Friday, April 30, 2021

unfolded in review

Blogger Scott Alexander is running one of his book review contests, in which readers submit lengthy analytical and critical reviews of a book of each writer's choice, usually non-fiction, and then his general readership votes for the best one. (Among the non-finalists this year is a very interesting view of The Silmarillion. It's in the docs file on this page, alphabetized under T for "The".)

So one of the finalists this year covers Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper by Nicholson Baker, which interests me, as the book is a critique of librarianship, which was my profession for most of my working life. It struck me as the most sophomoric book I'd ever read. "Sophomore" means "wise fool," and Baker combines some highly appropriate complaints about the difficulties and limitations of using microfilm with some incredibly ignorant attacks on libraries for supposedly discarding perfectly serviceable print material, mostly newspapers, after microfilming them.

According to Baker, this was still going on wholesale into the 1990s, but I knew there had to be something wrong here. I was taught in library school, in 1980, which was over 20 years before Baker's book was published, that discarding serviceable print material this way was a bad idea that had been abandoned in the 1950s. It was not good library practice. I suspect Baker's claims were, at the least, selective and misleading. I didn't work in library preservation, but that's also the impression I got from such comments about the book that I heard from specialists in that area.

I was one of several librarians who weighed in on the comments section there, which seems now to have settled down after a day or so of heavy-duty response.

Baker's ignorant approach was also obvious to me from his complaints (not in the book but in some associated articles) about card catalog conversion to electronic form. Now that was my specialty, so I could see the flaws straight out. Baker's argument was that a lot of valuable information, often specific to the individual copy, was preserved on catalog cards that didn't get transferred to electronic form. But he was mistaken. For one thing, when I did the job, at least, that information got transferred. For another, he seems unaware that, even after discarding the main card catalog, the library preserved a master card catalog in the back workroom called the shelf list, and those cards had not only the information Baker was concerned about, but more information, e.g. on acquisition dates, that never appeared in the public catalog at all.

This gives me a chance to say here, since it wouldn't have fit the comments section, how retrospective conversion, which is the technical term for what I did, worked. I would take a section of the shelf list, which has just one card for each book (where the public catalog has multiple cards for authors, titles, subjects), sit down at the computer, and log in to a union catalog database like RLIN or OCLC. These were the ancestors to the public WorldCat you may use today; the main difference was that they were designed for librarian use only, used specialized search functions, and displayed the results in the hypertext mark-up language called MARC that catalogers use and everyone else finds incomprehensible. They were loaded with records from their users and with the online database from the Library of Congress.

I would search for each book in turn, and if I found a matching record, I would edit it for errors and omissions (sometimes necessary with the more sketchy records from obscurer libraries), add our local data - copy-specific information like provenance, call number and shelving location - and enter the record. We were now listed as holding that book.

If the book wasn't in the system - and especially in the earlier years it often wasn't - I would copy the info from the card, adding the hypertext tags, and create a new record. Or, if some other edition of the work was already there, I'd copy that data over into a blank record and save work that way. This was called variant-edition cataloging.

This work required a lot of care, not just the ability to conduct accurate searches. OCLC's search system was extremely bizarre: to search for The Lord of the Rings you'd type lor,of,th,r and then the search would bomb out because there were too many editions, so you'd have to get at it some other way. And this was bad because OCLC charged by the search, so you'd best know beforehand what would work and what wouldn't.

Also vital: Knowing all the tricks of cataloging to distinguish between different editions was vital, especially with foreign books with different publishing practices; a working knowledge of various European languages, at least as far as their publishing practices were concerned (Asian languages were rare in the libraries where I worked, though I did once have to catalog a book in Farsi); complete comfort with all the complex and numerous MARC tags; accurate typing and the ability to look at catalog cards all day without getting walleyed.

Every once in a while I'd find something odd on a card, a lack of sufficient information to identify whether a record I'd found online fit the book, or something on the card that didn't fit with the online records, like a publication date preceding what was clearly the first edition.* In which case I insisted, sometimes against some supervisory opposition, on going to the stacks and checking the actual book. Usually I found an error or omission in the card and was able to recatalog the book, sometimes from scratch - another skill set.

*This was particularly common at one library, where a long-ago cataloger who didn't read French would misread the enactment date of the French copyright law as the book's publication date.

Going to the stacks was particularly exciting when I worked at the Hoover Institution, where the stacks (closed to public use) were in the shaft of the Tower up a rickety elevator, and as the shaft had no windows, each floor was pitch-black until you felt around for the light switch. And what was then revealed was a small cramped space full of dust and piles of books on the floor because they'd long since run out of room.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

not parosmia

Athena Scalzi reports that she has the common post-Covid symptom of parosmia, wherein foods that you formerly liked - in her case, mint, coffee, peanut butter, and meat - all taste and smell really bad, rancid and disgusting.

What interested me is that at first she thought the particular batch of food had just gone bad. Because that's what happened to me, long ago, with milk.

I was 9 years old and used to drinking an individual-serving container of milk with my school lunch. One day the milk tasted off. Not horribly rancid as in parosmia, just spoiled. I figured it had gone bad. Next day, the same thing. Third day, I made sure it was fresh milk, and I had someone else take a sip of it from a cup. They said it was fine, but I found it still spoiled.

So I figured something had gone wrong with me and milk, and I've never drunk any plain milk since. I do eat cheese, and I sometimes use milk in cooking, but I don't drink milk.

I haven't tried any in the interim either. In this way it differs from beer. Every decade or so I try a glass of beer to see if it still tastes like beer. It always does, so I put it down and leave it alone for another decade.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

no news yet

As this is not India, life is slowly beginning to emerge from under the carapace. The CDC has relaxed the mask-wearing guidelines for open outdoors activity. The government has announced that vaccines are now available for all adults, and B. and I, having long since signed up at the state's "My Turn" websites, have received e-mails and texts telling us that it's our turn.

A little late, actually, as we've already both had ours through our health provider, which had bumped us up a step or two. B. was already out of the two-week post-second-shot latency period for Easter, and my turn came this week. So I've resumed in-person shopping, though we'll continue using the supermarket pick-up service for staples and packaged foods, since that's so convenient and means less trudging through the stores in our aging bodies: but I will resume choosing my own produce.

I'm also resuming getting take-out meals from indoor restaurants, and am trying slowly to check out the local Chinese places I hadn't been to before; more when I've made more progress on that.

And we've both resumed going to the gym, which we rather intensely had wanted. B. has joined a new gym with better equipment and a lower membership cost than our old one, and I'm trying it out on a guest pass. Then I'll go back to the old one for comparison purposes, and decide after that, so more on that later too.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Hobbit first

Sherwood Smith asked her readers, did you read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings first, and how did the experience go? She got a lot of interesting answers. Here's mine:

I read The Hobbit first. I was eleven and in the fifth grade when my teacher chose it as one of the books she read to us, chapter by chapter, in the final minutes of the school day. I was quite taken with it, but the real breakthrough came a few months later when I was offered the chance to borrow a copy. I grabbed the opportunity to read it for myself instead of just hearing it aloud, and to catch up on the Mirkwood chapter which I'd missed through being sick that day.

Like so many of the readers who'd written to Tolkien during the interval between H and LOTR, I was most enchanted by the historical and geographical vistas revealed in the story, with hints of so much more left untold. My teacher had told us there were sequels - she used the plural. Immediately after finishing the book I did something I'd never done before, which was to raid my own money and ride my bike down to a small local bookstore and buy copies of all four volumes.

From that point I was lost to the world. I read the whole thing again each year on the anniversary of my first reading. It took six years - achingly long years if you're an adolescent - before I found anyone else who'd read the books and wanted to discuss them. And that was a discussion group of the Mythopoeic Society. And there I've been ever since.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

uh oh, Oscar statistics

So I was reading this article by Dan Kois noting that Nomadland, which just swept the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (second woman ever to have won that award), and Best Actress, "is one of only six movies focused on the lives and stories of women ever to win" Best Picture. "By my count," the author says.

That's potentially subjective, and requires familiarity with all the individual movies to judge, but something else Kois says is more easily measurable. "When men get nominated for Best Actor, their movies are Best Picture contenders, I wrote. When women get nominated for Best Actress, too often their movies are not."

I have a database. I can count that up real fast. So I did. Going first from 2010, when is when the number of Best Picture nominees was increased to 8-10, I find the number of Best Leading Actor/Actress finalists that are also nominated for Best Picture comes out like this:

Number    Actor      Actress
  1                    3
  2         2          4
  3         3          4
  4         6          1
  5         1

That's an average of 2.25 for women, 3.5 for men.

Going back to 1945-2009, the period in which there were 5 Best Picture nominees (throughout this period and since, there's always been 5 nominees for the acting awards), I find:

Number    Actor      Actress
  0         1          8
  1         9         27
  2        21         20
  3        24          8
  4         8          1
  5         2          1

That's an average of about 1.5 for women, about 2.5 for men. It's not as overwhelming a tendency as Kois's wording implies, but it's a decidedly strong - and lasting - bias.

The one year that all 5 Best Leading Actress nominees were also in movies nominated for Best Picture, by the way, was 1978, when Diane Keaton won for Annie Hall, which also won for Best Picture, and her competitors were Jane Fonda in Julia, Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl, and both Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point. (The Best Picture nominee that didn't have a Best Actress nominee in it was Star Wars.) Of those four movies, two have relationships between women at or near the center of the story; two emphatically don't. Take that for what it's worth. (The year that no Best Actor nominees were nominated for Best Picture was 2007, but I don't know anything about most of those movies in either category, so will refrain from analyzing.)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

English suites and others no. 43

Antonín Dvořák was not the guy who invented the keyboard layout; he was a composer. He was a Czech in the days when that meant you were a citizen of the Austrian Empire, but he identified intensely with his ethnicity. He was one of the leading figures among late-19C composers of various nationalities who found inspiration in their own people's folk songs and dances and in the rhythms of their native language.

Accordingly, Dvořák's music could be very Czech, and what more so than his melodic and dance-filled Czech Suite?

The movements are: Prelude (Pastorale) (0.55), Polka (4.44), Minuet (9.43), Romance (14.34), Finale (Furiant) (19.03).

As for what else Dvořák did, that's even more interesting and we'll get to it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

abbreviated movie reports

Both abbreviated, the movies and the reports.

=Quiet 19C Rural Movies=

News of the World
Ex-CSA officer, played by a grizzled Tom Hanks, is moseying around 1870s Texas (played by New Mexico, so it's more desert-like than the real thing) in a dilapidated wagon, accompanied by a ten-year-old girl he picked up from an abandoned somewhere. She doesn't speak English, so their conversations are lively to be sure. The pace picks up when they get in a gunfight, in which, true to real-life gunfights of the day, hardly anything ever gets hit.
Eventually, since nobody else wants the girl, Hanks adopts her. I know the ending because this is the only one of the four I finished watching.

First Cow
Setting not specified, but it seems to be the Oregon Country before the 1846 partition. I'm not sure if a reference to San Francisco is anachronistic. That was the name of the bay, the mission, and the presidio, but not at the time of the town.
Anyway, if you want to watch a man cooking breakfast, this is the movie for you.

=Action-packed Hugo Nominees=

I only watched these movies because they're Hugo finalists.

Birds of Prey
Fast-forwarded through the very long fight scenes. It was still overlong, tedious, and stupid. Doesn't Margot Robbie have anything better to do? Rating: F.

Didn't Christopher Nolan make a couple really clever movies with freaky perceptual gimmicks? Not this one: not clever, I mean. It's a gratuitously over-built action thriller without the wit or energy of his previous movies or even the more simply-told Mission Impossible movies or the Daniel Craig James Bond movies, and it wore me out even faster than Birds of Prey did. I gave up at the backwards car chase, to find on checking that the movie was only half over. Rating: F-.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Walter F. Mondale

Walter F. Mondale - known informally as "Fritz", probably because the F. stood for Frederick - died yesterday at a venerable age but still younger than Jimmy Carter.

Mondale was a consequential figure in American history. He changed the Vice Presidency. For ages the VP was a joke. Alexander Throttlebottom in the Gershwin musical, who could hardly even get in the White House on a tour. The underlying reason for this was that the VP was usually chosen as a ticket-balancer, someone to represent different wings of the party than the presidential nominee. Consequently he was of no use to the president and rarely trusted by him.

After WW2 and the growth of hair-trigger war alerts, it was generally acknowledged that it hadn't been such a good idea to dump Harry Truman into the middle of running a war without having had any idea what was going on, and the idea of the VP as the Emergency Backup President began to take hold, but while it got VPs better-prepared to take over if necessary, it didn't get them respected in the West Wing.

Mondale changed that. In a memo to Carter before taking office, Mondale wrote that the VP should be the President's most valued free-floating advisor, because, unlike anybody else, he can't be summarily fired, so he can be trusted to give his honest opinion. By the same token, though, he should be close to and sympathetic with the President's goals.

And Carter, who was nothing if not an administrator, took this advice. It worked so well that successors did the same thing, and most VPs since then have taken that role. That Kamala Harris would serve that role for Joe Biden, as Biden did for Obama, and that Biden chose her for that purpose, has been taken for granted. That's the world that Mondale made.

One other thing Mondale did. In the debates in his 1984 campaign for President, he said that both he and Reagan would raise taxes. "He won't tell you. I just did." This bold statement has often been credited with losing Mondale the election. So if you wonder, why don't politicians tell the truth?, the answer is here, in what happened after one did.

Monday, April 19, 2021


You have to be "notable" to have an article about you on Wikipedia. I had to go back and look at it again to make sure I wasn't hallucinating it. A couple months ago, somebody created articles for several more Tolkien scholars than already existed and added them to the Tolkien topic template, and I, perforce, was among them. Also added at the same time were Marjorie Burns, Jason Fisher, Stuart D. Lee, Jared Lobdell, Gergely Nagy, Sandra Ballif Straubhaar, Richard C. West, and Ralph C. Wood. Heard of these people? I sure have. And I can think of more of equal prominence, on top of many more obvious names that were already there.

Most of these people have published books that they've written or edited. So have I, but mine isn't listed in my entry, maybe missed because it's not about Tolkien. (It's an edition of previously unpublished work by Charles Williams.) My entry is not in any way seriously inaccurate, though it's a little off both in phrasing and in omissions, of which that's the most obvious. But I'm not touching it.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

how to hold a live music event in the pandemic era

A few days ago I got a hasty e-mail from the press agent for the Music@Menlo chamber music festival, inviting me the next day to the Zoom announcement of this summer's festival. A few of us press folk joined a clutch of Menlo donors and directors. The information was most illuminating, and I was able to employ some actual quotes from the talks in the writeup I produced for the Daily Journal.

When they canceled last year's planned festival, the original idea was that they'd transfer and reproduce it intact the next year, but since how open we're going to be this summer is still under question, they've gone for a cut-down and flexible program that can work with or without indoor concerts, or in-person ones at all.

Instead of making you click on my article, which doesn't always work anyway with the DJ's website, I'll just reproduce the whole thing here, because you can sign up for the livestreams no matter where you are.

The Music@Menlo chamber music festival has announced its 2021 summer season. Having had its 2020 season abruptly canceled by the COVID pandemic, the festival’s planners have realized the hazards of planning ahead while this is going on.

So they have “come up with a plan that is flexible and allows us to pivot, providing maximum safety” to musicians and audience alike, says Edward Sweeney, executive director of the festival.

The structure is quite different from previous seasons, while retaining many of the same elements. It will work like this.

The festival will take place between July 16 and Aug. 1, with main concerts occurring on the days of the three weekends: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On each of these nine days, a different concert will be presented at 4 p.m. in the festival’s new dedicated hall, the 384-seat Spieker Center for the Performing Arts on the Menlo School campus in Atherton. These concerts, like the online pandemic concerts that Menlo has been giving in the interim, will each be one hour long. Each concert will then be repeated outside, on the Menlo Middle School lawn, at 6 p.m. on the same day, with the possibility, if these prove popular enough, of a further outdoors repeat at 8 p.m.

The indoor 4 p.m. concerts will also be livestreamed to ticket purchasers who wish not to attend in person. Livestream tickets are available for purchase now. In-person tickets for both the indoor concerts and the outdoor repeats will be on sale in or about June, when the likelihood of this being feasible will be clearer. Holders of livestream tickets who wish to convert to in-person attendance will be able to do so.

This schedule gives the flexibility for change of plans that Sweeney spoke of. If California safety rules will not permit indoor concerts or in-person concerts at all, the music will still go on without the schedule needing to be torn up and replaced.

Because the concerts are each one hour long, without intermission, the programming will be simple. Each concert will consist of two works or one longer with one or two shorter ones. The first weekend, July 16-18, will feature favorite works such as Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet and Brahms’s String Sextet in B-flat, together with more modern works by composers like Leos Janácek and György Ligeti. A special treat will occur at the opening of the first concert, the inaugural event in the Spieker Center. Menlo’s Audience Engagement Director and frequent pre-concert speaker Patrick Castillo is also a composer. Menlo has commissioned him for a new work, titled “Gather,” to be played by the festival’s Artistic Directors, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. Castillo says the piece is to celebrate our gathering together “around our common love of music.”

The second weekend, July 23-25, will feature works in the romantic vein, from Beethoven’s early trio for piano and strings, Op. 1 No. 2, to Shostakovich’s quintet for piano and strings, Op. 57, with stops at Mendelssohn, Brahms and Dvorák along the way. The third weekend, July 30-Aug. 1, will feature the great 19th-century quintets for piano and strings by Schumann, Brahms and Dvorák, with other works by Beethoven, Bizet, Ysaÿe and Fauré.

The performers will be string players and pianists ranging from Menlo stalwarts like Hyeyeon Park, Arnaud Sussmann, Paul Neubauer and Dmitri Atapine to the young professionals of the festival’s International Program, who this year will be performing as colleagues with their seniors.

The young professionals will also be presenting two of the festival’s free Prelude concerts on Wednesdays. On July 21, the two other piano trios from Beethoven’s Op. 1. July 28, piano trios by Mendelssohn and Smetana.

The festival will also feature livestreamed and pre-recorded preconcert lectures and talks and demonstrations with musicians, mostly on Fridays and Saturdays.

Information and tickets are available at

Saturday, April 17, 2021

out in the world

It's only been 5 days since my second vaccination, so technically I ought to hold off for another week-plus, but today was the day when it happened: B's cousin and his wife were in town and wanted to see us, so together with B's sister and her husband we gathered, three couples, for an early meal at a brunch restaurant with outdoor seating. Not counting B's Socially Distanced String Quartet last summer, it was my first in-person social event in 13 months, and my first meal in a restaurant in just as long.

The seating, on a front patio, was about a dozen tables in a tent open at both ends and on the side facing the building. Only one or two other tables were occupied when we arrived at 10 a.m., opening time, but they were all pretty much full by 11. The temperature was coolish, enough that I wished I'd had my jacket but didn't really need it, and the air circulated but without a strong breeze. Not everybody at most tables was vigilant about putting their masks back on after they'd finished eating, which I was not so happy about.

The food was good, the conversation gratifying, and we were out after an hour and a half. No plans for anything more until July, when with luck I'll hear some live professional music-making. More about that tomorrow.

Friday, April 16, 2021

lost on Facebook

One thing I like about LJ and DW (and the Blogger reading tool, whenever I use it which I rarely do) is that they're straightforward about what they show you. Pick who you want to read, it'll consolidate all their recent public posts (and any private ones you're cleared to see) in reverse chronological order, and you just read down until you get to ones you've already seen; you've got it all.

Facebook doesn't work that way. It has algorithms that determine what you see and in what order. And apparently one of those algorithms is to downrate posts by anyone you read who doesn't post very often. Actually, those are the ones I'd be most anxious to see.

Especially in this case. Because a post from about three weeks ago that B. missed on her FB feed was from a friend of ours announcing the death of his partner, whom we also knew and liked. I only heard about it yesterday when a mutual friend happened to mention it in a Zoom session. Turns out that some of our other mutual friends had gotten it in their FB, but they hadn't mentioned it.

But now we know. So we're acknowledging the passing of Adam Victor Christensen, estimable artist - that's a couple of his covers below - enthusiast for folk music and storytelling especially with harp, partner to Elvish linguist Christopher Gilson, and eager and talented chef, ready to lay down for visitors to his and Chris's abode anything from delectable appetizers to full dishes. He enlivened the lives of those who knew him.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

reading the Hugo Short Story finalists

The Hugo Award finalists were announced a few days ago, and as usual these days many of them are available for free online. I decided to read the 6 Short Story nominees, because they're all there and they're all short.

I did this last year too. On that occasion, I was so disappointed I felt like abandoning the field. Two of the stories I thought not very good, two were positively offensive, and two I couldn't even follow. But this year couldn't have been more different.

This time I liked all six stories, and consider most of them obviously worth the nomination. Only one, “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, I wasn't entirely sure I understood what was going on, but on a moment-by-moment level it was pretty clear, and it was captivatingly written.

The theme was artificial intelligences trying to be human-like, which is pretty much an inherently charming story idea. “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher has the same theme, and it has the same charm, expressed through a pair of really sympathetic mechanical characters, even though it's a highly serious, dramatic story. Making the reader identify with the mechanical Sister in her strange desperation is a virtuoso achievement.

Of course it would be possible to take that same theme and make it nasty, but here for a counter-example of that process is “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, which - I don't think it spoils the story to reveal this, because there's no misdirection in this warm-hearted tale - is about a friendly haunted house which wants people to come live in it and be happy.

Also fundamentally warmhearted, with a bittersweet ending, is “The Mermaid Astronaut” by Yoon Ha Lee. I think this is the most awesomely-crafted of all the tales, because it's a rewrite of "The Little Mermaid" in which the mermaid's dream is not of the land but - like a red-blooded science-fiction reader - to seek the stars. And she achieves it. She joins an interstellar trading spaceship crew and has a wonderful life. And then, her dream fulfilled, she returns home, and that's when the story turns bittersweet ... you'll have to read it.

“Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson also has a bittersweet happy ending, though it's a highly different kind of story: tougher and grittier than T. Kingfisher's, its characters are all, as the title suggests, badass moms (even the ones not technically mothers). But in the crunch they support each other, and that's what keeps this gripping story from being just another zombie apocalypse horror.

But my favorite story has to remain the one I'd read before, “Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer. Where the others are science fiction, this and Wiswell's are fantasy. Like "The Mermaid Astronaut" and "Badass Moms" it has a bittersweet ending, but of a different kind: instead of happiness mixed with sadness, it's a tragedy mixed with hope - but a tragedy viewed from a distance, because the viewpoint character has only a partial and removed view of what else is going on. Which gives Kritzer the angle to make this unusual telling absolutely captivating.

Which one is the best? "Little Free"? "Mermaid Astronaut"? "Metal Like Blood"? I couldn't say, and since I don't have a vote for the Hugos, I don't have to. I positively enjoyed reading all of them.

I have but one criticism. Two of these stories, "Metal Like Blood" and "The Mermaid Astronaut," have characters referred to by the pronoun "they." I've seen that often enough now that I've come to the conclusion that I don't like it when it's used for a specific known person. I can't prevent writers from using it, or live persons from preferring it, but I can dislike it. It's confusing. For a robotic being, as in the Kingfisher, "it" would have been better. The problem with "they" is that it's not always clear whether it's the singular neuter or the ordinary plural. If not used carefully, and it's not being used carefully, it trips the reader up, and writers shouldn't trip the reader up, especially fiction writers who have control over who the characters are and what they do. At one point, Kingfisher writes, "They did not think to question if they might be lying." The first "they" is plural, the second is singular neuter. Readers should not have to pause, even briefly, to figure that out.

Monday, April 12, 2021


I did a very pre-pandemic thing today, i.e. a once-regular habit I'd not practiced for over a year, which is to line up a whole set of geographically proximate errands and do them on one trip. I was out for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

1. Stopped at the independent bookstore to pick up a volume I'd ordered from their web site: The Science of Middle-earth, translated from the French. Reading the opening chapters during the waiting part of step 4 revealed loads of irritating errors. Early LOTR reviewer Michael Straight is called Straits. Tolkien is said to have delivered "On Fairy-stories" at a conference on fairy tales. And an article on family relationships in the legendarium invents a non-existent nephew of a non-existent king.

2. Stopped at the public library in the same town to turn in a large book bag's worth of checked out books, including some from ILL, concluding work on the Tolkien Studies annual bibliography which I turned in yesterday.

3. Stopped at my credit union office to make the annual small deposit. I only keep this account for the credit card I got from it, but I have to do something with the account itself once a year or I start getting charged for inactivity. Remembered to bring along my member number this time.

3a. Impulse stop, as on the way out to the freeway I passed Izzy's, the only genuine bagels in the area south of SF. First bagel I'd had since before the pandemic. They've set up an ordering counter blocking their front door, and the clerk shouts your order over her shoulder to the person at the bagel counter in the back. I asked for an Everything bagel. What do you want on it (e.g. cream cheese)? Nothing, I said. This evidently caused my order to transmute into a Plain bagel. Got that straightened out.

4. 2nd dose of Pfizer.

5. Stopped at favorite fish restaurant for a take-out lunch order of fried sole. Ate the nuggets on the drive home with the aid of a vinyl glove and a bottle of water I'd brought along for this eventuality. The haste was because I would otherwise be running short of time for the starting point of an errand at home,

6. Our weekly play reading session on Zoom. Today, the first half of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Was more interesting this way than some live performances I've seen. Afterwards, analyzed the rest of the play to assign parts for next week. This can be a bit of a challenge when you have only four actors for a final scene in which the whole cast of characters is on stage at once. Efforts to assign multiple parts that don't interact led to B. in Act 3 Scene 3 reading Ariel and Sebastian. Yikes! We're doing Disney's The Little Mermaid!

Saturday, April 10, 2021


A lot of talk about Ernest Hemingway in the media lately, because of the Ken Burns documentary on him. I'm not planning on watching this. Burns's mannered and portentous style has turned me off, and caused me to turn him off, on subjects I'm a lot more interested in than Hemingway.

My experience in reading Hemingway consists entirely of two high-school assignments, which left me with an intense desire not to repeat the experience. I think my basic problem with Hemingway may be summed up in a quote from C.S. Lewis, who once wrote of the Inklings that "the problems of narrative as such - seldom heard of in modern critical writings - were constantly before our minds." Hemingway was writing for those critics who did not have the problems of narrative before their minds. In his stories, at least the ones I read, nothing happened.

One story we read was called The Old Man and the Sea. It concerns an old man who goes out fishing on the ocean, catches a really big fish, and ties it to the back of his boat. Over the course of the apparently several days it takes him to get home, sharks eat the entire fish. It seems to be telling us of the utter pointlessness and futility of life, and I couldn't agree more: not that life is pointless and futile, but that reading Hemingway is.

In another class, we read a few Nick Adams stories. Our assignment was to rewrite one of the stories from a different character's narrative perspective. In keeping with what seemed to be the spirit of the originals, I attempted to write a story in which absolutely nothing happened. I got an A. That told me a lot.

Most of the articles on Hemingway compare him to Faulkner - whom they consider a lot more influential on writing today - and whom I also bounced off of, though not in class where he was never brought up. Curiously, none of them mention the writer who seemed inseparably paired with Hemingway back when I was encountering them, and that was John Steinbeck. I found them highly contrasting. Steinbeck I liked. Yes, some of his early work was absurdly symbolic, and the later sloppy and garrulous, but he hit a sweet spot in the 1930s. Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, The Red Pony, and the unjustly forgotten In Dubious Battle all captivated me, and I read them of my own volition with pleasure. Isn't that what a writer should hope to accomplish in readers?

Friday, April 9, 2021

That's the URL at which I just watched my favorite local ensemble, the Stanford-resident St. Lawrence String Quartet, perform live Haydn's String Quartet Op. 76 No. 5. It began with violinist Owen Dalby backstage at Bing Concert Hall on his smartphone. He showed us around a little, then moved onstage where his colleagues and two production staff were waiting, and we switched to the full cameras for a crisp and delightful performance with tremendous ensemble work.

It's the sort of piece I'm used to going to Bing to hear the SLSQ play live, and this was the next best thing. And you can hear it too, because it'll be up on their web site, in embedded YouTube, for the next 72 hours.

And they'll be playing the other five quartets from Op. 76, at various other locations around campus, over the next two months: schedule is on the web page. I think I have some virtual concert-going mapped out for me.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

i scream

A gift-giver presented me with a pint of artisanal mint chip ice cream. That's what it said on the lid, "ice cream."

I opened it up and took a couple of bites. It tasted dreadful: weird and unappetizing.

Now I looked more carefully on the side of the container. That didn't say ice cream: it said "non-dairy frozen dessert." The principal ingredient was coconut cream. Oh, yuck.

A gift-giver presented the trash bin with a pint of ice cream.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

the Rainbow connection

I was reading a post by Mark Evanier about people's videos collecting their choices of the all-time great songs from Broadway musicals, noting that most of them tend to be heavily weighted towards recent work and omit most of what us older folks would consider the classics of the field. (And that's OK: it's their lists, they can choose what they want.)

But it made me think of Randy Rainbow, the staggeringly talented and prolific political song parodist, who takes most of his source songs from musical theater, and whose new work I follow through the embeds that Mark Evanier faithfully puts immediately up. He's in his late 30s, but he's versed in older musicals: he uses a lot of songs from them (like his latest, which is from Oklahoma!), and I wondered: how many, and which ones?

What I needed was a complete list of his political parody song videos, but despite his immense current popularity, there is no such list. The list on his Wikipedia page currently lists well less than half of them (36 of 92); his own web site just embeds his most recent work and a few older favorites, and tells you to check YouTube for the rest.

OK, his YouTube channel does have them all, but they're embeds with no list, there's no identification of the source songs, and the older ones are intermixed with other sorts of videos he used to do.

So suddenly I found myself with a new project. Fortunately it took only a day to do and it was lots of fun, because I got to watch a lot of brilliant early Randy Rainbow videos I hadn't seen before. Mark Evanier has been posting him only since mid-2018, but he's been doing these regularly since the 2016 Republican primaries, when he saw off each departing candidate with a version of "GOP Dropout" to the tune of "Beauty School Dropout" from Grease. The best of these was Ben Carson's. My other favorite from 2016 takes up Mike Pence's controversial visit to Hamilton to the expected tune, and with lots of other Broadway references. It's also a useful reminder of how, even before DT's inauguration, we already had in his reaction to this incident a taste of what we were in for four years of. "Grow up!" Randy tells him, but he never did.

And then just after I sent links to those to B., I went on to early 2017 and found more new-to-me and utterly delectable send-ups of songs from two of our modern favorites, Into the Woods (along the same futile lines as the last one) and Cats (taking up Kellyanne Conway's first bizarre locution).

So now I have the complete database. I'm relieved that I recognized a hefty majority of the originals, though sometimes only after some cogitation ("Private Eyes" by Hall & Oates? Really? That's a song I hadn't heard in about, oh, forty years) and I was able to get the rest from the Wikipedia list, by asking B., or by Googling. Wikipedia provided additional information, such the originals' year of release.

I lack the skills to translate this tome into a Wikipedia table, so I left a note on the relevant Talk page of Wikipedia offering it to anyone who wants to do the work, and in the meantime, if you really want it, you can download the Excel file by clicking here.

There's 92 videos altogether, although there's 98 entries because I made a separate line for each song in the 7-part medley on "covfefe" (remember that? four years later, we still have no idea what it means).

So what I find is that the vast majority are from stage musicals, though there are also quite a few from movies, mostly from Disney and most of those from the Disney Renaissance, plus a few pop songs, mostly recent but not all. A full half of the originals date from before 1970, which I consider roughly the break-point between old and new Broadway. There's ten Rodgers & Hammerstein from 3 shows, plus some Fiddler on the Roof, some Music Man, two Bye Bye Birdie, one Guys and Dolls, and two uses of the title song from Camelot. There's also a couple Irving Berlin show numbers, plus one from Show Boat and one from the daddies of them all, Gilbert and Sullivan. Over the time break between old and new Broadway, there's seven Sondheims from six shows, assuming you count West Side Story and Gypsy, for which he wrote just the lyrics, as Sondheim. Of newer composers, Randy's favorites appear to be Menken (thus all the Disney Renaissance movies) and Lloyd Webber, though there's plenty of others: Rent, Avenue Q, Legally Blonde ...

Sunday, April 4, 2021


B. now counts as fully vaccinated (yes, the extra two weeks and all), so in addition to socially-distanced church services for the multi-day events surrounding Easter, she went out today for the traditional family Easter event, populated (I hope) only by others who were also fully vaccinated, and where there was much food, chocolate (a separate item, owing to sheer quantity), playing with cats, and post-prandial napping.

I'm only half-vaccinated, so I stayed home. But last night I had my most intensive online social event of the entire pandemic, as one of the two (as it turned out) out-of-town attendees of a Zoom gathering of fannish friends. I was there for over two hours, which is about as long at a time as I can tolerate this form of activity. Though the content was certainly enjoyable (albeit it's exasperating to have your pronunciation of a French name corrected when you thought you were pronouncing it the same way as everyone else was), and I heard word of how our 96-year-old friend is doing. Zoom is certainly at least adequate in providing the visual cues which we're used to in person that keep a group of ten people from accidentally talking over each other all the time.

Saturday, April 3, 2021


This is a week old, but it's not out of date. I want to say a little more about the death of James Levine, in the light of Lisa Irontongue's round-up of the coverage.

The main-market obituaries tended to take the "say no ill of the deceased" attitude of describing Levine as a great conductor, and brushing the sexual abuse aside as a minor peccadillo. So glaring was this that it generated counter-obituaries, which not only focused on the abuse but for a topping insisted that Levine was actually a terrible conductor!

Both of these attitudes employ common fallacies. The first is that greatness excuses any flaws. The second is that fundamentally bad people cannot have any admirable qualities.

It's the second of these I want to focus on here. It's one we have no excuse for falling into in classical music. That Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven were, in their somewhat different ways, appalling human beings who wrote great and beautiful music is a contradiction we've long lived with.

And I think it's important to grasp because my analysis is that the success, critical esteem, and general popularity of Levine's conducting is what made it possible for so long for his abuses to be ignored and denied. He was too valuable artistically and too beloved professionally for the institutions to risk losing him, so they had to brush off the charges. The same was true for his equally vehemently denied health problems, until they grew so severe they could be denied no more.

This has been the case for other abusers. Harvey Weinstein was an enormously successful movie producer. Bill Cosby was a beloved comedian and actor. It took a lot of effort to expose their crimes.

This is not to minimize those crimes. It is to offer a warning in future cases. That a person is renowned or esteemed doesn't mean charges against them are true; there have been a number of false bandwagon accusations (see Operation Midland). But it also doesn't mean they are false, and investigations are needed.