Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Mirror for Observers, by Edgar Pangborn (1954)

When I wrote a couple weeks ago that I had borrowed a copy with intent to read, I got a few unsolicited comments from people testifying how much they loved this book.

Well, now I've read it. I didn't like it.

It's the near future, as of the date of writing. Martians have been living secretly on earth, disguised as humans, for thousands of years. Most of the book is the journal of a Martian agent who's been assigned to watch over a 12-year-old boy in a Massachusetts mill town, to protect him from the Bad Martian. The agent is not very good at his job. He misplaces the boy and doesn't find him again until he's an adult nine years later. Nor does this prevent the Bad Martian from carrying out his Evil Plan, although as world-destroying Evil Plans go it's something of a damp squib. (But it's still a major disaster, so making it come across as a damp squib is a monumental achievement in bathos.)

However, it was never clear to me why the Bad Martian is interested in this particular boy, or how the Evil Plan couldn't be carried out with his presence, or alternatively - since this seems to be how it actually goes down - without his presence. This lack of understanding on my part isn't that important: it just destroys the entire plot and character motivation for me, that's all.

Also, none of the dialogue sounds as if was spoken by human beings, even humans who are actually Martians in disguise. This is particularly glaring with the lines spoken by children, even though they're supposed to be precocious children. But then, precocious children are an SF specialty almost always handled spectacularly badly. That, in addition, the Martians don't seem very alien is a trope so common in SF as hardly to be worth mentioning.

John Hertz asked me about this book because he wanted my opinion of the writing about music. The 12-year-old boy has a 10-year-old girlfriend (yes, they get married at the end, after they're grown up) who is a budding piano student, and she bonds with the Martian because he plays piano also, despite one finger on each hand being artificial as part of his human disguise.

After the girl is grown up, the Martian attends her debut piano recital in New York, and this is where most of the book's music natter is located. The one thing that's clear is that Pangborn - who was conservatory-trained - loves piano music, especially Beethoven and Chopin, and gives that love to his characters. The description of her concert rendition of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata is detailed enough that, as I am tolerably familiar with the work, I get an impression of what it would have sounded like. I wish I could hear it.

I got less out of the description of Chopin. The recital includes "the sonata" (which one?) and "the F Sharp Minor Impromptu." There is no F Sharp Minor Impromptu. It probably means the F Sharp Major Impromptu, one of that majority of Chopin pieces I don't get much out of, so I can't judge the Martian's emotional reaction to it.

The most curious comment comes in connection with the music of a (fictional) contemporary composer. (Remember, the story was published in 1954, and this part takes place 18 years later.) The Martian, as critic, contrasts this composer with "the I-don't-really-mean-it school of the '930s and '940s." The reference is presumably to something historical, and I might be better able to guess what school this is if I knew Pangborn's own stylistic affiliations in modern music. As the antidote to this school is being influenced by Brahms, I wonder if it means neo-classicism, as Brahms is smooth and shaded while neo-classicism is bright and brittle, and was thought by some at the time to be mannered and insincere.

But neo-classicism is traditionally considered to have been founded by Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Prokofiev's Classical Symphony in 1917-20, and flourished in the 1920s, so it's of slightly earlier date. The style that most distinctly flourished in the 1930s-40s is socially-conscious populism, as in Copland's most popular works. The reference is unlikely to be to serialism, which began earlier but didn't become dominant until slightly later. So I dunno.

Friday, September 28, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

MTT opens his penultimate season as music director with a two-week Stravinsky festival (surprise!1), of which this is the second week's program. Like all Stravinsky festivals, it's built around his three famous early ballet scores for Diaghilev, a concentration of repertoire not appropriate for any composer worthy to be the subject of regular festivals. Regardless, we get two of the three tonight.

I'd be more eager for this if I were more of a Stravinsky fan. As it is, I almost wonder if I really want to go and hear The Rite of Autumn2, I mean Spring, again. But I drag myself there because I know that SFS will do an absolutely splendiferous job on this music, which they do. Likewise on Petrushka and the ringer on the program, the 1931 Violin Concerto in D. Leonidas Kavakos saws off the solo part energetically, and it's generally a much better performance than I ever expected to hear of this piece.

As I walk back to the BART station afterwards, the most peculiar sound is drifting out of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium down the street as I walk by. It sounds like a punk-rock version of Celtic folk, and I find on checking later that that's exactly what it is, a band called Flogging Molly. From behind two thick walls, which is probably the minimum safe distance, it sounds pretty good. At any rate it's attracted an unusually large number of hot dog vendors, cooking franks with bacon and onions on stovetops-on-wheels on the sidewalk outside. If only I were still hungry at 10:30 pm, and if there were somewhere unawkward to eat one before entering the BART station, where food is frowned upon ... but neither of these things is so, so their marketing resourcefulness goes unrewarded by me.

1. I'm being sarcastic.
2. Joke courtesy of B.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

testimony 2

I watched parts of Kavanaugh's testimony, and was sorry I did.

Not only did he ramble around into irrelevancies and repeat himself incessantly when avoiding answering questions, he did the same things when he was answering the question, even if the question was a simple one to which we already knew the answer, like "Did you drink alcohol in high school?" (And notice how he danced around acknowledging that it was illegal for 16-year-olds to do.) Never mind the charges, he should be dismissed from consideration for inability to communicate alone.

Also, someone that angry - and that nakedly partisan - should not be a judge of any description. Just no.

And if this were a criminal trial and he the defendant, that amount of anger on display over the charges and the way it was disrupting his life would have any trial judge throwing him in the can.

You want to know what it was like without having to watch or listen to it? Alexandra Petri has caught it.


We don't have much in the way of cable-only channels, so I wasn't expecting to watch the Christine Blasey Ford testimony, but I found a feed embedded in the Washington Post home page (we have paid access to that paper), and I picked it up during DiFi's time. They're on lunch break right now. Thoughts.

1. Each senator gets only five minutes, except Chairman Grassley who gets to interject whenever he wants. Whenever a Democrat complains about the lack of an FBI investigation, Grassley takes a time out afterwards to defend himself. When one senator (I think it was Leahy) complained of the rush, Grassley said there would have been plenty of time to hold an investigation before Ford's identity was revealed, if only DiFi had been willing to pass that along to the committee. He assures that Ford's identity would have been protected, but he also twice misspeaks and talks about telling the whole world about it, which reveals how much his assurance of privacy would have been worth.

2. No other Republicans have talked at all, so far. Probably wise on their part: no feet in mouth. They all yield their time to the majority's hired lawyer, who - also wisely - concentrates on establishing details of facts in Ford's account. She sounds less like a prosecutor than a neutral investigator. Again probably wise: prosecutorial attacks would probably not go over well.

3. When asked about her reactions to the assault, Ford speaks in the voice of a traumatized victim, which comes across movingly, except when she suddenly switches gears and gives the technical responses of a psychology professor, which comes across authoritatively.

4. Some of the Democrats, Leahy and Durbin in particular, don't have much in the way of questions. They just want to give speeches about how courageous she is, which is kind of embarrassing when delivered to her face.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018


"If you had told me in the 1990s that, between Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, one would go on to become President and one would be going to jail for rape, I would have got that one wrong."

- Ted Alexandro

ear worm

Hello kitten my old friend
I've come to give you food again
Because it seems while I was sleeping
Up onto my bed you came creeping
And the meowing that you planted in my ear
Woke me here
And caused the sound of munching.

Andrew Ducker found an article claiming that apes can't really use sign language, and that causes me to think about communication with animals, pet cats and dogs in particular.

True enough that, as the article says, my conversations with our cats are mostly about their wanting something. "Feed me! Pet me! Get me a peacock feather! Clean my litter box!" And that there is absolutely no syntactical grammar in any of this. So I wouldn't call it language. But it is communication.

For even if the cats can't give a complex account of their emotions, they clearly have emotions which express themselves in behavior and tones of meowing. And because we live a simple, well-organized life with regular expected events - and the cats get very disturbed when this is upset - they've learned to know whether the humans' actions are proceeding towards filling feline wants, even if there's no direct connection between those actions and those wants.

This second-order understanding is well-known among dogs. The dog gets excited at the prospect of a walk when it sees you going towards the closet, because it knows that that's where the leash is kept. That sort of thing. Cats, certainly those house cats that are responsive to human interaction, can grasp concepts at the same level of understanding.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

concert review: Redwood Symphony

So SFCV sent me to a concert featuring a somewhat different iteration of the Three B's. And the review comes out here.

I'm somewhat less than optimally satisfied with how well I expressed in words my thoughts about this one. At least it looks a lot better than it did before I excised excess verbiage. Originally, lines like "His music is warmly accessible and easy to get to know" and "the orchestra proceed[ed] deliberately and cautiously through Brahms's noble utterances" came with explanations of what I meant by that, but I judged them superfluous.

Since it was just about the only appropriate local concert of the month but I couldn't also review it for SMDJ, for them I wrote one of my usual annual season previews, dull to write but I hope a little whetting to read for locals with a taste for this.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Tolkien conference in New York

Here's something that's been in the works a while and may now be announced: a weekend conference next March in connection with the visit of the Bodleian's Tolkien exhibit to the Morgan Library in New York City.

On Saturday, March 16, there will be speakers at the library, and an opportunity to see the exhibit in company of some of the scholars who'll be visiting. (Note: You'll need to buy a ticket to see the exhibit; it's not free as it was at the Bodleian.)

On Sunday, March 17, we'll move a few blocks downtown to Baruch College for a symposium sponsored by the NY Tolkien Society. There'll be a lot more speakers on various aspects of Tolkien and his work, including me. And there will be music!

Details and more links here.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

books and refrigerator

I checked three literary books out of the university library yesterday.

1. Three Plays by Noel Coward. I wanted to track down the Coward quote, "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs," that Brett Kavanaugh's friend Mike Judge had included in his high-school yearbook page. Out of context it sounds incredibly crass, so what was the context? I'd found online that it was not in Coward's own persona, but spoken by a character in his play Private Lives, but the full text wasn't available to me online. So to the library. Private Lives is a comedy about a divorced couple who re-meet accidentally, fall back in love, and then resume having the fierce arguments that caused their divorce in the first place. The line (about a third of the way through Act 3) is one spoken by the man in the course of one of those arguments consisting of insults and belittlement. It seems to me that to quote it alone, with apparent approval, is to defy and deny the purpose for which Coward wrote it. You can do that, but it should be noted that that's what you're doing. What's the woman's response in the play? She says, "You're an unmitigated cad, and a bully." Say that, if anyone smugly quotes the original line at you.

2. Apples at Night, by H.A. Manhood. I'd come across a blog review of a new edition of this obscure 20C English author's stories, which intrigued me enough, when I saw that the library had a couple of his original collections, to check out one. I've read about half the book so far. They're slice of life stories, mostly set in rural England, with long descriptive passages, and plots based on ironic twists that I'm usually not sure I fully get the point of.

3. A Mirror for Observers, by Edgar Pangborn. Classic SF novel I'd never read. John Hertz had asked my opinion of it at Worldcon, so I intend to acquire an opinion. What John wanted my evaluation of was its descriptions of classical music. Browsing through I see that one character is a pianist specializing in Beethoven and Chopin. OK, I'll read this.

Meanwhile, like Christine Lavin's Mysterious Woman*, I've been concerned with defrosting my refrigerator. The freezer compartment isn't supposed to develop layers of ice on the bottom that steadily thicken until I chip them out and then start all over again, but it started doing that a while ago, and past attempts to defrost haven't stopped it. They (whoever They is) recommend 24 hours, but that wasn't long enough. So I tried 36 hours instead. That required arranging with both B. and myself a time when the freezer could be emptied, and there was little enough in the fridge that it could fit in our coolers along with the ice packs. The project finished up yesterday evening, and so far it seems to have worked.

*This is her parody of Suzanne Vega, and to my taste the funniest song she's ever written.

Monday, September 17, 2018

reading the news

1. It's Anita Hill all over again. That too came out in public after the hearings were already under way. And I fear it will lead to the same result, including the smearing of the accuser which has already started.

But holy weep, I think there's only one person between me and the accuser. B. and I have a long-time friend who's also a psychology professor at the same institute. Her subfield of interest is entirely different, but they must know each other. Cripes.

2. I'm in the "But what about the traffic?" camp about this newsworthy development plan. It's right around the corner from us, we went to the defunct shopping center when it was still open often, and the construction will cause as much headache as the Apple spaceship right next door did.

3. I never thought much of Princess Eugenie, but now I feel sorry for her. Her parents are hijacking her wedding.

4. I always vote for bonds if they're not for prison construction. But this water bond is opposed by a Sierra Club leader. This needs further investigation.

5. Vote for the best Bay Area ice cream. I've only had one of the four finalists, and it was too creamy for my taste. I'd have voted for Three Twins, but it lost in the previous round. But the best Bay Area ice cream, hands down, is Old Uncle Gaylord's. It's been out of business for decades, but it's still the best.

6. Obituary: She shot Nazis.

7. Football player retires from his career at halftime during a game. That's showing them. If only they'd all do that.

8. Disney has somehow gotten its hands on the rights to make a Mary Poppins sequel. Good thing Travers is dead. Note from trailer that grown-up Michael has pulled a Susan Pevensie and doesn't believe in that childhood magic any more. Note also trailer's avoidance of revealing what Lin-Manuel Miranda's cockney accent sounds like, shades of Dick Van Dyke (who's also in the new movie! So is Angela Lansbury! Incredibly old people rule!)

rather busy day

The planning started out with my intention to attend a free Sunday afternoon chamber concert at San Francisco State, because the Alexander and Telegraph Quartets would be collaborating in the Mendelssohn Octet, a work I miss no reasonable opportunity to hear.

Then I noticed that the evening's concert over at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley would be the Tannahill Weavers, a Scottish folk band I remember fondly from my serious folk-record listening days in the 70s.

To which I added the Eat Real food fest in Oakland's Jack London Square around noon, which had intrigued me but had not seemed worth the bother of getting up there by itself.

Could I attend all of these by public transit, driving only to and from the BART line at the start and end of the journey? I could and did. Much web research was involved in making sure it was feasible and learning the necessary bus routes, and the inter-system transit card was essential for covering the large and complex fares. Only the schedule timings proved to be more aspirational than real. It came out like this:

Travel. Car across the Bay to BART. BART to downtown Oakland. Bus down to Jack London Square on the waterfront, about 3/4 of a mile but longer than I care to walk these days. Arrived just before opening, early enough to get in a popular food booth line before it became very long.

Food. There I bought a small bowl of paella (whose main veggie was chard instead of the usual peas, much more to my taste), dished from vast simmering skillets about five feet in diameter, following it up down the way with some Japanese fried chicken, crispy tenders dolloped with spicy bbq sauce, and finishing up with an artisanal watermelon-and-pineapple popsicle.

Travel. Bus back to downtown. BART to Daly City. Search for bus stop, which is always on the other side of the station from where you start looking. Bus to SF State. Walk down through campus to the Creative Arts Building.

Music. The Mendelssohn Octet, led by the Alexander's Zakarias Grafilo, was businesslike in its first movement. The finale, usually brusque and heavy, was as light and airy as the scherzo. I liked that. McKenna Theatre's absurdly dry, almost coarse, acoustics served the inner voices of the Octet well, but was far less appealing in the Alexander's Mozart K. 428. They also played the Penderecki Third, a sort of anthology of modernistic techniques that I did my best to nap through, since I didn't have to review it.

Travel. Rush back up the hill to the trolley stop, catch a trolley leaving just then, 5 minutes before schedule (and the display said the next wouldn't be for 20 minutes instead of the scheduled 12-minute intervals). Transfer to BART line. Transfer to other BART line, both also off schedule. Arrive in Berkeley just in time to grab a quick frank from Top Dog before walking down the street and around the corner to the Freight.

Music. Four varyingly venerable guys take the stage, the Tannahill Weavers. Not even every Scottish folk band includes the Highland bagpipes, but this one does. I like that. Also fiddle, flute, and guitar, occasionally varied with bodhran and tinwhistle. Lots of fast jigs and marches, lots of songs in impenetrable Scots, lots of cracks between songs from the band leader. ("If you don't like the album, mail it back to us, and we'll send you something we don't like.")

Travel. Straight run on BART back to where I parked is quiet until we reach the Oakland Coliseum, which has just come to the end of what I later find was a hip-hop festival. Previously nearly empty car is suddenly packed with people, mostly white, mostly young, mostly loud, some of them smoking, which you're not supposed to do on BART. The seat next to me is occupied by three young women. Three. One on the seat, one on her lap, one on hers. I ask them not to fall over on me, which on BART is not an idle request. They're good, and they let me out at my stop.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

making more music lists

The New York Times got 18 responses from professional musicians and critics to "5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Classical Music". True enough, as Lisa Irontongue has pointed out, that there's no excuse, out of such a group of 18, for only 4 to be women. I'm curious about the premise of the choices: most of the listeners chose pieces that had socked them personally, rather than the more dreary answers of what they thought might most appeal to hoi polloi. (You can see the latter in the comments, which are full of suggestions for Romantic schmaltz. Good pieces, mostly, but boringly obvious as choices for a list.)

These answers were, for the most part, more interesting. Two of the four living composers were unknown to me, but otherwise I was familiar with all the composers, though not necessarily well with the individual pieces. However, the Ravel song and the selection from Der Rosenkavalier are the only pieces I didn't care for (I like these composers, but not these particular works), and some - the Beethoven, the Janacek, Reich's Tehillim - are long-time favorites of mine.

But what would I have chosen? Hmmm, tough. If, like Anthony Tommasini, I went for what thrilled me at age 12, I'd have to name the work that initially sold me on the heavy classics, the ultra-basic choice of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth. If you've never heard it, which at the time I hadn't, it's a real stunner, and the challenge for a performance today is to try to re-capture a little of that.

But I'm more attracted by Michael Cooper's idea of picking a work that suited one's melancholia in college. Sure, his pick of the Beethoven Seventh allegretto is a good one, and I love that music, but the particular sad music that most kept my sore heart company in those days was the Andantino from Sibelius's Third.

But if I want something that truly thrills me, my choice would have to be the coda from the first movement of Bruckner's Sixth. I don't know how well this works without knowledge of the build-up (you can listen to the whole symphony if you want), but the coda goes like this:

Turning abruptly from music I know to music I don't, there's John Scalzi's list of 20 songs he's enjoyed from the last 20 years. Folks, I'd never heard any of these performances before. I was even familiar with the names of only 4 of the 20 performers, and I didn't know much about them. My brief listening-to-popular-music days ended more than 20 years ago, and while I'm quite aware that good songs have been released since then, apart from a few performers I have a particular fondness for, I just haven't bothered to seek them out. But I listened to these, or began to: those which began or quickly moved into aggressive distortion or feedback I turned off quickly. Even if they were good, and one or two of those were, I can't abide listening to an entire song like that.

The ones I liked were quieter, and the ones I liked best were those that reminded me of other performers I liked. I liked "Cut Your Teeth" by Kyla La Grange because it sounded rather like Tori Amos. I liked "On the Radio" by Regina Spektor because, even though her singing style is very different, after some cogitation I realized that the distinctive instrumentals reminded me of Enya, particularly "Wild Child". I also particularly enjoyed listening to "Something That You Said" by the Bangles (surprise! a group I'd heard of, though only because they were prominent rather more than 20 years ago) and "Won't Give In" by the Finn Brothers. Though I don't think I would have rushed out to buy a recording of any of these even in my most pop-listening days.

The last item on Scalzi's list is a ringer: Petra Haden's cover of "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys. God only knows that this is much, much better than the original – I know this is heresy, but I hold that the Beach Boys could not sing worth a damn. But if Scalzi wants a slam-dunk stunner of a recent cover of a classic 1960s song - and I left a comment telling him so - nothing is going to out-do in power or impact this.

Friday, September 14, 2018

phony call

I was napping, and having a dream in which I was talking on the phone, when my sleep was interrupted by the phone ringing. After a brief moment of cognitive dissonance over this incongruity, I hopped up and found it was some sort of solicitation call for my mother. (Polite, too: the guy just asked for her by name, instead of opening with "How are you today?" which always makes me want to respond, and sometimes actually respond, with, "Wondering who you are and why you're telephoning me.")

That would be my mother who died several years ago, so I informed the man of this and he went away. Possibly not to return, but she does still get calls like this occasionally. She also still gets occasional junk mail, which by this point I just toss. She never lived with us; the reason the mail comes here is because I filed a postal change-of-address for her when we closed her apartment, and apparently advertisers are very good at picking this stuff up, including associated phone numbers.

Possibly I should have marked the CoA form "deceased" instead, but I wanted to get the mail because I didn't know what might be in it. I probably missed much because of a strange glitch. I filed the CoA about a week before we closed the apartment, with that as the starting date, but the clerk told me that CoAs have to filed two weeks before the starting date. I said, "Oh: in that case just start it as soon as you can." When no mail came, I figured the advertisers had already picked up that she was dead, but no: the PO had filed the CoA to begin at the designated starting date one year later, and for a while we got floods. What happened to all the mail that must have come in the meantime I have no idea.

The groups she actually regularly did business with I'd long since communicated with; this mail was mostly mail-order catalogs and contribution solicitations. With most of the latter, the best way of reaching them was via websites, and the most clearcut way of sending a message was usually filling out some CoA form there. I'd put her name in and then fill the word DECEASED in all the other new info fields, in hopes they'd get the message. The most hilarious part was when the form would bounce because the e-mail address wasn't in the correct format. So I'd change that from DECEASED to DECEASED@DECEASED.DECEASED, and it would always go through.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

fricking file formats

Finishing up a stage of work on the library catalog at my job, I prepared a report file of problem records. No problem, I thought: I'd done this before when I created the entire shelf list for the inventory. I set up the parameters in the catalog, generated the file, and saved it to a thumb drive.

Only difference was, the shelf list I had taken to FedEx and printed out. This file was to be e-mailed to the library people who'd need it. So I wasn't worried that the file format was PRNX, which I'd never heard of: I figured my computer could deal with it.

It couldn't. No program I had or could find could read it, and while Googling for "convert .prnx to .pdf" produced a lot of results revealing that PRNX was some sort of proprietary print format, none of the results whose titles said they'd show you how to convert actually did. Not one. I know, you don't believe me. But here, for instance, is one whose Google results title was "PRNX File - How to open or convert PRNX files". Can you see from here how to open or convert them? I sure can't.

So, I thought, I know from previous experience that at least the FedEx printer can print them. I'll print it out and then use their scanner to scan it as a PDF. I've had to do weirder things than that.

But it couldn't. The FedEx printer didn't recognize the format.

Phone the catalog program vendor. Learn that instead of using the "Save As" command near the left of the tool bar I should have used the "Export" command near the right of the tool bar. That's the one that creates PDFs. Obviously I'd gotten it right when I made the shelf list, but had completely forgotten about it in the two months since then. Gently suggest to the vendor that this is not intuitive. This hadn't occurred to them. Sigh.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

sf novel review

Which I've so headed because I don't read too many of those these days, but I liked this one.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (Tor, 2017)

This is the other book I had electronically - it came in the Hugo voters packet from earlier this year, though I didn't read (or vote) on anything in it at the time - that I turned to when the MythSoc discussion book bogged down on me. Being wrapped up in the plot of this one kept me occupied during the lonely hours in my hotel room in San Diego, and it was both engrossing - a rare quality in SF these days - and not too long - an almost equally rare quality.

Reviews of this book have, more than once, compared it to Game of Thrones and Dune. Those are not what I'm reminded of. Yes, it's about high-level politics, but the intrigue is of a different flavor, until just before the end it doesn't get too convoluted, it has neither the bloodthirstiness of Martin nor the bizarre mind-games of Herbert, and above all it differs from both in being neither overlong nor tedious.

Instead, what it reminds me of - almost uncannily so, and more so than any other subsequent work I've ever read - is Asimov's Foundation trilogy, especially its first book. And since the Foundation trilogy is the work I was weaned on as an sf reader, I'm primed to like such a work. But in style, it's updated to a 2010s kind of sprightliness, instead of the now-dated 1940s sprightliness of the Asimov. Since Scalzi has been generally touted as a later-day Heinlein, and I vastly prefer Asimov to Heinlein, I consider this a plus.

The similarities with Foundation are impressive. There's a far-future all-human interstellar empire - check - from which Earth has been lost and largely forgotten - check - with a medieval/Renaissance imperial hierarchy imposed on top - check. The empire is threatened with collapse - see the title; check - and a lone scientist is a voice in the wilderness warning of the danger - check. There's a religion imposed on the system - check - which is largely actually a fraud - check. The plot is largely political machinations at a high level - check - with a minimum of violence - check - and a maximum of clever people outwitting each other - check - but without mind games and a minimum of the Arlington Road trick (where you know exactly how your opponent will respond to a stimulus you've deliberately made subtle and obscure so they won't figure out they're being manipulated) - check. And the novel ends exactly the way the first Foundation story ends, with the protagonist having a brilliant brainstorm which isn't revealed to the reader, but it doesn't feel like a cliffhanger because the rest of the plot threads are pretty much wrapped up.

There are some differences. Most notable is the cause of the imperial collapse. In Foundation it was political/sociological. Here it's ecological: the hyperspace-like environment which makes interstellar travel feasible and the empire possible is breaking down, and the inhabited planets are not self-sufficient. Parallels to climate change are obvious, especially in the reactions which include heated denial of the "if we sweep it under the carpet it'll go away" sort, and acknowledgment that it's true combined with delusion that it won't be so bad. But there's no solution offered in this book, and the political situation is different enough that I doubt we'll learn anything useful from the sequel. Any equivalent to the actual Foundation in the Foundation trilogy has yet to be introduced; that's another big difference. The one false note in this story was the protagonist feeling strangely exhilarated by the challenge of dealing with this. This reaction ought to have been drowned out by deep existential despair, though that would have made for less fun of a story.

Though two of the later big stories in the Foundation trilogy were notable in their day for strong female protagonists, it's otherwise a very male series. This book, though, is full of female major characters, though with one major exception they don't feel very female to me. This raises the question, "So what do you expect a female character to be like?" which is a fair question, but I think the best even of male authors can create women who seem like women without loading them down with female stereotypes.

Scalzi's snarky dialogue style, which I enjoyed in Agent to the Stars where it was appropriate, but which was part of what caused me to bounce off the other three subsequent novels by him I've tried to read, seems under control here. It's less relentless, and it's light and appropriate rather than heavy. I had trouble with a couple of the names, though. The Empire is ruled by an Emperox, which I guess is a made up word to avoid having to alternate between Emperor and Empress. I found myself ignoring the "x" and reading the title as Emperor, despite its holder for most of the book being female. The antagonists are a family named Nohamapetan. I quickly gave up on trying to pronounce this, even in my head, and decided to render it mentally as "Northampton", which gives a pleasing Old Imperial British touch to the story.

The plot zipped along, and just as it started to become too heavy and ornate - a second terrorist attack with mass casualties intended to assassinate the Emperor, I mean -ox? One was more than enough - the book ended. Which leaves me less than whetted for the sequel, The Consuming Fire, which comes out next month, but I'll give it a shot and see if Scalzi can hook me again.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


1. Last weekend I heard the medieval/Renaissance/folk band Brocelïande in a house concert not far away. It was a while since I'd heard them and the first time ever at a house concert. Usually when I've been to house concerts, they've been classical or filk and thus usually inside (the former because they usually feature piano, which is not an outdoors instrument, and the latter because filkers are not generally outdoors people). But this was outdoors, in a small backyard tiled patio with 50 chairs set up facing a tented stage area. I'd heard about this from Brocelïande's mailing list, but apparently this house frequently hosts folk concerts. I didn't know anyone else there except the performers, but the folk were friendly, and the band played four of their Tolkien settings, which they don't often do these days unless asked.

2. Yesterday I walked over to our neighborhood park for an announced event: the city arborist was giving a tree walk: a walk around the park describing the quite wide variety of trees planted there: ash, pine, oak, cedar, maple, birch, plum, all of various species, and one called a strawberry tree whose fruit (round, red, and covered in tiny quills) isn't a strawberry but is edible, so we tried some. I learned a lot, not just about botany but about an arborist's view of his demesne: the shifting in and out of trees, as different species go in and out of fashion or prove to be or not to be suitable for the climate or susceptible to disease; the constant search for trees whose root systems won't push up nearby pavement. (It's not the tree's fault, he repeatedly said, as trees just do what they do: it's the fault of whoever put the tree and sidewalk in too close proximity.)

3. And today, Mythopoeic book meeting to discuss The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, an Arabic-influenced fantasy that some liked extravagantly and others found rather dull. I only got about two chapters into it myself.

4. In broader news, we're grieved to learn that all the outlets of Orchard Supply Hardware, a local chain we've long relied upon, are soon to close. It had been bought by Lowe's, a larger chain which eventually decided not to maintain it. I hope at least some of the locations will be converted, as there's no Lowe's conveniently nearby. Lowe's tends to be a warehouse which carries much but where it's hard to find what you're looking for and, unlike at OSH, there's rarely anyone who can help you very much.

5. Tesla is also local news, since their plant is nearby. The various cavortings of Elon Musk are beginning to remind me of Steve Jobs in the period before he was removed from Apple in 1985. Neither has or had the maturity for the positions of responsibility they held or sought. Jobs needed his testing period in the wilderness before he emerged as the great capitalist of his second act at Apple; what's to become of Musk I can't guess.

6. Slightly further off geographically, but relevant to me as I drive up I-5 to Oregon frequently, is another fire that's closing the freeway. Unlike the previous one a month or so ago, which could be gotten around fairly easily, this one is in a spot without convenient detours. I'm glad I'm not going up there this week, and I fear that checking for fire-related travel advisories is going to be a regular summer thing from here on.

7. And now ... it's Rosh Hashanah. See you on the flip side.

Friday, September 7, 2018

San Diego is a peculiar place

I flew there for a quick business trip. I'm working on programming for next year's Mythcon which will be there, and went down so that I and the chair, who's local, could meet with various sites' conference and sales managers and tour their facilities. We learned a lot and made some firm provisional decisions. Logistics comes next, and we should be able to make a site and date announcement within a few weeks.

Some of our sites are on the trolley line, and so was the hotel I was staying at, so I volunteered to be the guinea pig for getting there from the airport. It turned out to be pretty easy, except that there's no signage for the transfer between the from-airport shuttle bus and the downtown trolley station, so it's tough for a stranger to figure out where to walk.

Odd things about the trolley:
*Senior fares start at age 60. Who does that? Not that I'm complaining.
*The trolley doesn't go "clang, clang, clang," it goes "buzz."
*The trolley lines are named for colors, but they don't mean anything. I rode the Green line. The cars on it are red. I did see some green cars, but they were on another line.
*Some of the lines also have sponsors. There is the "UC San Diego Blue Line." This runs from downtown to San Ysidro, which is the Mexican border station. UC San Diego itself is up way north of downtown, nowhere near the Blue line. You don't think this might be confusing?
*The recorded station announcements on the train are in English, immediately followed by the same in Spanish, except that the station names are pronounced as in English, even if they're Spanish words.
*There is only one underground station on the system. Unlike BART, which has lots of underground stations, they haven't figured out how to turn the lights on. It was like a dungeon in there.

I stayed at a generic business hotel, odd only in an elevator call system new to me. Instead of call buttons, there's a touchscreen with a keypad displaying floor numbers. Touch the one you want, the display changes to tell you which elevator in the bank will be yours, and when you get in, the only buttons are open and close door and alarm. Whoosh and off you go.

I did have enough free time to take the city bus up to the Hillcrest/North Park area to visit used-book stores and admire the selection of ethnic restaurants, mostly Asian. Waiting for the first bookstore to open in the morning, I lounged in a nearby Starbucks where I bought a cookie, the first time in over 35 years of acquaintance that I've ever actually bought something in a Starbucks. ("You don't want coffee?" said the clerk in a stunned voice.)

At that bookstore, the one which had more books I wanted to read than I could possibly have hauled home, so I bought three and wrote a lot of titles down, the owner/clerk was commiserating with a customer who was complaining about the slow pace of the Game of Thrones sequels ("You might as well just watch the show"). On fire with the novel I'd just finished reading on my Nook, I said, "You shouldn't be reading that; you should be reading ..." and I'll tell you in my next post.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

possibly obsolete

Encouraged by a rave comment we saw online, B. and I rented the DVD of Peter Hall's 1968 RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The cast was studded with young names destined to be great thespians: Ian Richardson and Judi Dench as Oberon and Titania, Ian Holm as Puck, Helen Mirren and Diana Rigg (!) as Hermia and Helena, and David Warner as Lysander.

But despite this great cast, it was strangely uninvolving, though not nearly as bad as the acclaimed 1964 Richard Burton Hamlet. I think the reason was a now out-of-favor Shakespearean acting style. Though they didn't shout as if they were on stage, the actors had a way of declaiming all their speeches, addressing the air between them instead of each other. I know they could do better than that: Diana Rigg didn't talk at all like that in The Avengers, which she was making at the same time; on the other hand, I once saw a dreadful early modern-setting Helen Mirren film that she declaims her way all through. But they evolved greatly in later years: we're a long way from the Ian Richardson who says "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment," or the Judi Dench who says, "Have a care with my name, Mr. Tilney: you will wear it out."

Thinking back over my Shakespeare stage experience, I think one was just used to this style back then. It began to melt away in the 1980s, I think, and a supremely naturalistic way of speaking Shakespeare, as if his ornate phrasing were common language, came into vogue. You can see it on film in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, in which the actors, though none of them trained Shakespeareans, all show that they've absorbed as well as understood the words they speak, and spilling it out as if it was so much crepe-paper roll is right out.

On the other hand ... a sure way to irk me is to declare something I still do obsolete. Here's a condescending list of "forgotten websites you can't believe are still around." I can believe they're still around: I use some of them. My principal e-mail is still Earthlink, and as you can probably see, I run my blog on LiveJournal and Blogger.

Why am I using these things? Because I signed up for them when I needed them and they were the hot new things, and I've found no compelling reason to leave. It'd be disruptive and a nuisance and I like what I have. I'm not tempted to run away after shiny new gadgets. That's also why I still read Tolkien and still belong to the Mythopoeic Society, and why I still listen to the same old music, and why I haven't moved house. It's also not unconnected to why I'm still married to the same woman I met 32 years ago. Not to criticize those whose lives have moved in other directions - and we were forced to move house not much more than a decade ago, though we didn't want to - but in my case the desire to keep a good thing, the impulse for stability and contentment, is the same, no matter how old and creaky I, or my websites, get.