Monday, January 30, 2017

it's a bird

Today's xkcd cartoon, a features list for bird/plane/Superman, is one of the funniest I've seen lately. It also rings something in my head that I can't identify. I hear in my head a voice - and it's without visuals, so this isn't a movie/tv show, nor a book, but either radio or a record - saying:

"It's a bird! It's a plane! *yccch* It's a bird."

I hear it distinctly, but I'm drawing a blank on remembering where it's from.

Probably it'll hit me the next time I hear whatever it is.

This has happened to me twice before with lines that popped into my head. In each case I did not, at the time, own a copy of the source, so it was years before I happened to see/read that source again (one was a book, one a movie), and I suddenly remembered: ah, that's where that comes from.

One was:

"We are the chorus, and we agree. We agree, we agree, we agree."

which is from the parody of Galadriel's lament in Bored of the Rings, and the other is:

"Who are you who are so wise in the ways of science?"

which is spoken by Bedevere to King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail after a little experiment involving a witch and a duck.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Sarah Prince

or S.S. Prince as she often bylined herself, was an old fannish friend, or at least good acquaintance, who died last week. I encountered her off and on in various contexts, but knew her best as a long-time member of ALPS, the Amateur Long-Playing Society, a music apa (amateur press association) that flourished in the 1980s and early 90s.

I remember her from there less for her writing, which tended towards the gnomic, or for her musical tastes, than for her passionate interest in art and design. She would critique other members' zine layouts (I remember her approbation when I finally taught my word processor to make curly quotes), created a number of covers and other art projects for ALPS, mostly collages, and designed and manufactured the large ALPS lapel buttons she sent to all of us so that we could identify other ALPSians at conventions. They were very useful. I still have mine.

Of Sarah at conventions, I remember particularly one when she wasn't there. It was a small con she'd intended to attend, but had to cancel. So she lay down on a large sheet of butcher paper, had someone draw an outline around her, and sent that in her place. This was typical of her style. The paper was hung up on the wall in the con suite, and we all wrote greetings to her inside the life-size outline.

When she was present, she tended to be quiet, but she had a chipmunk-toothy smile it was always cheering to see.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

not my day

This was the day I decided to go to UC Santa Cruz for a little necessary library research. Although Santa Cruz is over a rugged little mountain range by way of a twisty highway, if one avoids commute hours (or summer weekend beach traffic), it's usually possible to get there in half an hour from here.

Not today. I hit stopped traffic at the foot of the mountains, and it took over an hour to travel the two miles to the next exit, where the cops were funneling all the traffic off. It appeared that most people were just turning around, but I know the back mountain roads, so I circled around six miles to an entrance further along, where the highway proved to be open. (If it hadn't been, I could have easily gotten to a good parallel back road from there.)

By this time, my first stop in Santa Cruz was a late lunch, which was pretty fast, and I got my library work done in about 20 minutes (maximum parking without a day permit is an hour, so I've learned to work quick there). I came home on a less direct, and even narrower and twistier, highway, which was also closed in two places, requiring more detours, and thus a trip which should have taken no more than 2.5 hours, including lunch, took 6.

I think the closures on the road back were due to floods or mudslides that have been frequent there, but I learned after I got home that the highway was closed due to a manhunt for a bank robber, who'd done the act just about the time I left home. So add "wasting my time" to the very bottom of the long catalog of his sins.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Chancellors

Edmund Dell, The Chancellors (HarperCollins, 1996)
Roy Jenkins, The Chancellors (Macmillan, 1998)

On the used book shelves in the back of Heffers, in Cambridge, last November I found two books with the same title on, essentially, the same topic, by authors with similar qualifications, but which were otherwise entirely different. I've been slowly reading through both.

Each is a history of the Chancellors of the Exchequer for a specified chunk of modern British history, covering all of them, the famous and the obscure, even the one who died only a month after taking office. Both authors were themselves economics ministers in the 1960s and 70s Labour governments, and both are lucid, entertaining writers. But that about covers the similarities.

Jenkins, who was Chancellor himself in 1967-70, covers 1885-1947, including such figures as Lloyd George, the Churchills (father and son), and the Chamberlain brothers. A couple Chancellors near the end of his period Jenkins knew personally, and he doesn't shy away from turning the book into personal recollections. Dell's period is 1945-1990, and he thus includes Jenkins among his mostly less-renowned subjects. Dell served in government with, and occasionally under, three of his Chancellors, but he erases himself from his impersonal narrative as much as possible.

The two-year overlap covers the term of Hugh Dalton, and his differing treatment in the two illustrates their dissimilarity. Jenkins includes Dalton, rather than ceasing at the obvious stopping point of 1945, in part because he views Dalton as primarily a pre-1945 politician. Which makes the point that, saving three cases where Jenkins has written full biographies elsewhere, he's interested in the man's whole career, not just his Chancellorship.

Jenkins does no original research, but draws mostly on biographies and secondary sources - extraordinarily skilfully in the case of a couple minor figures about whom little has been written. What he contributes is mostly his judgment as a biographer and an experienced politician on how these other politicians managed their careers. Perhaps his most penetrating view is of Austen Chamberlain, Neville's elder, and once far more prominent, half-brother. Of his personal style, Jenkins writes
Austen Chamberlain, who as a young man faithfully copied the eyeglass, the orchid buttonhole, the wing collar, the stiff cuffs, the frock coat and even the hair parting of his father, then felt that he had to stick to it, and became like a beached whale of Edwardian formality in the 1920s and 1930s. He was one of the last three or four members habitually to sit in the House of Commons with his top hat on his head ... Typically also he assuaged any forbidding barrier ... by always raising this silken anachronism in acknowledgment of any reference to himself, friendly or hostile, in the speeches of others.
I just have to say - beached whale of Edwardian formality ... silken anachronism - that biographical stilettos don't come any sharper than this. There's also a personal anecdote about Dalton that's pricelessly funny and worth the cost of the book.

It's actually a good thing that Jenkins is interested in the whole of his subject's careers, because the sections on the actual Chancellorships are the least interesting part of the book. They consist mostly of what Jenkins calls "turning over the leaves of dead Budgets," recounting the annual juggling of various tax rates with the goal of producing a desired level of government income. In his account, there wasn't much more to being Chancellor, at least in those days, than that. Despite his catty remarks and funny anecdotes, he's sympathetic to his subjects, even the politically disastrous and personally appalling Philip Snowden. Dalton's woes as Chancellor, which led to his humiliating resignation, are brushed aside in favor of a warm-hearted view of a loud and boisterous man.

Dell, by contrast, excoriates Dalton for general mismanagement of the economy. He has little to say about the Chancellors outside their period in office, and no interest in personality apart from how it affected their decisions in office (which he says it did a lot). This is an analytical history of the Chancellorship, not biographies of the individual Chancellors. It quickly becomes clear that Dell is going to be excoriating on all the Chancellors. General management of the economy, which Jenkins says was pretty much ignored by Chancellors in his period, is in Dell's view of his own period a series of one crashing mismanagement after another, with Chancellors either economically illiterate or still making unwise decisions if they're not. Either the Chancellors don't take the right advice, or the Treasury officials fail to give it.

Concentrating on the large view does keep Dell from getting tedious: he's amazingly lucid on some highly technical topics, and even occasionally funny. And considering the state of the British economy over the years, one cannot say that Dell is likely to be wrong in most of his criticisms. Yet the endless critique began to make me feel uneasy. Of Jenkins' turn in office, Dell says he was actually one of the better Chancellors of the period, but criticizes Jenkins for not being better still, on the grounds of the "arrogant assumption of superiority in economic debates" he had always previously shown. In other words, Jenkins was better as a sideline critic than he proved in office. It doesn't seem to occur to Dell that his own assumption of smug superiority of judgment over 17 successive holders of a job he never had to do himself is as arrogant as anything he attributes to Jenkins.

I knew there was something wrong with Dell when I read his summations of two successive 1950s Tory Chancellors. He criticizes R.A. Butler for being indecisive, and writes of Butler's colleagues rejecting him for the Prime Ministership, "It was an unkind, but probably an accurate, judgement." But then, of the more decisive but more wrong Harold Macmillan, who became PM instead, Dell writes, "It was a poor choice for the Conservative Party, but, more importantly, for the country." I think Dell means the choice between the two, rather than the choice of Macmillan over Butler, but still, it gives the impression that Dell thinks the grass is greener on the other side of the fence no matter which side you're on.

Monday, January 23, 2017

election correction

Here's a little calculation I was able to do in a jiffy by plugging an existing table into an Excel spreadsheet and adding a few calculation columns.

In reply to the fact that Clinton received more votes than Trump, supporters of the latter have suggested that the Founding Fathers set up the Electoral College deliberately to favor candidates with wider geographic support.

That's not as strong an argument as it may seem, given that Clinton carried 21 states (including D.C.) and Trump 30; although Clinton's majority can be accounted for by a couple of large states, it's not as if her winning areas were limited to a couple enclaves.

Nevertheless, it's a stronger argument than the ones the Republicans used to offer, where they would present a US county outline map colored in by which candidate won which county. The vast expanses of red couldn't hide the fact that most of those vast expanses were pretty empty. Square miles don't get a vote.

But geographic spread per se was not the Founding Fathers' intent. What they were trying to do was preserve the interests of small states, which they had to do because they were operating in a forum where each state, regardless of population, had one vote. Like, say, giving slave-holders extra seats in both Congress and the Electoral College on account of the non-citizen slaves they held, treating Delaware as equal to Pennsylvania or New York has not held up over time as one of the Founders' wiser plans. (And I can't help cheekily noting that, if we were to return to the Continental Congress era one vote per state system, Clinton won 9 of the original 13.)

But even if we allow the extra weight that the Electoral College gives to smaller states, the unit rule "winner take all" voting system was not the Founders' intent. The Constitution specifies no method by which electors are to be chosen, and in the early days states used a wide variety, of which state-wide vote was one of the less common. Somewhat more frequent, if popular vote was used at all, was to divide the state into districts, each one choosing one elector. (The current Maine-Nebraska system, with two statewide and the others chosen by congressional district, was not used.)

It occurred to me that an idealized approximation of this, and a way to test the theory that geographic spread is important, would be to run a notional electoral college in which the electors in each state were assigned to approximate as closely as possible the popular vote percentage in that state. That would still give the small states extra weight, but it would be an honest reflection of the actual vote in the states, thus testing what the geographic spread actually is, not just a notional take-all winner in each state.

So I multiplied each candidate's percentage of the popular vote by the number of electors in that state, assigned each candidate the closest whole number of electors for the result, and if there was one left over, assigned it to the candidate with the largest remainder.

First I should note that the US is purple. Except for DC which remained 3 Clinton, every state had at least one vote for Clinton and one for Trump. Even West Virginia, which voted only 26.5% Clinton, that share would come to 1.32 of the 5 electoral votes, so she gets 1 vote in my count.

Interestingly, the result came out as an exact tie: 261 votes each for Clinton and Trump. There were 14 votes for Gary Johnson, and one each for McMullin (Utah) and Stein (California). If you adjust it to just the two-party vote, the 16 third-party electors divide up 8 and 8, and it's still a tie.

So it helps Trump, but not quite enough. You'd need some other system, or a tie-spli8tter, to give him an outright victory this way. That geographic spread is not as powerful an argument as his supporters think.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


Yesterday I marched, so today I can hardly move. That's the way of the no longer spry.

I forgot to report on what I brought to the march. I carried no sign. (Few of those who did had added the concept of a pole.) Instead, I dug out my old "Secular Humanist Defense League" button, which received some approbation. I also decided to wear an appropriate tie. I have several American thematic ties, including one covered in signatures of the Founding Fathers, but this time I decided to be partisan, and wore my Democratic convention tie, which depicts donkeys (the party symbol) holding up state banners and balloons.

The news reports that our local march had "more than 25,000" attendees. Several were interviewed. If I'd been asked, I'd have just said, "I'm here to support the women."

The news also reports that spotted among the marchers was Meg Whitman. I'd known that the Megasaurus had disavowed Trump long ago, but it's nice to read that she put her feet where her mouth is, and not in it.

I'd thought beforehand that the local march was going to be just a poor substitute for the main event in Washington. But no: the worldwide multiplicity of them - on every continent, including Antarctica - was itself a huge effect. Turned out to be worthwhile, I hope.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Maggie Roche

This is news as grievous to me as the inauguration of Trump: Maggie Roche has died.

I've written before of how I discovered the Roches when Dan'l brought back their first trio album when it was new in 1979. The first song I listened to, which convinced me this was a group for me, was Suzzy's "The Train," but I don't mind saying that it was Maggie I developed my crush on. Her striking deep voice (she was that rarest of vocal types, a true contralto), her shy and elusive performing style, her solid backing on the guitar (she was the trio's principal instrumentalist), and most of all her cryptic and deeply evocative songwriting, won my heart.

There's a number of performances at the above link, but to my mind the ideal and representative Margaret A. Roche composition is this song:

not usually a marching guy but geez ...

As my post title suggests, I empathize with this guy. When I heard about the Women's March in Washington scheduled for today, I found myself thinking that, if it were less logistically infeasible, I would go. So when I learned there would be a satellite march right here in San Jose, entirely feasible for me, I felt I had no excuse not to go.

This despite the fact that I'm not a march or rally person, and in fact had never been to one before. My feeling is that such events are fairly useless, serving little function other than to make the marchers feel good, and nothing that happened today changed my mind about that. So one perspective said it was pointless to go. But geez ... I couldn't not protest what happened yesterday. So there I was, adding but one warm body to the mix, but that's what I had to add. (B. has been ill, and has even more trouble walking than do I, so she stayed home.)

The march was scheduled for 10 am; uncertain about parking, I arrived at 8:30 and had no trouble. I was at the city hall courtyard where we were to gather by 9:30, and spent an hour and a half watching people mill, and hastily draw up signs. There were women of all ages, including girls, and with a smattering of ethnicities. About 10% of the marchers were men. There were lots of pink knit hats, and near the beginning when rain was still threatening some pink umbrellas too, some with pussy ears attached. The signs ranged from the direct:
  • Keep the Immigrants, Deport Trump
  • Build a Wall Around Trump: I'll Pay For It
to the allusive:
  • All You Need is Love, Equal Rights, and Coffee
  • Without Hermione, Harry Would've Died in Book One
to the aggressive:
  • Tiny Hands Off My Pussy
  • Tuck Frump
  • Nicht Mein F├╝hrer
to the directly feminist:
  • My Vagina Has a Lot To Say
  • Thou Shalt Not Mess with Women's Reproductive Rights - Fallopians 1:21
to the indirectly feminist:
  • This Pussy Uses Claws
  • Fight Like a Girl
  • WWMD: What Would Michelle Do?
to the self-referential:
  • I Can't Believe We Still Have to Protest This Crap
  • I Wouldn't Even Let Him Pet My Cat
About 11:10 the march got going. How many were there I couldn't guess, though a news helicopter hovering overhead might have some idea, and I did see the marchers covering an entire long city block of street, three lanes wide curb to curb, and that was considerably less than half. The march route crossed the light rail tracks, where a train was waiting. A transit worker with a bullhorn requested us to clear the tracks, and the marchers, otherwise mostly occupied chanting "This is what democracy looks like," switched to "Clear the tracks!" for a bit, and gradually did, letting out a cheer as the train passed through. I was very pleased to see this courtesy, as I consider deliberately blocking traffic to be a morally heinous act.

After about 50 minutes we were all gathered at Chavez Plaza. (Attendees of the San Jose Worldcon will remember this as the big oval plaza with the ground fountains in front of the Fairmont.) A podium with loudspeakers was set up at one end, and I listened to various local dignitaries and activists, about half of whom I'd heard of, emit invigorating blasts of hot air for about an hour, and then headed off in search of lunch, another popular activity among the marchers.

Friday, January 20, 2017

instead of watching the inauguration ...

... we took Maia to the vet for her regular appointment. No special reason for today; this just happened to be a good day to schedule it, being the second day of one of B's long weekends, and having postponed it from last month as we didn't want to risk having the cat run up the Christmas tree while chasing her down to put in the cat carrier.

As usual, we succeeded in outwitting the cat by closing all the doors except the one to the hall bathroom. Bathrooms: not good places for cats to hide inaccessibly, though they don't seem to realize that. We'll see how long we can continue to pull this trick.

At the vet's, we were confronted by the conundrum that Maia is gaining weight despite the fact that she hardly ever eats anything. It's not like she's sluggish, either.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

CW in shul

I was not expecting to have Charles Williams moments at my synagogue's library committee meeting.

But I arrived early and settled down with a copy of a Jewish book review journal, only to find that for some reason they'd reviewed Lindop's biography of CW. (The reviewer finds Williams "not very anti-Semitic," which is about the best that you could hope for.)

Then I met the new member of our committee.

Her name is Michal.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

concert review: Pacifica Quartet

I really wanted to attend this off-season Music@Menlo concert on Wednesday, and it turned out their publicity agents really wanted me to attend too. They contacted me before I could contact them. Even over seven years since I heard the Pacifica Quartet at a Menlo summer festival, their Mendelssohn cycle there still haunts me, and it looms over my mind every time I hear one of his quartets. The Daily Journal agreed to publish my review, and I was on.

The catch was that I had to warn both Menlo and my editor that I might be too sick to go. I wasn't (the infectious period is long over, but the malady lingers on), but I found that such meager attention that I could pay to the music was with that small portion of my consciousness that could be spared from concentrating on the absorbing and all-consuming task of Not Coughing.

Nevertheless, what I heard was as good as I'd hoped. On seeing the review, my editor was kind enough to remark that its quality showed I'd made a full recovery, but I hadn't. I was on a tight deadline, and Thursday morning was spent alternating bouts of writing with snatches of trying to catch up enough of the sleep I hadn't had the previous night so that I wouldn't be too groggy to write anything. It didn't quite work. I'm happy enough with the content of the aesthetic evaluation, but there are awkwardnesses of expression and grammatical glitches that can only be classed as "good enough for daily newspaper work." What, for instance, does the "its" in the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph mean? Damned if I know, and I wrote it.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Frankenstein rebound

I never actually finished reading Frankenstein, a book that struck me as a rather tedious philosophical treatise in novelistic disguise. (I've never gotten far into Ayn Rand, either.)

However, I've been reading some articles on its 200th anniversary in Slate, and was struck by this quote, the Monster speaking to Dr. F:
Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance.
Read that last phrase again.

Mary Shelley not only invented science fiction.

She discovered the Uncanny Valley.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

media fantasy

In my delirium, I dreamed that there was a television show, one of those shows that give ordinary yobs their 15 minutes of fame, in which they'd be interviewed by a man skilled at bringing out their secrets and other interesting things about them. The title of the show was Talk To Mr. Adrian.

Then the producers decided they needed a spinoff with a female host, one connected to the Mr. Adrian show but distinct from it, which received the title Tell Mr. Adrian's Ultraweird Girlfriend. That this was an odd and dubious title occurred to me even in the dream.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

thin ice

A sad story hit the news today: a mother and young son fell through the ice on a frozen pond in Kansas and drowned. Of course, they were visitors from California, where frozen ponds are unknown, and thus they might not have known anything about them, but that only increases the urgency of my question, one that's lurked in mind every time I've read a story including people venturing out on ice this way (for instance, American Gods): How do you know? How do you know the ice will be thick enough to hold you? Because if you're not entirely sure, it seems a rash thing to do. I've never been in a position to have the option, but my inclination to decline has reinforced itself.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

water, anywhere

Noon, Monday. Time for lunch. I pour myself a glass of tap water to have with.

Only I don't. No water from the faucet, hot or cold, or from any of the faucets. I check the tank of the toilet I flushed an hour earlier. Nope, it hasn't filled up.

First thought, some prankster has turned off our outside main water valve. I check. They haven't.

Call the plumber dispatcher. They have trouble grasping the concept of "no water," but eventually it's clear, and they send a guy out who arrives in half an hour.

Through his impenetrable accent, I gather that he found a water company worker outside of our townhouse complex, and established that the water for the entire complex had been turned off. Oh. Nobody had told me.

Fortunately, he doesn't charge me, and goes away.

A couple hours later, the water comes back on.

About that time, I receive an e-mail from my landlord. They just received, in the mail, a notice from the property management company that runs the complex saying that the water would be off today. The suggestion that they need to send out these things sooner has been made.

Monday, January 9, 2017

he doesn't remember what he said

Meryl Streep called out Donald Trump's mockery of a disabled reporter, in her speech at the Golden Globes. Trump in return has claimed he didn't mock the guy - well, he did: it's on video - and called Streep an overrated actress. This is mere abuse: even in the unlikely event that this much-honored performer is overrated in her craft, that is completely unrelated to the truth of what she's saying.

Here's an article on the background, what Trump was mocking the reporter for, which actually I hadn't known. It all goes back to Trump's claim that he saw TV news reports of thousands of Muslims celebrating in Jersey City after 9/11. This reporter's article at the time, saying merely that police questioned some people who were allegedly seen celebrating, was the only thing Trump could find that even remotely backed this up, and it didn't go very far: no thousands, no TV or other evidence. The reporter pointed out this difference, and Trump was mocking him for allegedly backtracking on the story, which he didn't do.

But this gives me an opportunity to raise a point: what made Trump think he had seen TV reports of crowds of Muslims celebrating in Jersey City? And I immediately think of the Mandela Effect, people being sure they remember things that just aren't so. What satisfies here is when there's an explanation for what they thought they saw. I'm not sure there exists one for the most famous case, the old movie about the genie. Claims that the people who remember this are thinking of a different movie about a genie starring a different black actor have been met with heated denials. They insist it's a different movie in which different things happen, and they remember both movies being on the video shelf at the same time. But it seems generally accepted that people who remember Nelson Mandela dying when he was still in prison in the 1970s are probably thinking of Steve Biko.

I've had a few cases like that, when I insufficiently distinguished people. I was quite surprised when I saw James Taylor perform at Obama's second inaugural. It was the first time I'd seen him in decades, and I'd thought he had died long ago in a plane crash. It took some looking up to find that the person I was thinking of was Jim Croce, and this moment was the first time I had ever realized that "Fire and Rain" and "Time in a Bottle" were by different guys.

So if it's not Mandela but Biko, and not Taylor but Croce, what could Trump have seen that made him think crowds of Muslims were celebrating in Jersey? I didn't watch anything of 9/11 on television, but I did read the news, and my recollection - which I haven't checked - is of reports of large crowds of Muslims celebrating in the West Bank. I remember that because they and the Taliban seemed the only people happy on the occasion; even Qaddafi and Saddam maintained, as I recall, a dignified silence.

So maybe Trump saw a news clip from the West Bank, and somehow misread a label or misheard a correspondent, and thought it was in Jersey City? For a guy who seems not to pay much attention to anything he sees or hears that doesn't have his name in it, wouldn't that explain it?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

the book review of Patricia Hearst

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday)

Wow, did this 344-page book ever go fast. I read it in about three hours, pretty much nonstop. The only thing I'd ever read about the Hearst case, apart from following the newspapers at the time, was the chapter in David Talbot's Season of the Witch. Talbot seemed convinced that Hearst feigned her adherence to the SLA, to keep them from killing her, and stayed on the run after the bulk of the gang were killed out of fear that the cops would shoot her on sight, though he admits that doesn't explain her post-capture defiance.

Toobin only cites Talbot for background impressions of society at the time, which is Talbot's real interest. It's Toobin who dives into the detail of the event - much more about the first two acts than the sometimes wearying trial - and he makes clear that the Talbot interpretation is Hearst's defense as offered in her own book, which I haven't read. Toobin isn't buying it, though he stops short of calling Hearst an outright liar. There's much more than I knew that suggests Hearst was happy as a revolutionary rebel on the run, and it largely explains her court conviction.

Toobin does perhaps go too far in pointing out the repeated occasions Hearst could have escaped but didn't. I think this situation is far more complex than he posits. I was surprised at the lack of any references to Elizabeth Smart, who likewise could often have escaped but didn't. There are salient differences between them: Smart was only 14 and a dutiful child with little experience on her own, whereas Hearst was 20 - an adult, living away from home - and had been a feisty rebel against parental discipline even when she was 14. But Toobin doesn't even discuss the differences, let alone the similarities. All he offers is a short discussion, near the end of the book, of Stockholm syndrome, but denies it applies to Hearst, though the facts as he gives them seem to fit it, with a huge contrast between Hearst's initial terror and the gang quickly treating her kindly and even coming to like her. (Smart, by her own account, had no sympathy for her captor, who terrified her; but that's also what Hearst said about the SLA. Smart, however, never showed any evidence of being happy there.)

Curiously, the character who my sympathy increased for the most is Steven Weed, and this because of, not despite, Toobin's utter contempt for him. Unquestionably, Weed was in many ways an unsatisfactory person, but Toobin's judgment of Weed's behavior at the kidnapping scene is manifestly unfair. Over the turn between pages 2 and 3, Weed escapes from the home invaders and "bolted" (Toobin's word) out the back door, never to be seen by them, or Hearst, again. Over the next several chapters come repeated denunciations of Weed's "cowardice". These seem to be written from Hearst's perspective, but Toobin doesn't say so openly, and shows no sign that he disagrees with this judgment.

It isn't until an aching 55 pages later that we learn that, after escaping, Weed did exactly what we'd expect him to do: try to find a neighbor who could call the police. And turn back to page 2 for a moment. After already having been "knocked almost unconscious" by the kidnappers, Weed "was able to rise from his stupor" and "made a wild rush" at Bill Harris, who "slammed [him] to the ground" again. Is that fighting back against an openly armed man "cowardly" behavior? And, once it was clear that defeating three kidnappers by personal physical force was beyond his powers, isn't escaping - and hoping they don't chase you down or shoot you - and seeking help the sensible heroic action? Unless one's criticism of Weed is for not being Rambo (and at times I think Toobin is making that argument) or you think his droopy mustache made him an irredeemable wimp (and at times I think Toobin is making that argument too) his action at the scene, after his initial panicked "Take anything you want!" after the invaders demanded his money (which I can't really blame him for in the circumstances, although Toobin's repeated snide response is that yeah, they took Patricia) seems to me to have been wholly admirable, whatever else he did before or afterwards.

However, Toobin shows a tremendous grasp of how to tell a concrete, detail-filled story in lucid style, and I especially enjoyed details I hadn't known before - like references to the other two kidnapping victims of the evening - and the cameo appearances by people who later became famous for other things, like Lance Ito (the future O.J. Simpson judge), Sara Jane Moore (the future wanna-be presidential assassin), and Bill Walton (the already-then-famous basketball player).

Friday, January 6, 2017

how to create a new online account

1. Go to an online vendor you've used before. Fill up your shopping cart.

2. Hit "checkout". The system will tell you to log into your account.

3. Curse quietly. All your old account information and passwords were lost when your computer crashed a year ago, and you haven't ordered with this vendor since then.

4. Try a few user names and passwords that you frequently use for low-security accounts. They don't work.

5. Since you think you know the username, click the "Reset password" button.

6. Now it asks you for the answers to your security questions. Discover that you don't remember the answers to your security questions.

7. But not to worry! It says that if you don't remember the answers to your security questions, you'll have to create a new account.

8. Go to the new account page.

8.1. By this time you've already spent more time trying to check out than you spent shopping.

9. Fill out everything on the account page.

10. The button doesn't work. Enable JavaScript.

11. This erases everything you've entered on the page. Fill it all out again.

11.1. By this time you've spent twice as much time trying to check out as you spent shopping.

12. Hit the button. Get an error message saying it's matched up your information and you appear to already have an account. Duh. So it won't let you create a new one. Double-duh.

13. Curse again, more loudly this time. Go back to the login page and try again to remember your password and/or security questions. Fail.

14. Go back to the create-account page. Since you don't have another address, try changing your e-mail contact to a different account and your phone number to your cell phone.

15. It works! Go to the payment page.

16. Go the other room where your wallet is, because you can't remember your credit card number. You used to remember it, because of the frequency with which you order online, but the company reissued the credit card with a new number a few months ago. Note the part of the number you've forgotten, and return to the computer.

17. Go back to the wallet and look up the credit card's 3-digit security code.

18. Go back to the wallet and look up the credit card's expiration date.

18.1. You could have done all these at once, of course, or have just brought the card to the computer, but each time you forgot you'd need more information further down the page.

18.2. By this time you've spent four times as much time trying to check out as you spent shopping.

19. Success at last.

20 (later). Get an e-mail at the address you used for the original account warning you that someone has been trying to break into your account, and it's been locked.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


1. I was going to write a post in honor of Tolkien's birthday on Tuesday, but technical problems prevented it. And I didn't have anything on the subject I was actively burning to say right now.

2. The touching quote from the end of Watership Down published in memory of its author has one small but irritating transcription error. The Black Rabbit says, "They'll be alright." That's not what he says in the book. It's "They'll be all right." Adams's granddaughter, who's supposed to be a journalist, employs the same usage in a memorial article, so I wonder if it comes from her.

3. B. has been watching the DVDs of a show called Gilmore Girls. I came by and found it at a scene where one girl is, quite bossily, expounding on high-school student politics to another. I watched for a bit. "Now I know why you like this show so much," I said. "It's so catty." B. is not herself catty, but ... she likes cats.

4. The Chinese restaurant that offered my favorite wor won ton soup has closed and been replaced by another Chinese restaurant. I went there for the soup to check and see if it was actually the same restaurant under a new name. It isn't. The soup was good, but not the same or as outstanding. Another Chinese restaurant I recently found is reputed to have great wor won ton. I tried that too. Again, it was good but not great, and the vegetable was mostly bok choy. I like bok choy, but ... enough. I may become Diogenes on this subject.

5. While paying bills, for which I'm still old-fashioned enough to write checks, I thought again of how the pre-printed "19" (for the first two digits of the year) that was once universal on checks disappeared a few years before the date flip, but when that was safely over, a "20" never made an appearance. However, more recently banks have started decorating the blank date line with an explanatory "Date" below it in small letters.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

new year's eve

Realizing that I was unlikely to find much other opportunity for socializing over this New Year's holiday, I reinforced myself with caffeine so that I wouldn't fall asleep and attended my friends' annual New Year's Eve party. (B. was feeling poorly and stayed home.) I stayed till the end of the party at 2:30, which turned out to be later than the traffic lights on the drive home wanted to stay up.

During the course of conversation, I found myself siding with Tim May in a disagreement with Brad Templeton over the causes of the war in Syria. Anyone knowing both me and those two gentlemen might find that an unusual disposition of resources.

At another point, some of us were discussing people who perform dangerous stunts for the adrenaline rush. We then began listing what we ourselves find adrenaline-stimulating that isn't dangerous. "What gets my adrenaline going," I said very quickly, "is the retransition at the end of the development section of the first movement of Carl Nielsen's Second Symphony." That shut everybody up.