or books decrying it as the end of civilization? This is one of the latter.

Carr's thesis is that what the internet (by which he actually means the web: e-mail, newsgroups, or FTP don't figure much in his narrative) is doing to our brains is rewiring them to make it harder for us to perform "deep reading": thoughtful, slow consideration of complex, lengthy texts. This would mean, of course, that nobody could read his book (which is only either complex or lengthy by web standards), but I did.

The obvious objection is that modern media have already rewired our brains. Carr brings this up, but only in the context of adducing collateral evidence to prove that exterior input can rewire our brains, so if those things can do it, so can the internet.

But his claim is that this particular rewiring is essentially new and unprecedented. Yet except for a few desultory statistics implying that our entire culture consisted of deep, penetrating readers before the internet became ubiquitous - a statement ludicrous to anyone old enough to remember those days; Carr was born in 1959, and maybe he was just a little slow coming to terms with his culture - he has nothing to show that the phenomena he describes don't predate the internet.

For my part, I learned brutal skim-reading in college, where it was the only way to get through the vast amount of reading required in social-studies classes in a reasonable time. In those days, the only computers I dealt with were the ones processing the punched cards we used for class registration.

Carr has a chapter on recent trends supporting his thesis, but I kept thinking that his trends are either not actually new or have some other explanation. For instance, the decline of Newsweek wasn't due to its futile attempt to buck the trend and publish long, thoughtful essays. It's because those essays were written and edited by fatuous clods.

Carr makes one brief passing claim that the rise of television didn't destroy deep reading. Oh, but that's not what people thought at the time. I don't know how right they were, but I don't know if Carr is right either. For proof of how deeply that belief was embedded in popular culture in the television age, please consider the Oompa-Loompas' lament over Mike Teavee in Dahl's book, and that was published in 1964. It's all about how kids don't read any more and how television destroys your power to think. The same lament, just a different era.

Carr's complaint that public libraries are now filled with the clicking of computer keys and are no longer temples of silent reading is, again, a little out of date. Those temples were enforced by the once-ubiquitous stereotype of the shushing librarian, and she was made obsolescent half a century ago. Even before then, she was fighting a futile rearguard action to preserve the 19th century, or more accurately the Middle Ages.

I entirely agree with Carr's concern over Google's land claim over the entire information commons, but that's not about what the internet is doing to our brains, but what it's doing to our social contract. I also entirely agree with his claim that it's foolish to rely entirely on outside storage of facts to supply your thinking. If you don't already have an in-depth knowledge of a subject, no amount of skimming of outside facts will enable you to think coherently about it, and the way to get that knowledge is to learn the facts and process, not just store, them in your own brain. Consultation of outside fact sources is for verification, for a certain amount (but not all) of detail, and above all for increasing your own knowledge. But the web didn't pose that problem, it just intensifies it. Carr quite cleverly distinguishes the kind of brain processing he's trying to preserve here from the kind outsourced by doing your arithmetic on pocket calculators, but, again, he's running after a train already long gone, because there's already a lot of literature on the innumeracy engendered by over-reliance on calculators and how the brain then fails to recognize error-caused absurd conclusions: a pre-web failure of deep thinking caused by a tool that, like the internet, was intended to free us to think deeper.