Friday, February 28, 2014


I've finally seen the movie Up, which appeared five years ago (and not to be confused with Up in the Air, which came out the same year). Reports had been that the opening sequence was brilliant and the rest merely OK.

That's about right. A mythic story should have a deep internal coherence to it; this one had a deep internal incoherence, though superficially it was explicable enough. Spoilers are necessary here.

First problem: The deep story in Up is of a man who learns to love more than himself (and the memory of his dead wife). This is expressed by his giving up his clinging to his house and saving the bird instead. The problem is that he doesn't evolve from the one position to the other; instead, he jumps back and forth, and his motivations for changing are given no weight, no heft. The fact that, even at the beginning, this grumpy "get off my lawn"-type curmudgeon is shown as tenderly devoted to his wife's memory already sends mixed signals, instead of being, as it should be, the hidden key to eventually cracking his shell (see Ebenezer Scrooge for a better job of conveying such a character, much as I hate to praise Dickens for anything).

This also shows in the way that the story is framed as Carl's quest to get to Paradise Falls, and when he finally gets there after a lifetime of effort, the achievement is just shrugged off, the story having been hijacked by something else.

Second problem: The protagonist's childhood hero turns out to be the villain; not just deluded but a cold-eyed murderer. This is vertiginously disconcerting, and is addressed only in one offhand line of dialogue. And what is the villain's evil plan? To bring an unknown animal to the light of scientific discovery. I'm sorry, but I cannot consider that a villainous motive, any more than I can that of the scientists in E.T. To embed that motive in villainous behavior, both towards the animal and towards our heroes, is even more vertiginously disconcerting.

Third problem, and this one it shares with almost every recent movie of its kind except Shrek: the climax of the plot becomes a theme park ride, full of exaggerated adventure underivable from the setup. For instance, Russell, clearly established as a Boy Scout who can't climb a rope (or build a tent: how'd he get all those other merit badges anyway?), now climbs a rope.

It's not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with the story being told, it's just told badly. As so often, especially for animated movies, millions for SFX and not one cent for a script. Well, this time a few cents, but not much more.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom

Some clown named Tim Draper wants to break apart California. He's preparing to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to separate it into not two, but six states. His own website has nothing but a crude map and contact info, but people have undertaken to analyze and to critique the proposal, both of them getting his map wrong. (See the video at the end of the second article for getting the map wrong differently.)

While I wouldn't be opposed to the idea of splitting California into two states, which the legislature actually passed around 1860 and Congress failed to act on because it was distracted by some war, six is too many. Politically it would balkanize the region as the East Coast is. I ran the proposal against the 2010 US census and got these figures, with a note on what each state's population ranking would be among the 55 states:
West California (LA and central coast): 11,335,455 (7th)
South California (San Diego and inland empire): 10,504,924 (8th)
Silicon Valley (SF and Monterey bays): 6,597,332 (15th)
Central California (San Joaquin Valley, south Sierras, Owens Valley): 4,124,776 (29th)
North California (north bay, Sacramento, central Sierras, Tahoe): 3,763,648 (31st)
Jefferson (far north): 927,821 (49th)
The two most populous would be mid-level powerhouses politically, between Ohio and Michigan in population, Silicon Valley would be between Washington and Massachusetts, the next two would bracket Kentucky, Oregon, and Oklahoma, and the state of Jefferson would be a vacant hole with only one member of Congress, with a population between Montana's and Delaware's, far less than any other state west of Wyoming. The proposal would produce a lot more senators, but not much else.

The poverty of the Central and Jefferson states, described in the first article, and their lack of infrastructure (only one UC campus, and that small and new, between them, and just two state university campuses in Jefferson, for instance, both very much at odds with what the political ethos of the state would be) are other issues.

I want to focus on two other things:

1. The boundaries are stupid.
I give four examples.
First, "North California" makes no sense as a separate political entity. It wanders from a coastal region, containing a full 20% of the state's population with only three one-lane winding highways connecting it to its interior, to disparate urban valley and mountainous regions, each of the three far more akin to areas immediately outside its boundaries than to each other.
Second, putting the Owens Valley in Central California instead of in South, where the rest of the state's desert goes. Really the Owens Valley would be happier in Nevada, but south is the only other direction in California it can conveniently reach. During the winter, the direct passes over the Sierras are closed, and you'd have to go around, almost out of the state, to reach its population centers.
Third, splitting the LA urban area right down the middle between West and South. Wherever in the US there's a major urban area split between two states, it's a headache. Why create another one?
Fourth, same thing goes with running a border down San Francisco Bay. That'd make five (not four, five) toll bridges interstate, and it's already enough of a nuisance with them crossing county lines.

2. Most of the names are stupid.
"North California" isn't in the north. "West California" mostly isn't in the west. "North California" and "South California" have the same initials as North and South Carolina. "West California" has the initials W.C. "Silicon Valley" as a name for the entire region is stupid beyond belief. Both ends of the state would revolt against this fetishization of one aspect of part of its center. Call it Baylands, if you must, as it's focused on two big bays.

If the signature-gatherers find me, I'm not signing this one, and I'm not voting for it, either.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Potlatch: end

I've not too much to say about Potlatch on Sunday. We somehow managed to avoid getting tickets to the banquet; apparently going through the PayPal routine on the website was insufficient. There were a couple of program items that mostly listed things. Then we went home.

I should, however, mention something that got squeezed out of the lengthy Saturday panel report. Friday's panel on the history of San Jose had included mention of the hidden art in the King Library, the joint main library of the city and the city university. So I decided to post an Algonquin, Potlatch's do-it-yourself programming slot, of a tour of the hidden art, since I know where most of it is and have showed it off to people before. "See neat stuff!" said the post.

Some ten people showed up for the tour, including some locals. We saw the secret hidden bookcase, and the six-legged Vermin Miller chairs by the entomology section, and the Owl of Minerva, and the granite tables in the shape of continental plates (on wheels, so you can reunite Pangaea), and Alice in Wonderland's door in the elevator, and the Golden Gate of 88 gold-plated carburetors, and the Rosetta stone-shaped display that shows the I Ching, and the Skeptacle, and the Tweety Bird chair, and lots more.

Then I left them off at the library booksale which was occupying the back patio.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Potlatch: Saturday

Crime & Fantasy: When Genres Collide. Consisted mostly of recommendations of a) SF books that are also crime stories; b) crime stories that would appeal to SF readers, usually for the detail of their world-building.
In my comment from the audience, I used one of my favorite SF stories to raise a question about why mysteries often don't appeal to me. The story was "The Moon Moth" by Jack Vance, the plot of which is technically a murder mystery. The amateur detective has to identify which of three men is the disguised murderer. The thing is, while it matters greatly within the fictive universe which man it is, because he has to arrest the right one, it matters not one whit to the story. In fact, though I've read the story many times, I can never remember which one it is. All that matters is how the protagonist figures it out, which I do remember, and above all the exotic culture which raises the difficulty in the first place: that, not the plot, is the story's real subject.
So "The Moon Moth" is a nominal mystery: it uses the format, but the reader can ignore the mystery part of the plot. The problem is, I have the same difficulty with genre mysteries. I can't work up any interest in identifying the criminal, and I only enjoy such stories when, as with "The Moon Moth", that's the least important part of the book. That's why I enjoy most of Dorothy Sayers, but not Agatha Christie. Someone in the audience had just recommended The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King. I loved the first half of that novel: sprightly young woman meets elderly Sherlock Holmes. But then they get involved in solving some mystery, and my interest rapidly plummeted. I never finished the book.
So my question was: what is my problem, since so many others obviously don't have it? The panel gave a collective shrug, but a couple other audience members came up to me afterwards with comments which, if this had happened online and I reported it, would be derided as "The lurkers support me in e-mail."

Book of Honor: The City & the City. John D. Berry, from the audience, raised an aesthetic problem with this novel, which I endorsed. He didn't like the way the setting was non-specific generic Eastern Europe: an imaginary city in a location not specified but somewhere around there, made of bits of Czech, Hungarian, Romanian, and other cultures all mushed together. Such amalgams are common in that setting, and it often indicates an author not knowing or caring about the culture being used, though surely Miéville is not that crude. You don't see this sort of mush in American settings, John said. From the master book-designer in the SF world, such an aesthetic critique must be taken seriously, yet the rest of the audience proceeded to respond in a massive display of Not Getting It. They said there's plenty of "generic Midwest" in fiction. But that's not presented as an amalgam of different cultures. Contrary to some claims, the US Midwest is nowhere near as diverse as Eastern Europe - anyone who claims it is knows nothing of either - and stories set there don't consciously try to mush together the diversity that does exist. Lisa Harrigan cited Kansas in The Wizard of Oz. But not only is Kansas hardly that diverse, but Baum is not trying to mix together Kansas City, the Flint Hills, and the High Plains into one setting. If it's nonspecific within Kansas (which it isn't - Baum specifies the prairies), it's through lack of detail, not through accumulation of contradictory detail.

Books of Honorable Mention. Moderator: "Our next book is, um, how do I pronounce this foreign title? Has anyone read this? Anyone have any comments? Anyone? Well, let's go on to the next one." (Actually, it wasn't that bad at all. It just seemed that way.)

Science Fiction/Science Fact. I wrote down two lines from this one. Ellen Klages: "We are now recommending books which, if you ignore the plot and the writing, are pretty nice objects." Gerald Nordley: "If you don't understand it, don't explain it."

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Kalimac's Potlatch lessons

As our fearless chair observed at opening ceremonies yesterday, what really counts in running a convention like Potlatch is declaring a space and a time, and getting the word out. When people show up and start conversing, that's the convention.

But actually it takes a lot of hard work, and considering that the future of Potlatch was pretty much given up for dead at the last one, it's a considerable achievement.

My small part of that was the restaurant guide, now online in full. And thanks to those who edited it and performed the truly heroic job of converting and formatting it. A version somewhat abridged for space, but still 20 pages long, occupies much of the program book.

Previously we'd had just the descriptions of the most nearby restaurants and a list of the rest, but even that was an effort considering that there's over 150 of them and that, like mayflies, they just won't stand still. I've actually updated the online version from the printed one a little. The lesson of restaurant-guide compilation I've learned from this experience is: if you go by a restaurant that's under construction with an "opening soon" sign in front, and there's a bunch of guys sitting at a table inside, and you lean in the doorway and ask when they'll actually be opening, don't believe what they tell you.

Now, Kalimac's supplements to a panel on the history of San Jose:

1. The reason that San Jose, which lasted as California's first state capital for only a year because there was insufficient guest rooming for a legislature in 1850, became the capital in the first place is that, at the constitutional convention (held in Monterey, the old Mexican capital, which didn't have enough rooming either), the delegates from San Jose assured the convention that it did. So not trusting folks from San Jose about their city's amenities has a long history of advisability.

2. The reason old Sarah Winchester moved out of what's now known as the Winchester Mystery House after the 1906 earthquake is that the quake shifted the house's foundations and she was trapped in her bedroom, and couldn't get out until one of the construction workers broke the door open.

3. After the 1933 lynching (on trees in St. James Park downtown, a place I can never pass without a shudder) of two men arrested for an infamous kidnapping-murder in San Jose, the Governor pre-emptively announced he'd pardon anyone arrested for the lynching. Which promted this editorial cartoon from Edmund Duffy of the Baltimore Sun, with the caption "California Points With Pride." It also prompted a subsequent Pulitzer Prize to Duffy.

4. The silted-up port of Alviso, and the proudly independent neighborhood of Willow Glen, are not the only neighboring cities annexed by San Jose in its rush to expansion. There was also East San Jose, which was along Santa Clara Street between Coyote Creek and what's now 101, and which was gobbled up in the 1910s. The town had its own Carnegie library, which (recently expanded) still serves as a branch of the San Jose PL.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

concert review: Murray Perahia

About forty years ago, I attended a concert of Music from Marlboro, part of a touring program given by young musicians who'd participated in that festival-cum-musical-summer-camp in Vermont. One of the pieces, I remember, was Schumann's Piano Quintet, and I was pleased by the pianist, in particular, who seemed immensely talented and likely to have a great career ahead of him. And indeed he did, for his name was Murray Perahia.

Today, as one of the grand old masters, Perahia gave a recital at Davies. I don't often attend piano recitals here, because it's too cavernous a space, but this one was irresistible, and the repertoire was a large part of making it so. We had one of Bach's French Suites, in a hearty performance, and Schumann's Papillons, in a rather dreamy one. We had Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, a famously keyboard-smashing work, in a surprisingly introspective reading, and a passel of Chopin, concluding with my favorite of all Chopin pieces, the Op. 31 Scherzo.

Very satisfying little program. Surrounded by audience on all sides, Perahia looked almost uncertain where to bow, and after one encore, he finally silenced the applause by just not coming out yet again.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos is one of the few conductors still around who were already famous when I first began learning about classical music. Though apparently not famous enough, as nobody whom I've mentioned his name to has ever heard of him. ("Rafael who? Kubelik?") He's a little old man who likes to waggle his baton a lot, and in this manner he conducted a bifurcated program.

One half was all Haydn, and very early Haydn at that: his "Le Matin" Symphony and 1st Cello Concerto, the latter whipped off with ease by Alisa Weilerstein, a woman hefty enough to look as if she really can play the cello.

The other, from some 120 years later, was that giant wedge of orchestral wodge, Scheherazade. It was a well-shaped performance with drive and liveliness. The orchestral sound, though, and just the sound, seemed a little coarse and internally disconnected, a rather unusual sound for the contemporary SFS.

Scheherazade has a lot of violin solos representing the titular character. These were played by Nadya Tichman, the #2 concertmaster and on duty in the #1 chair tonight. She also played the violin parts of the numerous solos in Haydn's symphony, which was written to show off the instrumental talents at the composer's new post at Esterhazy.

But my favorite spot in this symphony is the "sunrise" introduction, which is resembled by nothing else so much as the introduction to Franz Berwald's Sinfonie singulière.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

workday morning

In a stressful time, it feels good to come downstairs in the morning and find two cats waiting, one to be fed and the other (who is a grazer with her own secret stash of food the first cat knows nothing about) waiting to be played with, which I originally took up to distract her from his food dish. I take what used to be a peacock feather until she bit most of it off, and waggle it in her direction, and she just gets so excited.

Also, all of a sudden, it's exciting times with Potlatch, which is this weekend. First, Kate Schaefer asked a perfectly reasonable question about transport to the hotel, and I realized that we didn't have a directions page, so I hastily threw one up on the site, having previously been tutored by our chair in the arcane art of editing the website. Then he edited it, adding the text of the rather foggy auto directions from the downtown association website that I'd linked to. But that doesn't point directly to the hotel, so I went back in later and edited it so it does. (If only the hotel's website itself included directions, but it doesn't.)

Then late last night, in came a PDF draft of the program book, in which my restaurant guide had been edited down considerably, presumably for space, which is fine, except that those changes dictated other changes which need to be made: correction of the revised coverage, cross-references, the cuisine index, some revision of what got taken out or left in, so, since time is tight (see "this weekend" above), I completed that hastily.

Now, much else to do on less cheerful topics.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

world according to cat

OK, I get that the hand is for petting me, not for playing with. But the part of you that I most like to have rub up against me is the back of your head.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This was the most conventionally-programmed orchestra concert I've been to for a while: one overture, one concerto, and one symphony, all well-known pieces by different composers from a time spread over the standard-repertoire period.

Guest conductor Jaap van Zweden, a Dutch native who's music director in Dallas (which made him the guy on the spot who had to determine the Dallas Symphony's response to the assassination anniversary last fall), led a Tchaikovsky Fourth that zoomed along at top speed without letting up one whit on power. The finale in particular was an amazing thing: the most powerful whams I've ever heard from an orchestra not electronically augmented for the purpose, at a whiz of speed with each note perfectly articulated, for this is, after all, the San Francisco Symphony determined to do its best.

That was the fast parts. The slow parts were almost equally languid. Extremes were at work here. Manic-depressive might be the word. I'd like to hear what van Zweden could do with the finale of Shostakovich's Fifth.

The same could be heard, in miniature, in Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio Overture.

However, none of that did Sibelius's Violin Concerto any good. Despite some dedicated sawing from the soloist, Simone Lamsma (also Dutch, although her so-called bio in the program book was determined to make you hunt for this basic datum), it wafted along without shape or determination, even in the supposedly lively finale. It was as if the orchestra was hiding behind the soloist, and the soloist, though eloquent enough on her own behalf, was disinclined to lead anybody anywhere.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar

I'm not going to tell you about Sid Caesar, who died today. I'm going to show you.

This has got to be the most sophisticated and elaborate comedy sketch involving classical music of all time. Sid Caesar and Nanette Fabray*:
*In the spirit of observing that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, it's worth pointing out that Fabray has had a lifelong serious hearing impairment.

And, if you remember a 1950s reality tv show called This Is Your Life, this absolutely priceless sketch shows what ought to have happened whenever an unsuspecting person was coaxed on stage for a packaged vacation down memory lane. Carl Reiner is the relentless host, Sid Caesar the hapless guest, and Howie Morris the unforgettable "Uncle Goopy":

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

concert and obituary

The concert was by the Eroica Trio at Oshman. Once three young women who wore the most skin-revealing costumes they could get away with on a classical stage, they are now of the slightly older "spent too much time out in the sun, has she?" appearance, wearing slightly more sedate gowns that cover everything from the armpits down. They played a soft, pillowy version of Beethoven's very early Op. 11 piano trio, and followed it up with an even more downy pillow of Benjamin Godard's "Berceuse", which I believe is an arrangement of an opera aria. Which made it even more appropriate that the encore should be a florid arrangement of Gershwin's "Bess You Is My Woman Now", with the cello as Porgy and the violin as Bess.

The other half of the concert, however, was entirely different, tougher and more vigorous in tone. It had Brahms's Op. 87 Trio, notable for the variety of character in its slow movement variations, and the trio of Rebecca Clarke, a composer highly esteemed by the few people who've ever heard of her. This piece came out most impressively, especially the finale which was more Brahmsian than I would have expected it to sound.

The obituary is that of Shirley Temple, a woman who survived with dignity and poise a regime of childhood stardom that would absolutely have crumbled most of her latter-day successors, I name no names. That her politics were as starched as her character - she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1967 as a Republican supporter of the Vietnam war - is of no matter now.

The great mystery of her film career - why it quickly but quietly faded into nothing over the course of her adolescence - did not, for me, survive a viewing of some of her hit films. For it was quickly obvious that, while she was an unnervingly preciously talented dancer and a very good child singer, there was one thing necessary for lasting film stardom that she lacked. She could not act. (Contrast her with Jane Withers, her co-star in Bright Eyes, who could, and who kept on acting into adulthood.) That, I suspect, was the reason.

Monday, February 10, 2014

the best response to evil is to make fun of it

News item:
BAGHDAD (AP) — An instructor teaching his militant recruits how to make car bombs accidentally set off explosives in his demonstration Monday, killing 21 of them in a huge blast ...


a lecture and a concert

Between them, the two events I attended on Sunday probed two far distant edges of my musical tastes.

The lecture was by Mark Cohen, author of Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. He spoke for 45 minutes (and answered questions briskly for another 15), expounding with greater coherence than I thought he showed in the book his view of Sherman as the breakthrough figure in bringing Jewish humor, and ethnic humor generally, into the white-Anglo mainstream. Sherman's heyday was, he reminded us, before Fiddler on the Roof. Up to Sherman, ethnicity made the mainstream nervous. Sherman himself liked to point out that, though most of the great Broadway hits were by Jews, from listening to them you would never know it. Some early articles on Sherman actually avoided mentioning the word "Jew" or "Jewish", although his first album was his most blatantly ethnic; industry insiders were sure it wouldn't sell except to a demographic they were careful to define geographically, but by which they obviously meant "Jewish". However, it sold vigorously nationwide, and and even JFK was reportedly heard casually singing a song from it.

The lecture was in the afternoon at a Jewish community center in Marin, where it was dripping wet, and the fact that I had to drive all the way up there for it anyway made me susceptible to the charms of an evening concert, at one of those industrial warehouse spaces in the City, by the Kronos Quartet. Especially as the opening act was the always-delightful live tape-loop artist Amy X Neuburg. She performed four songs, three of them old favorites - she's apparently found a satisfactory new toothbrush, and is once again performing "Every Little Stain", which begins by setting up a loop of the sound of rhythmically brushing her teeth - and one slow one that I think was new to me.

Kronos also performed some new and some old stuff. They played Terry Riley's good old minimalist/folk/Indian amalgam G Song and the 1930s blues number I liked so much at their last concert. They played Penderecki's String Quartet No. 1, which consists entirely of chittering sounds and nothing my ears process as music at all, and they played it by facing backwards towards a screen along which the score was scrolling past a colored bar of the kind that indicates the line of scrimmage in televised football games, which was enormously distracting and proved only that the players' timing was anything but exact. They played a piece by a Canadian named John Oswald which consisted of instrumental humming, slowly overlaid in recording until it became unpleasantly loud. And they played a newly-commissioned piece by a young Lebanese-American named Mary Kouyoumdjian. Speaking before the concert, the composer proved to be a native speaker of uptalk, but any illusion that she was thereby not to be taken seriously would be quickly destroyed by her searing composition, which had the charming title of Bombs of Beirut. It followed the pattern of Steve Reich's Different Trains, consisting of the quartet playing dark, somberly beautiful music underneath recordings of Lebanese voices recounting their lives before, during, and after the war and how disruptive that was - plus one unaccompanied, and rather unforgettable, section consisting of what the notes said was an actual tape recording of the bombings and attacks one day circa 1977 - several minutes of endless explosions: roars, crashes, boomings, and screams.

No, not very Shermanesque.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

the designer sat at his drafting board

My brother is visiting, and, as due to late flight arrangements he's using SFO instead of SJC, he's for the first time staying at a hotel up in that direction. This turned out to lie in a wilderness of shopping center, somewhere between San Mateo and Foster City. After I successfully but by blind faith in the instructions got him there, I took a look at a map, and concluded that the whole neighborhood must have been designed and laid out by a city planner punch-drunk with power, especially with what he could do with freeway entrances and exits. Reminded me of Jordin Kare's fictional engineering-machine designer:

And just to make a machinist squeal
I'll have him machine it from tungsten steel.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Tom the Dancing Bug has unearthed an old Winter Olympics cartoon that, if true, would increase my interest in the event to something slightly above zero.

Potlatch restaurant guide

A taste of the Potlatch restaurant guide has been up on the web for some time now. I think the rest of it will go up after it's finished being laid out; in the meantime, for potential amusement, here are the writeups to some of my favorite, and not so favorite, restaurants elsewhere in the area.


Sonoma Chicken Coop: Popular small local chain that still serves its signature dish of robustly tender rotisserie chicken with either a light chipotle bbq sauce or the weirdly yuppified, but actually really good, choices of red wine or vinaigrette, poured over it. But they’ve vastly expanded the menu over the years: sandwiches, pasta plates, dinner salads, California-style pizza ...

Back a Yard: Caribbean food with counter service, inexpensive. Specializes in jerk-style chicken wings, which I find magnificent. The jerk seasoning is not too strong or misjudged, just enough to flavor the thoroughly-cooked but not dry chicken. A thimble of wet sweet/spicy sauce on the side completes the offering. Kind of odd, sweet, collard greens, but reasonably tasty.

Mezcal: This is a Mexican restaurant, not Cal-Mex or Tex-Mex, which is what “Mexican” usually means up north, including elsewhere on this guide. These folks come from Oaxaca and they cook like it. The enchiladas, for instance, come with the fillings on the side, and they carefully distinguish between enchiladas proper and three other similar dishes with different sauces. If it doesn’t have enchilada sauce, it’s not an enchilada, but something else. If you want to try the sauces first, they come with the chips.

K.zzang: Tiny Korean lunch place with a tiny menu and metal chopsticks. There’s a few specials, but the emphasis on the menu is a choice of entrée, plus the usual vast mix of Korean side dishes, either separately in a bento box or all together in a bowl. With the separates, the meat is on a bed of cabbage, and everything’s good, even the cold fried tofu strips, though it sounds awful. Very fast service.

La Victoria: This was my go-to taqueria when I was working at San Jose State. Fast, inexpensive, and good service. The offerings aren’t as elaborate as Iguana around the corner, but if you just want a plain burrito, I find this place better and more flavorful. It’s more flavorful still if you try just a little of the orange sauce (named for its color, not its flavor), a seriously spicy mayo doled out in squeeze bottles which the staff watch over as if they were valuable library books being loaned out.

Sa By Thai: Connoisseurs of Thai restaurants insist that this is the best Thai food anywhere in San Jose. I find it an excellent little place: a clean, neat restaurant serving clean, neat Sinicized Thai food. The meat is hefty and lean, the vegetables crisp and strong, and the sauce flavorful without being strongly spicy.


Extremely basic Chinese steam table, probably at its least inedible at the height of lunch hour. The chow mein noodles are like thick ropes.

Old line pizza and beer joint. Thinnish but soggy crust; lots of Velveeta-like cheese. Definitely only for people who like it that way.

In a city with good Italian restaurants, there’s no reason on earth to come here unless you’re feeding a party of undiscriminating children and enjoy the publike atmosphere. The pasta is overcooked and the food just generally low-grade.

The dishes are small, light textured, and peculiar – the Mongolian beef is in a gentle broth unlike any other Mongolian I’ve ever had – and the prices not low. The service is kind of oblivious. The menu has one of my all-time favorite typos: “All dishes are served with steamed ice.”

One of the cheap fast places on student row. This one serves cheesesteaks – mostly elaborate things with weird add-ons – plus a few items of Korean food. I didn’t claim to understand the connection until I tried an order of bulgogi, Korean bbq. Unlike anything I’ve had at an actual Korean place, it tasted like the meat & mushrooms & onions part of the filling of a cheesesteak.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Kind of a distracted and hectic day, and it was raining, which is good except if you're out in it, so I almost tossed it over and didn't go. But in the end I did.

When this year's season was first announced, a year ago, the writeup on this concert described Henri Dutilleux as "one of our greatest living composers." Now he's just another great dead one. His Métaboles was premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra in 1965; this was at the height of the period when it was believed that all modern music had to sound like this: difficult, complicated, uningratiating. Actually it's a fairly interesting work, sounding rather more like Messiaen than the composer would probably want to know, and isn't objectionable so long as nobody's telling you that all the new music has to be like this.

But on the radio going home I found some Hovhaness. Now that's a composer of that day whose works I could really go for.

The announcement also said we were going to get pianist Hélène Grimaud - the de Larrocha or Argerich of her generation - playing the Brahms Second Concerto. It turned out to be the First, about as different as you can get and still be Brahms. Together with young conductor Lionel Bringuier, who appears to be Swiss - it's not as if the program's so-called bio will actually come out and tell you this - the First was taken in a relaxed and expansive manner so that it was as close to the Second as possible.

Also on the program, Ravel's La Valse, a hothouse flower that received the loving care from the orchestra I wish could have been devoted to a better piece.

In other musical news, Lisa Irontongue alerts me that another Reactions to the Record symposium is being planned at Stanford. This one has fewer program participants than its predecessors, though it does have Taruskin - let's hope he isn't forced by personal circumstances to cancel as he did last time - and it's being held in the funereal little back room downstairs in Bing, instead of over near the music department.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

concert review: Trio Cavatina

Here's my latest concert review. This was the concert that the Super Bowl hardly got mentioned during. My editor wanted me to cover it because of the unusual Copland work. It's not my fault that the really interesting piece in the program turned out to be the not-quite-so-unusual Brahms.

I found the review congealing in my head as I drove home, and I wrote most of it that evening. That's unusual for me, and fortunate, as I had no time to deal with it yesterday, but at least I was then able to turn in the Potlatch local guide, the last open points on which I checked that day, without guilt. And also able to mark off one more open spot in the local dining experience. Ah, I don't eat pizza often any more, but I had bad pizza for lunch yesterday, so that you won't have to.

Monday, February 3, 2014

some tasks and comments

1. One more visit to downtown San Jose this morning to check out a few remaining intractable problems, and to maybe find out from the convention bureau the opening dates of a couple restaurants with "opening soon" signs in front (some others I was able to stick my head in the open door and ask the guys sitting around inside when they'd be open for business), and the Potlatch restaurant and local guide will finally be done. Then back to all the other overdue work.

2. Oh yeah, that reminds me. The guy at the convention bureau I was told to call about arranging restaurant discounts for Potlatch never called me back. After leaving him a message I put it out of my mind. Apologizing for neglecting to follow up in a similar situation is how I once got the blame for a mix-up in Hugo administration when it was really the fault of the guy who didn't do what he swore up and down he'd do, so I'm not doing that again.

3. Philip Seymour Hoffman was an actor better than most of his movies.

4. Got through a concert last night with minimal mention of the Super Bowl. (I don't mind that other people are interested in sports; it's when they assume that everybody's interested that it irritates me.) Review half-written; that's the second task for this morning.

5. Monthly bills are enough of a burden; more so when they're someone else's bills. Third task; that's for the afternoon.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

where we are at

My grandfather was a successful businessman.

Starting out as nothing more than an advertising manager for a brewery during Prohibition - you can imagine how promising a career that was - he built himself up to being one of the most prominent beverage distributors in outstate Michigan. He ran his own company, virtually single-handed, until he sold it in his 70s for a pretty penny.

Although not an arrogant man - he was friendly and well-liked, even by his employees, or so they told me - he was used to doing things for himself.

Which is why he felt so bewildered and at a loss when his previously rude health started suddenly to collapse, on several fronts at once, in his mid-80s. He had to give up control, and he couldn't do things for himself any more. His life quickly shrank to one small room with nurses in it. By then he was a widower, but it was a stressful and difficult time for his daughter and the rest of his family.

That was about thirty years ago now. It's moved down a generation.