Friday, January 31, 2014

world according to cat

If you stand on the middle level of the cat tree, leaning back with your front paws on the edge of the upper level, and you let go to grab at the cat toy hovering around in front of you, you will fall over backwards.

If I were more than six months old, I would probably already know this.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Osmo Vänskä, the heroic conductor who, last fall, carried out his threat to shame the board of the Minnesota Orchestra by resigning as music director when the lockout had not ended, came this week to our city to conduct our orchestra in some mildly heroic music.

Unfortunately, personal exigencies meant I could stay for only the first half of the concert, so I missed his Sibelius Sixth. I'm listening to his recording of it with another orchestra right now.

What I did hear was another Sibelius piece, the little-known (at least by me) Night Ride and Sunrise, and Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Sibelius was very Sibelian, and the Rachmaninoff was played by Daniil Trifonov, a very young pianist with a very light-fingered style. Matched well with Vänskä's liking to use the brass to punch light-fingered holes in the wall.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

concert review: Takács Quartet

A few weeks ago, my editor alerted (warned, cautioned, even admonished) me that he'd be expecting me to cover the Takács Quartet's Bartók cycle. Holy bleep, what an assignment. Toughest I've had since being sent to hear the Concord Sonata. (And that was why I was looking for somebody who really likes Bartók.)

This called for intensive pre-concert study, to get a handle on these works I'd never entirely digested. I'd heard them all at one time or another, but the only one I'd ever enjoyed hearing was the Fourth, and I don't claim to understand any of them.

Unfortunately, a satisfactory study of such difficult works would take at least 10 or 12 hours, and exigencies, alluded to earlier in this blog, meant that there was no time. None. I read a little technical musicology about them, I perused and marked up the scores, but that was about it. I didn't even make a full listen to recordings, because I couldn't do it early enough to prevent the concert from becoming fatigue instead of enlightenment.

As a result, my review reads to me an amateur's view, Thog goes to a string quartet concert. I sat there through weird and bewildering passage after passage, just trying to find some sort of handle to grab on to. In the end I had to write about the knobs and not the train. It just added to the intensity of an already high-pressure weekend.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thomas Jefferson is pregnant

There, was that headline enough to catch your attention? Friday evening, B. and I attended the premiere performance of a small local theater production of 1776 in which all the roles were played by women. I was hoping they'd go full Python and have Abigail and Martha played by men, but no such luck. B. said it was like going back to her all-girl high school.

Although, in fact, most of the cast were considerably longer in the tooth than that, and full of useful theatrical experience, too. Jefferson was one of the younger performers, and, yes, she was visibly and five months pregnant, which lent new piquance to lines like, "I have not seen my wife for the last six months."

Just about everybody was good and had personality, and I had no trouble being able to identify every character on stage by intermission time. Adams had that cutting William Daniels quality (which she must have adopted for the role, since I can't imagine her talking that way when playing Abigail or Martha, both of which she'd done in other productions). Franklin kept flubbing spoken lines, which I hope she gets over because it was her only flaw.

Of the lesser roles, I want to single out the large, brassy Stephen Hopkins as someone as colorful as the role deserves; the otherwise-invisible Robert Livingston, who burst out delightfully with a vividly cheerful solo verse in "But, Mr. Adams" - and boy did she ever look surprised and flattered when I told her so at the post-performance reception line; and the young Edward Rutledge, who, after hiding her talent under a bushel for most of the show, commanded the stage with her cruel solo song describing the Triangle Trade.

Music came from a wholly hidden small band. The set consisted of the tally board and a lot of chairs and small tables. Costumes were basically non-existent: everybody just wore pantsuits.

We had great fun watching it, and I'm sorry that the run ends before Potlatch arrives. In the meantime, everyone around here: here's the show info and a link to tickets. Go see it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

notes for a new notebook

1. I received some highly disturbing news today. It must have been disturbing, because I then completely forgot where I had parked my car. On going out to lunch at the usual to have the usual, I ordered the wrong thing.

2. I finally bit the bullet and updated my Firefox, which I'd been preserving in an old form (rapidly becoming more useless) out of fear that an update would disable the features I like and I'd never be able to go back. Part of that was true: I can't revert. But my preferred color scheme works better than on Opera; though it's less convenient to switch back and forth to the default, I have far less need to do so. The ways of dealing with features like bookmarks, which I always preferred on Firefox, are functionally unchanged, and my add-ons still work: AdBlocker even blocks the video ads before Daily Show segments! The only downside to that is that I'll no longer get whatever succeeds "most interesting man in the world" jokes.

3. Remember how the cold temperatures in the eastern US were supposed to prove that there was no global warming? Checked any thermometers in Australia lately? Or how about here in California, where we've been having August-style brushfires and temperatures so warm it's uncomfortable to wear a jacket. What it'll be like by the real August is not to be contemplated.

4. The New Yorker had an article about the decline of Detroit and the concomitant rise of its suburbs. It marked the death knell for the city as the day the flagship of Hudson's department store downtown closed. So then I saw this and thought, "Bye-bye, Chicago."

5. In slightly cheerier news. Slate has been running a series of cooking articles with the theme of "You're doing it wrong." So then I read the one on quesadillas and felt very smug, because I already do everything they suggest.

6. Music dept., part 1: Somebody says that classical music in America is dead. But their source turns out to be Greg Sandow, so it must be thriving, as indeed it was at the Beethoven & Mason Bates concert in the City where all these young people showed up.

7. Music dept., part 2: And here's one who praises Thomas Newman's score for Saving Mr. Banks. I did not think well of the score. It was pleasant rather than outstanding music, and I found its tone, its emotional language, highly ill-judged for its movie. It belonged on a much more warm-hearted picture.

8. Music dept., part 3: A coffee-table book on the subject, borrowed from the library, led me to a website on an entire genre of music of whose mere existence I was barely aware: industrial musicals, musical theater shows, sometimes full-scale, put on by giant industrial corporations between the 1950s and 1970s, during the live big, pre-penny pinching era, at annual conventions to pump up the eagerness of the salesfolk and other personnel. Think How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying without the tongue in the cheek. Some of them were even recorded, and those are the ones covered here. There's even a page with some sample recordings, but I can't say I was very impressed, even by the ones by Bock and Harnick (later of Fiorello! and Fiddler on the Roof) or by Kander and Ebb (of Cabaret and Chicago).

9. Music dept., part 4: When I was very young, I would see in gossip columns or the like the current doings of some long-forgotten silent film star, and I'd think of how quaint and removed from present-day concerns this was. That must be how young people today react to the news that the Captain and Tennille are getting divorced.

10. Cute item of the week: the trailer for Muppets of the Caribbean.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This week was the annual "concertmaster Alexander Barantschik leads the string section" concert. Usually the repertoire at these things is 18C, but this year we got more of a potpourri. There was one Mozart, the Divertimento K. 138, a lovely little piece played a little fast for my taste.

There was also the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D minor, parts of which sound like they might be by Mozart. This is the other Mendelssohn violin concerto, the one the child prodigy wrote at 13 and which wasn't rediscovered until Yehudi Menuhin found it in the 1950s. The possibility of confusing this with the more renowned concerto in E minor, which dates from over 20 years later, is immense. (YouTube recordings of this piece are full of comments like, "Are you sure this is Mendelssohn?") The old San Jose Symphony once played the D minor, while providing a program note describing the E minor, just with the name of the key changed. But their program notes were frequently that hapless. Anyway, no problem with that this time. Just a nice performance of a work whose main claim to notability is the composer's age.

Also a less than inspiring tango by Piazzolla, with violin and bandoneon solos, and Britten's Simple Symphony, a work of his early adulthood (he was 20) but based on material from his own prodigal youth (9-12). It's a cute work at the very least, and this was a stunningly outstanding performance. Also very fast, but with a combination of such precision and expression that I've never heard its better. The all-pizzicato scherzo was particularly good: how the string players got so much lyricism from such a limited means could be a lesson to everybody.

There was one weirdness in the program book under Britten, though: a reproduction of a childhood notebook of the composer's with the caption "A play written and 'published' by the six- or seven-year-old Britten, to honor the Prince of Wales after his sudden death." Britten was six or seven between Nov. 1919 and Nov. 1921, but he who was Prince of Wales throughout Britten's childhood lived on for another half century. So what on earth are they talking about here? I guessed easily enough, and an examination of the notebook text confirmed it, but I'll leave it to you to figure out.

Another thing I'll have to leave to you to figure out is the surreal experience I had on the Muni streetcar system. I only take Muni occasionally, and this is like only the third time I'd ventured into its section of the Market Street tunnel. The paper tickets they use there are unlike anything else on the system or anything else I know: after buying them from a machine, apparently you just wave them in front of the gates which then open: I still haven't figured out what I'm doing. I'd arrived in the City early enough that I had time to go have dinner elsewhere, and had a whim to visit a place I know in the Noe Valley, which is on the outbound route. The surrealism came with the loudspeaker announcements every two minutes that cars of various lines were arriving on the outbound route in another two minutes, a different car every two minutes, and yet no car ever came. Unless they were invisible or took a different tunnel. It was just this whole phantom streetcar system. Meanwhile cars were coming through on the inbound route at a regular pace. After 20 minutes of this, I was beginning to run short of time and gave up, switching my culinary interest to a place I knew on the inbound route instead. But to listen to those announcements was disconcerting. Cars continually two minutes from now, but "two minutes from now" never arrived. Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

cat, phone, tree

B. sometimes leaves me notes when I'm out, regarding the doings of the cats. This one is too good not to pass on:

Pippin: "Oh, no! She's in my spot on the cat tree! What'll I do? What'll I do?"
Maia: "Hey, this is comfy here!" [Phone rings] "What's that?" [Lifts head, stands up. Phone stops ringing. Climbs on top of phone.] "Guess it wasn't important." [Goes back to cat tree, middle position, & settles down again.]


This is Maia:
Shown here with Hermes, her son, she's one of the seven Pleiades in Greek mythology.

This is Maia:
The bright one towards the upper right, below the two smaller ones, she's one of the seven Pleiades in the night sky.

This is Maia:
Now that's more like it. Here illustrated by Mary Shepard, she's the youthful star, clad in a wisp of sky-stuff, who comes down from the sky to do her Christmas shopping in the next to last chapter of P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins, taking suggestions from Jane and Michael. Now wearing Mary Poppins' too-large gloves and carrying the package of presents for her sisters, "she began to walk up [the air], step by step, climbing ever higher, as though there were invisible stairs cut into the grey sky. She waved to them as she went, and the three of them waved back." It's the chapter I remember best from childhood: a dedicated astronomy buff at the time, I learned the Pleiades from it.

Now, this is Maia:
She's our new cat, whom we named for the Travers character because we've both just re-read and like the book, and because she's a slightly late Christmas present herself. She's a 5-month-old kitten we adopted from the county animal shelter not two weeks ago, and a busy not two weeks it's been. At first she lived in the upstairs bathroom, but after about six days Pippin's curiosity about the possibility that another cat had gotten into the house somehow became sufficiently insatiable that we let her out.

This, by the way, is Pippin, since you won't have seen him either:
Though he's a shy boy himself, we've actually been seeing more of him lately, as he's cheered up considerably since finding that he's no longer an only cat. Maia, meanwhile, we've found likes to sleep a lot, burrowed into the deepest, darkest corner that she can find, wherever that may be - we're not unsupplied with deep, dark corners around here. But she also likes to play - toy-mouse-on-a-stick and cat dancer (a length of wire with some cardboard tabs on the end, that wobbles around in the unpredictable way cats like) mostly so far. And occasionally she also remembers that she likes to be petted.

Yesterday morning I came out to the hallway where we shelve the paperback books to find a few from the top shelf on the floor, along with two peacock feathers - cat toys in reserve - plus a long felt dragon that we keep up there, the last thrown from its perch with sufficient force that it landed down on the staircase below. Maia's doing, because it certainly isn't Pippin's, giant slug that he is. That bookcase is nearly 5 feet high. She really can climb the invisible stairs.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

a great conductor

Claudio Abbado has died. Here's some tributes.

I never got to hear his conducting in person, but I encountered it on records very early. One of my first LPs was a gift of his expansive and well-seasoned Brahms Second with the Berlin Philharmonic. (This was years - a couple decades - before he became chief conductor there.) This and Bruno Walter's Fourth were the recordings that taught me to love Brahms's symphonies. Here's a small taste of his live performance of the same work with the same orchestra.

Strangely, I only have one other Abbado recording, another early-acquired LP that I still cherish. It was with the London Symphony Orchestra, of the Janáček Sinfonietta and the Hindemith Weber Metamorphoses, two early/mid 20C works that are perfectly to my taste. Again, I pretty much learned them from this record. I have to this day not found another recording of the Sinfonetta to match it for majesty and power, which is why I've kept it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

a Beethoven day

On Saturday I had a Beethoven day. First I meandered down to the Beethoven Center in the San Jose State library for a little concert of Beethoven violin sonatas which I was to review. It sounds abstract but it was quite enjoyable, partly because I'd prepared by listening to recordings of the same sonatas over the previous couple days, but mostly because the performers really knew what they were doing.

The pianist, whose name is disconcertingly similar to my own but who looks more like Joseph Haydn than I do, told a story of how an emergency tuning problem had once forced him to play a concert, which he'd prepared and rehearsed on a period fortepiano, at a last-minute substitution of a modern grand. But because he'd been prepared to use the playing style of the fortepiano, the sound of the instrument came out quite different from what it normally would. From which he concludes that learning early instruments can genuinely affect your playing even at other times. Which is why the instrument he played this concert on is a sturdy replica of its 1795 original, owned by the Beethoven Center and open to any decent ivory-tickler to come in and try out.

Afterwards, up to Stanford, where the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, prior to playing the same at a student orchestra festival, tried out an orchestral version of the Grosse Fuge. Twice, with not this but something similar to it projected on a screen as they played, and with an interval talk by conductor Ben Simon about the piece. He didn't say much worth preserving or of much help in understanding the piece, although he did introduce Beethoven's history in Vienna by declaiming "1890!1 Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire!"2 And then telling us about the Emperor Joseph II.3

Oh well. On my way out of the San Jose library, I'd stopped at the new book shelf and picked up a book on the Mormon influence on general American culture. Looked promising, but I happened to open it up to a page that said Joseph Smith was born in 1805,4 the year that Thomas Jefferson became President5 and sent off the Lewis and Clark Expedition.6 I put the book back down.

1. He meant 1790.
2. In 1790, what Vienna would have been the capital of was the Holy Roman Empire. By 1825, when Beethoven wrote the Grosse Fuge, it was the Austrian Empire, a quite different entity. It didn't become the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a name change marking another significant political shift, until a considerably later date. None of this may make much difference, but if you're going to use the terms, get them right.
3. Who died in 1790, so he wouldn't have had much to do with Beethoven's arrival two years later.
4. True.
5. False.
6. Also false.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

world according to cat

Where did my hiding place behind the bed go? It was there yesterday!

Friday, January 17, 2014

concerts on the rise

Although I've attended multiple events in a single day for a review before, like spending a day puttering around from event to event at the Carmel Bach Festival, on Sunday I attempted something I'd never done before: attending two concerts the same day in totally different places for totally different reviews.

In the afternoon I was at Stanford listening to the St. Lawrence Quartet for SFCV. I had not been able to hear a recording of the Martinu Quartet beforehand, and, as Martinu was one of those composers who reinvent themselves regularly, I had no idea what it would sound like. Not like Dvorak, that's for sure.

That ended at 4:40. I was then quickly on the road, stopping in at my favorite Chinese restaurant in San Mateo for my usual wor won ton soup for an early dinner - the place had been closed for remodeling for months, and I was eager to see if, on reopening, the soup had changed (it had, and so had the bowl it came in, but it was still good) - and then up to Kohl Mansion in Burlingame just in time for the pre-concert talk before hearing Garrick Ohlsson on piano for the Daily Journal. I'd long admired his work, but this was the first time I'd get to hear him really close up. Satisfying result, though the acoustics were really too bright for his kind of pianism. It was getting the reviews written over a highly occupied next two days that was much more challenging than squeezing the concert-going into one day, but it got done.

I'd thought I would spend Wednesday at the San Francisco Symphony, for which I had a ticket for the second week of the Beethoven-Mason Bates festival, but it was not to be. Suddenly what should appear on the SFCV online calendar but me covering the Kronos Quartet at Stanford that evening, a concert my editor and I had talked about but which I'd thought he'd decided against. Too late to do anything with my SFS ticket, so off to Stanford I went.

This review, rather long because it covered a lot of unfamiliar pieces, actually got written and turned in by the following afternoon, fast for me. The content editor asked me how I was able to write in such technical detail so quickly. I replied, "There's actually a serious answer to your question. When I'm attending a concert consisting of unfamiliar music, I know I'm not going to remember all the new experiences, so I take along a pencil and notebook, and I scribble ceaselessly in the dark, and whenever I'm afraid I might start writing over myself, I turn the page. Then I transcribe it all when I get home, and presto: enough notes to write the review on." This one actually included some bursts of drafts for the actual wording of the review, which accounts for much of the speed of finishing it, because it's not deciding what to say, but how to say it, that usually has me hung up in composition. The two arranged songs on the program I hadn't known, so I looked up the original recordings on YouTube when I got home and listened to them there. And a nod to Ken of the Thousand CDs for having long ago originally tipped me off to the beauties of Scandinavian folk music in the first place.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Oscar the grouch

The Oscar nominations crept out on little cat feet this morning. I didn't even know they were there until I saw a blog allude to them.

As usual, I compiled a list of the movies receiving nominations for the major awards (picture, directing, writing, and acting). This year these nominations are highly concentrated, in only 12 movies. That's the smallest number since 1981.

And of those 12 movies, so far I've seen only one: Captain Phillips, a thriller of an intensity only Paul Greengrass can reach, especially considering (this isn't a spoiler, since it's based on a true incident) that the second half of the movie consists largely of the US Navy sitting around watching a small lifeboat bobble on the ocean waves.

There are, however, some movies I intend to see on DVD, certainly Philomena and Nebraska and possibly Blue Jasmine. I might see Gravity if I'm assured it holds up on the small screen in 2D. I skipped that one in the theaters because my appetite for near-Earth space movies has been sated by ones based on real events. I have no hankering for one based on fiction.

I don't intend to see 12 Years a Slave. I already know that slavery was horrifying and evil. I don't need a movie to tell me that. If I see this movie to tell me that, I'll feel like a voyeur and one who enables the cruelty.1 I already felt uncomfortable enough, for this reason, watching Spielberg's slavery movie (Amistad) and his Holocaust movie (Schindler's List).2

I probably won't see The Wolf of Wall Street for similar reasons. I already know these people were evil; I don't need to watch them enjoying themselves.

I won't see August: Osage County whose descriptions make it sound like this year's Fine Acting ghetto. Every time I see that kind of movie (Terms of Endearment, Junebug, There Will Be Blood), I regret it afterwards.3

And I don't want to see Her, for a reason expressed in two words: Joaquin. Phoenix. Can't stand the guy.4

1. This comment explains further what I mean. The term "torture porn" comes up.
2. What particularly bothered me about both those movies is that they each featured a gratuitously extended scene in which characters are degraded by being paraded around naked. How, I wondered, is that separable from the actors being degraded by being paraded around naked? Because they're being paid?
3. A Fine Acting ghetto is when you take a bunch of fine acting and lock it up in a ghetto without the accompaniment of anything else that makes a movie good. Like a plot. Or characters that make sense.
4. I watched The Master on DVD, or began to. Soon enough I got to the point that whenever I saw this guy's mug on screen, I would just fast-forward until it wasn't there any more.

world according to cat

That's not your car's valves needing adjustment. That's me purring.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

world according to cat

I am better at hiding than any cat you've ever seen. Or not seen.

stupid hobbit tricks

Like Thorin bedazzled by Smaug's treasure into desiring ownership of all of it, not just the part that's rightfully his, some Tolkienists have fallen under the glamor of the movies into seeing qualities in them that just aren't there.

Latest victim is Corey Olsen, usually a sober if unimaginative scholar, in this article published a month ago but which I've only now read, on the faithfulness of the Hobbit movies to Tolkien's "books" (what books? The Hobbit is only one book). Olsen finds them so on three dubious grounds:

1. That they're faithful to The Hobbit as retrofitted to the world of The Lord of the Rings.
Actually not. The Hobbit was not retrofitted that much. Apart from the rewriting of chapter 5 to change the story of Bilbo's acquisition of the Ring, which Tolkien did not intend for publication until he saw that his publisher intended to print it, the rewritings of The Hobbit, mostly dating from 1966, are very minor and consist mostly of corrections of plot holes and of attempts to cement the setting of the story more firmly into the world of the Silmarillion. The distinct tone of the tale is changed hardly at all.
To show what Tolkien could have done, take a look in The History of The Hobbit to what editor John D. Rateliff designates as "The Fifth Phase," an abortive 1960 draft which does attempt to rewrite The Hobbit in the tone of The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien soon abandoned that. It would have made the work a different book.

2. That what was added to the movies came from The Lord of the Rings or its Appendices or the Silmarillion.
Actually not. Here's a list - I think it's complete - that I already compiled of everything in the second movie with such a source:
1) Flashback to Thorin meeting Gandalf in Bree;
2) Identification of the Necromancer with Sauron, and the consequent general threat to the peace of Middle-earth, but not the shenanigans that go on there (contrary to Olsen's claim, The Lord of the Rings doesn't "focus attention" on this; it's alluded to in both books, but nowhere described in detail);
3) The character of Legolas, but not anything that he does;
4) Brief allusions to Galadriel;
5) Athelas as a healing weed.
That's it. It's even shorter than the one paragraph of plot that comes from The Hobbit.
The things that the movie just totally made up, on the other hand, take up most of its running time. For instance, and just for instance:
There's nothing in any Tolkien book about Bard having to sneak Thorin and Company into Laketown past the guards, and hide them in his house. In the book they walk in openly and we go directly to the scene where Thorin announces his presence to the Master. I'd have thought that would be plenty dramatic enough, as would the book's preceding scene of Bilbo helping the sick and tired dwarves out of the barrels, which is entirely gone from the movie, echoed only in a mocking way by the dwarves having fish poured over them.
There's nothing in any Tolkien book about Kili being injured, staying behind with some companions in Laketown (where they have no business still being), being attacked by the orcs who have been chasing them since literally the previous movie (who also have no business being in Laketown), and then being suddenly and risibly rescued by Legolas and ArwenTauriel, who also have no business being in Laketown either. Of this, literally the only thing that's from the book is some of the character names.
There's nothing in any Tolkien book about the dwarves slamming Beorn's front door shut in his own face (surprisingly, he's still willing to help them after that), or turning the Arkenstone into a McGuffin that confers the right to rule (with Thorin sending Bilbo down to steal that specifically, and since he doesn't manage it (partly because the dragon is there the first time), he accomplishes nothing at the Mountain as a burglar), or Tauriel flirting with Kili while Legolas stands around smoldering, looking more like her angry father than a spurned lover, or the dragon somehow being Bard's fault because his ancestor, Girion, was a bad shot and failed to kill it (!).
There's nothing in any Tolkien book consisting of a long, tedious sequence of scenes in which the dwarves and the dragon chase each other around inside the Mountain. That brings us to Olsen's Excuse No. 3:

3. That the changes are somehow in Tolkien's spirit. Olsen specifically cites "the choice to make Thorin, desperate to avenge his people and live up to his family name, stand up to Smaug instead of cowering in a tunnel." This change is supposedly in Tolkien's spirit because Tolkien changed "the scrupulously honest and apologetic Gollum who wanted to give Bilbo his ring in the first edition of “The Hobbit” into the treacherous and obsessive creature, shrieking out his eternal enmity, that we have all come to take for granted." He's got to be kidding. You could justify any change on the grounds of magnitude, that the greater the change the more it's in Tolkien's spirit. It's like this satire of the Lord of the Rings movies:
"We wanted to bring Tolkien's incredibly intricate, poetic prose to the screen in a way that would be accessible to modern American moviegoers," said Mr. Jackson, a native New Zealander. "One of our scriptwriters suggested that the final epic battle between good and evil might best be portrayed by having the Dark Lord Sauron pursue Frodo and Sam (the ring-bearing Hobbits) in a spectacular car chase through Middle Earth. It really breathes new life into the literary fantasy-action-adventure genre."
Asked how he's dealing with the withering criticism from Tolkien fans, Mr. Jackson bristled: "I can't live my life trying to satisfy the purists. What do these people want? We spent months shooting that car chase, and I used classic cars to make it authentic. I think it's true to the spirit of Tolkien."
Olsen could have gotten more mileage by claiming that this Thorin is truer to the spirit of heroism that pervades The Lord of the Rings.
Well, yes. Richard Armitage is playing Aragorn, far better than Viggo Mortensen did. But he's not Thorin. That's the first problem. Thorin cowers because he's a realist. Here's the only place that Tolkien uses the word "cower" in the book: "The door behind them was pulled nearly to, and blocked from closing with a stone, but up the long tunnel came the dreadful echoes, from far down in the depths, of a bellowing and a trampling that made the ground beneath them tremble. Then the dwarves forgot their joy and their confident boasts of a moment before and cowered down in fright. Smaug was still to be reckoned with. It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him." This is believable. They're frightened. To "stand up to Smaug" would be suicidal. That's how Smaug took over the Mountain in the first place. The dwarves, nor Bilbo, cannot and do not kill the dragon. Characters in The Lord of the Rings make suicidal charges because the fate of the entire world is at stake, and only this way can they hope to enable the accomplishment of their real goal, the destruction of the Ring. No stakes of that kind are up in The Hobbit. Thorin wants his grandfather's kingdom back, and he doesn't insist on going about this in the noblest fashion. "There it is," says Tolkien. "Dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much."
The second problem is what the movie does with its heroic Thorin and Company. We get this clownish, overlong, tedious, roller-coaster ride of a chase scene. Tolkien didn't write such things. In this scenario, Smaug would have quickly fried the dwarves to a crisp. Throughout this sequence, Movie-dragon time and again muffs it, despite plenty of easy opportunities, and why? Because then the movie would be over. The result of this is to diminish the story's suspense, not increase it. Tolkien's Smaug is monstrous and terrifying; Movie-dragon is a lot of noise and no action. That's not only not Tolkien, but the exact opposite of his spirit.

Whatever the reasons for making the movies the way they were made, if the question is whether they're faithful to Tolkien's book, the only answer is: no way, no how.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

the body parts collection

My previous "world according to cat" post read, "I will gladly pet your hand with my head." I looked at that and thought, the two significant nouns in that sentence are both the surnames of people whose work I know. I started to make a list of other people whose surnames are body parts.

Elizabeth Hand
Anthony Stewart Head
Rollie Fingers
Michael Foot
Walter Legge
Edward Thye (who?)
Dave Nee
William Hare, of Burke and
Johann Sebastian Bach (okay, that may be stretching it)
J.F. Bone
Dr. Teeth
and, of course,
Philip K. Dick

ETA: A correspondent has added:
Frances Gumm (later known as Judy Garland)
Christina Scull

world according to cat

Don't sit in the chair that I'm hiding under.

Monday, January 13, 2014

world according to cat

"I will gladly pet your hand with my head."

musical query

Does anybody around here like Bartók? I mean, really like Bartók?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

world according to cat

The safest place in the bathroom is behind the toilet.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


1. Here's an article proclaiming that "The Bechdel Test needs an update: We've set the bar for female representation too low." I'm not sure if the author gets the point: setting the bar too low was the purpose of the Bechdel Test. The idea was to point out how awful things were: "Even with so simple and easy a requirement, most movies still can't pass it!" If now more of them can, as the article implies, then yes, the Bechdel Test has served its purpose and we need a new one.

2. Speaking of Bechdel testing, here's an article describing a book that explains why Meryl Streep is a great actress. Essentially it's that she "forced herself to intervene in order to give a sense of agency or even human complexity to characters she had agreed to play." Apparently the breakthrough for her was giving motivation and justification to Joanna Kramer.

3. This in turn leads us to Streep dissing Walt Disney. He was sexist and racist and didn't like cats. Well, long before I knew anything else, I knew that American animation as an industry hated cats. In old cartoons featuring them, it's almost always the good guy dogs and mice/birds teaming up against the evil cats. Once in a while there's a good cat, but not often. "We are Siamese, if you please ..."

But it wasn't Disney's sexism or racism that did the most harm, actually. It was something Streep doesn't mention: his ingrained anti-Communism. Nothing wrong with an American capitalist being suspicious of Communists, but Disney saw them under the bed. Why was there an animators' strike in 1941? Because Disney wouldn't accept the union; he thought it was Communist. Why did Disney strongly support Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial campaign? Because he thought the Democrats had been co-opted by Communists.

4. Going a little further down the Disney road, here's Mark Evanier on why he didn't like Saving Mr. Banks. Basically it was that Travers was depicted as too much of an unpleasant crank to be enjoyable to watch. Whether the real Travers was like that is beside Mark's point: he didn't like the movie. I agree about her character, but, not being involved in the movie business myself, I have a perspective that's hard for movie-making folk like Mark or Disney himself to see. What I see in Saving Mr. Banks is an author desperately trying to preserve her beloved creation from a man who, in all innocence, wants to pour smarm all over her, and that's exactly what he did. Travers is a crank, yes, but she's a right crank. I see her in this movie as being something like, oh, maybe Sam, the protagonist of Gilliam's Brazil, slowly driven mad by the surrounding society. And, like Sam, Saving's Travers is eventually, tragically, assimilated by the system.

5. And one more, a pouty interview with Alan Moore. I'm not familiar with the work being discussed in the key question, but the principle is clear enough. As I commented in the F770 post that led me to this, if Moore really can't tell the difference between being criticized for "two white men 'reclaim'[ing] or otherwise utilis[ing] a contentious black character" and a rule that "no author or artist should presume to use characters who are of a different race to themselves," then, well ... Some people are born willfully obtuse, some achieve willful obtuseness, and some have it thrust upon them.

6. All right, I'm going to Fogcon, even though part of the weekend is already occupied. I was seduced by a panel proposal, on "trilogy structure." The first sentences of the description read: "There is a canonical trilogy structure -- Tolkien uses it, Moorcock used it, and it's familiar to many readers. Other writers, such as William Gibson and Tim Powers, have constructed their trilogies rather differently." This is already so many kinds of wrong in its entire premise that I signed up in hopes that I can sputter about it on the panel, if they do it at all, which I actually rather hope they don't.

Friday, January 10, 2014


1. Everybody's talking about Chris Christie's "Bridgegate." Even Ernie and Bert have wandered into the act.

2. We have a cat. More on this once we have an idea of what manner of cat we have.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

After having spent most of the previous two days at the vet's with a sick cat, I spent most of Wednesday at the hospital with a sick human. Nevertheless, I managed to attend last night's concert, first installment of a two-week Beethoven and Mason Bates festival. Who? Mason Bates, 37 this month and residing locally, is one of those rising younger composers who are blessed with a lot of orchestra time. I've heard his work in concert several times before; at first I was not much impressed, but he's been growing on me and apparently becoming a better composer. The work on next week's program is one of the earlier ones of his I heard and wasn't too impressed by, so we'll see if it improves on re-acquaintance.

The biggest compliment I can give Bates' The B-Sides, the five-movement suite that represented him on this week's program, is that it didn't make me wonder what it was doing on the same concert with Beethoven. The orchestration is bright and shimmery, with much wind and percussion overlaying a relatively motionless string base. Repeating motives flash over and run past each other in different instruments. All the movements are different - no trouble telling when the ones that run together change- but it all sounds a lot like John Adams. Many young composers write this way, but Bates shows more assurance, skill, and, at least in his better works, taste than most.

What he's particularly learned to do is restrain the self-performed electronica that he likes to stick in his scores. One of the movements in this suite depicts the Gemini IV space walk by means of playing tapes of the voice recordings of the astronauts and mission control talking. Surprisingly, this does not become intrusive, and it adds the inestimable advantage that the listener doesn't have to guess at what the composer is depicting as the piece goes along. The way the music opens up at the moment Ed White says, "I'm going outside" really adds to the experience of reliving the event, and in a way refreshingly different from the retro-nationalist blare of typical space movie music.

As for Beethoven's part, Sasha Barantschik played the two Romances with requisite sweetness, and MTT wowed the audience with an awesomely fast and punchy Seventh Symphony. The only reason I wasn't blown away is that I've heard him, and those dazzling musicians of his, do exactly the same thing with this piece before.

Lots and lots of younger people - late 20s and 30s, I suspect - at this concert. The ones in the row behind me talked among themselves in the quick and jauntily referential manner that was typical of my friends when we were that age. (We've slowed down a lot since then.) If they came for Mason Bates, good for them, and I think they liked Beethoven too.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

fast food follies, part 3

(part 1) (part 2)

It's already written, so I might as well finish it up.

Church's Chicken
I hate to say it, but this is a chain that believes that only ghetto-dwellers eat fried chicken, because I've never found an outlet anywhere else. Apparently they decided that East San Jose wasn't downscale enough for them (or was it that it had too many Mexicans and not enough Blacks?) because both their outlets there abruptly closed several years ago, and now there aren't any less than 50 miles away. In a way, I kind of miss sitting there in a booth, quietly eating my chicken, when some guy would slip into the seat on the other side of the table and try to sell me some cocaine. That never happened anywhere else. But the chicken was pretty good, a change from KFC in the days before Popeyes, as long as they didn't try to dress it up. Church's attempts at spicy or whatnot were inevitably disastrous. Just get the plain original chicken.

Long John Silver's
There's a local KFC which doubles as a Long John Silver's, and that's my only experience with it. I tried the fish. Once.

Krispy Kreme
A Southern chain which arrived here with great fanfare some years ago, temporarily generating lines even longer than the ones outside the new Chick-fil-A. Someone brought in some of the donuts to work and insisted we try their wonderfulness. Now, I like donuts, and I've been a regular patron of the local independent donut shops. The Krispy Kreme was the most repulsive, oversweetened, body-less, and utterly vile donut I've ever had. And that's when it was fresh and piping hot. Eaten when cool, it was far worse than that.

El Pollo Loco
I found this chain in LA in the early 80s, and then, like Popeyes a few years later, it followed me home. (The name may be freely translated as "Psycho Chicken," which was the title of a parody version of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer." I don't know if there's a connection.) I ought to eat here more often, because, as long as they don't leave it on the grill too long, the chicken is tasty, and it's unquestionably better for you than anything fried, but it is awfully expensive for what is just a little char-broiled chicken. I usually order an off-menu item whose existence I discovered long ago: the "wing-lovers' special" - 3 or 4 wings, depending on how generous they're feeling that day, plus the usual sides, for $5.

Boston Market
Another chain that followed me home - I discovered it when attending a late-80s Readercon in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city with, outside of the hotel, all the ambience of a bomb site and as many places to eat, so I subsisted on driving across the town limits to the neighboring towns which all had Boston Markets, and soon afterwards they started appearing here. It's another place I'd eat at more often if there were more around. The rotisserie chicken is always meltingly tender, even the breast meat, and there's a wide selection of tasty and healthy sides. But they should stick to what they know: recently they introduced ribs, and they were the worst ribs ever: so hard I couldn't cut them with a knife. I sent them back and got chicken in their place.

In-N-Out Burger
Another chain from elsewhere introduced here with great fanfare, to my mystification when I tried it, which I did several times to ensure it wasn't a freak occurrence. The burger was piled high with all the stuff I don't want on a burger, and the on-menu options were limited (I subsequently learned there's an elaborate list of off-menu choices, none of which quite do it for me), and somewhere hiding in among it all was a small, overcooked, tasteless beef patty. This must be the burger that the famous Wendy's "where's the beef?" commercial was intended to parody. On top of which, the place's name sounds like a laxative.

A fundamental memory of childhood that I hardly visit any more because there are hardly any around any more. What's it still doing on the top 50 list? There's better ice cream, but it was certainly good enough.

The only mystery about Wingstop is why I don't eat here daily, especially considering that the nearest outlet is closer to me than any of the others. I love chicken wings, they cook them well, and the flavorings are tangily delicious and work well with the meat, qualities conspicuously absent in most other chicken-wing vendors, many of which are really more like bars with chicken wings attached. Well, Wingstop is expensive - and doesn't have discount days - and I think if I ate here often, I might get tired of it, which I don't want to happen. So I save it for a very occasional treat.

Jamba Juice
There's one of these at Stanford, and a few times I've dropped in when I could really use a hearty juice. There's a couple of combo juices that actually don't contain anything I dislike.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


While I've been diverting you with fast-food follies, serious stuff has been going on. One of these has come to its conclusion for Pandora, our 18-year-old cat. For several years she's suffered from two chronic illnesses requiring contradictory treatments; we've been juggling foods and medications for these and shuttling her back and forth to the vet for quite a while. Finally last weekend the illnesses just got to her and her little body began to shut down; her life came to a quiet end at the vet's office this morning.

What I prefer to remember is this bouncy little kitten with, throughout her life, the softest fur you ever petted:
Even well into middle age, she would shift instantly among three modes: Snooze, Squiggle, and Zoom. Zoom, later renamed Rocket Girl, would tear around the house and particularly loved feathers. Squiggle preferred laser pointers. Snooze could most easily be summoned by laying a sheet of paper on the living room floor: Pandora would inevitably come and sit on it, and then fall asleep, usually on her head. I know that's hard to imagine: this is the closest to a photo of it that we've got.
But it was Rocket Girl who was most memorable. Waggle a feather high above her and she'd perform her most dazzling trick, leaping straight up about four feet, contorting about in the air, and landing in exactly the spot she took off from, except facing the opposite direction.

She was a rescue kitty who came already named, which we accepted because Pandora is the name of an equally inquisitive and surprising character from one of my favorite books, Le Guin's Always Coming Home. But we joked about renaming her Evelyn, because she was such a mighty Leaper. From the beginning, too, there were hints of the imperious personality that would flower after Seven died and she inherited the position of Top Cat. Her attitude on Pippin has always been, "I am the cat. Pay no attention to the thing that hides in the closet. I am the cat." She would be furious if she ever spotted another cat outside on the patio; we learned to chase them off rather than try to discipline her. For these reasons it's not improbable that, had that character existed yet, she'd have been named for Glorificus, the season 5 Big Bad on Buffy.

But, when not loudly insisting on food - in her last years, after losing weight alarmingly, she went on a feed-on-demand diet, and demand she did - she could be a sweet cat with various interesting sounds substituting for purrs. Pippin, who just wanted to be Glory's minion (albeit better-looking than the ones on Buffy), showed real concern as Pandora's health declined over the past few days, and since she went away this morning he's been hiding out in the closet again. How do we assure him that he's not next?

Monday, January 6, 2014

fast food follies, part 2

(part 1)

My mind refuses to accept this spelling as the intended "chick-filet" pronunciation, and insists on "chick-fil-uh."* Until recently, this chain was unheard-of around here, so I knew it only for its neanderthal politics. Last fall, after much controversy, a branch opened locally. For the first week, the line of cars went down two blocks. I decided to put my moral revulsion aside long enough to try a chicken sandwich. Impressive, actually. They've mastered the art of cooking a chicken breast in a fast-food environment so that it's not dried out, which nobody else on this list except Boston Market can do consistently. And, unless you ask for it, they don't put any crap on the sandwich except pickles. Like Paula Deen, they know how to cook something even if they're also awful people. You just have to decide where you're going to draw the line.

This used to stand for "Kentucky Fried Chicken," but they no longer want you to know that they once had "Fried" in their name. I was tickled to discover on my trip to Quebec that, despite the deracination of the name, the KFCs there are still labeled PFK. Chicken-on-the-bone is my favorite kind of fast food, because there's only so far that processing can ruin it. Accordingly, I still eat here, because it's ubiquitous and the chicken is tolerable, but even the original recipe, by far their best product, is only a pale shadow of what I remember from my childhood, when the Colonel was still connected with the company and they still cooked with his genuine recipe. (It seems necessary these days to affirm that yes, he was a real person.) The only chicken I've had in recent years that reminded me of the old KFC was at the family-style restaurants in the Amish countries in Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Panera Bread
Yuppie fast food, definitely a cut above most of the others. I don't go here on my own, because sandwiches are not my preferred food, but when I'm with others who want to go here, I can always find something I want, and it's good.

Jack in the Box
Down there with Taco Bell, this resides at the absolute bottom of the barrel, the nether effluence of fast food. I've eaten here twice. Both times the food looked good and didn't initially taste bad, but I felt nauseous for the rest of the day. These occasions were both well over thirty years ago, but never, ever, ever again. If there's a Jack in the Box, there might as well be nothing.

I liked their roast beef sandwich when I was a child, but I tried one again maybe 15 years ago and it was terrible. There's not many around here, and I'm not going back.

Chipotle Mexican Grill
First off, I can never remember whether it's pronounced chi-poe-tul or chi-pot-lee. Secondly, it's yuppie, and, while that means it's no Taco Bell, yuppie and Mexican don't mix in my book. I went here once, and had a burrito that tasted more like a wrap, and I'd far rather have a burrito than a wrap.

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
As there's no apostrophe in its name, I choose to pronounce it pope-yes, which is just as valid as pop-eyes.* I discovered this chain on a trip to Florida in the late 80s, and then it followed me home. At first there were just a few outlets in far corners of the region, but since it became more common hereabouts, their chicken has been my top choice in fast food, especially on Tuesdays when they offer a dark-meat special for almost as cheap as the inferior fried chicken from the supermarket. I cannot tell the difference between the spicy and mild varieties. I don't care for their shrimp.

Panda Express
I have a love-hate relationship with this chain. What I love is that the food is about as good as you can expect steam-table Chinese to be, miles above any other chain of the kind and equal to the better stand-alone places. I also love that you can get steamed veggies in place of the usual chow mein/fried rice choice. What I hate is that the menu is limited, that they keep dropping my favorite entrees (gone are the bbq pork, the Mandarin chicken, the peppercorn shrimp - there's only about three left that I like), that every single outlet has exactly the same dishes and changes the offerings at exactly the same time, and that it's an invasive species that is conquering all the habitats. Where is the Chinese counter at the Stanford student union that offered those scrumptious salt-and-pepper chicken wings? Gone, replaced by a Panda Express, which offers nothing of the sort. Where is the weird Chinese-Cajun fusion place at Hillsdale mall which had such interesting fish dishes? Gone, replaced by Panda Express, which has no fish.

Carl's Jr.
Mark hates this place, but I find it OK. My adult taste actually likes a couple of their elaborate burgers, so long as I can substitute for that yucky American cheese a slice of pepper jack, which they're always willing to do and always get right. And they have fried zucchini, otherwise unknown in fast food and fairly tasty. When I was driving the isolated back-country roads to LA and crossed the freeway at a big fast-food pit stop, the only food I would see for hours in either direction, it was at Carl's Jr. that I had lunch.

Five Guys Burgers & Fries
Now this is a good burger, and now that it's nearby this is where I go when I want one. Like the Wendy's of yore, it's always cooked fresh and a la carte, so I can get what I want on it. (On both counts - quality of the meat and flexibility of the menu - it scores far above In & Out.) And those bins full of free roasted peanuts are the bomb.

*Why do I take these liberties with corporate names, when I would never be so rude as to intentionally mispronounce a person's name? Because corporations aren't people.

(to be concluded)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

fast food follies, part 1

Mark Evanier found a list of the 50 top fast food chains in the US in sales, and he's been blogging his reactions to all of those that he's been to. All right, I can do that too. I'm not here to deconstruct economics or nutrition - others do that better than I - I'm just looking for something to eat in an imperfect world. I don't eat fast food really often, but sometimes I'm in a hurry and just want a known quality, so I have a few favorites. And a lot of un-favorites. I will not be evaluating the fries, by the way, because I don't eat potato.

My father would sometimes take the troops here when I was a kid. I don't know why. None of us liked it very much, and it took a long time (by fast-food standards) to special-order the kind of burgers we all wanted, which was just the meat and the bun. Today I will only eat at McDonald's if I'm in desperate need of a little belly-timber and there's nothing else around, in which case I get some chicken nuggets, which 1) are served immediately without special-ordering, 2) have interesting choices of sauces, and 3) taste as if they were once in the same county as an actual chicken.

I'm not sure I've ever eaten here, because I don't care for most subs any more than I care for hamburgers with all the fixins. But they certainly are ubiquitous.

I lived in Seattle back when there literally was only one Starbucks, the one in Pike Place. But even then I never patronized it, and I still don't. I don't drink coffee, and I only go in when I'm with other people who want to go there. And I've never found a single thing there I wanted to either drink or eat, except a cup of water.

Alas, my lost love. I lived around the corner from a Wendy's thirty years ago, and grabbed a burger there often. In those days the menu was entirely a la carte, which meant that you could order it however you wanted and it would still come fast, with a hot, freshly-cooked patty of good quality meat. I also liked their salad bar, because it had French dressing. Unfortunately, they've cut down the menu. After a period of options so confusing even the staff didn't understand them, now all the burgers come default with cheese. This means that even if you say "NO CHEESE" very loudly and clearly, at least half the time they'll still put the cheese on by reflex. This is devastating at the drive-thru when you don't discover it until miles later. Also, it means you now have to pay cheeseburger prices even if it's not a cheeseburger. I've pretty much given up on Wendy's.

Burger King
I tried this once, decades ago. The burger looked good, but the meat tasted like rubberized plastic. You don't want to know my childhood nickname for this place. The fact that they're tasteless enough to call their signature product a "whopper" doesn't help.

Taco Bell
No. I will not eat here, or at any of its pseudo-Mexican knockoffs, under any circumstances. So take this as read for all the similar chains on the list.

Pizza Hut
It's a cracker with cheese on it. Not what I want in a pizza. (I've never tried any other large-chain pizza, which also wipes off a considerable portion of the list of 50 right there.)

(to be continued)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

on the day after Tolkien's birthday

Yesterday evening I happened to browse upon JRRT's entry in Wikipedia. The only other time I took a close look at this was years ago, to establish that it had fewer factual errors in 11,000 words than Tolkien's World Book entry did in a couple hundred words.

This time, however, I found a more recently added howler faithfully reproduced from its source. In the biographical section under World War II, it notes that in 1939 Tolkien
took an instructional course at the London HQ of the Government Code and Cypher School. However, although he was "keen" to become a codebreaker, he was informed in October that his services would not be required at that time.
Source for this info and characterization is a 2009 news article on newly-released government documents, saying that "although he was ''keen'', Tolkien - a professor of English literature at Oxford University - declined a £500-a-year offer to become a full-time recruit." Further down the article, it explains that "A record of his training carries the word ''keen'' beside his name."

Ah. Does it, then? I remembered this point coming up in an e-mail group discussion at the time of the article's publication. I didn't have time last night to provide the source citation that Wikipedia demands, but this morning I looked up the archives of that e-mail group, logged into my now rarely-used Wikipedia account, and added the following observation to the source footnote for the word "keen":
Tolkien scholar Anders Stenström has suggested (Mythsoc Yahoo Groups list, 20 Sep 2009) that "In all likelihood, that is not a record of Tolkien's interest, but a note about how to pronounce the name."
Let's see if that survives the maniacal Wikipedia editors.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

mazel tov, it's Asimov

Today (Thursday), which happens to be the 94th birthday anniversary of the late Isaac Asimov, also happens to be the day that a number of writers have arisen and dusted off an Asimov column from 1964 predicting the civilization of 50 years in the future, i.e. this very new year.

Surprisingly, he doesn't say anything about the Internet, even though the Multivac, the all-knowledge-storing computer in some of his fiction stories, behaves rather like Siri. And he's decidedly off in several ways: flying cars, abundant fission power, moon colonies, etc. But a number of his predictions are pretty much right on, as the authors linked to above note.

A few comments of my own:

Asimov: So let the missiles slumber eternally on their pads
They did that. Not many people in 1964 were willing to assume confidently that there wouldn't be a thermonuclear war. The rule had always been: new weapons, no matter how ugly, always get used. But this one was frightening enough that we didn't dare. The original a-bomb was used, but for nearly 70 years since then we've all refrained. To continue to do so will require dedication and luck, but not "I'm falling past the second floor and I'm still OK" kind of luck.

Asimov: By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.
You can do that sort of thing, but one thing that's changed since 1964 is that Scandinavian modern design is no longer so much in fashion.

Asimov: Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare "automeals" ... Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.
We have that, with only a slight difference in emphasis. Frozen and refrigerated food, meet microwave oven. Not so good for a cholesterol-heavy breakfast as Asimov imagines, but bring on the stunningly sophisticated (by 1964 standards: I remember those days) pre-made dinners, exactly as he describes.

Asimov: Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.
This is far more accurate than the advanced but clumsy robot science he was depicting for our time in his 1940s robot stories. And it's exactly right: they're rare and unsophisticated, but they work. There's the Roomba, which has been around for about a decade, for instance. On my last visit to a hospital, a few weeks ago, I was a bit startled but not at all surprised to encounter a wheeled robot trundling down a corridor carrying supplies. I wasn't rude enough to stand in its way to see what would happen, but it did clearly have an eye to help it avoid obstacles.
What Asimov hasn't been able to get away from, with his image of a robot housemaid, is his 1940s idea of robots as human-shaped for maximum versatility. Specialized robots designed to fit their particular function turns out to be the way we've gone.

Asimov: computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English.
Translation programs, though still clumsy, are a vast improvement on where they were even a decade ago.

Asimov: Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with "Robot-brains"*vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.
This is most impressive prediction in the entire story, because that's exactly where we are with this: we're working on it, and it functions in an experimental way.

Asimov: For short-range travel, moving sidewalks will be making their appearance in downtown sections.
What's wrong with this is that the sidewalks would be too restrictive in destination. Instead, we have the Segway, which, while it may never become common, at least it allows riders to pick their own directions.

Asimov: Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone.
For decades, this was promised, but nobody seemed to want it. Now it's become practical and apparently some people do want it, at least some of the time.

Asimov: Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth
This falls in the category of being so everyday that it's hard to remember that we didn't use to be able to do that.

Asimov spends several paragraphs discussing population pressure. This was his principal alarmist issue, one which he continued to sound the bell on for the rest of his life. In fact, he somewhat underestimated world population. What's strange is that hardly anyone seems alarmed by this any more. The predictions I've seen all say that world population will stop rising so fast and then gradually level off, but they don't explain why that's likely to happen.

Instead, the danger we face is climate change, something known about in 1964 but it didn't seem to concern anybody.

One more item.

Asimov: Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!
Oh, indeed. It's the continuing intensification of an economic trend that's been going on for decades. The one thing all the futurologists who extolled our glorious leisure-filled future failed to ask is one which Asimov, with his ominous view of this possibility, seems to guess at. And that is: If we're not going to be working, what made us think that that we were still going to be paid?