Sunday, February 28, 2021

it WAS a dog

I first heard this song by the electric-folk band Steeleye Span in 1977 or so.

Hear that vocal sound at 2.06 that sets the beat for speeding up the tempo of the instrumental section at the end of the song? Presumably it's a person setting the beat, but it sounds a lot like a dog, doesn't it?

As I recall, alone among my Steeleye-listening friends, I maintained that it was a dog. The rest thought it just sounded like one. We listened to it over and over, but never solved the mystery. Remember that this was a much-played worn LP over the kind of stereo system that college students could afford in the 1970s, not the crisp digital rendition of today.

And now, all these years later, I have the answer to this long-nagging mystery. It WAS a dog. The producer had brought his Yorkshire terrier to the studio that day, and the dog barked at just the right moment, so they left it in.

How do I know this? From reading All Around My Hat: The Steeleye Span Story by John Van der Kiste (Fonthill Media, 2019). And how did I find out about this book? From watching the live Q&A with the band over Zoom that came with the ticket I bought from their record label for a video of a concert. A couple newer members held it up and said they'd learned a lot from it. It has some terrible reviews on Amazon, but I thought it reasonably well-written and pretty informative, so I recommend it to Steeleye fans.

As for the concert, nothing in the publicity said when it was from, but the presence of a live audience suggested it was a bit back, and from some clues in the between-songs chatter I was able to research that it was from their spring 2019 UK tour. Nevertheless it was a terrific concert. The now-seven-member band's sound was big and powerful without being heavy or over-miked, as it had been the only previous time I'd heard this line-up, and they played with tremendous energy. The instrumental riffs in the older songs were preserved from the originals and even expanded. The big songs - "Tam Lin", "King Henry", and the best of the all-around good songs from their (then) new album, Est'd 1969, "Harvest" - were particularly sizzling. New guitarist Andrew Sinclair has taken over most of Bob Johnson's old vocals and his guitar solos, all of which he does very well, while older guitarist Julian Littman still sings "King Henry", which is always the one he was best at, and has taken over Maddy Prior's lead singing role on "Little Sir Hugh". Maddy still does most of the singing, of course, and is still the class lady of the biz.

where we stand now

So here's where we are at the moment. A few days ago I finished writing my part of the work writeups for the annual "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies": four books, 22 articles, total 5400 words. I read and wrote up two or three a day for most of the month; I find it challenging to concentrate on more than that at a time, but the work itself isn't difficult; in fact it's rather fun, especially this time being deadpan over the crashing errors in a couple articles on names. (If you're going to run statistics on a group of Tolkien character names, try not to filch a list off the web that has names that Tolkien never used.)

There's 6 other people also at work on this, and while some of them are quick, others find it slow and painstaking work. It's not capacity, for they're very good at it; I think it's a matter of native affinity for potting writings in a paragraph. Anyway, the ones that have submitted, I've formatted their citations according to our system and otherwise normalized the files (our paragraphing system, for instance).

This Year's Work is covering 2018; now I'm starting on the bibliography for 2018. First step, clearing out the cubbyhole that I kept all the 2018 books and journals in for handy availability for myself and in case I needed to copy anything for another contributor. Now, go into the other cubbyhole with the newer material. Put any 2020 and 2021 publications aside for reinsertion when I'm done, and take all the 2019 items and type up all their contents lists in the TS bibliography format, before putting them in the cubbyhole where they'll live the next year. Then go into my notes file. Oh man, should have done this earlier. The real killers are the ones that I don't have full bib refs for or can't tell from the titles if they're about Tolkien or not, which means I have to find them somewhere now (accumulating them for next year's Year's Work can come later). Hasty interlibrary loan requests and online book purchasing, and there's some I may only be able to find if and when the university libraries reopen. And that's not even beginning trawling the online databases. If the Year's Work was my February job, the bibliography will be my March one.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

two free hours of string quartets

This has finally finished releasing, one a week all month, and I've watched them, so I can recommend it for the remaining week (closes on March 5) that it'll be up: four half-hour concerts by the Jupiter String Quartet, each beginning with a serious, mostly even anguished, classic quartet movement (by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn), and concluding with a more hopeful-sounding new work. In between, two of the concerts have introspective slow movements (by Haydn and George Walker).

I liked all of these, but the most dramatic of the initial pieces was definitely the third, the first movement of Mendelssohn's Op. 80 in F Minor, though the second, the slow movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," though a fairly smooth rendition, did grow on me. Of the new pieces, the most fun was a rag by William Bolcom in the fourth concert, while one by Michi Wiancko in the second (which I'd heard in full in another Jupiter concert) was the one that grew on me.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

fried out

Many of the deaths that cause great mournings to pass out from my community - Gary Gygax, Stan Lee - don't mean very much to me personally. I can't say that for Fry's Electronics. That was a store that was once essential for my everyday life.

Although by the time it shut its doors a couple days ago, I and many others had been wondering what had been keeping it alive, because for several years it had been worse than useless, it was a waste of time to go there. Its vast shelves were virtually empty, and of course the employees had been clueless ever since it turned into a glossy retail establishment from its initial incarnation as a computer nerd warehouse.

I first encountered Fry's in the mid-80s, when my hardware guru sent me there to buy the parts for what he then turned into my first computer. Fry's was at its first location then, tucked into a corner of one of the tiny industrial parks that made up Silicon Valley, a big warehouse mostly of unlabeled computer parts in bins. I went up to the counter, one of those glass counters with more parts on display inside, handed them the slip on which H. had written my requisites, and bought the results.

Soon Fry's moved into a bigger facility across Lawrence Expressway, and introduced their first clever store packaging: giant "Enter" and "Escape" keys pasted on to the front doors, and a giant diode mockup in front. There were still bins and shelves with miscellaneous unpackaged parts, and most of the packaged ones were in plain boxes with identifying labels pasted on. There was very little designed packaging in computer parts in those days.

Literally anything you could possibly want in electronic or electrical parts or equipment was for sale at Fry's. And that was reinforced by their choice of what else to sell, the life-sustaining material for computer engineers: food/drink, mostly bags of chips and refrigerated cans of soda, and magazines, of two types, computer tech and men's erotica. It was kind of a parody of what they thought engineers wanted.

Around that time, as I've told before, a computer tech friend of mine (but we'd bonded mostly over English folk music) from the midwest came to town with a colleague for a conference. When I picked them up for dinner, they asked me to take them to Radio Shack so that they could pick up some supplies - I think they wanted to hack their hotel room phone or something. I said no, I've got a better place, and I took them to Fry's - then still the single store and unknown outside of the Valley. They were delighted, and spent considerable time exploring its wonders.

Gradually over the years Fry's altered, but not entirely for the worse. More stores opened: besides the original in Sunnyvale, there was the Western-themed one in Palo Alto and the Mayan temple in Campbell and others. The sales force became less knowledgeable. Huge counters with dozens of stations appeared for purchasing. Security persons to compare your sales slip with your purchase showed up at the exit door. On the shelves there were more packaged products. In the days when packaged software flourished, Fry's had lots of that. In the days that VHS and DVD and CDs flourished, Fry's had lots of that too.

Eventually the Sunnyvale store moved to a new facility with a Disneyland-sized parking lot. The store inside was cavernous and now filled with household machinery like washing machines. The electronics were all still there, but tucked into the back. It wasn't quite the same, but I kept shopping there, until the point where I could no longer find obvious items that Fry's ought to carry. That was about five years ago, and I gave up trying.

I don't see Fry's as having been killed off by online suppliers. I turned to online suppliers because I could no longer get what I needed at Fry's.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

historical controversy

The topic is "How did Winston Churchill become Prime Minister in 1940?" and I'm going to be assuming some background knowledge on your part here.

Churchill once said that he would be treated well by history because he intended to write that history himself, and the received account of the decision to make him PM is in the first volume of his WW2 memoirs (published in 1948, so he wasn't long about it). When Neville Chamberlain decided, after the Norway debate, that a National Government was necessary, and it became clear that the Labour Party would not accept one with him at the head of it, he called in his two principal ministers and likely successors - Churchill and Lord Halifax, who was Foreign Secretary - to decide whom he should recommend as his successor. This is what Churchill writes:
I have had many important interviews in my public life and this was certainly the most impotant. Usually I talk a great deal, but on this occasion I was silent. ... As I remained silent, a very long pause ensued. It certainly seemed longer than the two minutes which one observes in the commemmorations of Armistice Day. Then at length Halifax spoke. He said that he felt that his position as a peer, out of the House of Commons, would make it very difficult for him to discharge the duties of Prime Minister in a war like this. He would be held responsible for everything, but would not have the power to guide the assembly upon whose confidence the life of every Government depended. He spoke for some minutes in this sense, and by the time he had finished, it was clear that the duty would fall upon me - had in fact fallen upon me. Then, for the first time, I spoke. I said I would have no communication with either of the Opposition Parties until I had the King's commission to form a Government. On this the momentous conversation came to an end.
That's what Churchill wrote, and some version of it has become the accepted and usually-repeated story. That being the case, I was quite surprised to be browsing Andrew Roberts' The Storm of War (2011), his history of WW2, to find this:
Churchill was impatient for the premiership, and he took it, bluntly telling his rival for the post, the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, that he could not be prime minister from the House of Lords. (He later invented a story in which Halifax almost offered him the premiership out of embarrassment after a long period of silence.)
Invented? This was the first I'd heard of anything of the sort. Roberts gives a source note. I turned to these only to find I'd alreadly marked it in my copy on a previous reading of the book. This time I got around to borrowing a copy of the cited book. It's Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy, edited by Amanda Smith (published 2001). Kennedy was US Ambassador to the UK at the time of these events, but why would he have definitive knowledge of what happened at a private meeting of the principals of the government? The source turned out to be a memorandum Kennedy took of an interview he had with Chamberlain five months later. (By the time Kennedy met with him, Chamberlain had already resigned from the government due to ill health, and he was to die less than a month later.) Here is what Kennedy recounts of what Chamberlain told him, errors copied from the transcription (Edward was Halifax's given name):
He then wanted to make Halifax P.M. and said he would serve under him. Edward, as [is] his way, started saying, "Perhaps I can't handle it being in H of Lords and Finally Winston said, "I don't think you could." And he wouldn't come and that settled it.
What Kennedy, or Chamberlain, meant by "Finally" (with a capital F), is not clear, whether that meant Churchill waited for Halifax to finish before speaking, but the only thing it adds to Churchill's account is having him agreeing with Halifax's point. It matches with Churchill's statement that Halifax spoke first, and while not outright declining the office, doubting that he could operate as prime minister. It doesn't include the long pause, but it's hardly a full and detailed recounting of the meeting. This doesn't make Churchill's account "invented," by any stretch. Roberts has something of a reputation for being a little loose with facts, and this could be an example.

I turned to a definitive biography of Churchill, Roy Jenkins' tome of 2001. Jenkins finished writing the book in February of that year, the Kennedy letters were published in January (and this bit is a very small note in a very large book), so Jenkins is unlikely to have seen it before finishing the book. But he might as well have. He quotes from and paraphrases Churchill's account, and then writes: "This account is not without a certain central truth, but is wholly inaccurate as to times and participants." Jenkins then corrects Churchill's statement of when the meeting took place, and informs us of something Churchill omits, that the Chief Whip was also present (his job here would have been to pass along the views of the party's backbench MPs). Now we get to the central question of, did Halifax jump or did Churchill push him? This time it's Halifax's account that we get:
It required no determination not to break a long silence on Churchill's part to get Halifax to exclude himself. He had already done so at a 10.15 bilateral meeting with Chamberlain on the Thursday morning. There he stressed the great disadvantage he would suffer as a Prime Minister who was a peer, and for the first time used the phrase that the thought of being so 'left me with a bad stomach-ache'. THis position he maintained at the 4.30 quadripartite meeting. As a Prime Minister in the Lords he would rapidly become a 'cipher' in the position to which Lloyd George had tried to relegate Asquith in 1916. 'I thought Winston was a better choice. Winston did not demur, was very kind and polite but showed that he thought this was the right solution. Chief Whip and others think feeling in the House has been veering towards him.' This somewhat telegraphese account was recorded by the Foreign Office permanent under-secretary, Cadogan, who saw Halifax immediately on his return from 10 Downing Street.
So here we have the same thing as with Kennedy reporting on what Chamberlain told him: Halifax demurs, Churchill agrees. This time the reporter is Alexander Cadogan giving what Halifax told him, and on the same day even. And Cadogan's diaries, from which this comes, were published as long ago as 1971! So the alteration of Churchill's version is not news. Roberts has given us a big scare and told us nothing that we didn't already know.

Nor, by the way, was Kennedy's memo the only record of Chamberlain's view of the meeting, as Roberts elsewhere implies. The newspaper proprietor Lord Camrose saw Chamberlain on the same day and made a typically precise note:
He had considered the question as to whom he should ask the King to send for, and had discussed the matter with Halifax and Winston. ... [Halifax] had said he would prefer not to be sent for, as he felt the position would be too difficult and troublesome for him. He (Neville) would therefore advise the King to send for Winston.
That was published in Churchill's War Papers in 1993, and is quoted by Jenkins.

Two more things, one of which Jenkins raises. To what extent was Halifax's membership of the Lords merely a screen? Surely, some have said, in the emergency, some workaround could have been found to enable him to sit in the Commons. Most likely, I'd guess, though I don't know what it would have been. The writers I've seen discussing this point say that it was a screen to an extent. Roberts, in his much earlier (1991) biography of Halifax, puts it the most generously:
In different circumstances he would, especially if it had been presented to him by friends as being his patriotic duty, undoubtably have accepted the Premiership. The supreme prize of British politics was there for the taking and he had merely to nod for it to be his. But he knew in his heart that he was not of the calibre required for a wartime premier, and that Winston Churchill was. Proposing Churchill in his stead was a supreme act of self-abnegation, one for which history has afforded him scant credit. It was perhaps Halifax's greatest service to his country.
By "knew in his heart," Roberts probably means the same thing as what Halifax meant by saying the idea of becoming PM "left me with a bad stomach-ache." But there is also the possibility that he knew that, even in the Commons, he wouldn't have the real power in the government. Not with Churchill in his cabinet. Churchill would have to be Secretary for Defense (a post he did in reality take on in addition to the premiership), the control of the war would be his, and that would be the whole story. That could have been what Halifax meant by "the position would be too difficult and troublesome." Even when Churchill was younger and less senior, Prime Ministers under whom he served found it difficult to keep him from taking over whatever he wanted and saying whatever he cared to say.

The other point: It is often written nowadays that the Labour Party vetoed Halifax. That is not the case. They were formally asked two questions, would they join a national government under Chamberlain, would they join under someone else not specified? The national committee met and considered these questions (in Labour, it wasn't considered something for the leader to decide on his own), and returned the answers of no and yes to the respective questions. I'm not sure if it's recorded whom they actually preferred, but (in passages I didn't quote) we have contradictory information on what Chamberlain thought Labour preferred. Cadogan says that Chamberlain "was informed" that they'd "swung against Halifax." Churchill says that Chamberlain implied in their meeting that he feared Labour would not accept him, Churchill, because of the arguments he'd had with Labour members during the debate. But that was overriden by Halifax's statement.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

English suites and others no. 40

I wrote earlier that there was one indisputably major 19th century German composer who wrote suites, and that we would get to him eventually. Today is that day, and the composer was Richard Strauss. Before he was converted to post-Wagnerian Giganticism in his mid-20s, Strauss began as something of a Brahmsian composer who actually earned a few pats on the head from the gruff old great man.

And one of the most Brahmsian things he did in those days – he was 20 when this came out in 1884 – was to write a Suite for Winds, Op. 4. This is a delightful little neo-classical piece and one of my favorite works by Strauss.

Movements: Praeludium (0.28), Romanze (6.54), Gavotte (12.40), Introduction and Fugue (17.05)

Monday, February 22, 2021


Today was B's appointment for the first vaccination. She got her place from the county website, not from our health-care provider which is running behind. The county's coverage is up to the second tranch, which B. barely qualifies for, while I barely don't.

When they phoned to confirm the appointment - which was good because, what with Texas-caused shortages, we otherwise wouldn't have known whether it was on or not - B. asked if I could be brought in also. They said maybe: it would be up to the staffers on duty and the availability of vaccines that day. We could ask when we got there.

Fine. The appointment was at a medical office building adjacent to the city hospital of the big town down the road. I was going to drive anyway because the instructions were a bit confusing, I know the place (I was last there to visit the Big Name Fanwriter when he was taken to hospital from the last local Worldcon), and I'm generally geographically enabled.

This was also an opportunity for B. to use her newly-arrived Alinker in actual practice: she put it together and tried it out on our culdesac yesterday. She calls it her bumblebee (it's yellow). It's a walking bike, essentially, though it has three wheels. The idea is that she can walk faster and not have to put weight on her weak ankle, without resorting to a wheelchair. But both of the larger wheels and the seat have to be removed, and the frame folded up, to fit it in her car trunk, so it takes some time to get it ready.

So we left in plenty of time, parked in the next-door garage as instructed, put the bumblebee together, and set off for the front door of the medical building. There we met a doorwarden who was rather shirty but not impolite about it when we asked about my getting a vaccine. So it was no go on that. Nor would I be allowed inside the building, which was fine by me because I didn't want to go inside unless I was getting the vaccine.

So I waited in the car. B. returned with stickers on her and a report that the bumblebee got a lot of comments and worked fine, even shifting around into various lines while she was waiting. She got the Pfizer vaccine. Due to a computer glitch making the appointment for the second shot, hers is 29 days from now instead of the specified 21. By that time they should have opened the third tranch which is mine, so we'll see. Just in time for the takeover by the new variant virus which is reported to be semi-immune to the antibodies, tra la.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

another false fallacy

I wish to make an addition to my list of false fallacies: that is, things that are commonly cited as fallacies but maybe aren't.

One of my classic examples is the tu quoque, in the form of pointing out that your challenger doesn't abide by the consequences of their argument. This is called a logical fallacy of argument because it doesn't prove wrong what it's arguing against. What this criticism misses is that the tu quoque is not intended as proof. It's triage. What it says is not "You didn't apply your own argument to yourself, therefore it's wrong" but "You obviously don't really believe your own argument, so why should I give it consideration?"
Another form of the tu quoque is when the challenger points out you've made the same mistake you're accusing them of. You should admit your own errors, but you can also say, "I know I'm prone to it; that's why it's easy for me to see it in others." (C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters on this principle, criticizing no sin that he didn't recognize in himself.)

Another is "moving the goalposts." You make a statement, others challenge it, you change what your statement means. What may actually be happening here is that the challenger has misunderstood the original statement. The "change" in what it means is actually a clarification of what it originally meant, and it only looks like a change to the challenger because of their mistaken idea of what it meant.
Another possibility is that the original statement was badly phrased, and left open possibilities its maker didn't intend. Again, they're clarifying what they really meant all along, not changing it.

My latest addition is sealioning. This is defined as asking supposedly clarifying questions in bad faith to provoke an argument. It shouldn't be too surprising that if the questioner really doesn't understand, and needs an explanation in a different mode from that the others are prepared to give, or missed the earlier explanations somewhere far up a complicated thread, or the answerers consider the answer so obvious they're unwilling to expound on it, then the questioner will be falsely accused of sealioning.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Music@Menlo concerts review

Having done two reviews of Kohl Mansion's online series, I said I'd get over to Menlo's eventually, and now is that time. Here's a review of their last two concerts; this time I was able to find my notes for the first one when it was time to write up the pair. I thought the premise for the first one was a little shaky and the between-pieces chatter by the musicians to be ... skippable, though for the sake of reviewing I didn't skip it. Nor was the music tremendously to my taste. However, the publicist read it and called it a very favorable review, so I guess I was kind enough.

On the other hand, a dark and somber hour of Purcell and Beethoven with the Emerson Quartet was right up my alley. This time the talk was confined to a half-hour pre-concert interview, which not only had some interesting things to say about Beethoven which I referred to, but also contained the quartet's account of how they'd been about to embark on an extensive European tour when the pandemic hit, and for several days wondered how much of it they'd be able to salvage as the bookings slowly and then completely crumbled away. I remember that feeling. There was B's scheduled string camp and how at one point its survival seemed briefly dependent on which side of a county line it would be held on. That distinction didn't last long.

Friday, February 19, 2021

how the mind works

Here's a little something I recently discovered about how my mind, at least, functions.

Assume there are two options for a choice I frequently make. Call them A and B, and specify that I always prefer A.

When I'm presented with the choice, I'm always asked, "A or B?" and I reply, "A."

This time, however, I was asked, "B or A?" And I said "B" before immediately correcting myself.

This shows that I've learned to memorize my choice's place in the order rather than internalizing its name. Though I did know what I want, and as soon as I said "B" realized that something was wrong.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

of all the silliest ...

“If I had been less stunned, I would have asked why no one was more concerned that a man of these remarkable dimensions was slithering around south Liverpool. But he was very apologetic and really nice and I think he was just relieved that I found it so funny.”

- quote from one of the silliest articles of the year, and the silliest vaccine eligibility story ever

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

English suites and others no. 39

Joachim Raff is a pretty obscure name today, but in his own time he was considered to be one of the great composers. Once I read a reference to an article, probably dating from the 1870s, extolling the supremacy of then-contemporary German music. In opera, the article said, the greatest living composer was Wagner. In chamber music, it was Brahms. And for symphonies - Raff.

If that testimony is enough to whet your curiosity, I'd suggest trying Raff's Symphony No. 5 "Lenore", especially the extremely catchy March movement that it has in place of a scherzo. And then, keeping up the wind music tradition of Mozart and Brahms, there's his Sinfonietta for winds.

Here, though, is one of his suites, a rare example of a folk-based, nationally-inspired work from Germany in days when most folk-inspired composers were Slavic or Scandinavian. Raff called it his Thüringian Suite, Thüringia being a region in central Germany where Raff was working at the time. It was then known for its rural life in heavily wooded countryside, which this music does something to convey. Bach was from Thüringia, as was Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, but you won't hear them in here.

The movements are: Salus intrantibus (0.08), Elizabeth's Hymn (9.30), Round Dance of the Gnomes and Sylphs (14.41), Variations on a Folk Song (18.27), Country Festival (27.38).

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Mythopoeic Awards

What would have been last summer's Mythopoeic Awards were finally announced today. The delay was not directly related to the cancellation of a Mythopoeic Conference (where the awards are normally announced) last summer; the problem was that the closure of libraries made it difficult for members of the awards committee to locate copies of the nominees, particularly the broad spectrum of first-ballot nominees. (Several of the finalists were distributed to the committee by the publishers on request.) As usual, I was on the scholarship committee and B. was on the fiction committees; I didn't read any of the fiction myself.

Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies
Amy Amendt-Raduege, "The Sweet and the Bitter": Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (Kent State)
I recused myself from voting on this award this year, because I have a contribution in a collection which was one of the other finalists, but though this wouldn't have been my first choice, I'm very pleased with the result. Not just a survey of the deaths in Tolkien's story, it explores them in the larger context of the meaning of death in our culture, and how they resonate for the reader. I only wish it had broader coverage, because the death in Tolkien that most moves me is Thorin's in The Hobbit.

Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Myth and Fantasy Studies
James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (ELS Editions)
On the other hand, I was extremely disappointed with this choice, not that most of the other finalists were much better. Gifford's prose is described as "dense" by those who like it, but I found it turgid, convoluted, and almost unreadable. It's rather embarrassing to give it an award in honor of the clear critical prose of Tolkien and Lewis. Further, what Gifford has to say in his turgid prose, insofar as I could follow it, was equally unappetizing: he appears to be trying to force fantasy into a series of Procrustan beds, alternately Marxist and anarchist. Ugh. In Gifford's acceptance speech, he describes the book as a historical survey of classic 20C fantasies in conversation with modernism and anarchism: that would have been a much better book than the one he actually wrote.

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature
Theodora Goss, Snow White Learns Witchcraft (Mythic Delirium Books)
B. liked this one a great deal.

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature
Yoon Ha Lee, Dragon Pearl (Rick Riordan)
B. says this one was OK.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Tolkien seminar

I was only able to watch about two hours of the eight-hour Tolkien Society online seminar today, due to my own issues. And trying to listen to it while simultaneously listening to Jamie Raskin repeat the same things he's been saying over and over for the last week didn't work very well either.

But in the process I did learn a lot. The seminar topic was 21st-century receptions of Tolkien, which includes artwork and blogs. Jotting down names (or more accurately opening more browser tabs and Googling them) gave me samples of some striking artists, like Tomas Hijo at the Prancing Pony:

Joe Gilronan at the House of Tom Bombadil:

and Ingvild Schage with Beren and Luthien:

and some recommended blogs: Tea with Tolkien (Tolkien and Catholicism) and A Clerk of Oxford (medievalism).

There was a paper on the memorial symbolism of Tolkien's grave, which pointed out that the names Beren and Luthien under Ronald's and Edith's names function as epitaphs. There was a canny paper on the various schools of reactions to the work, from literary to cultus to pop YA fiction and on. There was the obligatory paper of profound scholarship that was completely incomprehensible. And there was the paper discussing gaming systems whose presenter kept on saying "As you can see" until the moderator interrupted and pointed out that he hadn't turned on his screen-sharing, so we couldn't see any of it.

Will try again for the next one.

Friday, February 12, 2021

how to watch Buffy

Joss Whedon, mogul of movies and tv, has already long been in the doghouse since his earnestly professed feminism turned out to be a sham on the revelation of hidden marital infidelities he had claimed no temptation towards. (A divorce followed.) Now he has been accused of power abuse and cruel and toxic workplace behavior by Charisma Carpenter, one of the stars of Whedon's renowned early TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. (She played Cordelia, if you need a scorecard.) This followed similar accusations made last year by Ray Fisher, who performed in a recent Whedon-directed movie, but which hadn't received much attention.

Carpenter has received public support from several other women who performed in Buffy, notably Michelle Trachtenberg, then a teenager, who reports that "there was a rule" that Whedon was not allowed to be alone with her. No further details.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, the show's principal star, writes in her tweet of support that "While I am proud to have my name associated with Buffy Summers, I don't want to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon."

How to separate the two is the topic of this article which I would encourage all concerned fans of the show to read. (It has links to all of the above items.) However much Buffy may have been instigated and overseen by Whedon, the show as we have it was the creation of a vast array of talented people - actors, writers, and technical and production staff of all sorts - and their work should not be dismissed because of this.

books report

Nancy G. Heller, Why a Painting is Like a Pizza: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Modern Art (Princeton UP)
This book was recommended to B., who was looking for something of the sort. It didn't work for her, nor for me. Despite a clear enough writing style, the book mostly regurgitates a lot of tired old arguments: that new art has always been criticized (the classic "They laughed at Einstein, so I must be a genius too" fallacy), that modern abstract art uses the same principles of composition as traditional representational art (but value lies not in the elements you use, but in what you do with them), that it's such hard work to, e.g. paint a series of perfectly straight vertical lines (the "an A for effort is a final grade" fallacy), and - and here Heller is scraping the bottom of the barrel - that a photo of a monochromatic painting doesn't convey the texture and minute variations in the original.
True enough that sometimes it doesn't. I once saw an exhibit of a Korean-American artist named Il Lee, who creates random hair-like objects by scribbling wildly with a ballpoint pen on paper. True enough that when you've seen one or two of these you've seen them all, but viewed in person the maniacal energy of it - even the solid black areas are filled with the texture of the pen going over and over it - is striking enough that I said, "That's pretty neat." But I have also seen in person monochromatic paintings that produce only the reaction of "this is putting me on." And I've heard equally pointless monochromatic music too, like that of Elliott Carter, whose proponents are particularly subject to the "A for effort" fallacy, but whose work has defeated some of the most stringent admirers of modern music that I know.
My exposure to modern art, modern music, modern anything, has taught me that there is abstract and difficult art that works, and other that is but useless crap. That's true of any kind of art, but the strictures of modernism are more likely to produce proponents and cheerleaders for these styles who cannot tell the difference between the Whizzo butter and this dead crab. Consequently they cannot be trusted as guides to what work is valuable in the likes of abstract art, and they cannot tell you what is actually good about the good stuff: that it's energetic, that it's imaginative, that it's neat to look at, and strikingly often that it's fun, though that quality is deprecated by the more serious critics. If you look at, or listen to, something modern and difficult and it's not giving you a reaction like that, odds are it's not any good, no matter how praised by aesthetic critics like Heller.

Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman, The Fifty-year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, The First 25 Years (Thomas Dunne Books)
Ordinarily I avoid multi-contributor oral histories, since they tend to make such fragmented reading experiences. But this one, after the unfocused introductory chapter, is craftily constructed out of what must have been a vast variety of sources (considering that some of the contributors have been dead for decades), forming a coherent story that yet juxtaposes totally contradictory viewpoints on many questions: on whether Roddenberry was justified in massively rewriting every script that came through his hands, on whether Shatner and Nimoy got along, on whether the guy who took over as producer in the third season did a good job or not. It clarified a lot I didn't understand - for instance, the badness of the third season was due basically to increasingly tight budget restrictions - and some stories I didn't know: like that after Mr. Spock proved popular in the first season, Nimoy demanded a raise, and the studio was ready to fire him and replace Spock with another Vulcan character, and even had the actor lined up to do it, until the network - which had opposed having Spock in the first place - said, "Are you crazy? Pay him whatever it takes to keep him!" (Increasing actor salaries made life more challenging among decreasing budgets.)
I read mostly the TOS part, though the book also covers the animated series (which I've never seen) and the early movies (some of which I saw, but only once each) up to just before the launch of TNG. (There's a sequel book.) Also covers the viewer letter-campaigns and early Trek fandom. Very interesting stuff, if you care about the topic at all.

David Weigel, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock (Norton)
While the previous book was unexpectedly well-written, this one was unexpectedly poorly written, being infected by a stream-of-consciousness style that sometimes afflicts rock journalism. I was hoping to learn something about a musical style that passingly interests me but about which I know little and have only heard intermittently, but any overview was drowned in a soup of band history details, overwhelmingly filled with arguments, resignations, firings, and breakups, all laid out at top speed with little delving into the art. Has a tendency to either introduce some guys and then suddenly drop in the band name without identifying it as those guys (see Rush, p. 147-8) or the opposite, introducing a band with its breakup without telling you its history or who was in it (which is particularly glaring when the band's name is Giles, Giles and Fripp [p. 40-42]: Fripp and one of the Gileses had already been introduced earlier, but the other hadn't, and is then discussed as if you already knew who he was).
I was hoping for something about my favorite prog band, Renaissance (which avoids the flaws that have dampened my interest in other groups), but it's only mentioned in passing once, and isn't in the index. There's more about the Roches, who are neither prog nor rock, because Robert Fripp produced their first album.
This book is really designed for people who already know everything in it.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

English suites and others no. 38

We're in the German-speaking lands of Mozart and Brahms in the 18th and 19th century, so now it's time for some of those lesser - but pleasant! - German composers who specialized in suites. So how about Franz Lachner? A fairly well-known and respected name in his day, he was a prolific composer whose Suite No. 7 in D Minor (1881) - that's right, No. 7 - has the most striking compositional profile of any that I've heard.

There's four movements: Overture (0.00), Scherzo (11.35), Intermezzo (18.40), Chaconne and Fugue (24.37).

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

long drive

I drove to a public library 25 miles away to pick up that book I alluded to in my previous post, because they had it and nobody else around here did. That's a lot farther than I normally get these days. Along the way I listened on the radio to the impeachment proceedings. This was the part featuring videos with no sound, yes, so the experience lacked a little something. But I caught up with web clips after I got home.

But the main thrust was clear. This was by a large order of magnitude the most impeachable thing a US president has ever done, far more than anything by Nixon or Andrew Johnson. (Clinton was impeached for not doing anything impeachable at all.) To pass it off, even to declare it moot, is obscene. And it was no surprise: he'd been telegraphing it for months, and it's perfectly in character with his whole life's work; that's why some of us were protesting four years ago that he should never have been president at all. We weren't that prescient; it was obvious.

The combination of the long drive, the ornate if properly socially distanced procedures when I got there, and stopping off for takeout lunch at the great fish & chips place halfway there, was tiring in a way it wouldn't have been a year ago, and I kicked off for a long nap on returning home.

Awoke in time to make dinner with this versatile recipe:
1. Hunt down all the leftovers in the fridge, including veggies we're about to run out of.
2. Smell the older ones to make sure they're still good.
3. Dump them all in a pan.
4. Heat and simmer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

here's that closed door

One effect of living in a house that's now over 50 years old is that various original parts have to be replaced. We have, for instance, had two out of three bathroom sink faucet assemblies replaced, plus various toilet parts and the garage door opener assembly. All of them done by invited professionals.

Today we finally got around to fixing something that had been a problem since we first moved in: the sliding glass patio door in the living room. It wouldn't open smoothly, and was so challenging to close again that for years now we'd just left it closed all the time. Which was a nuisance: we couldn't open it to cool the house down on summer evenings, and B. had to go around, out the front door and along a stepping-stone pathway and through a balky gate, to reach the patio where she likes to practice her viola outside on balmy days.

When we first discovered the problem, our landlord in his handyman mode made an extensive attempt to clean it out and fix it, but it didn't work. This left me feeling that it was probably unfixable, at least by handyman standards.

Now, however, I discovered the existence of professional companies that specialize in sliding door repair. (Maybe they could have fixed the pocket door in the hotel room bathroom that trapped me on our last visit to San Diego.) When I described the problem over the phone, they said immediately that the cause was that the roller assembly had gone bad and needed to be replaced. It was expensive, but it sounded like it would fix the problem.

So two guys came today, masked. Working mostly from outside on the patio, over an hour's work they wrestled with the door and its frame, wielding screwdrivers, electric drills, mallets (!) and other implements, first fixing the door itself and then installing a new deadbolt when it proved that neither the old one nor the clamp lock was working right.

Now that's done, long before summer when we'll need it. Meanwhile I sat on the couch browsing through Andrew Roberts' history of WW2, a book I definitely need to discuss with you after I've fetched his source material for one odd point from the library.

Also meanwhile, unseen by me but read about afterwards, Jamie Raskin was saying, "If that's not an impeachable offense, then there is no such thing."

Sunday, February 7, 2021

English suites and others no. 37

If I'm going to include Brahms's serenade for winds in this series, I have no excuse for not also including Mozart's great serenade for winds, the one known as the Gran Partita. Even though it's blindingly well-known (and the Adagio [19.35] was the subject of a famous scene in the play and movie Amadeus), it's still the absolute masterwork of the wind chamber repertoire, and one of the masterworks of the entire musical repertoire. And here it is in a masterful performance. Enjoy: I already have, several times through, just in the process of fetching it here.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

memoirs of the Original Nineteen astronauts

(limited to those who flew in Apollo)

Charlie Duke (Apollo 16), Moonwalker, with Dotty Duke (Oliver-Nelson, 1990)
Mostly a personable memoir, half boyish enthusiasm and half "fighter jock" pilot. Aims at an exciting description of what it actually felt like to do the job, and Duke does go into some detail on training, but he's less interested in describing the hard work he clearly put in than in recounting his hard-partying lifestyle after hours, and this applies to his Air Force career even more than to his astronaut life. For the Apollo 16 flight, he basically annotates the vocal transcript, which doesn't work particularly well as a reading experience. Afterwards, this book makes some startling turns. At first, Duke is as hard-driving and all-consumed by his new business career as he was at NASA. But then he discovers the Bible and finds that Jesus wants him to stop ignoring his wife and children and taking them for granted. (His wife Dotty's signed contribution to this book is a chapter giving her experience of the frustrations of an empty life and eventually finding that love for Jesus filled it.) At this point, Duke seems to have found some balance in his life, and most of the book is written retrospectively from that perspective, gently chiding his career obsession in hindsight, but then in the next chapter he goes over the other edge and becomes an enthusiast for faith healing and the likes of seeing angels guiding your airplane's wings. This viewpoint does not appear elsewhere in the book, though Duke's general enthusiasm is such that he defines himself as one astronaut who actually enjoyed the otherwise universally-despised "week in the barrel" publicity rounds. Duke is even pleased when President Nixon's envoy to an Apollo 16 homecoming celebration is - Nixon's brother.

James B. Irwin (Apollo 15), To Rule the Night: The Discovery Voyage of Astronaut Jim Irwin, with William A. Emerson, Jr. (Holman, 1973)
In the prologue to his memoir, Irwin says he found his spaceflight a spiritually transformative experience, which led to his post-NASA career as a traveling Christian preacher. But, he says, he only realized this afterwards; the flight itself was just too busy for reflection. Accordingly, he drops this aspect until it comes up in its own time. (He does not appear to be the enthusiast for the supernatural that Charlie Duke became.) The Apollo 15 mission covers over half the book. Irwin concentrates on the practical experience of flying in space and walking on the Moon, without getting into technical details, or personalities. He is critical of flaws in planning and equipment which led to dehydration, on which he blames his subsequent medical problems (which continued after the book: he died at 61, young for an astronaut). For his earlier life, Irwin describes himself as something of a goofball who got on by coasting on his natural abilities, and he seems to have done well in the Air Force despite several mistakes and consequent suspensions, including a plane crash which nearly led to a disabling amputation. Some astronauts divorced due to the pressures of the job: Irwin did not, instead - uniquely among his peers - getting his divorce over early after a brief youthful first marriage. He attributes this breakup to religious differences, and is critical of himself without being reflective. Though far less "gosh-wow" than Charlie Duke's, this is is a somewhat breathless book with a distinctly naive air to it.
Irwin also wrote a children's book, Destination: Moon, with Al Janssen (Multnomah, 1989), recounting his career and flight experiences.

Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14), The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut's Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds, with Dwight Williams, revised edition (New Page Books, 2008; originally published 1996); Earthrise: My Adventures as an Apollo 14 Astronaut, with Ellen Mahoney (Chicago Review Press, 2014)
The first quarter of The Way of the Explorer is a memoir of Mitchell's life through the lunar mission; though he outlines his post-NASA life, the rest of the book is sometimes quite complex exposition on the cosmic awareness he spent his later career studying. Like other lunar astronauts, Mitchell found his mission to be spiritually awakening; unlike others, this came to him while he was still on the mission and not just in retrospect, and it was not religious in nature, a viewpoint that seems to irritate him. Mitchell defines his spiritual vision as one of a connection between the human mind and the universe. As a trained scientist (a status he emphasizes in the memoir section) who is also interested in mystical matters, he's well equipped to ask mind-and-matter connective questions like: if quantum observations are affected by the observer's state of mind, how does that relate to the question of whether the mind is not limited to the boundaries generated by human physiology? I don't know if that's a meaningful question or not, but Mitchell would know more about it than most of us. Unfortunately Mitchell's mind is a little too open and he falls in with faith healers and spoon-bending charlatans.
Earthrise is a children's book, but it's longer and for more advanced readers than the other children's books on this list. It covers the same territory as the memoir section of The Way of the Explorer, with a brief epilogue on his later work; the book is written in simpler language, but it's considerably more full of detail on everything from his childhood and schooling to the events of the lunar mission.

Al Worden (Apollo 15), Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut's Journey, with Francis French (Smithsonian Books, 2011)
Very sober and matter of fact compared to his fellows in this section, Worden says he wrote this book to tell his story of the stamps incident, but it doesn't dominate a full-life narrative that only fades away after he leaves NASA altogether. In fact he intersperses his account of how the stamps came to be carried as trivial interruptions to his mission training, which is how he experienced it at the time. In the end, he agrees that taking the stamps to the Moon was a mistake, but argues that NASA overreacted to make an example of the crew, because they'd brushed aside earlier cases of the same thing, so the punishment was disproportionate. Taking the book more generally, Worden portrays himself as a practical man, totally involved with his job - he ruefully acknowledges that this led to his divorce not long before his flight, but because (unlike Donn Eisele) he wasn't keeping a mistress it didn't hurt his career - but he turns remarkably reflective while describing his long solo orbits as CSM pilot around the Moon, musing on how distance from Earth lends perspective on the goals and needs of humanity. His descriptions of his Air Force flying and astronaut training and flight are lucid and clear without getting technical. After being fired as an astronaut - as he bluntly describes it - over the stamps incident, he went to work coordinating airborne science (similar to the cameras and detectors he deployed from the CSM in lunar orbit) at NASA's Ames Research Center, which intrigues me, as I was also at Ames (albeit in a very minor job in a different department) at the same time.
Worden also wrote a children's book, I Want to Know About a Flight to the Moon (Doubleday, 1974), inspired by the children's tv programs about astronaut life he made in collaboration with Mister Rogers. (His decision to work with Mister Rogers rather than Sesame Street makes for the most amusing anecdote in his fuller memoir.)

(No memoirs from: Vance Brand (ASTP), Ron Evans (Apollo 17), Fred Haise (Apollo 13, STS ALT tests), Ken Mattingly (Apollo 16, STS-4, STS-51-C), Stuart Roosa (Apollo 14), Jack Swigert (Apollo 13). Nine others did not fly in Apollo.)

And that's the end of this series of reviews.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Plagiarism in Tolkien studies.

I had a front-row seat for Prof. Reid's discovery of this problem. It's been an interesting couple of weeks.

English suites and others no. 36

I didn't have any trouble finding high-quality English suites, or French suites, but it appears that, in 19th century German music, writing works called "Suite" was the province of deservedly minor composers – with one significant exception, which we'll get to. I'll also be subjecting you to a couple of those minor composers, but fortunately a suite doesn't necessarily have to be titled that.

For instance, the Serenades by Johannes Brahms, expansive multi-movement works built on the model of 18th-century suites. This is early Brahms, when he was still sometimes in a good humor, and here is his Serenade No. 2. This work is interestingly scored, for, though it has strings (only lower strings, no violins), they're there just for support purposes. This is a work for wind ensemble, something of a German specialty in those days.

The movements are: Allegro moderato (0.01), Scherzo (8.08), Adagio non troppo (10.45), Quasi menuetto (18.17), Rondo (23.16).

memoirs of the Group Three astronauts

Buzz Aldrin (Gemini 12, Apollo 11), Return to Earth, with Wayne Warga (Random House, 1973); Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon, with Ken Abraham (Harmony Books, 2009); Men from Earth, with Malcolm McConnell (Bantam, 1989); No Dream is Too High: Life Lessons from a Man Who Walked on the Moon, with Ken Abraham (National Geographic, 2016)
Like Jimmy Carter among Presidents, Buzz Aldrin has written more memoirs than any other astronaut. Despite its title, Return to Earth, his first, is a memoir of his complete life up to the date of publication, but it focuses on the exhaustion of the post-moonlanding international tours and Aldrin's subsequent treatment for depression. It's brutally revelatory, about his medical conditions, his marital infidelities, and more; he even says much more about excretory functions in space than any other astronaut sees fit to discuss. Magnificent Desolation is more restrained in tone, and may be seen as a sequel; beginning with Apollo 11, it skims lightly through the post-Apollo period covered by Return to Earth, and then concerns itself with a medical problem Aldrin hadn't previously realized he had, alcoholism; that eventually solved, he carves out a career as a speaker on and promoter of space exploration, including space tourism, a cause few other astronauts support. In the process, Aldrin gives detail on his first and second divorces and his second and third marriages (a third divorce was to follow, despite the book's rosy ending).
The other books are less formally memoirs. Men from Earth is a history of rocketry and space exploration from 1944 to 1969, divided into three parallel strands: the American program, the Russian program, and (separately until he's assigned to a flight) Aldrin's personal history from West Point on. No Dream is Too High is a collection of short exhoratory essays, many of them drawing from and retelling previously-told stories from his space travels and life history to illustrate their lessons.
Especially in his later books, Aldrin defends himself from a fair number of criticisms laid in other accounts. For instance, he insists that he never campaigned to be the first on the lunar surface, but that is not the impression that most others had at the time.
Aldrin has also written a memoir for small children, Reaching for the Moon: My Journey to the Moon (HarperCollins, 2005).

Alan Bean (Apollo 12, Skylab), Apollo: An Eyewitness Account, with Andrew Chaikin (Greenwich Workshop Press, 1998)
The only book on this list in coffee-table format, it's not really a memoir. The format is to allow room for reproductions of Bean's paintings of astronauts on the lunar surface, the making of which was his principal occupation in later life. The main text is Chaikin's account of Bean's career, focused on the Apollo 12 mission and particularly on the moonwalk. Bean's textual contribution is mostly captions to the paintings. Bean painted all the lunar missions, not just his own, and he insists that he's painstakingly depicting each astronaut in his individual character despite the fact that they're all wearing identical spacesuits and their faces aren't visible behind their reflective visors. The captions concentrate on the details of surface work tasks, and are highly "gosh-wow" patriotically proud of the missions ("There are only six flags on the moon and all of them are the stars and stripes," that sort of thing, never mind that at least one fell over during takeoff, which he doesn't mention), and Chaikin's text from Bean's perspective takes pretty much the same attitude. Bean also describes being artistically inspired by Monet to depict the surface as more colorful than he saw it, and in that and other respects (one painting depicts his CMP Dick Gordon on the surface with himself and Pete Conrad, because he wishes Gordon could have been there too) the art is idealized as much as it is a record of how he experienced his moonwalk.
Bean also wrote a children's memoir, My Life as an Astronaut: The Exciting Story of One of the First People to Walk on the Moon, with Beverly Fraknoi (Pocket Books, 1988).

Eugene Cernan (Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo 17), The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America's Race in Space, with Don Davis (St Martin's, 1999)
Commander of the last lunar mission, Cernan boarded the LM after his co-pilot did, thus the book's title. A fairly career-oriented memoir, thrilled at his good fortune and ready to tackle with sheer gumption any task he's assigned, and ready to admit his flaws and mistakes, without explaining how someone considered fairly run-of-the-mill in ability as astronauts go got so many prime slots. (The answer is basically that he had his first commmander, Tom Stafford, pulling for him.) Cernan is most interesting describing the absolute torture of impossible tasks that his badly-planned EVA on Gemini 9 turned out to be. (Not his fault, though some wondered if some other astronaut might have handled it better: probably not.) After that flight made him known, Cernan started hanging out in celebrity circles, and he wants to tell you about that, too, especially to assure you that Spiro Agnew was a really nice guy and a close personal friend. Cricks. But the book does read well.

Michael Collins (Gemini 10, Apollo 11), Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1974)
The first full memoir by an astronaut, and still considered one of the best. Outstandingly clearly and entertainingly written, without a ghoster. Collins' becoming modesty belies his reputation as one of the most skilled and effective astronauts. Gives a lot of attention to the goals of what astronauts did at work between flights, devoting a total of 20 pages to explaining what each man in his group was assigned for his specialty in the program (Collins himself handled pressure suits and EVA), which is more for each man than some of his fellows devote to discussing their own specialties. Collins' energy on such matters is such that his somewhat cluttered actual spaceflights are the least interesting part of his book. Conspicuously for an astronaut full-life memoir, this thoughtful but unreflective book basically omits his childhood, schooling, and personal life, and it also fades out pretty quickly after his NASA retirement (mostly because it was written pretty quickly after that), but it devotes a lot to his Air Force career. Predating as it does Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, this book shows unselfconsciously how someone with the right stuff thinks. On his Korean War-era fighter jet training at Nellis AFB, Collins writes, "In the eleven weeks I was there, twenty-two people were killed. In retrospect it seems preposterous to endure such casualty rates without help from the enemy, but at the time the risk appeared perfectly acceptable." They'd fly all day and party in Vegas all night, after which "we were expected back at the flight line, ready to hurl our little pink bodies into the blue once more. ... I have never felt quite so threatened since."
Collins has also written an older children's version of his memoir, Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1976), revised as Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut's Story (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994 and 2019).

Walter Cunningham (Apollo 7), The All-American Boys, revised edition (ibooks, 2003; originally published 1977)
Cunningham admits that his prickly personality didn't help his career. Nor did the fact that, though a Marine reserve pilot, he was also a scientist, having almost completed a Ph.D. in geophysics when selection by NASA interrupted his work; scientists were not thought highly of in the astronaut office. He got just the one flight, checking out the Apollo command module. However, Cunningham ignores his scientific work. This semi-memoir, semi-topic themed work is almost all about personalities: competition between astronauts in every area of life, cooperation once assigned to flight teams. Devotes full chapters to otherwise-underdiscussed aspects of the astronaut lifestyle: what it's like being treated as a hero, extracurricular sex lives, and, most interestingly (though you wouldn't think it), investment opportunities and why astronauts constantly fell for scams. This is the only book to actually tell the risqué joke that is universally acknowledged as the source for the astronauts' term "a week in the barrel" for the dreaded NASA pubicity tours.* Cunningham casually notes that he was one of only two astronauts who supported Goldwater in '64. Ends with criticism of the space shuttle program from an exterior viewpoint, since he wasn't involved in it. He did do much of the setup for Skylab, but he says less about that. (The first edition listed a co-author, "with assistance by Mickey Herskowitz," who disappears from the revised edition.)

Donn Eisele (Apollo 7), Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele, edited by Francis French (U of Nebraska Press, 2017)
Uncovered in a box of Eisele's personal papers decades after his death in 1987, this memoir is fairly short, and well over half of it describes the Apollo 7 flight, after which it abruptly terminates, somewhat before Eisele's NASA career (and his marriage) did. Fortunately, Eisele takes a very practical view of his work, and gives a clear impression of what it actually felt like to do it. For instance, there's a lively description of pushing himself off across the weightless spaceship cabin, looking for the best window to take photos of the Earth from as the ship randomly drifts in orbit. He's occasionally critical of his cranky and sloppy commander, Wally Schirra, but Eisele does not grumble about his flight, and reserves true bitterness only for the Apollo 1 fire, which most of these other astronauts take more in stride. Eisele firmly blames NASA administration for setting impossible schedules and the contractors for trying to meet them without protest. Fortunately, the redesigned Apollo 7 was a far superior spacecraft. There's a postscript from Eisele's second wife which has the book's only discussion of the breakup of his first marriage.

David Scott (Gemini 8, Apollo 9, Apollo 15) and Alexei Leonov (Voskhod 2, Soyuz 19 [ASTP]), Two Sides of the Moon, with Christine Toomey (Thomas Dunne Books, 2004)
A joint memoir of the astronaut and the cosmonaut, who became friendly while working on the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission (Leonov flew it, Scott was a NASA planning manager), written in alternating sections covering their roughly contemporaneous careers. Both are highly personalized stories, concentrating on how they felt emotionally about what they were doing. For Leonov, this becomes an extremely illuminating view of the triumphs and frustrations of the Soviet space program. Scott gives the only first-hand accounts of his exceedingly interesting first two missions, since none of his crewmates on them wrote memoirs. He's also very detailed on the geological explorations of Apollo 15, much more involved in it than his crewmate Jim Irwin; and he is apologetic but rather shifty over the stamps incident. He's pretty much silent on the difficulties of his post-NASA business career. Scott's emotional frankness even covers such unlikely topics as flying nuclear delivery planes for the Air Force: "It made you feel very aggressive. If the other guy was going to do it, you were going to have to do it. You never thought about it in terms of people. If you were called upon to fight a war, as a soldier you would fight that war. Instead of a club, or a shield and a sword, you had a nuke."

(No memoirs from: William Anders (Apollo 8), Dick Gordon (Gemini 11, Apollo 12), Rusty Schweickart (Apollo 9), or Charles Bassett, Roger Chaffee, Ted Freeman, C.C. Williams (all died before flight))

*The joke? Something about a crusty mining prospector back in old-timey frontier days, who comes into town after a long tour in the wilderness, hungry for some sexual companionship. Told he'll find a willing partner in the back room of the saloon, he goes there and finds a barrel with a hole in it.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

memoirs of the Next Nine astronauts

Frank Borman (Gemini 7, Apollo 8), Countdown: An Autobiography, with Robert J. Serling (Silver Arrow, 1988)
A long book (over 400 pages) with a lot of detail, in three parts: early life and Air Force career; astronaut years; and his time running Eastern Airlines, in which part it switches gears and becomes a business memoir, an entirely different kind of book. As a businessman, Borman alternates between chummy high-level negotations and low-level policy innovations to (he says) save time and money; as a pilot and astronaut, he's engineering-oriented without being as technical in language as other engineers among the corps. He tells of getting angry at bad management decisions and shoddy work at NASA, especially from after his time, when he feels the agency went downhill; but he's adamantly defensive of the astronauts of his day, of whom he considers only one to be deficient (he doesn't say who it is). Fairly clear writing, avoiding the technical clogging of Schirra or Young, but earnest, telling some funny stories without the sprightliness of Collins (whose book he openly admires). It's during Borman's Eastern years that his wife has her nervous breakdown after years of stress in her supporting role; he devotes a chapter to that which blames NASA doctors for not providing mental health services more than himself for being so absorbed by his dangerous work.

Jim Lovell (Gemini 7, Gemini 12, Apollo 8, Apollo 13), Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, with Jeffrey Kluger (Houghton Mifflin, 1994)
I'm not sure whether to count this as a memoir. It's written in the third person, and consists mostly of an account in almost novelistic detail of the flight of Apollo 13. Like the movie based on it, the book is only in part from Lovell's viewpoint, devoting almost as much attention to Mission Control and the backroom crisis team, so it's really less a memoir than a mission history that's co-authored by one of the astronauts. However, Lovell's role is emphasized by the presence of a number of flashbacks (and one final flash-forward) to other stages of his career - although not including either of his Gemini flights, it does tell in full the story of his getting lost while flying off an aircraft carrier that's recounted in an interview inset in the movie. The first flash, though, is to the Apollo 1 fire, giving the most detailed account I've seen of how this was experienced by the people immediately outside the spacecraft, although Lovell wasn't there.

Tom Stafford (Gemini 6, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, ASTP), We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race, with Michael Cassutt (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002)
A low-key memoir, recounting one of the busiest of moon-era astronaut careers. Stafford, who served as chief astronaut for a spell between his third and fourth flights, is plain-spoken without any emphasis on dramatics, and is particularly lucid on his spaceflights. These are among the highlights of the book, as is the vast amount of cultural exchange and acclimation attending on the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission for which Stafford was US commander. Consequently he also intersperses the whole book with nuggets on the progress of the Soviet space program and the career of Alexei Leonov, the Soviet commander (though not as extensively as in Scott's book). Noting which astronauts Stafford knew personally before they became colleagues (as a test-pilot instructor, he'd taught a few), and explaining why he did not want Apollo 10 to attempt a Moon landing (others' memoirs claim he did want it), are also particularly interesting. Though Stafford is as plain-spoken on astronaut office politics as everything else, after his retirement, as he becomes a NASA consultant, the book becomes openly political and a little impatient with anybody who's insufficiently enthusiastic for space or not up to Stafford's exacting standards for administration.

John W. Young (Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, Apollo 16, STS-1, STS-9), Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space, with James R. Hansen (UP of Florida, 2012)
Here's a real engineering account of the space program. Young is down there among the messy and niggling details, frequently saying "of course" about some mysterious abbreviation- and technical term-filled statement that the lay reader can't possibly understand. There's so much engineering here that the flights hardly stand out from the rest of Young's life story. Despite that, it's a readable memoir, both the readability and the obsession with details being characteristic of Hansen, the co-author, in his biography of Neil Armstrong, First Man (Simon & Schuster, 2005). And yes, Young reluctantly discusses the corned beef sandwich on Gemini 3, which he considers NASA made a big fuss of over nothing. With a few notable exceptions - there's a frank evaluation of the Apollo 11 crew, with whom he worked closely - there's little about personalities or astronaut politics here, until Young gets to the shuttle era. Young was the only astronaut of his seniority to stay with NASA for so long, by which time he'd ascended to the job of assigning crews to missions, and he piloted the first shuttle test flight himself. In Young's view, the shuttle was always an experimental and not an operational vehicle, and that section of the book is a blunt account of him making a nuisance of himself by firing safety memos off in all directions. In that context, Young shocks the reader by revealing that the astronaut corps was never told of the recurrent booster seal leak problem until it erupted into the Challenger disaster. Maybe if he'd known about it, Young says, he could have raised an effective fuss. He tried afterwards, as a result of which he was kicked upstairs into a less sensitive job.

(No memoirs from: Neil Armstrong (Gemini 8, Apollo 11), Pete Conrad (Gemini 5, Gemini 11, Apollo 12, Skylab), James McDivitt (Gemini 4, Apollo 9), Ed White (Gemini 4), or Elliott See (died before flight))

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

news items

1. Another stupid GPS story.

So this guy is attempting to drive home across the Sierra Nevada, from Grass Valley to Truckee. But he can't take the freeway, I-80, because it's closed due to snow. So he chooses to go the long way around, on state highways 49 and 89 through Downieville and Sierraville. Narrow, twisty roads, but well-marked state highways.

But just before he gets to Downieville, his GPS, on which he's relying because he doesn't know this route (and apparently doesn't trust himself to read signs or to have checked where the route goes before he takes it) tells him to turn off onto a side road. So he does.

Why did it do this? Maybe it thinks the back route is shorter? More likely, the 49/89 route is also closed due to snow - Truckee Summit east of Sierraville is only 500 feet less high than the Donner Pass on I-80 - and it sends him off onto the side road because that doesn't have an official CalTrans snow closure marked on it.

But the back road wouldn't be on CalTrans's list at all, and of course it's not plowed at all, and the man gets stuck in the snow, miles from anywhere or anybody. Fortunately he's driving a camper and can survive; after a week he's able to get a cell phone signal and calls for help. (I don't know how he managed that: my battery wouldn't last nearly that long.)

Another case of over-reflexive reliance on GPS. Most people I know who live up in those parts know better than to try to cross the mountains at all on snow days.

2. Something I've always wanted to read about: Mr. Rogers as a musician. I knew he was professionally trained as a musician, I knew he wrote all the music for his show, but I didn't know how he functioned as a musician or his feelings about the craft. Now I do. (Thanks to Alex Ross.)

3. I no longer have the link to the clearest version of this point, although Dahlia Lithwick is always good, but it's notable how AOC's personal story of the terror she was put through on 1/6 is being belittled and shrugged off by Republicans. As AOC herself points out, this is exactly the language that sexual abusers use to try to deny the reality of abuse. That they would do this in the face of such a clearly-documented terrorist attack is horrifying. They are scum, they are slime.

memoirs of the Mercury Seven astronauts

Scott Carpenter (Mercury MA-7), For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut, with Kris Stoever (Harcourt, 2002)
Carpenter's name is on the title page, and the co-author is his daughter, but this book doesn't read like a memoir. The only part written in the first person is a clotted account of his spaceflight. Otherwise, Carpenter's own perspective is downplayed; there's relatively little declarative material on what he thought and felt, and much of the book presents other views. Thus, the lengthy and awkwardly written section on his childhood is chiefly about his parents, who were separated (which complicated things); the son is present mostly in the form of transcribed letters. Only when he joins the Navy and begins to fly planes does the narrative snap into place, but even then there's as much separable material about what his wife was doing (including the details of her visit with Jackie Kennedy after Scott's spaceflight, gosh wow), and on NASA (setting up the design process for Mercury, and organizing the selection of astronauts) as there is on Carpenter. The section on his flight is obsessed with rebutting Chris Kraft, the flight director, whom the authors unsurprisingly consider unfair in his denigration of Carpenter. (A footnote on p. 348 tells us that Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is more accurate on Mercury than any of the astronaut or flight director memoirs.) This book attributes the problems with Carpenter's flight to resentment over his being chosen to replace the grounded Deke Slayton, Kraft's lack of sympathy with the science-oriented mission plan, and an undetected mechanical malfunction in the spacecraft which wasted fuel. The book also says that Carpenter's subsequent turn to sea diving (usually seen as an imposed exile) was entirely voluntary, driven at first by a desire to use it as training simulation for weightlessness. At that point, however, the narrative abruptly trails off.

Gordon Cooper (Mercury MA-9, Gemini 5), Leap of Faith: An Astronaut's Journey into the Unknown, with Bruce Henderson (HarperCollins, 2000)
Brisk, matter-of-fact memoir of Cooper's career, focusing on clear and succinct narratives of his two spaceflights, with his pre-NASA life tucked into a flashback chapter mostly about his childhood. Like many astronauts, Cooper considers himself a born pilot. Cooper has no interest in dishing dirt at NASA, but gives unornamented accounts of his own foibles (buzzing a NASA administrator in his jet, which came close to getting him kicked off Mercury) and frustrations, especially being kept off an Apollo flight, although he tells some unverified stories in the process. He's convinced there was a deliberate conspiracy as to who would get which mission (which the supposed culprits would say was unpredictable, due to not knowing at the time of assignments how much the previous flights would achieve), which serves as a thematic introduction to the part of the book on his post-NASA career. This conspicuously omits a lot of business failures, but what's left in is even weirder: Cooper advocates the notions that UFOs are alien spacecraft and that the government is hiding this, and he goes into business with a woman who claims to be receiving mental communications from a higher alien civilization. None of their new technologies based on these messages seem to give fruit, but Cooper remains, as his title suggests, faithful.

John Glenn (Mercury MA-6, STS-95), John Glenn: A Memoir, with Nick Taylor (Bantam, 1999)
A very full autobiography up through Glenn's Mercury flight, it then skims an overview through his business and Senate years with no focus on space (he shrugs off disasters and hardly mentions the Moon landing), until it's time for his geriatric shuttle flight, which resumes a description with the same detailed gusto as his Mercury days and his nearly 20 years as a Marine pilot - in which he had told of every base he was assigned to (and every house move his long-suffering wife had to pack for), every type of plane he flew, and everything he did in it. Gets liveliest for his time as a test pilot in armaments: he'd take a combat plane out over the Atlantic and fire its guns continuously to see if the vibrations made the plane fall apart, which sometimes it did. Otherwise most illuminating for its picture of Glenn's "gosh-wow" patriotism. Glenn's verdict on The Right Stuff is that the "book was good, but what Hollywood did to it could have been titled Laurel and Hardy Go to Space," but it's not that much of a parody: Glenn really is like that. He traces it to his small-town upbringing and admits that, when asked about his beliefs, "vintage New Concord, Ohio, came pouring out." It's most glaring when he finds glowing patriotic virtue in killing the enemy in war, and he proudly includes a letter to his 5-year-old daughter explaining why he was off fighting in Korea: basically to keep the Commies out from under her bed (p. 129-30).

Virgil "Gus" Grissom (Mercury MR-4, Gemini 3), Gemini: A Personal Account of Man's Venture into Space (Macmillan, 1968)
This book was completed just before Grissom's death in the tragic Apollo 1 pad fire in 1967, a month prior to what would have been his third spaceflight. Intended for older children, it's a succinct account of Project Gemini, half on general features (equipment, training, etc.) and half recounting the achievements of the individual missions. Giving Grissom's not-entirely whitewashed personal perspective on the importance and significance of the work, and a few joshing anecdotes, it functions as his work-oriented memoir of that period, especially as the general chapter on crews is devoted mostly to his own personal background as a sample astronaut. An editor who contributes an epilogue states that he "work[ed] closely with" Grissom on the book and implies that he polished the text, but does not claim to be a ghostwriter, though one wonders, as Grissom is elsewhere depicted as notoriously inarticulate.
Further perspective with more detail comes from his widow's memoir: Betty Grissom, Starfall, with Henry Still (Crowell, 1974). Written mostly in the third person, it's largely occupied with Gus's career, in more detail than his own book gives, with occasional first-person interjections from Betty showing her uncomplainingly watching the home front and raising their children while Gus is always off at work. She's sustained only by the occasional phone call. Gus was grateful that Betty was more accepting of this stressful existence than other astronaut wives, and she depicts herself as meekly acquiescent to his wishes about major life decisions. (In his book, he describes these as joint decisions.) After his death, however, she is bitter at being brushed aside by NASA and the space community, so she files a suit (eventually settled out of court), not against NASA, but against the contractor who built the faulty spacecraft, basically on grounds of Gus's pain and suffering. This right-angled turn in topic occupies the last few chapters. This book was a major acknowledged source for Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, and obviously so.
I know of one other book by an astronaut's widow: Nancy Conrad, Rocketman, with Howard A. Klausner (New American Library, 2005), a third-person biography of Pete Conrad (Gemini 5, Gemini 11, Apollo 12, Skylab) co-authored by his second wife, who entered his life long after his NASA days. (He wrote no memoir of his own.) It's emotively written, with lots of short paragraphs, somewhat confusingly framing his earlier life with tidbits selected from his last years.

Walter M. Schirra, Jr. (Mercury MA-8, Gemini 6, Apollo 7), Schirra's Space, with Richard N. Billings (Quinlan Press, 1988)
Very much a military man's memoir, especially in what feels like a larger section than it is, devoted to detailed description of Schirra's naval flying career, with particular emphasis (as with John Glenn) on his combat flying in Korea. When Schirra becomes an astronaut, the techy talk eases up a bit, but he still presents himself as a no-nonsense guy. Schirra was famous at NASA for his "gotcha" practical jokes, and he tells of many of these (including ones pulled on him), but he does so without a humorous tone, and he makes clear these were only for downtime, and that the job was a time to work. Other accounts suggests that Schirra was not nearly so work-focused, but they do agree with his unapologetic self-description as hard-nosed about getting Apollo 7 in shape after the pad fire. This is exactly the portrait of Schirra in the Apollo 7 episode of From the Earth to the Moon, which also borrows some verbal tics from this book: Schirra's habit of under-describing potential disasters as "ruining your whole day" or similar words (a locution also used by others, but not so frequently), and his repeated insistence that if someone does die, you mourn but you don't wear the black armband forever. Despite his tough attitude, Schirra has no criticisms to make of any of his crewmates. A post-NASA chapter shows him feeling flattered by wandering around in the business world over his head.

Alan Shepard (Mercury MR-3, Apollo 14) and Deke Slayton (ASTP), Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings, with Jay Barbree, revised edition (Open Road Integrated Media, 2011; originally published 1994)
Not a memoir at all: despite the authorship credit line, this is a journalistic account, almost novelistic in its reconstructed (and probably sometimes invented) dialogue, of the US space program (with some coverage of the Soviet) from the Redstone rocket through the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission, acknowledged in the ancillary matter as the work of Barbree (with Howard Benedict, also listed as co-author in the first edition, but deceased before the second one appeared). Shepard and Slayton's supposed authorship only manifests itself in a few more quotes from them than others, and in a concentration on their personal vicissitudes, which sometimes overtakes other matters: thus Apollos 15 through 17 are virtually ignored in favor of the medical details of Slayton's return to flight status at the same time, but Apollo 14 gets three full chapters, because it was Shepard's flight. But this intense concentration on the details of some things while brushing aside others is characteristic of the entire book, whether Shepard or Slayton are involved or not. These abbreviations, plus an overwrought weepy writing style and a pair of rose-colored glasses over the whole program, render this book far less useful than other general histories of the topic. Nor is it as personally insightful or as full in coverage as Slayton's own memoir, or the biography of Shepard, Light This Candle by Neal Thompson (Crown, 2004). Concludes with a denunciation of US administrations which don't continue to fund NASA at moon-program levels.

Donald K. "Deke" Slayton (ASTP), Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle, with Michael Cassutt (Forge, 1994)
Slayton was the one of the original Mercury astronauts who was grounded for a minor medical issue and never flew in space until cleared for the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission well over a decade later. In the meantime he served as chief of the astronaut office and selected the crews for all the flights. The memoir covers his full life, but most of it consists of succinct summaries of Gemini and Apollo missions (and Soviet manned missions) interspersed with the reasons behind his decisions for crew selection, something considered a deep secret at the time. Personalities do play a part, though there's not much revelatory in it. Slayton's tone is gruff, clipped about problems both in and out of flight, and it feels terse, although this is actually a very talkative book. He's extremely accepting of the risks of flight. He tells some interesting things not dealt with in other books, like how he got the nickname Deke (to distinguish him from another Don in the same fighter squadron, his fellows started calling him by his initials D.K., which evolved into Deke) and why Gordon Cooper never got an Apollo flight (Slayton claims not to be bothered by Cooper's carefree attitude, but it irritated management to whom Slayton was answerable). He places blame for the stamps incident squarely on Dave Scott. Like John Glenn, he liked the Right Stuff book, hated the movie. Occasionally the book offers a brief insert from "other voices," usually the perspective of a colleague or sometimes Slayton's son. (His first wife, with whom he shared his NASA years, and whom consequently it would have been especially good to hear from, had died before this book was written.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

astronaut memoirs: an introduction

After finishing the Times Books series on the American Presidents several months ago, my next systematic reading project has been memoirs by the moonshot-era US astronauts. A surprisingly large number of them have written these, and I'd already read several of them with enjoyment, so I decided to finish the set. I didn't read them in any particular order, so I've waited to finish them before presenting an ordered report.

Despite the fact that the astronauts all had pretty much the same career, they're still interesting to read in multiple. That same career consisted of life as a military air pilot (it's subsequent astronauts who've had more varied backgrounds), usually backed by some schooling in engineering, then they get themselves signed up to work for NASA, where instead of flying jets every day, they spend years preparing for the one or two spaceflights that are all most of them are going to get. Finally either sated or frustrated with being an astronaut, they go off to find something else to do to occupy the rest of their careers, and this can vary considerably from one to another.

I've limited this to personal memoirs (and books so packaged), omitting most children's books and semi-official "press release" package books like We Seven and First on the Moon. The series will begin in my next post.

Monday, February 1, 2021

English suites and others no. 35

A third Italian composer of the Respighi-Malipiero generation who retold older music was Alfredo Casella. While his best-known work of this kind may be his Scarlattiana, I'm going to introduce you to one going a bit further forward in time, to the early 19th century: Paganiniana.