Saturday, January 30, 2016

concert review: Master Sinfonia

Just a quick post for a link to a quick review of a concert I attended last Sunday. I picked this one for review because I don't often get to review Carl Nielsen, one of my favorite composers. I'm not quite as enthusiastic about Bartok or Stravinsky - in any case I get more chances to hear them, which means I salivate less for the opportunity - but these are good pieces.

Friday, January 29, 2016

cats just gotta have food

Cats get fed at 6 o' the clock here, am or pm. They usually start pleading for it an hour or two earlier, and I often give in at about 5:30, especially in the evening when I usually have to start occupying myself with fixing human food about that time. But that doesn't always satisfy them. Often on B's days off, I'm up earlier, give the cats their food, fetch the newspaper which arrives at 6 am on the dot, and then come back upstairs to my office to work. Then when B gets up, the little liars will start pleading with her, under-reckoning her ability to use human voice communication to ask me if the cats have been fed. My answer is usually: I fetched the paper, didn't I? Do you think I could have gotten downstairs at 6 am without having been besieged by a horde of hungry cats?

Unfortunately, today I was up unusually early, and after fetching the paper I went back to sleep. So B gets up, and the little cries of hunger are so convincing ... Anyway, the little rotters got two breakfasts this morning, so now they know they can sometimes get away with it. Life is gonna get worse.

In other news:

1. The Super Bowl is coming, and we cannot escape it. Article in today's paper on what roads are going to be closed, and a matching article on related airport congestion. At least we only have to put up with a week of this. The front desk staff at the gym were discussing which team they like. I'm glad they didn't ask me: I wouldn't have had the slightest idea. I hadn't even known there was such a thing as a Carolina Panthers.

2. Paul Kantner died. Unlike Glenn Frey, this is somebody I'd actually heard of, and whose band's work I know. Some of it I even like. But I'm seeing a lot less reaction to this death than to Frey's. So it goes, I guess.

3. The big feature article in Thursday's paper was on a festival being held this weekend to celebrate the work of an African-American classical composer, Valerie Capers. The article was written by the paper's ex-classical critic, who was cruelly mostly taken off the beat a while ago. It sounded enticing. But when I went to YouTube to hear Capers' music, I found mostly either modern jazz or the more arid variety of classical art song, neither of which I much care for. So I think I'll give this a miss.

4. Beware the technology. B had to upgrade her cellphone, and for various reasons got her first with a touchscreen. 'Tis bewildering. A week later she found that her account was empty: the phone had, entirely on its own initiative, been connecting to the internet and downloading something, spending hundreds of dollars doing it. More amazing than this was that AT&T gave her the money back; the capacity has been disconnected, but I'm still not sure what caused it.

5. On one thing I agree with Jeb Bush: they haven't even started voting yet, so let's give the process a bit to play out, shall we? The big four openers - IA, NH, SC, and NV - will all be over before the end of February, and Super Tuesday is March 1. By then we'll know a lot that we do not know today, even if we think we do.

Monday, January 25, 2016

music in my ears

1. Concert on Wednesday at Herbst: cello recital. Not my usual fare, it's what was on. At least the cellist, a young Russian prize-winner named Lev Sivkov, was extremely good, full of character and expression. (His accompanist was Janos Palojtay, a name the impresario, who introduced the concert, couldn't pronounce.) After hearty renditions of Brahms (Op. 38) and Beethoven, part of the audience disappeared during intermission to save themselves from the 20C second half, which included a piece by Kodaly (which did not sound like anything by Kodaly I knew), an unaccompanied one by Khachaturian (which did sound like Khachaturian, all the more notably as "sounding like Khachaturian" ordinarily requires a very large and colorful orchestra), an adagio by Miaskovsky (which also sounded like him), and a sonata by Britten (which sounded as if Britten was feeling very modernist that day).

1a. Because this concert started at 7:30, it let out early enough for me to take the train, so I did. But rather than the trip being more relaxing than fighting traffic, I found it more tense and exhausting, partly because I kept being anxious about catching connections, and also because 2 1/2 hours to get home at 9:30 PM is just too long, especially when the alternative was a one-hour drive.

2. Jan. 25 New Yorker includes a memorial for Pierre Boulez by Alex Ross. Ross praises Boulez as a conductor (rightly so) and as a composer (well, he has the privilege of liking what he wants), but he also says that, as he gets older, he is "less inclined to take offense" than he did when he was young at Boulez's "often coercive" (only "often"?) musical polemics. Sorry, but I am unchanging on that one. Richard Taruskin in his Oxford History of Western Music (which I've been reading - more on that later) calls the Boulez attitude totalitarian - a particularly ironic tone to come from then-young men trying to put Europe back together after it had been torn apart by totalitarian politics. Ross says that in his youth he did dislike Boulez's polemics, but perhaps his lack of continued vehemence is due to the fact that he's not old enough personally to remember the extent of the caustic sonic wasteland when Boulezian musical politics held sway. I am old enough to remember it. I had a whole decade of learning modern music cramped and distorted by this toxic blight, and I do not forgive.

2a. Meanwhile, the same issue has a letter responding to an earlier article about the Ford Foundation by mentioning its 1960s support of "bright young composers like Philip Glass and Peter Schickele". I love seeing those names in conjunction, and if only I had seen, back in the 60s or 70s, polemicists extolling them as among the rising greats of music, as indeed they turned out to be, I'd have been a lot less puzzled and dismayed as a young listener.

3. Birthday party for my nephew. He's one, and had to miss much of the event because he got cranky and was put down for a nap. I was expecting just cake and ice cream, but my sister-in-law, who's Filipina, arranged for a full buffet of Filipino hot dishes. We nibbled at our food: this is a cuisine I have never quite figured out. Had to leave early, and left behind our unopened present: Boynton baby board books.

3a. And what I had to leave for was the Symphony Silicon Valley concert, which I was marked down for to review. Holidays are a slow season for me, so this was the first one for two months.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

thought from the road

Radio stations should not play music that sounds like a car breaking down.

into the Asian woods

So one of my regular event e-mails from Stanford informs me that something called the Asian American Theater Project, which has been around for years but which I'd never heard of before, is putting on Into the Woods, probably my favorite post-1970 musical. I went last night (Friday); there's two more performances today if anyone local is interested, which I'd recommend as it was a terrific performance. It was reassuring to have bought my ticket in advance, because it was roiling chaos at the auditorium before showtime.

The advertising implied a deeply Asian rethinking of the show, but the sets and costumes were pretty basic - the sfx were all sound effects and miming - and the only thing I could detect that was Asian about the show was that about half the cast were of that ancestry. It did draw on a much deeper talent pool than other Stanford musical productions I've seen, and would have done credit to any local theater group. I knew it'd work from the impeccable timing in the opening number alone, and Teyonna Jarman's turn as the Witch just wowed the show with professional confidence and stage presence. Nathan Large as the first prince showed brilliantly comic arrogance, and several other players really stepped up for their big solos. But everyone was at least adequate.

The only flaws were that some of the players' speech wasn't clear, despite everyone wearing telephone operator microphones, and that, though the comic side was charmingly done, the dramatic thread sometimes got a little lost during the darker scenes of Act II. Or maybe everyone was just getting a little tired out, for they gave their all for a 3-hour show, and as the man (yes, the man) playing the mute role of the cow promised in the cast bios that he'd do, they milked their roles for all they were worth.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Shepard's Pie

I had a sachet of seasonings to make Shepherd's Pie. I must have picked it up on my last visit to a British specialty grocers without looking very closely. According to this recipe, Shepherd's Pie is made by browning mincemeat with onion, adding the seasonings, peas, and carrots, and baking it in a casserole dish with mashed potatoes on top.

Well, I don't like mincemeat, peas, carrots, or mashed potatoes, so I made it with ground turkey*, asparagus, broccoli, and polenta on top. That's more to our tastes. Since it's not exactly Shepherd's Pie, I call it Shepard's Pie, in honor of, well why not, Alan Shepard. I've always liked him.

The dish was a success, just like Al's spaceflights.

*A versatile meat, ground turkey not only makes great meatloaf, but I've been using it for Cajun rice dressing in place of the usual ground beef, which in turn is a substitute for the original chicken giblets.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

I dunno

There's been a lot of discussion online of the meaning of either mourning or mocking the death of Glenn Frey of the Eagles. I'd like to weigh in on this, but I really feel unqualified to discuss it.

The Eagles are the band that did "Hotel California".

I have just stated the entire sum of my knowledge of the Eagles.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

a great editor

And I will add mine to the list of grievings at the death of David G. Hartwell. How many novels and anthologies that he edited have I read; how much did I trust his tastes; how much did I enjoy his speaking at conventions, and his company on the occasions that we interacted. And he founded and long-edited the only critical magazine on SF that I still read. He was a great one, certainly the best and most seriously influential editor in the SF field since the death of Terry Carr, and possibly much longer than that.

swift justice

There's a square, a park, in downtown San Jose that I never pass without feeling a shudder. It was here that in 1933 an enraged mob broke into the courthouse across the street, dragged out a pair of jailed accused kidnapper-murderers, and lynched them from trees in the park. It was covered by a live radio broadcast and became the first "media event" lynching. (Lynching having the connotations it does, I should add that everyone involved in this story, including the original murder victim, was white: there were few blacks in San Jose then.) (Quick Wikipedia summary)

A lot of people at the time expressed satisfaction at this form of "swift justice," including the state's Governor, who'd made a point of not calling out extra protection after the mob formed, and nobody was ever charged for or even accused of the lynching, but many others were appalled, which is why a cartoon ironically titled "California Points With Pride" won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

This blot on San Jose's escutcheon was swept under the rug for many years, and I didn't hear much about it until a local reporter/historian wrote a book about it not 25 years ago, and it's still considered an obscure point. But now that book has been adapted into a play, Swift Justice by Tom McEnery, another local-history enthusiast whom the program book rather weirdly does not mention is a former mayor of the city, and produced by a small local theater located just two blocks from the park, and even closer to the site of the kidnapping, which was behind a now long-gone department store where the original victim was the well-loved scion of the owning family.

The event is, however, not so entirely forgotten to prevent the entire run of the play from selling out before it opened. I went last night and found it entirely worthwhile, giving a much more vivid idea than I'd had of the events and characters involved, particularly the men who were lynched. Fortunately the irony - criminals in one event become victims in the next - was not overmilked. The story proceeds slowly and somewhat jerkily - the first half is mostly devoted to depicting the prospering, developing air of San Jose and the place in it of this prominent store and of the young man who was murdered, and the kidnapping doesn't occur until just before intermission - but it builds up, and the return at the end to the frame story - the grieving recollections of an old man who'd been a friend of the family and who (like them) opposed the lynchings - was powerful and moving.

A lot can be credited to the actors, who, despite a lot of awkward pauses (were they trying to remember what their next lines were in the rambling script?), were professional in quality and successful at conveying characters (especially evident from those who played multiple parts). Probably best was Drew Benjamin Jones as the mastermind kidnapper, one of those sneeringly overconfident fellows who thinks he has all the angles covered but actually knows nothing about what he's doing. There was a highly fannish air to the guy: he sounded and acted like many I've known, though none were quite as sinister.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

soda (or "pop")

Scalzi asks, What's your favorite obscure soda flavor? I'm responding here.

A lot of votes for ginger beer. I like ginger beer, and it's not something you see often in the average 7-11, I guess, though it's not hard to find one brand or another.

Perhaps my favorite truly obscure one is a pineapple soda from Hawaii, which I used to be able to get at a local Hawaiian market, but the place closed, so no more.

Another truly obscure one I haven't seen since the place closed where I got it is Inca Cola, which I once tried at a long-gone Peruvian restaurant in San Jose. But, unlike with pineapple soda, I wasn't missing it. It tasted like bubble gum.

But the obscure soda I searched for the longest was Moxie. I first heard of it from Bored of the Rings, whose authors were from Harvard, where Moxie has been heard of. But I didn't know even that much when I first went looking. Many of the characters in Bored of the Rings have food names, and the two young boggies are Pepsi and Moxie. At Mythcon once in the 80s we held a Bored of the Rings food party. We had Fritos and Arrowroot biscuits and Pepsi and I think some Spam and some other things (no Benzedrine, though - come on), and we wanted some Moxie but had never seen it and had no idea how to get any.

It wasn't until years later that I finally found Moxie, at the general store in Plymouth, Vermont, a tiny village now given over to the fact that Calvin Coolidge was born there. On telling this story, I have more than once been informed heatedly that Moxie is objectively vile and evil of taste. I didn't find it at all bad, and though I wasn't rushing back to get some more I have had it again since. The soda I find vile is Dr. Pepper, which lots of people like.

Monday, January 18, 2016

comfort food

B. isn't feeling well, so for Saturday dinner I made soup. I had a broccoli cheese soup mix I'd picked up, and all I needed to buy was a small carton of half-and-half and a package of shredded cheddar, of which I used half each.

Unfortunately we didn't much like the soup, and - unusually - I had to throw the rest out. Next time I'm returning to the old broccoli cheese soup mix.

Sunday I come home late in the afternoon and B. informs me that she had tomato soup for lunch, so let's have something besides soup for dinner.

Some other kind of comfort food. What shall I make?

Well, I have half a carton of half-and-half and half a package of shredded cheddar left over. What can I make with that?

How about macaroni and cheese? I've rarely made mac and cheese from scratch before, and when I did it was a special recipe that didn't use milk. I'm running short on time before dinner, so I wing it. I boil up the rest of the wagon-wheel pasta I bought in Missouri. I utter a small prayer that I have not lost my hard-won skill at making a white sauce that doesn't turn out totally lumpy. My prayers are answered. Add the cheese, and some of the Mexican cheese mix that's also in the fridge. Throw in some extra chicken and some leftover spinach, and a lotta sauteed onion and garlic. Bread crumbs on top. Bake for 20 minutes, and it's a warm comfort food dinner.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

how to order something online

1. Go to the manufacturer's website, find the item you want, and put it in the cart. That's the easy part.

2. Since you don't expect to be a regular customer, try to find a way to check out as a guest. Fail to find one.

3. Since you have in fact ordered from this company before, check your saved password file for a login there. Don't find one.

4. Sigh. Fill out the form to register for a new account. Note that when you type in a username (the same one you use everywhere) a popup informs you that it's available.

4a. Sigh again at the restrictions for a password, which eliminate any combination you can remember.

5. However, when you click to save the registration, receive a notice that the username (which is unlikely to be anyone but you) is taken.

6. Go back to the beginning and click the "Forgot password?" button.

7. Wait five minutes. About this time, begin to wish that it were still possible to just drive to the store and buy this product.

8. Receive an e-mail with an obscenely convoluted temp password.

9. Log in using this.

9a. Don't bother to change the password.

9b. Confirm that it's gone into your saved passwords file this time.

10. Reorder from scratch, since it works that way.

11. Get to the checkout screen, and find that, while the item you want costs $9, shipping costs $7.

11a. Realize that, to make this an economical purchase, you'd better find something else they sell that you want.

11b. Realize further that you've used up all the time you'd allocated for what should have been a 3-step procedure, you have errands to do, and you'll have to come back later.

Friday, January 15, 2016


Having read Terry Gilliam's memoirs (did I tell you about that? no?), I decided on returning it to the library to grab a couple of gap-filling DVDs in my Gilliam viewing.

So I found myself with:

1) Terry Gilliam's Personal Best, his entry in the Monty Python's Flying Circus Personal Best series, rather over an hour just of the animated bits. Put together like that with nothing else between them except a few bits of live-action crust they were unable to trim off was a really interesting way to see them.

2) Monty Python Live: One Down, Five To Go, the DVD of the live show they put on a couple years ago purely to raise money. I'm so glad I was in no position to succumb to the temptation to attend this in person: the premise implies how dire it was. The Pythons mostly phoned in their performances, reaching the pit in the "Nudge Nudge" sketch which Eric Idle got through half of without noticing that his fake mustache was falling off, and when he did just ripping it off and throwing it away. Gilliam was the only one who seemed happy to be there, and he expressed this by mugging a lot. They were also far, far too old for some of the parts. The repertoire was an uneasy mixture of their best bits and their worst. Maybe you had to be there to enjoy it, but there's enough shots of the audience to make clear that they weren't really there either: the arena was so large that most of the audience could hardly see the tiny figures on stage, and had to watch the huge screen above them, in which case they might as well have stayed home and watched it on TV.

3) 12 Monkeys, yes a famous Terry Gilliam film I had somehow never seen. Very effectively chilling, and the surprise ending was previously hinted at just precisely enough. The visuals could have been nobody else. Not sure what I thought of the acting. Could Bruce Willis have done a better job at conveying when his character is addled by medication and when he's clear-minded? And Madeleine Stowe is far too easily flustered to be believable as a sharp psychiatrist. Well, Brazil had a similar problem. However, unlike Brazil which I found full of plot inexplicialities (and no, the hallucination sequence was not one of them), this movie left me with only one plot question: why are they so desperate to get to Key West, especially when it risks their disguises to try? If they just want to see the ocean before the virus hits, which is the only possible explanation given, then since they're in Philadelphia why don't they just go to Atlantic City?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Oscar the grouch

Before we begin surveying the nominees, a tip o' the hat to the late, great Alan Rickman. I first encountered him while he entertainingly chewed the scenery as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the otherwise forgettable Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. This role turned out to be atypical of other work I've seen by Rickman, whom I once called "The Gloomy Gus of the acting profession." He was ideal as the mysteriously brooding Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, the understandably grumpy "Dr. Lazarus" in Galaxy Quest, the haughty wine dealer in Bottle Shock (a delightful little movie), and the mournful ghost in Truly, Madly, Deeply, and yeah, he was also well-cast as Snape. I never saw Die Hard but I suspect he was good in that too. Let us bury with him some of his poorer movies and his less felicitous roles, such as the time he played Ronald Reagan.

Making a point of going out to the movie theater more often than usual this last year has yielded me a total of 6 Oscar nominees seen, about twice as many as I usually have at this point. Of these, by far the best was Spotlight, which has gotten enough attention that I need say nothing more than to ask, if Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams had supporting roles, did anybody have a leading role? Surely not Michael Keaton, just because he played their boss. This is not the first time I've come to suspect that these categories' definitions are fncked. They don't seem capable of handling a genuine ensemble movie. I'm tempted to see the DVD with a stopwatch, to compare actors' screen times.

Trumbo was also really good, for its historical meticulousness and its unblinking spotlight on both the strengths and weaknesses of the man. And, if you're going to focus a movie so closely on a larger-than-life character, you need a larger-than-life actor to play him, and Bryan Cranston is that man. Wow. Contrast that with Steve Jobs, whose synthetic hothouse plot had the smell of artificiality that Trumbo avoided, and in which Michael Fassbender achieved only narcissism, not the epic self-centeredness of Cranston's character.

I thought The Martian was overall a success, in that if you can make a story essentially about people sitting around and waiting for two years without boring me, you've achieved a good movie. On the other hand, Bridge of Spies, despite its tight, action-filled plot, did succeed in boring me. So did Inside Out, which would have made an absolutely marvelous 30-minute cartoon special, but stretched out to feature length became unbearably rambling and tedious.

The major Oscars (picture, directing, 4 acting, 2 screenplay) were spread around 19 movies this year, more than any year since 2012 (movies of 2011), and, like that year, no single movie dominated the nominations. Of the nominees I haven't seen, the one I most want to is The Big Short, and there's also some movies I intend to avoid, like The Revenant which just looks repellent, and The Danish Girl because the last thing I need is to fill my mind with a lot of misleading crap about transsexuality. About The Force Awakens I don't give a hoot one way or the other.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

how to update a Potlatch restaurant guide

This is going to be a quick and dirty Potlatch, so it needs just a quick and dirty restaurant guide.

1. Fetch a few copies of the latest version of the Downtown San Jose Dining Guide map from the city's Convention Center offices.

2. Map on one copy the geographic sections I used in the old restaurant guide from two years ago.

3. That one had four circles of proximity: nearby, close, closer, and closest. Decide the last two are as far out as we need to go this time (plus a few selected favorites from further out), and measure on the map how far that was.

4. Using a drawing compass, transfer that to a circle drawn around our new venue.

5. Identify which sections, and parts of sections, of the old guide are within the limits of the new.

6. Copy the relevant parts of the old guide into a new document file, renumber the sections, and rearrange the order of the individual entries to fit a walk from our new venue. Map that on another copy of the Dining Guide.

7. Compare the entries one by one with the dining guide's listings. Find that, of 47 relevant entries on the old list, apparently 10 have closed and 7 new ones have opened.

Next step, checking them out on the ground to see how well the map matches the territory, and trying out some of the new places, along with updating hours and such for the old ones.


Law profs Lawrence Tribe and Mary Brigid McManamon have convinced me.

By the intended meaning of the U.S. Constitution's requirement for a "natural born Citizen", Ted Cruz is not legally eligible to be President.

McManamon explains the distinction. A natural-born citizen is one born in U.S. territory. (Frustratingly, McManamon doesn't clarify whether this is restricted to the metropolitan U.S. or includes other territory under U.S. control, which would cover Barry Goldwater and John McCain.) Cruz wasn't. He was born in a foreign country. End of story.

But his mother was a U.S. citizen, you object. Here's where McManamon gets ingenious. His mother's status made Cruz a naturalized citizen: naturalized automatically, at birth, instead of having to go through a naturalization procedure later on. But he's not a natural-born citizen.

That's what the Constitution was written to intend. Tribe puts the argument in context. If put to the Court today, the decision would probably go for the more inclusive meaning. But Cruz wants justices who stick to the original intent. Well, then, he can't have them, because they'd have to rule he was ineligible to appoint them.

I have no doubt, however, that if Cruz is nominated and then elected, the question will be just brushed aside.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

all knowledge

I have another question for the wise minds out there. Never mind for now why I have the photos which I am here showing you scanned versions of (I'm fairly sure that what I have are the only print copies of these specific photos); what I want to know is, who's in them?

I'm fairly sure the photos were taken around 1940. Definitely +/- 10 years. I suspect the people visible in them are movie stars, but I don't recognize them. Well, maybe one, but I'm not saying who I think it is, because I don't want to prejudice other views.

Do you?

Larger copies are here and here

Monday, January 11, 2016

I never drink ... wine

Like Treebeard's "I am not very, hm, bendable," this famous line of Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula is a motto of mine, but it's not entirely true. What I really avoid are beer and hard liquor, but I will take an occasional small glass of wine.

Still, most wine I don't much like, so it's worth noting that two bottles that recently came into our house via gift (they come no other way) proved to be rather tasty by my standards, so it's worth recording them.

1) 2014 Round Pond Rosato di Nebbiolo. A Napa Valley wine from our niece & nephew, who live near Round Pond and say it's their favorite winery. (It also produces gourmet olive oil, and I've a small bottle of that too, on our kitchen counter waiting to be used.) In my limited experience, rosé wines tend to suit me, and this was a good one.

2) Ste Chapelle soft red, no vintage. Oh look, it's imported ... from Idaho. Specifically Caldwell, which I suppose is about the most likely part of Idaho for vineyards. B. said of this wine that it's like port, only less strong. Both parts of that sounded good to me, and it was.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

a little lesson

Somewhat more than 25 years ago now, a tempest erupted in C.S. Lewis studies. A respected scholar, Kathryn Lindskoog, wrote an article and then a book (followed by more books and a magazine) charging that the likewise respected and prolifically-publishing literary executor of the Lewis estate, Walter Hooper, had engaged in malfeasance, exaggerating the extent of his own relationship with Lewis, insinuating himself into the position of literary executor, sponsoring false and misleading accounts of Lewis's life and beliefs, tinkering with Lewis's texts, and - most staggeringly - publishing a forgery as Lewis's work and lying about its provenance.

My own reaction to this was that Lindskoog proved her case on some of the charges, particularly the first, but that some of the others were flimsy at best. The forgery claim, for one: a manuscript in Lewis's handwriting existed, but she said it must have been forged, and her main evidence that the story wasn't by Lewis was that it wasn't very good, a terrible argument to make regarding an abandoned incomplete piece by a prolific and inconsistent author. On the other hand, for the provenance Lindskoog showed that it was Hooper's story that was full of holes. And some of the bad smell she detected around other things was evident to me too.

The counter-argument by Hooper's supporters was that Lindskoog had lost her marbles and sent around unjust charges willy-nilly, and she didn't help by being a poor advocate for her own case, failing to distinguish facts from speculations, and rambling terribly. That she was, in their words, a nut did not seem beyond possibility.

During the height of this, I was the editor of the Mythopoeic Society's bulletin, so I had to engage with the topic. I tried to maintain a judicious distance, pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses in the charges (Hooper himself refrained from the fray, and his supporters published no full-length rebuttals, so there was less to respond to there).

What got me was this. During this controversy I received two - one from each side - submissions for publication, each intended to prove the case once and for all, and blow the other side entirely out of the water. But though both authors were sharp and insightful people, both their submissions struck me as very weak, failing to engage with the other side's strong points and not demonstrating their own points. To each submitter I wrote back, outlining what I felt was missing from their polemics and what they'd have to put in to actually prove their case.

I was trying to save them from the embarrassment and grief that would have resulted from publication of their weak arguments that would have led to the conclusion that they had nothing better, and more importantly to encourage them. If either of them really did have a solid argument that the other side was wrong, by all means I wanted to see it, but first they'd have to produce it.

But neither of them took it that way. Each of them assumed that I had completely fallen for the other side's false arguments and that I was beyond reasonable discussion. One of them wrote back denouncing me, and the other just gave up and never responded; I didn't find out until some time later how he'd taken it. At that point I gave up: the assumption that my desire for something better than weak arguments meant I must have fallen for the other side's weak arguments struck me as grotesque.

So now I've found myself similarly engaged in the Peter S. Beagle controversy. Two sides, each accusing the other of bad dealings, false charges, and trying to control Beagle's work and manipulate his person for its own illegitimate profit. Such independent knowledge as I have of the background supports cases for both sides. But when I read the cases, I see on both sides huge gaps in the argument and unexplained questions.

Should I write another post outlining what I don't understand and saying to both sides, "This is what you'll have to explain if you want me to believe your case"? No. Not if I take the Lewis controversy as my guide. If they're like the Lewis camps, I'd be wasting my time trying to get them to shore up their cases; they'd just take my questions as attacks and write me off as an enemy. And thereby they'd only make me think more poorly of them. And since, even to start with, both sides' attacks on the other are more vicious than anything that occurred during the Lewis wars, I don't have my hopes up that they'd be any different, and all I'd accomplish is to get myself shot at.

So I'm writing this instead, to explain why - despite my love for Beagle's work and my personal fondness for him - I'm not joining either camp of self-proclaimed Beagle defenders, at least until somebody actually produces something definitive.

No comments, because I don't want to tempt anybody.

Saturday, January 9, 2016


There's been a lot of commentary on beards lately, like this. Possibly generated by Paul Ryan's new beard, or the revelation of the strategically political or commercial beard-growing of the Duck Dodgers Dynasty boys, or the Mast Brothers.

I've looked at the book cited in that article, but it disappointed me. Instead of a history of the beard, it's a collection of portraits of men with beards. What I want is to know not about any individual beard, but about beards in general, their rise and fall, and why. I'm particularly fascinated by the Wave of Beards that swept across Europe and the U.S. in the late 19C. Why did it come? Why did it go? Why was its arrival not met with the obloquy that greeted the very tiny revival of beards in the 1960s and 70s?

I've read possible answers to the first two questions. The previous Wave of Beards, in the Renaissance, disappeared coincident with the arrival of the powdered wig, so perhaps beards were thought a follicle too far. When the wigs went out in the early 19C, facial hair reappeared, first in the form of increasingly elaborate muttonchop whiskers, and then beards.

As for why they disappeared, I've read the simple cynical answer that it was because King Gillette wanted to sell razors. Once he'd sold razors to all the men, in the 1910s he created a new market by inventing women's underarm shaving, previously practiced only by the occasional courtesan.

I'm not sure how accurate or full these explanations are, but if I can't trace the reasons, at least I can gather facts. I have this database of U.S. senators from 1789 on, see, and when the Congressional Biographical Directory added portraits of all the senators (they now have most of the House members, too), I thought: this would be a useful database, large enough to be meaningful but not so large as to be wearisome to compile, of the rise and fall of the beard. Of course it says nothing about when the man grew his beard or whether he always kept it, but it has some value as an approximation. What's striking is the rise and fall of the sideburns (alone, without mustache), the beard, and the mustache (with or without sideburns, but without beard), in that order. It's even visible on as rough an approximation as birth decade:

birth   sideburns beards    mustache   US Presidents (for comparison)
1770s      6%        1%                Harrison (shaven)
1780s     13%        1%                Van Buren (sideburns), Taylor (shaven)
1790s      8%        7%                Tyler (shaven), Polk (shaven), Buchanan (didn't need to shave)
1800s      8%       21%        5%      Fillmore (shaven), Pierce (shaven), Lincoln (beard), Johnson (shaven)
1810s      9%       44%        6%
1820s      4%       67%       15%      Grant (beard), Hayes (beard), Arthur (mustache)
1830s      1%       49%       42%      Garfield (beard), Cleveland (mustache), Harrison (beard)
1840s               27%       46%      McKinley (shaven)
1850s                9%       50%      Roosevelt (mustache), Taft (mustache), Wilson (shaven)
1860s                5%       38%      Harding (shaven)
1870s                          6%      Coolidge (shaven), Hoover (shaven)

After that the mustache continued to trail on in occasional use through men born in the 1910s, but with one exception of 1910s birth (and he didn't actually grow it until around 1970), the beard didn't reappear in the Senate until a very few men born in the 1940s had them.

But note how ubiquitous facial hair was among men serving between the 1860s and 1910s. A third of men born in the 1800s and 1860s wore facial hair, rising above half in the intervening decades, reaching an astonishing height of 91% of those born in the 1830s.

Beards that I see today are most commonly the neatly-trimmed oval around the mouth, like PNH's, and one sees the occasional wildman (which was once respectable), but my aim in a beard is to emulate General Grant. I emphatically do not view my beard as an ornament. I'm not often asked why I grow a beard, but when I am I say, "I don't consider that a meaningful question. The meaningful question is, why do so many other men shave theirs off?" I stopped shaving in college, because I couldn't think of a reason why I should continue wasting my time at it every morning. Consequently I don't shave around the beard either - what other men do is up to them, but to me both shaving and having a beard would be the epitome of pointlessness - but I do keep it short, because cutting it with scissors every couple of weeks is a lot less trouble, and a lot less messy, than having it get in the way all the time. I wash it with soap and water, like the rest of my face. (Only once did I try shampooing it: I had forgotten that the beard lies below the nostrils, and that was a bit much, so another reason to keep it short.) I did shave it off entirely once, about 20 years ago, because I was curious as to what I looked like underneath. I soon grew it back.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

out of pocket expenses

Some years ago I dipped into Jo Walton's Farthing, but I didn't get very far because I'm not enthusiastic for "cozy" country-house murder mysteries. But, having been so impressed by some of her more recent books, I decided to try again.

And true, Farthing does have some of the irritating typical features of that genre, but I should have trusted Jo Walton! It's also captivating and an excellent read in other ways. And its two sequels, Ha'penny and Half a Crown, which I immediately went on to, are not murder mysteries at all but suspense novels, a genre I much prefer. Ha'penny was particularly outstanding in, like Farthing, facing a dire ending unflinchingly.

They're also alternate histories - something that always raises my interest - and they're set in post-WW2 Britain, a time and place of which I've read much. So let's be clear before I go on any further: these are excellent novels, with intricate well-woven plots and some outstanding characters, told in a clear style that runs along like a series of raindrops flowing together, that I recognize as characteristic of Walton's work. I recommend them.

But Farthing in particular contains a number of factual errors about British nobility and political arrangements. These are something of a bugaboo of mine. I was shocked: Jo Walton is knowledgeable and learned, particularly about the country she was born and grew up in; how could she get these elementary facts wrong? There's much less of it in the succeeding books; did someone alert the author after Farthing was published?

The usual American mistake about British nobility is to treat the title "Lord" or "Lady" as a free-floater that can be attached indiscriminately to first name or last. Walton is not American and mostly doesn't do this, though there are a couple of cases where it does happen (Farthing p. 289; Ha'penny p. 277). Farthing is more likely to apply these titles to people who shouldn't have them at all (pp. 101, 124, 165, and others), though in the second book a character chides people who mistakenly do that. There's a character who's mostly a Duke but once an Earl (p. 125). And I don't think anybody says "my lord," even when they should (p. 140).

More seriously, there's a baronet (someone whose moniker looks like this: "Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, Bt") in the House of Lords (p. 101-2). Surely the author should know that a baronetcy is a hereditary knighthood and not a title of nobility, and has never by itself carried a seat in the Lords.

Nor do the highest-ranking political offices go to commoners as some sort of compensatory privilege in response to those that lords get, as both the omniscient and first-person narrators of Farthing suggest (p. 103, 242-3). Offices like Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been pretty much limited to the Commons only since the House of Lords was stripped of most of its power in 1911, and that's not as a privilege but so that they may be questioned by and hence be answerable to the more powerful House. Before then they were as likely to be in the Lords as not, and even since then there've been exceptions (there was a Foreign Secretary in the Lords as late as the Thatcher ministry). And the Lord Chancellor, one of the highest-ranking offices, before the further reforms of 1999 presided over the Lords and consequently was always a member of it. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is the office at issue here, has always sat in the Commons. The Chancellor's main job is to introduce the annual budget, and since finance bills by law must originate there, it would be not just uncustomary but practically impossible to have a Chancellor in the Lords where he couldn't introduce his own budget.

Problems in the succeeding books are more ones of tone, and I'm less sure of my ground with these. Would a civil servant conferring with top ministers address them only with the occasional "sir", as happens in Ha'penny (ch. 26)? Unless I missed something, it isn't until the third book that he says, "Yes, Prime Minister," which is what you would say. What Brit of the era would say "bathroom" when they mean the loo? (Ha'penny p. 158) Is there a Pesach seder tradition in which the children hide the afikoman (Half a Crown p. 257)? I've always known the tradition as an adult hides it; the children's job is to find it. And there's two conversations in the third book (ch. 8 and 29) that I don't believe at all, for what seem to me glaring plot reasons.

Could some of these be errors made by characters? Perhaps some, but in these books most errors made by characters are marked as such, and many of these are by characters who wouldn't make such errors. Others are expository, recounting Scotland Yard reports, and there's no intimation that Scotland Yard research is unreliable.

Could these errors be actual fact in this alternate history? Again, I think not. None of them would be required by the nature of the alternate history; Walton is conservative about postulating changes (Attlee is still leader of the Labour Party in this alternate 1949, which I'd have thought would be unlikely in the circumstances); and one of the points of Half a Crown is that no constitutional changes were necessary to put Britain under a dictatorship.

But these blemishes only stand out because I had such high expectations. I did like these books.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Pierre Boulez

has died at the impressive age of 90. He conducted a mean Debussy. And, if we're only supposed to say nice things about the recently deceased, I'll leave it at that.

when they battle in a puddle, it's a Peter Beagle puddle battle

What do we know about Peter Beagle? Well ...

After years of being fairly obscure and off the public stage, and fairly indigent too from what I understand, the once-prominent fantasy writer whose older work was still remembered had a late blossoming. He'd gotten a personal manager, Connor Cochran (known in fandom for decades, usually under his artistic pen name Freff), who was devoting himself to the energetic promotion of Peter S. Beagle and his works.

Most notably, he'd gotten the movie adaptation of Beagle's novel The Last Unicorn out of rights limbo. He organized a slow-scale nation-wide tour of screenings of the movie with Beagle in attendance. I went to the first of these, in San Francisco, three years ago and was stunned at the enthusiastic crowds and pleased at seeing Peter feted. It had become a cult movie while I wasn't paying attention. (It was the only time I'd seen the film since its first release, and not only had the suck fairy not withered it, it had if anything improved with age.)

With the same enthusiastic bounce, new Beagle books - new material, new collections of older material not previously reissued, new editions of old books - began blossoming from various presses, and I picked some of these up. There was an email newsletter which I got regularly for a while, though either it ceased some time ago or I fell off the mailing list.

So I was stunned to read this in the new Ansible: "PETER BEAGLE is suing his publisher Conlan Press and its proprietor Connor Freff Cochran; the long list of complaints filed in November begins with 'elder abuse' in various categories, fraud, defamation, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract ... Cochran claims the suit is frivolous." Followed by a comment to the effect that the publisher has become infamous for "delayed delivery and non-delivery" - I wouldn't know about that; I've never ordered anything directly from them by mail.

Yikes! At Conlan's website you may read: "Peter is facing a whole new kind of problem: his health. Those of you who have been following the Tour already know we had to suspend our shows last June because Peter was having major issues with his memory. Business and personal matters that he and I had worked on for years had completely vanished from his head, and he was also confabulating — recalling only fragments of events, then filling in the blanks with things that never happened. I certainly wasn’t going to ask him to continue on the road in that condition, so I pulled the plug. Due to continuing problems and Peter’s wish for privacy, his screening appearances are suspended indefinitely. A new version of the tour will launch in 2016 ... But Peter will be unable to attend or sign merchandise." (This is, by the way, considerably revised and somewhat expanded, though the essence is unchanged, from what it said yesterday.)

So what is going on? Whatever it is, it's very sad. Whatever else may be true, Beagle is a great author and - from my experiences with him - a really nice guy; and Freff really has done a tremendous amount of hard work to promote him. Ansible has a link, apparently to the text of the suit, but it's gone dead. I know no more than that, so I'm just passing on what's been written in public.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

world according to cat

I was just starting to write a post about something else altogether when Maia came into the office and began pacing and meowing beneath my feet. This sometimes means she wants another meal, often well before mealtime, but this time it meant she wanted me to follow her into the bedroom. She will sit alert at a specific point at the foot of the bed, and then if, and only if, you stand behind her just there, she will jump up onto the bed. This means she wants you then also to get up on the bed and give her an intense session of petting (or stroking, as I believe it's called in Britain).

When Maia was a kitten, she didn't seem quite sure whether she liked being petted or not, but about a year ago - she's 2 1/2 now - she began this bed-jumping habit, though the demanding meows are much newer. (The vet says it means she's more comfortable with us. Don't get too comfortable there, cat.) She'll settle down in a relaxed pose to be petted, interspersed with getting scratched all around the head, then get up for a bit and settle down in a slightly different spot. Repeat frequently. This desire to keep moving around may explain why she doesn't like to be picked up and held: can't move around while that's going on.

The best part comes in the parts in between being settled. She'll walk back and forth rubbing against my head as I lie there on propped-up elbows. She'll also lick my elbows, or even bump noses. It's an intimate close encounter with a cat.

When I'm playing with Maia with the peacock feather it's sometimes hard to tell if she's still interested. After initial activity, she usually tries to chase the feather while lying down, paws waving desultorily in the air as it comes by. But with the petting sessions, there's no question but that she's fully involved. And when she's had enough, after five or ten minutes, she'll just jump off the bed. Though we have done this as many as five times in a one day.

Friday, January 1, 2016

new year's

The flipping of the year brings what is, by my standards at least, an intense bout of socializing, for there are a New Year's Eve party and a New Year's Day party, both.

Both went particularly well this year. There were intelligent and non-contentious discussions of the prospects for the US presidential election. There were anecdotes, personal updatings, convention news, and puns. Conversations went off in various directions. At one point, the topic of library cataloging turned into computer programming, and at another, classical music became nail polish. You never know what you'll get.

As the noisy countdown for the change of year approached, I said to my friend with whom I was then conversing, "Let's continue this next year." And then, as all the hooting and hollering died down, I said, "Picking this up from where we were last year ..."