Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015

He lived long, and prospered.

report on the dress

As someone whose icon is an optical illusion, I should weigh in on the photo that's been making the rounds in the last few hours (so everybody knows about it already, you out-of-touch hick) of a dress that some people see as blue and black (reportedly the actual colors) and some as white and gold. Here's an article about it with a copy of the original photo framed by versions with the color balance changed in either direction.

And which do I see? Both.

When I first looked at the photos this morning, I saw white and gold. No blue whatever, except perhaps the faintest touch of it only in the horizontal ribbing. The central picture was almost identical with the left one, only of slightly darker hue - what you'd call shaded white.

I looked at it again an hour later and it had turned blue. A far paler blue than in the right one, but definitely blue. The gold, though now darker and tarnished, was, however, still gold. No black, sorry.

It really looked like they'd switched the photos. Fascinating. We've always been at war with Eastasia.

ETA: Now even the left-hand white image looks faintly blue.

streetless in Seattle

Remember Potlatch, about three weeks ago? Here's the letter I wrote to the Seattle City Council after I got home.
Dear Mr Rasmussen,

I am writing to you as chair of the Seattle City Council Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue I wish to raise.

I was a visitor to Seattle last week who got socked with a $53 parking ticket in my rental car through complete inadventence on my part.

It was Thursday evening, February 5. It was dark and raining, so visibility was poor, and I am a stranger, unfamiliar with the area. My wife and I went to have dinner at Kabul on NE 45th Street, recommended to us. There was no parking on 45th. I parked around the corner on Corliss, where there were several cars but also open spaces, and where there were no visible street lights.

Apparently there was also a sign indicating no parking in the evenings without a neighborhood permit, but if so, the sign was down the street, invisible in the dark and rain unless you were looking for it, which as a stranger I was not. Nor did the restaurant staff alert patrons to this unguessable restriction. (When the city of Oakland, near my home, expanded its parking meter hours until 8 pm without changing the signs on the meters, all the restaurants in the neighborhood I frequent posted big signs to warn their patrons.)

So was I ever surprised to find a parking ticket on my rental car when we returned, and even more at the steep fee for the crime of being unfamiliar with local restrictions poorly posted. I paid it, of course. What was I supposed to do? Request a hearing and pay hundreds of dollars in air fare alone to return to Seattle and throw myself on the mercy of the court, likely to be denied?

My only recourse is to protest the injustice of the law and petition for it to be modified, and so I turn to the City Council, which makes the laws.

I acknowledge that the city has every right to pass whatever parking regulations it likes, and to charge whatever fee it chooses.

But I beg you to consider that to ensnare and entrap visitors, unfamiliar with the details of your city's regulations, with poorly posted regulations hard to find in the dark and rain which are frequent in Seattle, enforced by excessive fines, is unwelcoming and gives your city a bad odor to visitors. It is the parking equivalent of a speed trap. It is unworthy of a great city.

If the motivation behind the parking restriction on Corliss is to free up spaces for residents, then inadequate signs invisible in the dark and rain aren't going to do the job as far as visitors are concerned. Nor will a large fine do the job, because any given visitor is unlikely to return any time soon. These regulations are aimed at local scofflaws who ought to know better.

It would be a kindness to direct parking enforcment officers to leave warning notes, instead of tickets with fines, on out-of-state and rental cars (surely there are ways to identify rentals) that have not already accumulated recent warnings. That would make it easier for us to follow regulations which we had no intent of violating.

It would be a further kindness to enclose the warnings or tickets on heavily rainy days in some sort of plastic bag. I had to spread the sopping wet envelope on my hotel room table for hours before it was dry enough even to extract the ticket; and all the adhesive was gone so I had to wrap the whole up in scotch tape before mailing it back. Surely in Seattle you are not unfamiliar with the effects of rain on paper?
And here's the reply I got a couple days ago.
This is Councilmember Rasmussen's Legislative Assistant, thanks for writing to share your recent experience in Seattle. I'm sorry to hear about the ticket and the bad impression it must have left to you and your wife of our city. Councilmember Rasmussen asked that I respond to you.

The Restricted Parking Zones in different parts of the City are designed to help keep parking available to residents in areas where there is heavy parking congestion. The intent is certainly not to ensnare or entrap visitors, and Councilmember Rasmussen expects that all signage should be clear to any driver what the parking rules are.

On behalf of Councilmember Rasmussen, I have taken two actions with different City departments to follow up on your experience:

1) I have contacted our Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and asked them to look at the block on Corliss Avenue adjacent to NE 45th Street, and to see whether changes to the signage should be made to increase visibility.

2) I have contacted our Seattle Police Department and asked that they make sure parking tickets are weather-protected. I believe ticket officers usually do that by putting the ticket in a plastic sleeve when there is rain, but I will be sure to remind them to continue doing so, since it apparently wasn't done in your case. I have also passed along your comments regarding potentially giving warnings to out-of-state visitors for their review and consideration.

Thanks again for your very thoughtful letter, we do hope you come visit Seattle again soon and have a better experience the next time you park here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

the works

A couple pieces I consider of some note got published today.

Here's a review, by me. It's about Beethoven quartets. That's because I'm a music critic. It's on the local classical review website.

Here's an editorial, by my brother. (If you can't get the full text, here's a pdf.) It's about the US bar exams. That's because he's a law school professor. It's in the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

and now, in stereo

A couple weeks ago, my car stereo got a CD stuck in it. I couldn't remember what CD I'd left in there, though I sometimes do that, and I couldn't find its case, but the player would occasionally grind with a message that it was trying unsuccessfully to read the CD, or trying unsuccessfully to eject it.

This was just before I left for my little concert trip. I stopped at the Honda dealer in Petaluma and asked them about it. They said all they could do would be to remove the player and send it to the Honda factory. They did tell me about a car stereo store in Santa Rosa that they said could do the job, but I didn't have time to go there.

Later, I called the store in Santa Rosa. They said sure, they could remove the disk and test the player. I called my home Honda dealer. They could not recommend a car stereo store. I began to think of going back to Santa Rosa. But I tried asking a car stereo store down here, and they also said they could do it.

Today I went in. They took the car in back, I waited for a while, and the guy came back and, with a slightly shocked look, said there was no disc in the player. Clearly the machine had gone wonky on its own account; just as clearly, it would have to be replaced.

Now I have a compact little Pioneer brand player/radio (they first offered me a JVC, and I said no, I'd once had a VCR from JVC and it had been a terrible machine, and he said "VCR? wow" - clearly, those were before his time). It's totally unlike the old Honda factory model in design and layout, though not, I hope, in function. And it has plugs for mini-patch cords and USB, which the old one didn't.

Without having any idea what the buttons did, I managed to force it onto the classical radio station, but I didn't try playing any CDs on the ride home, and I'm not going to try it now, it's dark out. Tomorrow I should RTFM.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


On Sunday we saw the Lamplighters' production of Candide. It's awfully hard to say what I thought of this. They're always a good light opera company, and all the cast were at least fully capable and many better than that. Samuel Faustine in the title role had a strong voice and more presence than expected of someone who looks so waif-like. There's a lot of good songs in this show and most came off at least adequately.

What I didn't like so much was the version. Candide's libretto has been redone numerous times, often from scratch. This was a 1999 version, which accordingly Bernstein had no part in making, with several problems. It tries to stuff the entire original book in, only partially as a result of which it's far too long (200 minutes including intermission), the literary style doesn't reflect the sarcasm that's baked deep into the plot (characters conveniently returning from the dead, etc.), there's too many long prose speeches, and the songs are often awkwardly placed in the script.

Looking for something on TV to distract me from illness, I noticed that the DVR had recorded a couple things from Masterpiece. One was the new season of Downton Abbey, a show I'd oft read about but never seen. I lasted about 20 minutes. Couldn't stand the ceaseless cuts from one tiny brief scene to another in a different plotline. Nothing lasted long enough to catch my interest. It was like being at the mercy of a channel-surfer in the Abbey security-video office. Also, a couple scenes would have been entirely superfluous had the producers just thought of putting up a title card with "1924" on it. OK, we get what year it is, the characters don't have to keep telling each other. And Lord Grantham is awfully slow on the uptake if he's complaining that a Labour government is out to destroy the aristocracy. He'd have felt that way about Lloyd George's "People's Budget" 15 years earlier.

Then I sampled an even more pathetic contemporary spy drama. Bill Nighy, looking more like Michael Heseltine than ever, is awfully casual and nonchalant for a rogue British spy on the run. Meanwhile all the powerful folks back in London, including Ralph Fiennes who doesn't look as if he believes it when everyone keeps addressing him as the prime minister, are quaking in their boots over what damaging information Nighy will leak next, which they learn about by reading the morning newspapers (really? how long ago was this made?). But what Nighy is mostly doing is buying take-out coffee or holding hands with a blowsy-looking Helena Bonham Carter. It's not just the script; I kept rubbing my eyes in disbelief at so many good actors being so bloody awful at their craft.

Monday, February 23, 2015


or, thoughts on watching the thing on DVR the next day while coughing and sneezing a lot:

1. Why do people devote so much attention to tea-leafing Oscar predictions, and then act so irritated when they turn out to be right? If you want to be surprised, restrain yourself.

2. Neil Patrick Harris' reviews were so bad, his actual work turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

3. Best way to improve the script: remove the puns. All of them. They were stunningly mediocre.

4. This was the first time I had heard Lady Gaga sing. (I do not keep up with this stuff, I really don't, and consider it remarkable that I even knew the name.) I take it that Sound of Music medleys are not her usual repertoire. I thought she was pretty good at it.

4a. But Scarlett, the premiere of the movie was not the first time audiences heard that music. I know you wouldn't be born for another couple decades, but someone should have told you it had already been a successful stage musical for over five years already. And a cast album.

5. Most awesome political moment (of several): "Glory", the song from Selma. Damn, that did make its point. Glad it won, though the competition was not as bad as usual.

6. Best acceptance speech (of several): the message of hope from Imitation Game writer Graham Moore. "When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself ... and now I'm standing here. ... Stay weird, stay different, and when it's your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass this same message to the next person who comes along."

7. Movies I haven't seen that I most guess I ought to: Birdman, whatever that may be; it wasn't quite clear. Whiplash: a movie about jazz drumming rhythms. Really?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

review and commentary

Here it is: the review of the Sunday concert B. and I attended after brunch last weekend. All Haydn.

Also: a Tolkien Society blog post posing the question you never thought to ask: Was Tolkien the first writer in English to use the word ‘quisling’? And the answer is undoubtably 'no'.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


Normally I'm not an evangelist on the subject of avoiding or reducing sugar consumption. But it sure comes in handy when fending off predatory Girl Scouts.

"Then would you buy a box of cookies to donate to the military?" They shouldn't be eating sugar either! That's how they get overhyped and start shooting people they shouldn't.

Friday, February 20, 2015

concert tour

So let me tell you about the little concert tour I went on last weekend ... not to perform, of course, but to listen.

I keep track of orchestras in outlying parts of the state, because every once in a while one of them will play something really odd and interesting, and it might be worth going out there to hear it. This year one item that struck me was the Symphony No. 6 by Bohuslav Martinů, one of the best 20C Czech composers, from the Fresno Philharmonic.

So I went, but I made a longer round trip out of it. First, on Thursday I drove up to Sonoma County - stopping along the way at Borderlands to buy one of their memorial hoodies as B's Valentine's present - to attend the San Francisco Symphony at the Green Music Center there. This is now their only regular out-of-town venue, and I'd never been there, as it's as far out of town northwards as I am southwards.

The concert was a honey of Blomstedt conducting Sibelius' Second, with Peter Serkin playing Mozart's entirely elegant K.459 concerto. I thought the music was very fine. Blomstedt tried making the scherzo of the symphony rough and even brutal, while maximizing contrast by taking the trio extremely gently. What odd tricks he was up to in the finale I couldn't quite figure out, though if I were reviewing the concert I suppose I would have had to.

It's the hall that really struck me. Large building on the back of the Sonoma State campus, lit up like a movie secret government installation with blue spotlights (why not green, given its name?). Inside, it's shoebox, the most acoustically healthy shape for a concert hall, and it's made entirely out of naked wood. Seats (surprisingly comfortable, nevertheless) and everything. As a result it's the most brightly-sounding hall I've ever been in. Everything, even the low brass, gets lifted and separated (to quote the old bra ad). It's stunningly clear and immediate. What you lose by this is heft and blending.

It also means you can hear everything around you. The guy behind me who decided to tap his foot to the pizzicato rhythm of Sibelius' slow movement, only not quite to it - heard that all right. The woman sitting next to me who decided that a quiet passage of the finale was the ideal occasion to crack each of her knuckles, one by one - heard that too.

Friday I moseyed my way down to Fresno, stopping at the Jelly Belly factory store for a small supply of my favorite flavors hard to find anywhere else, across the Sacramento River in the completely opaque fog, and to lunch at a small country crossroads tavern whose clam chowder had impressed me when they brought it to the Santa Cruz chowder festival several years back. Alas, it wasn't so great in situ.

Who should live in Fresno but our niece and her family, so I arranged to stop by there for a visit and dinner. I brought Harry Potter brand chocolate frogs from Jelly Belly as after-dinner presents for the kids. They have crisped rice in them, so they're crrrunchy frrrogs, Monty Python please copy. The kids are 6, 4, and 1, and though the youngest isn't quite talking yet, they're very intelligent, highly voluble, and intensely curious.

It's been a while since I've spent time with small children, so I was relieved that my silly-uncle skills are intact. 6-year-old was proud of having just lost a tooth, which she showed me prior to setting it out for the tooth fairy. This was her second tooth out, so I told her that while this one would be taken by the tooth fairy, the previous one went to the oneth fairy. I left her to chew on that for a while. 4-year-old is everything "4-year-old boy" makes you think of. We played soccer for a bit in the back yard, and I stole the ball from him twice just to prove I could still do it - I was a not very good but at least competent soccer player in junior high, far better than I was at anything else sportswise - before letting him have his way. It was fine.

The Philharmonic concert was way, way out, about 20 miles from central Fresno - it's a huge city - in a building called Shaghoian Hall, apparently also on a campus though I saw no signs identifying it. Cross between shoebox and auditorium in shape, interior design otherwise resembling Benaroya Hall in Seattle, fairly bright in sound. Orchestra is fully up to second-tier professional standards. Music director Theodore Kuchar led the Martinů and the Dvořák New World with brisk energy, except for taking exceptionally long pauses to set up changes of gear in the music. Pianist Lukáš Vondráček tore into Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody like a dog into raw meat: rather awesome.

Saturday morning I hastened home to exchange Valentine's presents with B - in addition to the sweatshirt, she got her own personalized Jelly Belly flavor collection - before heading out by myself for the Redwood Symphony concert that I was reviewing. The psycho-crazy Symphonie fantastique for Valentine's Day, really? We never go out on Valentine's any more - restaurants are insane then - so that was OK, and this year we took as substitute a brunch on Sunday, prior to another concert - but my SFCV review of that is still not up yet.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

casual-reading nf

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth (Picador, 2014)
British journalist resident in Denmark decides to explore the psyches of the Scandinavian and Nordic peoples. I see little going into this much detail on this part of the world, so I was curious. Booth claims to be irritated by the Scandinavians, but spends more of the book being fond of them, which at least is better than the other way around. However, his findings are extremely facile and superficial, despite his claims to subtlety and profundity. According to Booth,
1) The Danes are disconcertingly cheerful;
2) The Icelanders think they're latter-day Vikings;
3) The Norwegians are isolated loners;
4) The Finns are taciturn, but aggressive drunks;
5) and the Swedes ... according to Booth, the Swedes are just weird.
The strangest thing in the book is Booth's social experiment to break through Swedish reserve. He tries talking to people in his Stockholm hotel elevator, occasionally succeeding in holding a conversation and then realizing the other guest is a foreigner. (He doesn't say what language he's speaking. I don't think he knows Swedish: most of the time he seems to be trying to get by on his Danish.) Most of the time, he gets monosyllabic replies. Well, look: if a stranger started up with random small-talk on me in a hotel elevator, he'd get monosyllabic replies from me too. Does that make me Swedish?

At least Booth is an amusing writer, and the silliest parts of the book are his accounts of visiting a Finnish sauna and then the Wife-carrying World Championships.
The race itself turned out to be a kind of Japanese-game-show-style steeplechase, with the men and their female cargoes racing in a time-trial relay around a 200-meter course featuring various hurdles and water hazards. ... There were interesting variations on how to carry the wives: some male runners favored the straightforward piggyback, some employed a fireman's lift, while others opted for an undignified arrangement - like something rejected from an early draft of the Kama Sutra - in which the woman was slung, head pointing downward, over the man's shoulders, her legs straddling his neck and her face bouncing off his backside. The latter was especially ill-advised when it came to the water hazard as the 'wife' would find her head submerged for some moments while the man waded slowly to the other side.
The Lost Book of Mormon by Avi Steinberg (Doubleday, 2014)
If there was ever a book that should have been a magazine article, it's this. Jewish journalist takes Book of Mormon archaeological tour of Guatemala with LDS families. Far less funny than Booth. Every insignificant moment of the rather tedious tour is grist for his musings. Frames this with accounts of visiting Jerusalem in search of a copy of the book (because its beginning is set there) - what, he couldn't find one in the US? - and of infiltrating himself into the cast of the Book of Mormon pageant in Palmyra, NY, under a pseudonym, for reasons obscure even to himself. Visits some other Mormon sites, but not either Utah or Nauvoo. Professes neutrality over whether the story told in the Book is real or not, on the grounds that the book is real, and that's more important.

Well, I'm interested in the Book, even though I don't believe a word of it, and I read this one mostly for quick clarity into the Hemispheric vs. Limited Geography theories of Book of Mormon internal history. The Book tells of Hebrews who migrated to the Americas in 600 B.C., but it's vague on where they settled when they got here. When I read the Book some 40 years ago, and then read books about it that were 20 or 30 years old even then, the assumption was that they spread all over the Americas. Nowadays that's considered implausible, and that the descriptions better fit a smaller area of Mesoamerica. Steinberg is clear on that, though incorrect in implying that the Mayan-inspired iconography associated with the Book only dates from the rise of the latter theory. But he's uninterested in exploring the questions about the Limited Geography theory that rise in my mind:
1) The Hemispheric theory holds that those settlers struck dark by God for their wickedness (like Ham in the Bible) were the ancestors of the Native Americans. All of them. Does the Limited Geography theory hold this true only of the Mayans?
2) The Hemispheric theory holds that Moroni, last survivor of the palefaces, buried his inscribed plates on the site of the final cataclysmic battle, someday to be at Joseph Smith's farm in upstate NY. If this all took place down south, why did Moroni travel thousands of miles north to unknown territory to bury the plates?
3) Why was Smith himself absolutely convinced that the lands between NY and MO that he traveled through were settled by the peoples from his Book? I was not aware until reading Steinberg how much attention Smith gave to digging up things and identifying them as relics. According to LDS theology, Smith was an inspired prophet, so "he was just wrong" is not an answer I'd accept from a believer.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

to filk or not to filk, part 2

So I was recounting how filkers got tired of "Banned from Argo", although it was the best filksong ever. They even began denying that they had ever liked it. Leslie Fish, its author and composer, has been telling a story for many years now that she always detested the song and sang it only under duress, and that story appears in Gary McGath's history of filking.

All I can say is that, if Leslie felt that way when I knew her, she did an awfully good job of disguising it. Everybody loved that song, and I mean everybody. Yes, we had it only once per filking session, usually at the end, but that's because we were saving up the best for last, like a fine wine.

So let me tell you about Leslie Fish. She was the household idol, the resident goddess, of Bay Area filking, long before any of us had ever met her. We loved all her songs, not just That One, and they formed a major part of our repertoire. Her name is, I think, the most frequent on the contents pages of The Westerfilk Collection. So she knew she had some fans out here.

And the person who should be thanked for discovering her for us was a local filker named Amy Bradley (then Falkowitz), the Unknown Hero of local filking. Amy was a proto-filker, someone who brought a guitar to parties and sang with it back when few people did that. It was Amy's guitar that played at that germinal party at Octocon where regular Bay Area filking was founded.

Amy was also a dedicated Trekfan at a time when that was still not really common in fandom. I believe she had attended smaller fannish Trekcons in New York state, which is where Leslie hung out and sang her Trek and space-exploration songs. Amy certainly had Leslie's albums, she knew the songs, and she sang them regularly. There may have been other locals who knew their Fish independently, but I heard all those early songs first from Amy.

It was accordingly a Big Deal when the Off Centaur crew announced that they'd gotten Leslie Fish, herself and in person, to attend our first local filkcon, Bayfilk I. (McGath says Margaret Middleton was the GoH, but I don't think that's right. But my paperwork from those days is buried deeply.) Leslie herself has written (about 3/4 down this page) about how thrilled she was to be invited and appreciated, and how she ran back to New York to pack her stuff and move out here permanently.

We were just as excited. I remember being among the people gathered at the house - I don't recall whose, probably Cathy Cook's - where Leslie was to stay before the con, when she arrived from the airport. The door opened and in walked this gaunt, gravel-voiced, chain-smoking woman with black hair and a pale complexion, and we all tried to keep calm and not goshwowoboyoboy our way around the room. And the con was terrific. Leslie's 12-string guitar and her ever-increasing songbook, especially of Kipling settings, became a central part of our world. There were other talented singer-songwriters in our filking circles, notably Cynthia McQuillin (McGath says she was from LA, but I don't recall Cindy living there in my time; certainly for quite a while she was up here), but Leslie was supreme.

A couple other miscellaneous points on the history of filking from that period:

Bardic Circles - I could have told McGath the origin of this term. ("Pick, pass, or perform," the alternate terminology, either comes from an independent invention of the procedure, or else was concocted by someone who felt the term "Bardic circle" was too opaque for neos.) It comes from the poetry readings that Paul Edwin Zimmer, a poet who evoked the character of a bard of old, used to host at his home, Greyhaven, and also at SF cons that he attended. (Though Paul is long gone, we still have them at Mythcons.) At these the procedure was to go around the circle, and each person would either recite a poem or decline; there was no picking someone else, and singing was discouraged. But when we started the Bay Area housefilks and the question came up of how we would choose who would go next, someone who'd been to Greyhaven - possibly me - suggested we adopt the procedure of the Bardic Circles, and a filking term was born.

Ose - McGath says the catchphrase is "ose and morose." That's not how we said it in the Bay Area. With us, it was always "ose, ose, and morose," with "morose" pronounced clearly as "more ose." McGath attaches the style to Bill Roper. We knew some of Roper's songs, but at the time not him personally: for us "ose" meant Gary Anderson. A cheerful guy whom everybody liked, Gary nevertheless invariably contributed to filk sessions long, grim, morbid northlands ballads which he would mumble in an out-of-key monotone. Nobody really understood this habit, and gently mocking them as ose, ose, and morose was our way of handling this.

There's lots else I could discuss.
The Off Centaur house in El Cerrito: in the early years they didn't have that. Everyone moved around frequently back then. When we started, Teri Lee was still in an apartment in the Richmond Annex flatlands that she'd filled to bursting with her spinning.
I should mention the Westerfilk Collection art. Much of it was by Don Simpson, and highly apropos for the songs it illustrates, but none of it was drawn for the book. Don lacked the time, and possibly the inclination, to draw to order. But he let us paw through his huge collection of random drawings and take anything we wanted. It's amazing how many perfect fits we found. The rest of the art, including the cover, was by Wendy Rose, a Native American friend of Teri's, and that was commissioned for the book. Wendy occasionally came to filksings, and I remember having to explain to her what Leslie Fish's "Hope Eyrie" was about. (Here's Julia Ecklar singing Leslie's greatest space-exploration song.)
Speaking of Julia Ecklar, McGath mentions her becoming known at Capricon in 1981. That may have made her name locally in Chicago; she burst upon filkdom in general at the Chicago Worldcon the next year when she blew everyone's socks off with her adaptation of Stephen King's Firestarter, "Daddy's Little Girl." Julia was the first of a whole breed of talented singer-songwriters who found filk a small pond where they could be big enough fish (ahem) to be appreciated, instead of knocking their heads and pounding their feet in the coldness of the music biz. They did change the nature of filk, but their work certainly enriched it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

to filk or not to filk

I was a little nervous when I found the history of filk music - the folk music of SF fandom - by Gary McGath. I had something to do with a stretch of that history, and I wondered what he'd say. I had not been interviewed for or contacted about the writing of this.

I'm pleased to say, it's pretty good, although he mangles my name. Nobody calls me Dave, at least not to my face.

McGath is fundamentally accurate about the origin of The Westerfilk Collection and the allocation of tasks in compiling it. Perhaps more emphasis could have been placed on the fact that Jordin Kare was the initiator and principal force behind the project. Jordin had come to UC Berkeley from MIT in the fall of 1978 and quickly joined local fannish and filking circles. He was used to organized Massachusetts filking, where they had things like the NESFA Hymnal, a full-scale songbook, and when he found that we were disorganized, yet had songs known not in Massachusetts, he formed the idea of a west-coast songbook. He proposed this at a local housefilk and asked if anybody wanted to help. Teri Lee and I volunteered, and that's how we became the three editors of the Westerfilk. There turned out not to be time to compile it before the 1979 Westercon in San Francisco, though we did produce some songsheets then, and it came out the following year.

McGath is also correct that the Westerfilk was, in essence, the first work issued by Off Centaur Publications, before Off Centaur actually existed. Teri (who became the central figure of the company) and Jordin carried on directly from the initiative of the Westerfilk. Although I did some work for Off Centaur, mostly research on legal rights to songs, I was not directly involved because I had gone off to grad school in Seattle. Catherine Cook, who was a partner in Off Centaur, had also helped with the Westerfilk, though she was not credited as an editor. As the most easily available person who was actually a musician, which none of us three were (Jordin later learned the guitar, but he hadn't picked that up yet), Cathy was recruited by Teri to help with music notation and to provide complex things like guitar chordings.

McGath mentions Jeff Rogers, noting that he was not a partner, but he was literally a central figure. It's true, as McGath says, that Off Centaur specialized in studio recordings, but it made live tapes too. As the house recording engineer, Jeff was typically in the middle of the song circle at every event, crouched over his equipment, headphones on his ears and blissful smile on his face as he listened to the quality of the audio feed.

Regarding the breakup of Off Centaur some years later, about which McGath is reticent, all I should say is that I was at one time friends, often close friends, with just about everyone involved, and I'm just sorry it happened. I was long gone by the time of the breakup, but I had smelled something sulfurous in the air some years earlier, which was the main reason I quit filking.

The other reason I quit was a growing dismay with what we, by which I'm including myself, had done to filking. I don't think McGath gives sufficient emphasis to the suddenness and the dramatic intensity with which filking changed from a thing that fans occasionally did spontaneously at parties, to an organized, full-scale sub-fandom with its own clubs, fanzines, cons, and BNFs. In the Bay Area it happened, I think, in the fall of 1978. At a filk in the back room of a party at Octocon in Santa Rosa, somebody said: wouldn't it be great if we got together regularly?, a sign-up sheet was passed around, and the next thing I knew I got a postcard inviting me to a housefilk at Jeff Rogers' apartment in Berkeley. It was here that I met the local filkers I didn't already know through SF fandom, and it was at these early sessions that the Westerfilk was hatched.

What's weird is that simultaneously the same thing was going on elsewhere: in LA, with which we quickly established diplomatic relations, in various places in the midwest, and others that we didn't even yet know about, and Margaret Middleton's Kantele was hitting the mailboxes. It was a flood. Housefilks, all-night con filks (the late-night character of con filking was never planned, it grew spontaneously from filks starting in mid-evening and just not stopping), and then whole cons devoted just to filking. Off Centaur's, and then others', tapes and songbooks met a crying need.

For a while it seemed great. Then I noticed that it was eating itself. I got into filking because I enjoyed belting out old favorites. Every once in a while, sure, a new song or two, but that wasn't the emphasis. But when people filked constantly, they got tired of the old songs. The throughput of filking began moving at an astonishing rate. People craved new songs, and then after a few rounds they'd discard them for the next batch. Running out of standard tunes to write parody lyrics to, they began attacking any new serious songs that the songwriters in filk presented. As a once-in-a-while thing, this was funny, but it got ridiculous.

For me, the final straw came the first time a neo came across Leslie Fish's "Banned from Argo" in the Westerfilk, correctly perceived that this was a great song, and asked for it at a filk, only to be met by groans and cries of "ugh, not that again." "Banned from Argo" was, at least at the time, the best filksong ever. If you're tired of that, you're filking too much. (If you don't know it and are curious, here's a recording, slightly abridged. Although the lyrics are ST:TOS-allusive, the video clips are from Firefly, which work surprisingly well.)

I took my own advice and decamped before I too became a jaded zombie. As the car then sped on at top gear without me, I judged it too late to catch up later. Whenever any filkers ask me to return, which happens about once a decade, I ask them, "Are people still tired of 'Banned from Argo'?" And nothing has changed.

More on a later post: about Leslie Fish, and about Bardic Circles.

Monday, February 16, 2015

radio shut

I sure didn't lift any fingers to prevent the closure of Radio Shack. Back when I was young, in the salad days of Silicon Valley, I wasn't a techy, so I never went shopping for diodes. By the time I was in the market for a home computer, in the mid 80s, my hardware guru, Big Harold (known to some of my readers), sent me to Fry's, previously unknown to me, then a single store already far larger and richer than Radio Shack in its provision of everything that its customer base wanted and nothing more (including the following non-techy essentials for the early Silicon Valley male techy life: 1) soda, 2) potato chips, 3) men's girly magazines).

Fry's has changed a lot since then too, but for a long time it was the one vital spot for anything electronic or electric that you'd want. Some time in, I think, the early 90s, a couple of friends of mine who ran computer systems for a living were in town for a conference. They didn't have a car, so when I came to take them out for dinner, they asked if we could stop by Radio Shack or CompUSA for some parts they needed for something. (I think they were planning to hack their hotel room phone.) I took them to Fry's instead. They were very happy.

On the rare occasions I did go to Radio Shack, I found that they wouldn't sell me anything, even for cash, without demanding my phone number for their records. I found this off-putting, so I didn't go back.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

two memoirs

Jack Vance and Daniel Keyes both entered the SF field professionally in the decade after WW2. Both had served in the merchant marine, for what significance that's worth. Their memoirs - small-press books, which is why I didn't find them earlier - are, however, very different.

Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer's Journey by Keyes (Challcrest Press, 1999) conveys by its title that Keyes is going to tell you all about his most famous story, and he does: where he got the idea for Algernon, the idea for Charlie, the idea for the experiment, how he put them together, how he convinced himself to drop a frame narrative and just present Charlie's diary, how he expanded it into a novel. He's a very psychologically self-analyzing author. And most of all, how he stoutly defended his story's integrity: against Horace Gold who wanted to give it a happy ending (which is why it was published by F&SF instead) and against various drama adapters who wanted to do the same thing. Keyes doesn't mind sensible changes that enhance the story, but he is the opposite of the author who doesn't care what's done in an adaptation. It was his story to begin with and, if possible, he'll keep the adaptation true to his story.

This is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This is "I") (Subterranean Press, 2009) is the exact opposite. Vance does not believe in shop talk, and apart from a brief discussion of how he came to read SF in the '20s, and a grudging couple pages at the end on technique and naming authors who inspired him, there's virtually nothing about his fiction. Once he gets out of his childhood - spent mostly in the Sacramento Delta, amidst little towns I've also been to, so I appreciated the local history aspect - the book is mostly a travelogue of exotic trips he's taken, interspersed with accounts of his attempts to vacation on a houseboat in the Delta. There's lots of anecdotes, but they're mostly about how he was taken advantage of by people of staggering greed or selfishness, and none is funny enough to quote.

The SF community impinges lightly on these books. Keyes got his first editorial job through Scott Meredith and Lester del Rey, took "Flowers" to Milford (of which he says nothing except that they liked it), and mentions his Hugo and Nebula. Vance says he mostly eschews SF cons, without saying why he dislikes them, and that, when there, he prefers answering questions to making a speech. He does describe Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson as his bosom buddies, without saying much about what made them so.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

there are women here today

A followup to my post tracking the percentage of women receiving Hugo nominations for fiction.

I had noted that, following low numbers in the decade of the 2000s, the numbers shot up in 2010, and went above 50% in 2011-13, with a still-high 39% in 2010 and 2014.

In conversation, Deb Notkin suggested that the rise may have been due to Racefail, which Geek Feminism Wiki defines as "a lengthy and varied discussion about race in Science Fiction Fandom that began in early 2009."

The date is important. Racefail made minorities, and women, more aware that they could have a voice in genre-defining matters like Hugo nominations - and more desirous of doing it - by joining Worldcons, even as supporting members, and casting ballots.

Did they increase their participation in significant numbers? Well, somebody did. The Hugo Awards site gives the number of nomination ballots in each category for 8 of the last ten years, and here's the numbers for the four fiction categories for those years, plus the total number of nominating ballots received, when available.

Novel Novella Novelet SS      Total
2005  424  249  215  271     546  
2006  430  243  207  278
2008  382  220  243  270     483
2009  639  337  373  448
2010                         864
2011  833  407  382  515    1006
2012  958  473  506  611    1101
2013 1113  587  616  662    1343
2014 1595  847  728  865    1923
See the steady rise in every category since 2009? There's power in numbers. Part of that increase is due to the decision to allow members of the previous and next worldcons to nominate, but I don't know when that took effect.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Haydn soirée

This was a little concert at Stanford advertised as if it were a genuine period meet-Haydn reception in London, with a period-style handbill and a program with titles taken from the original publications. Persons of varying speaking abilities but without costumes read introductions to the music in the personae of Haydn's impresario, J.P. Salomon, and various patrons.

The music was all chamber music, some of it vocal, from Haydn's London period. Some folksong settings, of the kind Beethoven would later take over, were quite effective, and the slow movement of the Piano Trio No. 25 was unusual and interesting.

The big work on the program was an arrangement by Salomon for piano trio - with some extras - of the "Surprise" Symphony. As usual with piano-and-strings works of the time, the piano carried the burden of the work, with the strings giving mostly added counterpoint. But as Anthony Martin's violin was louder than George Barth's early fortepiano, this got turned upside down.

One extra was the addition of a flute traverso to the finale. The other was having the big "surprise" chord from the slow movement reinforced by having someone whack a big bass drum in the back of the room.

Held in a tiny rehearsal hall in the music department. I got there early suspecting that seating would all be taken well before the concert began, and it was.

This is the kickoff to a Haydn festival that's taking up most of the rest of the week; unfortunately, I have to skip all the lectures and can make only one of the main-sequence concerts.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

more Potlatch, and out and about in Seattle

1. The session for naming obscure books was difficult, because what's obscure? The unknown in one place may be the well-worn classic in another. This was illustrated by Deb Notkin's t-shirt, which read in bold letters, "Russ, Butler, Tiptree, and Le Guin." Most folks at Potlatch know who those refer to, but she can wear it out on the street and get blank looks. ("Tiptree? What kind of name is ...?")

2. The hotel elevators have the power to make people step out at the next stop, whether or not it was the one they intended to get off at. This may partly be because the lobby has the same color scheme as the sleeping floors.

3. There is still in Seattle a used bookstore with cats. One of the cats kept following me around and meowing. Usually bookstore cats are pretty blasé, because they get lots of attention, but it was early in the day, and wet, and we were the only customers.

4. Seen at a bus stop in Montlake: four people in business clothes waiting for the bus. Three were using their iphones or whatevers. The fourth was eating a banana.

5. Pike Place on Sunday is too crowded. Everyone wants a piroshky. (Why? They're OK piroshkies, but not that great, and they flake all over the place when you eat them.) Everyone else wants to get into the Original Starbucks. (Would they care if they knew it doesn't have at all the same layout as it did when it was the Only Starbucks?) Us, we just wanted to get down the street to the almost-deserted store that sells Turkish Delight.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


It's been wet in Seattle, and Potlatch has been going on. A few panels:

1. On good media sf. It seems clear that the old rule of thumb, that good media sf is about 20-30 years behind good written sf (thus, ST:TOS was hailed at the time for being good Forties sf, only 20 years late), is now quite out of date. Lots of recommendations of shows or movies that few had heard of. Ulrika had ones in Swedish. carl juarez illustrated the general proposition by noting the increased sophistication of time travel plots: "Normal people are now expected to understand them."

2. On the state of fantasy. Spent most of its time examining the proposition that changes in the paradigm of what is considered real changes the definition of fantasy. The past relegation of fantasy to the category of children's stories, and the latency period, in which grown-ups disavow their childhood interest in fantasy until they really grow up and feel free to read it again, were both raised. Being on the panel, I got to cite Tolkien in regard to the one and Lewis in regard to the other.

3. Why are we still discussing the place of women in sf? Because the struggle is never over. Eileen Gunn seemed convinced that the SF Encyclopedia and its ilk have found a new way to suppress women's writing, and hers in particular: by claiming that what she writes isn't really sf. She thinks it's sf, and it was considered so when she began. I wonder, though, if it isn't directed less at her in particular or women in general than at a general redefinition of the field. Had I a chance on the earlier panel, I'd have mentioned that Ray Bradbury didn't write sf either (by his own definition or mine), and that once I realized he wasn't an sf writer at all but a Midwestern dark pastoral fantasist who just happened to like spaceships, his work made a lot more sense to me.

4. Commentary on Ursula K. Le Guin's recent speech on art and commerce. Much discussion of gatekeeping: who will direct us to the good stuff if editors and publishers become obsolete. But who says they were always directing us to the good stuff before?

5. Trivia quiz. Tom Whitmore read questions, rapidly. Karen Anderson threw chocolate to the right guessers. In the "identify the story from its first line" section, I got four, which say a lot about my reading proclivities: The End of Eternity,, "A Rose for Ecclesiastes", Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, and The Princess Bride.

6. Readings aloud. I choose pieces for humor value when participating in these. I read one of Will Stanton's fairy-tale deconstructions (if Red Riding Hood had been more perceptive, she'd have asked the figure in grandmother's bed wearing grandmother's nightclothes, "What happened to your thumbs?"), and B. and I shared the old New Yorker dialogue in which Mulder and Scully investigate that supernatural entity, Santa Claus.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

crossing the border

The word appears to have gotten out in the SF community that Borderlands Books in San Francisco will be closing. This has been a first-rate SF specialty store for some years, and the closing will be a major loss, as well as removing one of the two reasons I like to go to the Mission (the other is for a burrito).

I had errands at the UC Berkeley library on Tuesday - immense struggles with inadequate instructions for the scanner/printer system that's replaced photocopiers - so I came home by way of the City and stopped by the store. Since I don't get to the area very often when there's time, this might be my last visit, though I hope not. Alan was there, so we chatted a bit. He said nobody is allowed to be sadder than he is. In response to the e-mail's notice that updates will be frequent, I said that not only do I want to stay on the list, but if he or Jude do get involved in another bookselling project in the future - like the non-profit foundation pipe dream Alan has - I want to know about it. I bought some books, then went to the attached cafe to browse them over a biscotti.

The reason for the closure is particularly distressing. The City's new higher minimum wage law squeezes the profits too much in an already-precarious line of business that can't effectively raise its prices.

This is what conservatives have been warning about regarding minimum wage increases: that they will force businesses to cut back jobs or even close. Liberals respond that this is counteracted by the additional money pumped into the economy by giving workers more to spend as consumers, enlarging the market and allowing businesses to grow. My understanding is that practical experience has generally proven this second argument to be true.

But that doesn't mean it can't have unfortunate individual effects. It's worth remembering that, even though Alan says he's an unusual case and that the wage law is probably a good idea.

Monday, February 2, 2015

are there any women here today?

Discussion of Women Destroy Science Fiction, already brought up here, has raised the question of the exactly what is the prominence of women in contemporary SF. Is the Monstrous Regiment taking over, as the sexist squad charges, or are women's places at this table still insecure and unstable?

It could be both, actually, and all feelings on this topic are subjective. What we need is an objective way to measure subjective perceptions, and I've got one: award nomination finalists. What gets nominated for the Hugo - I'm using nominations rather than winners because it gives a much larger but still prestigious dataset - not only gives a consensus of a large number of dedicated readers (as opposed to that of a single Best SF of the Year anthologist) of who's doing the important and high-quality work in the field right then, but it communicates a picture of that field to a larger group of readers.

What I've done is gone all the way back to the institution of Hugo nominations in 1959, counted up the number of stories on the final ballot in the various fiction categories taken together, determined which ones were written by women, and let the computer calculate the percentage.

The raw figures, plus the names of the authors, are below (source), but here's a summary of the trends.
1) Occasional stories by women have been around since the beginning, but they were few and intermittent.
2) Numbers rose in the 1970s, usually 15-20%. Many were by Tiptree (still thought to be a man for most of that time) and Le Guin.
3) A 10-25% range continued to prevail for most of the 1980s, despite many new authors on the ballot: C.J. Cherryh, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis.
4) It rose during the 1990s, above 25% every year from 1990 to 1997, reaching a peak in 1992-93, in both of which years half the stories were by women. Again, more new authors as well as older ones. Willis and Bujold in particular strode the Earth, but they were far from alone.
5) A collapse followed in 1998 to 2009. Numbers were back down to the 15-25% of the 70s and 80s, and in two years only one story each (5%) was by a woman.
6) Revival came in 2010. Each of the five years from then has had 39% or higher, and three of the five years exceeded half. Huge number of authors new to the ballot, including numerous repeat appearances by Seanan McGuire, Mary Robinette Kowal, Rachel Swirsky, Catherynne M. Valente, and Kij Johnson.

ETA: From some of the comments on this io9 post, it may be necessary to reiterate that these are nominees that made the final ballot, not necessarily the winners of the Hugo Award.

year   total by-women* %noms. wins authors**
1959 23   2.5 11%    Ashwell, Henderson, MacLean
1960 10   0    0%  
1961  9   1   11%    Ashwell
1962 10   0    0%  
1963 10   1   10%    Bradley
1964  9   1   11%    Norton
1965  7   0    0%  
1966 10   0    0%  
1967 23   0    0%  
1968 17   2   12% 1 McCaffrey, Norton
1969 18   2   11%   McCaffrey, B. Curtis
1970 15   3   20% 1 Le Guin (2), McCaffrey
1971 15   0    0%  
1972 16   3   19%   Le Guin (2), McCaffrey
1973 21   4   19% 1 Le Guin, Tiptree (2), Russ
1974 19   5   26% 2 Tiptree (2), McIntyre (2), Le Guin
1975 22   3   14% 1 Le Guin (2), Wilhelm
1976 21   1.5  7%   Tuttle, Le Guin
1977 17   3   18% 2 Wilhelm, Tiptree, Le Guin
1978 20   5.5 28% 2 Bradley, J. Robinson, McIntyre, J. Vinge, Tiptree (2)
1979 19   6   32% 2 McIntyre, McCaffrey, Cherryh (2), J. Vinge (2)
1980 21   3   14%   McKillip, McIntyre, Willis
1981 21   2.5 12% 1 J. Vinge, Tuttle, Petrey
1982 20   4   20% 1 Cherryh, May, Eisenstein, Wilhelm
1983 22   6   27% 2 Cherryh, Russ, Willis, Eisenstein, Le Guin, Tiptree
1984 20   4   20% 1 MacAvoy, McCaffrey, Willis, Butler
1985 23   3.5 15% 1 Butler, Willis, M. Martin, Killough
1986 20   3   15%   Cherryh (2), Tiptree
1987 20   2   10%   Willis, Springer
1988 21   6   29% 1 Le Guin, Murphy, Wilhelm, Cadigan, Fowler, Goldstein
1989 21   4   19% 2 Cherryh, Bujold, Willis, E. Gunn
1990 22   9   41% 2 Tepper, Bujold, Lindholm, Willis (2), Moffett, Kress, Charnas, E. Gunn
1991 20   5   25% 1 Bujold, Murphy, Cadigan, Soukup, Willis
1992 23  12   52% 2 Bujold, Bull, McCaffrey, J. Vinge, Kress (2), Rusch, Willis (3), Cadigan, Soukup
1993 20  10   50% 3 Willis (2), McHugh (2), Kagan, Sargent, Cadigan, Shwartz, Kress, Soukup
1994 21   6   29% 1 Kress (2), Murphy, Willis, Soukup, B. McKenna
1995 22   6   27% 1 Bujold, Kress, Le Guin (3), Wilhelm
1996 21   6.5 31% 1 Willis, Le Guin (2), Shwartz, Kress, McHugh, Friesner
1997 21   7   33% 1 Bujold, Moon, Rosenblum, McHugh, Le Guin, Charnas, Willis
1998 21   1    5%   Fowler
1999 23   6   26% 1 Willis, M. Russell, Asaro, Rusch, Kress, Klages
2000 21   5   24% 1 Bujold, Rowling, Willis, Baker, Arnason
2001 21   5   24% 2 Rowling, Hopkinson, Asaro, Rusch (2)
2002 21   4   19%   Bujold, Willis, Clough, Le Guin
2003 21   3   14%   Le Guin, McHugh, Gloss
2004 21   4   19% 1 Bujold, Baker, Willis, Asaro
2005 20   3   15% 2 S. Clarke, Bujold, Link
2006 20   3   15% 1 Willis, Link, Lanagan
2007 20   1    5%   Novik
2008 21   4   19% 2 Willis, Rusch, Kress, E. Bear
2009 20   4   20% 2 Kress, E. Bear, K. Johnson, Kowal
2010 23   9   39%   Cherie Priest, Valente, Baker, Kress, Swirsky, Griffith, Foster, Jemisin, K. Johnson
2011 19  10   53% 2 Willis, McGuire, Bujold, Jemisin, Swirsky, Hand, Bodard, Kowal, Vaughn, K. Johnson
2012 21  11   52% 3 Walton, McGuire (2), K. Johnson, Kowal, Valente, C. Gilman, Anders, Swirsky, Yu, Fulda
2013 18  11   61% 1 Bujold, McGuire (4), Kress, Bodard (2), Cadigan, Valente, K. Johnson
2014 19   7.5 39% 2 Leckie, McGuire, Valente, Klages, Kowal, Bodard, Samatar, Swirsky

*A half-story is one co-authored by a woman and a man.
**Where an author uses multiple bylines on different stories, I've combined them under one name.
NOTE: I don't guarantee complete accuracy of the counts.  I haven't triple-checked my work.

I didn't do the Nebulas as well, because 1) I don't have that much time; 2) the Nebula ballot for fiction is usually longer than the Hugo, and thus more time-consuming to work with; 3) it has more authors I haven't heard of than the Hugos do, requiring time-consuming lookups. (It saves a tremendous amount of time when you already know without having to check that, say, Pat Cadigan is a woman but Terry Bisson is a man.) But the impression I get from glancing over the lists is that the percentage of stories by women getting Nebula nominations generally exceeds that of the Hugos, and that the number of winners certainly does.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

my own irrelevant Colleen McCullough obituary

I remember The Thorn Birds as the novel that finally kicked The Silmarillion off the top of the NYT bestseller list. Although myself a fan of The Silmarillion, I couldn't believe that many people were actually reading it, so I was relieved to see it go.

eenie meanie chili beanie

On the question of whether beans do not belong in chili I do not know; this is not my ethnicity.

I can say, however, on the righteous grounds of my own ethnicity, that I am continuously irked by the sale of things that are called bagels but are not bagels; they're bread in the shape of a doughnut. I don't mind the existence of these things; what I mind is that they're falsely called bagels and falsely touted for their authenticity.

Of course, as was pointed out to me, many things are done under the name of foods that exist more purely somewhere else. What we call curry or pizza in the US or UK bear little resemblance to those foods in India or Italy. Should Indians and Italians protest?

In my opinion as an appreciative outsider, they should. I won't speak to curry, which again I know little of, but I have had pizza in Italy as well as all over the US and even in the UK, and I'm grateful for the modifiers like "Chicago-style pizza" that let you know what you're getting is not pizza as anybody else understands it, but a separate kind of dish inspired by and derived from pizza.

I'd appreciate it if such modifiers were more widely-spread. It would enable me more easily to avoid versions I don't like, such as "toppings-on-a-cracker fast-food-chain American pizza" or "vilely soggy undercooked English pizza."