Sunday, November 27, 2016

trip notes

Although the UK does not have Thanksgiving, weirdly it does have Black Friday. You took the wrong part of American customs, guys.

Rumblings Underground: Staying out near the end of the Piccadilly line becomes exciting when a broken signal causes a blockage just out from where it starts crossing other lines. Stumbling out onto the street in some unknown suburb called South Ealing, blessings fall in the form of a bus whose destination sign reads Ealing Broadway. A lightbulb goes on when I remember that's the name of the station at the end of the Central line. However, chaos re-emerges in town. The District line is half-closed, and the Circle line is entirely closed, facts only revealed in the form of inaudible station announcements, and more slowly in the form of trains that don't arrive.

Thing I brought with me that I turned out not to need: a voltage converter. Turns out the chargers I use for my tablets are 240-friendly. Could have used a second plug adapter, though. As for my electric toothbrush, first off it holds a charge for well over a week, which I hadn't expected; and second, there's a 115-volt outlet in the bathroom of at least two of the hotels I've stayed in, and it takes the American plugs, too. It's labeled "shaver only," but I won't tell if you won't.

Thing I didn't bring enough of but should have: the unfoldable gauze dressing I use on my skin condition, which every pharmacy chain in the US carries in various quantity boxes, is completely unknown in the UK. I have to make do with tiny little pads, which I rip off from the bandages they're mounted on and apply in large numbers. (It goes under my compression socks, which is why I don't need anything else to hold it in place.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

concerts in two iconic locales

I was admiring the large, famous, and cathedral-like King's College chapel in Cambridge - the informational leaflet says the roof is 80 feet high, but it looks taller than that - when I noticed the sign listing the musical program for that evening's Evensong service. The college singers would be performing Bruckner's Locus iste as the introit. Locus iste is my favorite motet of all time, so I decided to go.

Not the first time I'd attended a Christian religious service, but the first time I'd attended an Anglican one in a medieval edifice. The chorus (two colleges' worth, combined), about 50 strong, were excellent, and the acoustics were reverberant. We guests sat in the stalls, facing inward from the two sides, at the lower end of the church; the chorus sat likewise in the middle, with their conductor standing in the aisle between them; and the ministers were up at the top somewhere, where we couldn't see them but could hear them.

Earlier, in London, on a lark I went to one of several performances of a "Classical Spectacular" program at the Royal Albert Hall, a building I'd never been inside before, though I've seen plenty of videos of concerts there. It's an enormous Victorian circular-shaped monument with something of a football-arena vibe to it. What the acoustics are like I've no idea, as everything was under tinny amplification, even the Royal Philharmonic, a normally respectable orchestra which formed the bulk of the musicians. Some quieter pieces, like "Clair de lune" and "The Lark Ascending", were perhaps poorly chosen for the festive atmosphere, which seemed intended to re-create The Last Night of the Proms in November. The most interesting part of it was the odd feeling one gets as a foreigner sitting among Brits being wildly patriotic over "Land of Hope and Glory", Parry's "Jerusalem", and "Rule, Britannia" with a baritone, clad in the British equivalent of an Uncle Sam coat, doing the hard-part verses from Thomas Arne's original. Does being a flag-waving Brit today indicate that one is pro-Brexit? I'm not sure.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

things I've learned in Britain

that are not related to mobile phones:

1. At the feet of the statue of Dorothy L. Sayers, there is a statue of her cat.

2. Sheep may safely graze on the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo.

3. Materials conservation at a historic house converted into a museum is a lot more like housekeeping than it is in the academic libraries where I know it.

4. If the essential eating-while-standing-outdoors food in Hawaii is a shaved ice on the beach at Haleiwa in August, the equivalent in England is fish and chips on the shore of the North Sea in November. I have now had both.

5. The only dilapidated building in the entirety of Stratford-upon-Avon's neat and clean town centre is Shakespeare's (supposed) birthplace.

6. There is an entire book on the history of the London Underground map. I now have a copy of this book. (Are you not surprised?)

7. The Two Noble Kinsmen, by Shakespeare and Fletcher, is a much better Fletcher play than it is a Shakespeare one.

8. On the other hand, the unpromisingly dry Milton Comus was alchemized at the Globe Theatre's indoor playhouse into a riotous hoot.

9. When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, he had not yet grown his famous beard. You'd never recognise him.

10. A transplanted Yorkshirewoman explained to me that the last words of the song lyric "On Ilkla Moor baht 'at" mean "without a hat." I had had no idea, and had guessed it meant "about eight o'clock."

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I'm disappointed

The greatest lie in Britain isn't the idealized Brexit terms that fooled gullible voters. The greatest lie in Britain is the claim that it's easy to find a shop that will sell you a mobile phone.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Turned out there was a reason God took Leonard Cohen from us at the moment He did. It was so that we could get the full effect of this double memorial.

Pay particular attention to the third verse. (There are different versions of the lyrics. These are all authentic Cohen.)


(This is intended to be a non-spoiler. I hope to thoroughly confuse anybody who's not already familiar with one or the other of the prose fiction or film I'm discussing.)

A couple weeks ago, as reported here, I went to a preview showing of the film Arrival, and was impressed with this thoughtful, intelligent, cerebral SF film. Of course, I'd already read "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang on which it's based, so I had a leg up on the actually profoundly disorienting plot. (It is a Ted Chiang story.) But the publicity people told me that others who'd seen the movie without knowing the story had found it intelligible.

Now it's been released, and I'm reading the reviews and I'm not so sure.

San Jose Mercury News: "Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics called in by the U.S. government to attempt communicating with the visitors. Banks still wrestles with the guilt of losing a daughter to an incurable disease and is immediately presented as a complicated and passionate character."

The Guardian: "Unknown to anyone, there is a secret tragedy in Louise's life: a lost child, dead of cancer in her late teens. Her attempts to communicate with the aliens cause painful, illuminating echoes in her consciousness."

Are these misdirection to avoid spoiling the ending, or did the reviewers actually not get what's going on? The Guardian might be the former, though I'd guess not; but the Mercury News definitely the latter, even though the reviewer also wrote, "as in “Interstellar,” the point remains hidden until nearly the end." I wonder what the reviewer thought the point was.

I'm dismayed, because I thought the filmmakers handled this really well. Not only did they include verbatim my favorite moment from the story, the vertiginous shift in perspective pivoting on a single term that occurs between p. 295 and 296 of the original publication, but, just in case anyone missed it, they used it as lead-up to a more blatant appearance of the same effect later on that was entirely invented for the film. (The phone-call scene.) What impressed me about this is that it's the opposite of what Peter Jackson would do. One of the besetting sins of his Lord of the Rings films was repeated anticipation and flattening: he'd copy Tolkien's most striking effects and add them to scenes earlier on in the storyline, thus undercutting the drama of Tolkien's part of the story when it finally arrives.

Arrival does the opposite: by putting its invented scene later, it underlines and emphasizes what it reproduces from Chiang's original. See, it really does matter what order you experience events in, doesn't it?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

opera review: Akhnaten

Open are the double doors of the horizon.
Unlocked are its gates.
I'm not much of an opera-goer, and it's unprecedented that I would travel out of town just to see an opera. But it's not out of character for me if that opera is Akhnaten by Philip Glass. I only know Glass's earlier theater works, and there are parts of Satyagraha and The Photographer I cherish most. But overall, Akhnaten is my favorite. A production by the LA Opera was a golden opportunity for a work rarely staged, and I made a quick trip down to see Thursday's performance at the Chandler Pavilion, a hall I'd been to before when the LA Philharmonic was still playing there, before they moved to the newer Disney Hall across the street.

Akhnaten was the Egyptian pharaoh who essentially, at least as Glass understood the history, invented monotheism. At a pre-show talk, conductor Matthew Aucoin described him, as depicted in this opera, as a visionary reformer whose achievements were erased by his successors; sound like anybody we know? Without getting further into politics, Aucoin suggested that this performance would be a catharsis that we all needed. He described Glass as also a visionary reformer, ridding music of unneeded complexity as Akhnaten had the pantheon of gods, in revolt against the serialist orthodoxy (Aucoin used that word) of the previous generation.

Akhnaten is not a plot-based opera; it's a series of near-static tableaus, focused on the music rather than the action, which is part of why I like it so much. I also like the dark sound quality; as with the Brandenburg Sixth, another favorite work of mine, there are no violins; but this is otherwise a big orchestra with a full sound.

This production was imported from the English National Opera. The sets and costumes, though not Egyptian-inspired, were weird and fascinating. The special feature was a troupe of ten silent juggler/acrobats integrated into the story; the repetition and shifting patterns of their juggling reflects the music. Except for the jugglers, however, everyone on stage moved extremely slowly. Even Akhnaten's violent overthrow at the end took place in such slow motion that it could seem motionless moment-by-moment.

This too reflected the music; but I found it not at all boring, but beautiful and gripping all the way through. Not all agreed, though. After each intermission the audience was slightly smaller, but most of us appreciated all 3.5 hours of it. It was an enrapturing performance that was worth the effort I took to get there.

SFCV's review of the premiere last week has details and photos. And the LA Times review has more; I thought the orchestra was fine by the time I heard them, though the Chandler acoustics hadn't improved; but then, that I was prepared for.

Here's a recording of the part of Akhnaten with the most interesting vocal work, though it's still totally unlike anything opera-lovers would normally expect to hear. It's a trio for Akhnaten - a counter-tenor, an eerie voice type meant to come as a surprise after his silent appearance in the previous scene for his coronation - his mother Queen Tye (soprano) and his wife Queen Nefertiti (mezzo). By using the high range of the man's voice and the low ranges of the women's, Glass intertwines them fascinatingly. What language is that they're singing? Ancient Egyptian, of course; what else?

Friday, November 11, 2016

late review

Last weekend (seems so long ago now), The Peninsula Symphony, fortunately playing only works they were capable of playing, which made it easy to review. I thought of covering the Masterworks Chorale in Rachmaninoff's Vespers instead, and putting the PenSym off till March when they're doing Anna Clyne (whom I like a lot) and Scheherazade, but I fear they won't be able to be very adequate in Scheherazade, and writing disappointed reviews of amateur ensembles is painful. Also, I don't know the Rachmaninoff Vespers and lacked the time to learn it, whereas Masterworks' March concert is the Verdi Requiem, which I don't have to worry about.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


The response of those I know who were on the losing side of this election has overwhelmingly been grief. That's interesting. Those who lost eight years ago responded mostly with anger, and have gone on responding that way ever since. I think that says something of the differences between us.

I respond to grief by retreating into research. After my mother died, I stayed up most of the night selecting photos from her collection, and copying them at the all-night copy store in Palo Alto, for the memorial board at her funeral.

Now I'm researching election statistics. This is interesting, and you can see county-level (town-level in New England) statistics here. Can you find the counties that went 85% for one or the other?

The big Wednesday-morning quarterbacking question is, did the 3rd-party vote turn the election? And the answer is, it could have. The only state for which, if all the Jill Stein voters had gone Hillary, she would have won, is Wisconsin. That's not enough. But if a goodly portion of the Libertarians had done so as well, it could also have taken Florida, Pennsylvania, and, interestingly, Arizona, and that would have turned to a 302-EV Clinton victory.

But I don't think that's likely. Turnout is the real issue here, the same turnout that lost the Democrats the 2010 midterms. That, and voter suppression and intimidation, which I await measurements and estimates of.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

whole lotta voting going on

Both statistics and anecdotes are reporting large turnouts in today's US elections. I can add my mite to that. I went down to the neighborhood polling place about 9:30 AM. Usually the morning commuter rush is gone by then, and there's one or two other voters around, if that. Not this time. Three people already in the booths, one ahead of me in line, and two more behind me by the time they were done with that guy. It's not a long line by any means, but it's lot more than I've seen before.

This despite the long ballot. We vote here with pen markings on bedsheet-sized pieces of paperboard, and this year there were three of them, all two-sided. There were 3 federal offices, 2 state legislative ones (the state executive offices come up in two years), 7 school board seats (and weren't those hard to get real information about), 4 city council seats, 17 state propositions, and 4 local ones. That comes to as many votes as there are Shakespeare plays.

The official at the counter struggled to tear the receipt stubs off all three ballot sheets at once, slid them with fair versatility out of the protective sheath into a zipper slot in the big orange canvas rucksack that serves as a ballot box, handed me the stubs and an "I Voted" sticker, and off I went.

Monday, November 7, 2016

the king is duller than the queen

I started to watch Netflix's new series The Crown, but I couldn't abide more than about 20 minutes of it. Not only is palace life lovingly depicted as of unsurpassable dullness, but the royals, and also the politicians, spend their time standing around telling each other things they already know, so as to make sure the viewing audience is up to speed. Let me out of this march of the morons.

an unworthy thought

Janet Reno died.

I hope she voted early.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

concert review: Warsaw Philharmonic

Last week, I went to Davies and heard SFS play Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. So what do I get when I go back to Davies for the visiting Warsaw Philharmonic? Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. Like 8 Bartok quartets in 2 days, that's more than I want.

Nor is a Chopin piano concerto exactly a showpiece for a visiting orchestra. Undoubtably they played it because they, like Chopin, are from Poland. The soloist, whom the concerto is about, was not from Poland. He's one of those 22-year-old virtuosi with names like, in his case, Seong-Jin Cho. The audience thought vehemently well of him, and he was certainly fluent. In the Romanze movement he achieved a distinctive liquidity of tone which I thought was very fine. His encore was the Op. 53 Polonaise, a banging piece not designed to replicate that particular virtue.

The orchestra's big showpiece was the Brahms First Symphony, in a lean, energetic performance nevertheless notable for what seems to be Warsaw's most distinctive characteristic, a fat, heavy, almost crass tutti sound. For an encore, they acknowledged the country they were playing in and offered Bernstein's Candide Overture, which they didn't sound unfamiliar with.

Also on the program, something else Polish - sort of - and more for the connoisseur. It was the Polish Melodies by Moisei Weinberg, born and raised in Poland, moved to the USSR where he studied with Shostakovich and spent the rest of his life, and considered by cognoscenti to be one of the great unsung composers of the last century.

Not for this piece, though, which is a brief exercise in Soviet populism that could have been written by Kabalevsky, and doesn't even sound all that Polish. It does, however, begin with a long horn solo over a pedal point, so putting it at the start of the concert, with the horns not warmed up yet, was daring. A single flub could have spoiled the entire effect that the visitors were aiming for. However, there were no flubs. Good show.

Friday, November 4, 2016


Watched the Ghostbusters reboot, because the DVD was there. I liked the camaraderie among the four women. Made up for a lot of boring crap.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I'm not a big fan of the Chopin piano concertos, but I am a big fan of Yuja Wang, and she gave a sparkling, highly inflected performance of the Concerto No. 2 at Davies last night.

MTT preceded this with a brief work of his own - Bernstein, modified by academic modernism - and followed it with Bruckner's Seventh, to show how he can do what Blomstedt does. His colors are brighter, his canvases are even vaster, and while his energy doesn't flag he has just as much trouble finding coherence in the finale.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

88 lines for father

Today is my father's 88th birthday anniversary. How about that? I want to commemorate the occasion by elaborating on something on something I recently told him in appreciation of two rare gifts he gave me in my adolescence: two useful skills I now have which - so far as I can tell - few others my age possess.

First is, to drive a stick shift car. Even before I was of age to legally practice-drive, my father took me and his trusty Volkswagen out to a deserted college parking lot one weekend and drilled me in the mysteries of this device.

The stick shift is the ideal illustration of the fact that understanding the principle of an action and actually being able to perform it are entirely different things. The clutch is merely the enabling switch for the gear shift. Depress the clutch, shift the gear, release the clutch. Simple, right? No, not at all. Coordinating the clutch and accelerator pedals to do this smoothly and efficiently without grinding, stalling, or causing the car to hop and jerk requires enormous practice and building up of muscle memory. My father is a straightforward man: describe, listen, do. He had to show great patience as I slowly stumbled my way to mastery of this skill.

But master it I did, and it's something you don't forget, even after years away, though it may become a bit rusty after long disuse until one's sea-legs return. It's proven useful over the years. Not just in Britain, where - at least up through my last visit - the default rental car is always stick, and an automatic has to be specially arranged for. Once when I was in college, an elaborate plan involving the moving of many cars around between various places nearly foundered when nobody available could drive stick. Except me.

Second is, to knot a long necktie. This is not a simple skill, and since I only wore a tie two or three times a year to formal occasions, I kept forgetting it and had to be re-taught. Again, it needed patience. But eventually it stuck, and though as an adult I still don't wear one often, I am the more likely to do so because I know how. Most of my career as a librarian was in the back office behind the "Staff Only" sign, but whenever I was on duty at the reference desk, I always wore a tie.

I was rather amused when I found that few of my male friends could do this, and even ones who often wore a tie as a fashion accessory just kept a pre-knotted one hung up in the closet. Once I attended a party where the visiting guest brought a collection of ties along as party favors, and someone handed them out at the door to the men who entered. All the other men had just draped theirs around their necks as if the tie were substituting for a tallis. I hadn't yet noticed this when I came in and was given one: I was dubious, as my shirt wasn't appropriate for wearing a tie with, but I quickly knotted it up roughly. The woman who was handing out the ties was slack-jawed in astonishment. Even her husband, a figure of some note in the computer industry, couldn't do that.

I don't have many unusual skills, and some common ones defeat me. (I cannot hit a ping-pong or tennis ball over a net, or usually hit it at all, though a volleyball I could manage when I was still limber.) But I owe my ability to type fast to my mother's insistence that I learn touch-typing, and these two I owe to the wisdom and patience of my father. Thanks, Dad.