Sunday, January 30, 2022


I just checked the weekly virus case rate in the state, and it's gone down from the peak of the previous two weeks, but not anywhere near far enough. It's still twice as high as it was at the height of the pandemic a year ago. And though I'm vaccinated and boosted, I have those health conditions that fall under the exceptions in "If you catch the virus, you almost certainly won't get seriously ill, except ..."

So, with great reluctance, I'm canceling out on the symphony concert I had a ticket for today. It was the California Symphony, and they're doing a delectable program including Haydn, Dvorak, Sibelius, and Vaughan Williams. But I'll miss it.

This is the third concert I'd been ticketed for that I've skipped in the past two weeks, and I have one each for the first three weeks of February which are probably gone too. If the case rate goes down as fast as it went up, then it should be justifiably safe to go out by the last week in February, for which I have concerts penciled in for five successive days. I'd like to get to some of those, and not just because I paid good money for tickets for some, and I owe a review to the Daily Journal.

I've also been doing all my grocery and other food shopping by pick-up, and I canceled both a medical test and a car servicing until later. So I haven't really been anywhere or done anything since Christmas. Well, I took some useless old unrecyclable and undonatable stuff to the city dump, as we slowly begin to clean out what we have stored in the garage. I backed the car up to the heaping pile of trash inside the huge shed at the dump, carefully walked out on the slippery pavement where trash had previously been, and heaved the stuff out of the trunk on to the edge of the pile. At least that required little close human contact.

At least there's the internet, and my two regular Zoom meetings. And B., and the cats. When I'm up in the middle of the night, as I am now, Tybalt comes onto my desk, alternately 1) squiggling around and knocking papers off the desk; 2) playing with anything he can get his paws on, which includes my fingers on the trackball; 3) walking in front of the computer screen; 4) head-butting my face, which I understand is a form of feline love; 5) licking said face; 6) jumping up and settling in my arms, at which point I'd better be reading something long on the screen, because it's useless to try to type anything. He's not a lap cat, he's an arm cat. Am I getting any work done? Barely.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Star Trek rewatched: the report pt. 2

continued from previous rock

As I was saying, not all the supposedly great episodes of this series turn out to be that great.

Every single romance plot in this series just sucks the big one, and that destroys the renowned "The City at the Edge of Forever" for me. Even more putrid is the almost as worshipped "Amok Time," which is just excruciatingly bad. The fundamental problem is the writers' desire to tinker with Spock. In the first season, Spock is unbrokenly emotionless, and Leonard Nimoy is utterly uncanny in his ability to maintain this. But in the second season, the writers couldn't resist the temptation to play with Spock. They'd have him make sardonic remarks, which works in an openly comic episode (like "The Trouble with Tribbles"'s "He couldn't believe his ears") but undercuts the preternaturally reactionless Spock of season one. This is also when the famous logic/emotion arguments between Spock and McCoy really get going.* But worse, the writers start finding excuses for Spock to act emotional after all, and Nimoy turns out to be not as good at that. It starts with mind-melding in the first season, which is tolerable, but it doesn't stop there, and Spock in the grip of pon farr is just hideous. The stupid illogical rituals on Ye Olde Primitive Planet Vulcan are even more hopeless.

The third season goes further, when the beautiful women (often alien priestesses or whatnot) who used to chase Kirk now start chasing Spock instead ("The Enterprise Incident," "All Our Yesterdays") or even McCoy ("For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky")! But losing the attention of hot women is not the depth of Kirk's degradation. David Gerrold in his book about writing "The Trouble with Tribbles" tells how he got a rise out of Bill Shatner by saying he was writing a script in which Kirk loses his voice in the teaser and doesn't get it back till the tag. In "The Tholian Web" that pretty much actually happens. Kirk disappears in a rift in space-time and isn't even seen for most of the episode.

This misforturne occurs as a result of another of the tiredest tropes, the "Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to an unknown ..." one. This kept the stars at the forefront of the action, of course, but it was to correct the ludicrousness of this practice that TNG invented the "away team." Here I should mention the hoariest of all Trek tropes, which is that redshirts get killed on away missions. This happens less often than you'd think, actually; but one thing redshirts on these missions almost never do is speak a single word. There's a budgetary reason for that: if extras have speaking parts, you have to pay them more.

A few more things I noticed about TOS:
1) I really liked the episodes in which military protocol plays a part (the courtmartial episodes, "The Doomsday Machine") or in which there's a sprinkling of techy behavior. In "The Doomsday Machine" Kirk actually gets down on his back and tries to fix the wiring himself, and there are other examples. Real techy talk (far beyond Scotty's "The dilithium crystals canna take any more"), just as hasty asides and not taking over the action, also occurs in some first and second season episodes: it's an inexpensive way to convey that there's more to the Enterprise, and to the characters' knowledge of it, than you see.
2) In the first season there are lots of bit-part officers, conveying the extent of the crew. Often they sit where Chekhov would go later, and take the com when Kirk and Spock leave the bridge. But there's more than that: for instance, "Balance of Terror" uses a chaste engagement between two walk-on officers as a subplot to frame the episode. Later, probably for budgetary reasons, this type of character mostly disappears, and when Kirk and Spock are away, Scotty takes the com. Though he's properly subordinate as engineering officer, when facing danger in command Scotty is both extremely belligerent and amazingly fearless about it. He'd make a dangerously hotheaded captain.
3) It's often complained that Uhura does nothing but open hailing frequencies. Actually, sometimes she does do other things, but you wish she hadn't: she reverts to infancy ("The Changeling"); she gets tempted by android immortality ("I, Mudd"), and when she later fakes a recurrence to fool the androids, gets squeezed awkwardly by Kirk for her good acting; and she causes the Enterprise to be overrun with cute fuzzy critters ("The Trouble with Tribbles"). For that reason, Uhura is one character who doesn't seem to get a fair shake.

*Did you notice, by the way, that McCoy is a racist? He regularly uses Vulcan physical characteristics - the ears, the green blood, etc. - as personal insults against Spock. Try that with human races and see how far you get.

Star Trek rewatched: the report

I told a few months ago of my watching a couple episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series after the series started showing up on our cable feed and B. recorded them all. Neither of the episodes I watched, which were both from the first season ("Miri" and "Mudd's Women") were very good, so since I didn't have B.'s patience to watch the whole thing, I made a list of what the web considers the best episodes and cherry-picked some of those. I've finished that watching and have some things to report. I'd seen a lot of the show in childhood, but not anywhere near all of it, and hardly at all since then.

First I want to credit the show with how awfully good it is when it is good. Episodes like "Balance of Terror" and "Devil in the Dark" in the first season, and "Mirror, Mirror" and "The Doomsday Machine" in the second season, are just outstanding drama all the way through: well-written and competently paced, efficiently directed, and impressively acted. The mirror universe is a stupid concept, but once given it's played out very well. "The Doomsday Machine" is really just Moby-Dick with William Windom's character as Captain Ahab, but it's a powerful plotline whoever uses it. Nor is some cheesiness in the production a real flaw. I hadn't realized just how nakedly based on the Romans the Romulans in "Balance of Terror" are (not just their name, which I gather is the Federation's name for this unknown people), nor that the actors for both the Romulan captain and his first officer showed up in the next season playing Vulcans. The terrifying monster in "Devil in the Dark" turns out to be just a rug with a sfx guy crawling around underneath it, and the mine tunnels all have the flat floors of a studio soundstage (also true of most rocky planet surfaces) but that really doesn't matter.

I want to pay tribute, too, to the three famous comic episodes of the second season: "The Trouble with Tribbles," "A Piece of the Action," and "I, Mudd." None of them are actually comedies: all feature serious dramatic situations of real peril, and the comedy is incidental. In "A Piece of the Action" it only really shows up when Kirk learns to talk in the local gangster lingo, puzzling his own subordinates. The wit and energy of this episode show that even one of TOS's tiredest tropes, the visiting a planet which looks exactly like a Hollywood studio back lot (used gratuitously in "Miri") can be employed effectively, and fortunately this is also not another of the tiredest tropes, a visit to the Planet of the Bad Acting.

"I, Mudd" - which is carried by the wonderfully colorful acting of Roger C. Carmel - renders palatable another tired trope, Kirk and/or Spock, using logic and/or illogic, forcing a malevolent computer into overload, upon which it emits smoke and breaks down. (See "The Changeling" for this trope sinking an otherwise good episode.) Note also that this episode solves one of the greatest Trek mysteries, which is, how did Chekhov, who wasn't in the first season where Khan first appeared in "Space Seed," recognize him in Wrath of Khan? Some say it's a continuity error, others say well, maybe Chekhov was there, we just didn't see him; it's a big ship. But in "I, Mudd," when Mudd appears and Kirk recognizes him from his first season appearance, Chekhov asks incredulously, "You know this man?" No, he wasn't there. Khan was a continuity error.

What about the legendarily bad third season? Even that had a couple of high points. I'd vote for the best episode of the season as "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," the one with the half-white half-black guy chasing the half-black half-white guy. It's well-acted (one of the guys is Frank Gorshin), has a startlingly bleak ending, and the only flaws are that the makeup looks stupid and that a subplot of the Enterprise "decontaminating" a planet (with what? DDT?) has to be inserted to spin the plot out and keep the episode from being over in half an hour. The message of the episode, which is that war is stupid, is shared with "Day of the Dove" which is also not too bad. Some consider the messaging crude and heavy-handed, but this was the middle of the Vietnam War era and the message could not be pressed too heavily. And other episodes make clear that pointless war is a different thing from defending yourself against attack.

Mind you, not all the supposedly great episodes of TOS turn out to be that great. To be continued later ...

Friday, January 28, 2022

six of one

It's sometimes fashionable to push direct representative democracy. Pick a few dozen citizens of a district at random, put them in a room for a few days, and have them work out policy for that district on various issues. The problem is, as I learned when I tried to take a questionnaire on my city's issues, that this requires knowledge of and interest in things the average citizen could not possibly know or care about.

Latest example, redistricting the city. Our city of 150,000 has only recently been divided into six city council districts, and with the new census they have to be adjusted. The commission has prepared four maps and has submitted them for citizen comment on a web page.

My district is the most underpopulated, and a large tract of territory that I consider part of the local neighborhood is being transferred into it from a neighboring district. But that's the same in all four maps. The differences among them concern one or two blocks of apartment complexes in two other parts of the city, which I have nothing to do with - one of them I hardly even drive past.

Unless you live in one of those small areas, and are knowledgeable about potential candidatures and about ethnic balances in the districts, and what's more care which one you're in, I can't imagine forming a particular opinion about this. One of the options has fewer line segments than the others, but is that really a reason to pick it?

So far, I found when I visited the page, 3 people had registered but none had left any comments. No wonder.

replacing Breyer

Oh, come on. Presidents have been selecting Supreme Court justices to represent specific interests - ethnic groups, religious groups, even particular states or regions - since the beginning of the Republic. Reagan campaigned on the issue of selecting the first woman for the court, and plenty of Justice Barrett's conservative supporters specifically cited her being a woman as a reason for their support.

And, in fact, it's surely good for the court to have a breadth of representation on it. It's fallacious to seek out the single most qualified person, as at the top levels there's many persons of such roughly equal qualifications that other matters, including legal style, views on issues, and, yes, personal background are of greater importance in choosing between them. And since Carter began a systematic campaign for diversity on other levels of the federal bench, enough of those eminently qualified persons are Black women to provide President Biden with a pool to choose from that's as large as previous presidents have used.

Nothing is wrong here. I expect another great Justice of the Court to emerge.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

garbage regime

Our household has entered a new garbage regime, that is, a protocol for collecting the trash.

This was implemented for single-family residences in our city about four years ago, but our townhouse complex counts as a multi-dwelling unit like an apartment block, and our conversion didn't take place until last week. A flatbed truck followed the garbage truck around and swapped out our old garbage can for a new split one: one part garbage, one part food scraps.

So now we have to keep food scraps separately. Let's see, we keep two trash baskets in the kitchen/dining room, and the one under the sink gets the food scraps already, partly because that's where most of them are generated while cooking, and partly because Tybalt is wont to rummage around in the other trash basket if he smells anything interesting in there, often causing untold chaos if he knocks it over.

So all we have to do is remember not to put anything else in the under-sink trash. Anything not food that's contaminated by food or would otherwise smell interesting to Tybalt has to go into a third trash basket, which has a lid so we can keep it outside with the garbage and recycle cans. It has to go outside since we discovered long ago that the lid wasn't enough to keep Tybalt out.

Did I say "all we have to do"? No, it also emerges that they want the food scraps in a clear bag, so that they can see what's in there, and that the bag be sealed with a tie. It turns out that if you order "clear trash bags" from Amazon, they won't necessarily be clear. It took two tries before I got something that was both the right clarity and the right size, and then I had to order the ties separately.

And now I've just finished explaining all of this to our biweekly cleaning lady. She's sharp; she shouldn't have any difficulty remembering all this. We live in hopeful worship of our new trash masters.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

o to be a blogger

1. First encounters with Tolkien.

2. Here's what I've been looking for: actual data comparing the efficacy of various face coverings against the virus.

3. Here's what I didn't know I'd been looking for: genuinely entertaining and informative podcasts about recent history topics. I've made it through the entire 5-part series about Princess Diana, and: wow. Most unscripted podcasts I try listening to are too full of random blither. These people are incisive and intelligent, mostly accurate, and don't spend too much time wandering off the subject.

4. I attended a local satellite version of the Women's March because I couldn't not do it, despite - as I wrote at the time - "my feeling that such events are fairly useless, serving little function other than to make the marchers feel good." Well, here's evidence that it did serve a function: it encouraged people to go out and do consequential things.

5. Article on Bambi, and the book by Felix Salten that it came from, sparked off by a new translation of that book (by Jack Zipes. Spoiler: the reviewer doesn't think much of Zipes's edition). What most struck me about the article was this:
The book rendered Salten famous; the movie, which altered and overshadowed its source material, rendered him virtually unknown. And it rendered the original "Bambi" obscure, too, even though it had previously been both widely acclaimed and passionately reviled.
Take a close look at that statement, and the assumptions it embodies. So now do you understand why "The book is still on the shelf" is a completely inadequate and naive response to complaints about the unfaithfulness of a movie adaptation? It doesn't matter where the book is, if the movie is what's in the head. It doesn't matter where the book is, if nobody takes it down from the shelf and reads it because they think they already know what's in it, because they've seen the movie.

Sunday, January 23, 2022


Over the years I've gradually converted to an e-reader - usually my Nook - as a regular bedtime reading companion. It doesn't need a bedside lamp turned on, or later off, to use, and it doesn't need a bookmark. I can literally drop it as I fall asleep, assured that I can pick it up later at the same page, assuming I can find it amid the bedclothes or in whatever cranny off the side of the bed it may have fallen. And it's also useful for naps, when I'm not sure if I'll drop off to sleep or not.

Such was my goal when I picked up the Nook this last afternoon, intending to continue my new bedtime reading project, Sense and Sensibility. (I'd tackled Kim on the Nook, but had no taste to continue the book after the discussion session.) But, alas, instead of a nap and a pleasant read, I found myself in for over two hours of mostly frustrating online chat and phone colloquy with Nook support, for my book library had disappeared, replaced by an error message saying that "Nook has stopped."

Yes, I'd rebooted it. No, I hadn't changed my contact e-mail since last successfully using the Nook that morning. No, I hadn't missed a software update. I had to repeat these answers several times, at one point in the chat even copying and pasting my previous answer in the new reply box. Eventually I had to undertake a complete reset, which wiped out all my formatting customizations as well as erasing all record of anything I'd put on the machine which wasn't purchased from B&N. Fortunately I remembered what most of those wore that I wanted to keep - mostly items from the TAFF library - and was able to reacquire them.

But that's sure a way to spoil your afternoon, isn't it?

Saturday, January 22, 2022

lions in winter

Our play-reading group, having decided to venture into Shakespeare's history plays with the one of earliest chronological setting, King John (and what a dynamite play it's proving to be: pity it isn't staged more), has decided the logical non-Shakespeare to follow it up with is James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, which treats some of the same characters at an earlier date.

That isn't on Kindle, so it was copies of the printed play for B. and me to read from that I'd gone out to libraries last week to find. (The trade edition has a dedication, "For Bill." You know who that is, don't you?) And while I was at it, to also borrow DVDs of both the screen adaptations.

Both of them? Yes. Besides the famous Academy Award-winning 1968 film with Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, there was a 2003 tv movie starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close. Wow, I thought when I saw those names, I have to see that. So we did. B. and I watched them both over the last couple of evenings.

Both movies were scripted by Goldman, so the script differences are not tremendous. The 2003 is as much a remake of the 1968 as it is of the stage play. In both versions, the outstanding performance is clearly of the Eleanor (Hepburn and Close), but their styles don't differ tremendously. Hepburn is somewhat more brittle, Close more conniving, but that's their personas.

The Henrys, however, do differ a great deal. Henry was 50 at the time the play is set, which was considered old at the time, we're told; O'Toole was only 36 (and young enough to be Hepburn's son: Eleanor was a decade Henry's senior) while Stewart was 63, and they both look, and act, their age. Stewart, though he's Patrick Stewart, doesn't boom anywhere near as much as O'Toole did. O'Toole is filled with lust for life and seems determined to roust every minute, while Stewart is capable of getting weary. The net result is that Stewart is more believable in dismay at his sons' rebellion, while O'Toole is more believable in his response, which is to determine to marry his mistress and start over with a new family.

The 2003 is not only longer in running time, nearly 3 hours, but more spaciously paced: the characters pause and ruminate quietly more than in 1968, making the outbursts more dramatic. In general, the 1968 is more intense, particularly in the first half, while the 2003, though more relaxed in the first half, is more layered and varied.

I thought the 2003, though somewhat lax at the start, was the better performed overall. In 1968 Richard was Anthony Hopkins and Philip was Timothy Dalton; both were making their feature film debuts and both seemed to me to still need seasoning. The 1968 cast also includes several veterans of the then-recent The Prisoner, including Geoffrey, Alais (pronounced Alice here and Alees in 2003), and William Marshall. The only supporting cast member in 2003 I was familiar with was Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Philip, the outstanding supporting performance in either movie.

Now we have to sit down and read the play, as soon as we've wrapped up King John.

Friday, January 21, 2022

kimball & co.

Thursday was my first scheduled San Francisco Symphony concert after the holiday break, but I wasn't there. Recently established regulations that everyone be boostered, not just vaccinated, and upgrading the facial protection requirements, were not enough to qualm my concerns. So I did not get to hear conductor emeritus MTT lead Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Instead, I stayed home and listened to recordings of Gergiev, Paavo Järvi, and - for a taste of the old stuff - Mravinsky in the same work.
I further realized it was wise to have decided not to go all the way up there when I read of last week's concert that was canceled literally at the last minute - they'd already given the pre-concert lecture - when one of the musicians tested positive. Out of an abundance of caution ... Fortunately for the patrons, the guest pianist, who had come for a Beethoven concerto, came out and played an hour of Chopin that he had in his memory. That was nice of him, but it wouldn't have been what I was there for.

This did mean that I was able to attend an online book discussion of Kipling's novel Kim. One of our senior members, who's cherished this book since first reading it at the age of 11, wanted to know what the rest of us thought of it. I'm afraid my reaction was disappointing to fans. I didn't have time to get very far. I grasped who Kim was - an orphaned white child who's immersed into the indigenous society of Kipling-era India - and that he attaches himself to a visiting Tibetan lama who's on an ill-defined quest, but for all the chapters that they travel together, whatever was going on and with whom just eluded my grasp entirely. According to others present, Kim is getting his first education in what will be his eventual profession of spy, but it went past me. I think my problem is that Kim is entirely submerged in a society that's completely alien to me and that I know nothing about, so this kind of narrative isn't going to give me a clue. It's rather like my experience trying to read Patrick O'Brian and drowning in a sea of nautical terminology. Unlike the one-time 11-year-old, who wanted to be Kim, I just felt bewildered. Further evidence that this was my problem emerges when Kim is adopted by a British regiment who identify him as white and try to educate him in their culture. Now I understood who was on the page and what they were doing. Unfortunately this is where I ran out of time before the meeting, in the middle of a dispute over whether to raise him as Protestant or Catholic.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

no banffing

In 2016, I went to Canada for the triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition. I had a fabulous time: "Bayreuth for string quartet lovers," which was a line in the brochure, was not off the mark. I'd thought this would be a one-off, but other 2019 plans having proved unfeasible, I went again that year as a consolation prize to myself, and again had a great time.

When the pandemic arrived, I figured that it'd be over by the time the competition rolled around again in 2022, and I might consider a third visit. Now the brochure for this year's festival has arrived, with the usual tempting priority features for returnees, but I'm not going to go.

Two reasons. First, the isolation of the past two years has been hard on my physical health, and I don't think I'm still up to a schedule of two or three two-hour string quartet concerts a day for a week.

Second, despite past hopes, the pandemic is still on, and not only does this increase risk, the complications attendant on that are enormous. What if the program is cancelled, what do I do with my plane reservation? Canada requires not just vaccination but testing before, during, and after your arrival. Where do I get all these tests? What if I test positive? The only way to avoid risking being quarantined and missing the program is to arrive two weeks early. Not doing that, and not wishing to spend a quarantine stuck in a hotel room in a strange city. Info on the site reveals that their fabulous buffet restaurant, whose food is as great an appeal as the music is - really! - is closed, and that take-out meals will be available from the bistro, whose offerings I never found much to my taste on past visits. That also puts paid to the group meal conversations with other attendees, so enormous a part of the experience.

So, no. I think they livestream their concerts - at least they're available afterwards - and I may watch those, though you don't get anywhere near as clear or vivid an experience of the individuality of the performing groups that way as you do in person. What does interest me is the change made in the repertoire. In past years, participating groups have been instructed to choose one Haydn quartet, one Romantic-era quartet, and one 20th-century quartet. Usually for the last they pick Bartok, and we've had vast waves of Bartok in the previous two festivals, despite the fact that the winning quartet at the festival before that had played Shostakovich, which you'd think might be a clue. Superbly-played Bartok, most of the time, mind you, but maybe somebody decided enough was enough, because this year the 20th-century quartet has been replaced by a 21st-century quartet. It'll be really interesting to see what they play and what it's like. If they want to play Bartok they'll have to fit it into the free-choice round. Each group is allotted 35 minutes for this round, which is enough time to play any Bartok quartet of your choice.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

getting out

Is it possible to get out and do anything while functionally isolating? It is.

Last week was my brother's yahrzeit, and today I was able to make the time to visit the cemetery where he and my mother are buried. I made an expedition out of it: for lunch visiting a favorite restaurant, now converted to take-out, that's not far from the cemetery but outside of my normal orbit. And then after the cemetery, stopping in at a couple of public libraries to pick up items I was looking for that proved to be located in that direction. Just pop in, grab the item and check it out, and leave. Hardly anyone else around.

Freeway warning sign messages have all been converted to messages about boosters and N95s.

Monday, January 17, 2022


A comment elsewhere prompted me to drag out recollections of words whose meaning I misunderstood as a child:

I thought this meant "exactly." Back in the days when TV stations would sign off for the night, the listings for the first programs of the day would give the time as "6:00 AM, approximately," and I thought about getting up early to see a program that actually began at 6 AM, instead of at 6:02 or 6:03 after the inevitable ads. I would have been very disappointed if I had bothered.

I thought this meant that something in view had to be moving. I'm not sure what counted as "moving." Branches waving in the wind? Probably not. A flowing stream? I doubt it. Animals galloping by? Possibly. Where I got this idea (or indeed most of these ideas) I have no notion. I spent a lot of time on vacation scorning signs that read "scenic view" because that view was entirely stationary.

*blind spot
I thought this meant you were literally struck blind if you looked in that direction - whether permanently or momentarily I wasn't sure and didn't want to find out the hard way. I specifically remember our coming across a road sign with this warning when we were out driving around house-hunting in the hill country, which would put my age at 7. It is characteristic of me that, well over a half century later, I still remember exactly where this was, even though I've never gone back to check if the sign is still there. (I might be struck blind!) But from Google street view, apparently not.

*out of wedlock
I thought this meant as a result of wedlock. You can imagine how much confusion that caused.

I thought that to call someone "a contemporary of N" meant they were a successor in the tradition of N, no chronological overlap required. My father was of the firm opinion that whenever his children raised a fuss, they were putting it on and faking it. Since we never did that, this view caused much distress. In the process he would call us a bunch of little Sarah Bernhardts. This depiction as a notorious over-actor is the only context in which I ever heard the name of Sarah Bernhardt in childhood. I thought it was therefore accurate to say that he considered us contemporaries of Sarah Bernhardt.

Speaking of my father,
He did not consider this a legitimate word, but I never realized that. Whenever - and I mean literally whenever - one of us kids would call out "Hey!" in his presence, my father would say, "Hay is what horses eat." But the lesson never took. Because we said "Hey!" reflexively, without conscious intent or even awareness, the labored pun made no impression, and I spent my childhood believing that "Hay is what horses eat" was a complete non sequitur of a statement that my father would utter at random intervals for no apparent reason. I must have been well into adulthood when the penny finally dropped.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

no pig: reviews

Book review: In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government during the Last 100 Years by David Owen (Praeger, 2008)
Who better to explore this topic than a veteran politician (EU Bosnian peace envoy, UK Foreign Secretary, etc.) who's also an M.D.? Answer, an arrogant M.D. with no qualms about blithely diagnosing patients he's never examined, though some he's at least observed on a personal level and doesn't hesitate to report what he saw. Discusses a dozen each of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers, 5 French Presidents, 4 world-class dictators, and a few others (the Shah, Yeltsin, Ariel Sharon), half a dozen of them in detail. Explains Suez and the Bay of Pigs by saying that Eden and JFK were so hopped up on medications at the time that they didn't know what they were doing; JFK was in better health by the time of the Cuban missile crisis, thus better decision-making.
Owen is more reserved psychiatrically than many such writers, refraining from diagnosing everyone as bipolar etc. But he does give one mental condition equal weight with the physical ones: hubris. Cheerfully admitting that he's suffered from this himself, he focuses on it in a massive chapter on W. and Blair in Iraq. What makes this weird is 1) Owen was actually in favor of the invasion, he just thinks it was pursued badly and (the prime symptom of hubris) not thought through; 2) it was written just after Blair's resignation and while W. was still president. Rather amazing book, breezy but well-sourced and not ignorable.

Movie review: Pig, written & directed by Michael Sarnoski (2021)
I like a good quiet, low-key movie about a loner who lives in the woods. Leave No Trace is such a movie. Pig isn't, despite the rave reviews: it is all these things except "good."
Nicolas Cage is a scruffy truffle forager who lives in the Oregon woods with a truffle-sniffing pig as his only companion. Your first hint that something is wrong here is that Cage lets the pig live in his cabin with him. If you've seen A Private Function you'll know why one wouldn't do that. One night robbers break in and steal the pig. Cage enlists help from the blithe yuppie restaurant supplier (Alex Wolff) who picks the truffles up from him once a week and brings his necessities in exchange. Two more things wrong: 1) Wolff listens on his car radio to a classical announcer so high-minded as to make Donald Vroon seem sane, and who talks over the music while doing so; 2) they quickly locate the robbers, but don't seem angry with them: they just want to know who the robbers sold the pig to.
At this point our heroes head to Portland to locate the pig, and the movie goes totally off the rails. Interrupted by a bizarre cameo at Fight Club for the purpose of getting Cage beaten up, it becomes a series of revelations about Cage's past life as a renowned high-end chef. I gave up at the point where he and Wolff visit a trendy restaurant whose service is as much a parody of that as the radio announcer was. Cage tells the chef, who used to be his hapless junior, that he's looking for his pig, and the chef gives a non-sequitur reply about how he has to please his investors and that truffles are a big part of his cuisine plan. If this means anything, it's that he feels justified in torpedoing Cage's livelihood to further his own career. However, it turns out he doesn't have the pig, so the whole thing is meaningless.

Saturday, January 15, 2022


We have Disney+, so I watched their new animated film Encanto as soon as it was released. As I reported here, I liked it: the colorful and expressive animation was excellent, and I liked the variety and individuality of the characters. There were aspects of the plot I didn't understand, and still don't even after watching the movie 3 or 4 times, but at least it had a plot, and one worth puzzling over.

What didn't hit me much at first was the music: songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda in a Colombian idiom (the story is set there) that he learned for the purpose. But those songs have been growing on me, and especially now that I've seen an article on the sudden viral popularity of "We Don't Talk About Bruno." Nobody expected this one to be a hit, partly because it's a plot song that requires you to know the story and characters to make any sense of it at all, so we'll get back to it in a minute.

But a lot of the commenters on that article said that their favorite song from the movie is a different one, "Surface Pressure," which has also been doing well in the charts. This one is more self-contained, but like "Let It Go," the last big Disney hit, it benefits from some explanation of who's singing it and why. I recommend seeing the movie, but if you haven't, here's the basics.

Encanto is set in an isolated Colombian valley and tells of a family who live in a magical house and have magical powers. The heroine is Mirabel, age 15, the only grandchild in the family with no powers and who wonders why that is. She has a song about how isolated she feels from her family because of this, but her two older sisters each also have a song about the burdens and frustrations they feel. "Surface Pressure" is the song of Luisa, whose power is super-strength and whose self-identity is entirely wrapped up in this. The voice actress is Jessica Darrow, and here it is:

Now for "We Don't Talk About Bruno." Bruno is Mirabel's vanished outcast uncle. His power was to foretell the future, and this often caused controversy. When Mirabel was still very small, Bruno disappeared, and the family has pulled the carpet over his very existence. Mirabel believes that Bruno's last prophecy may be a key to cracks she's perceiving in the magic. She finds the prophecy, which takes the form of the shards of a piece of glowing green glass, and discovers that the picture embedded in it is of herself. She asks her aunt Pepa what this might mean, but Pepa doesn't want to talk about it, and her uncle Félix is even more emphatic that Bruno's prophecies are trouble. Pepa's power is to control the weather, but she doesn't have much conscious direction over this, and that's behind the story she and Félix tell:

0.28. This flashback is the first we see of Bruno in the movie. Ominous, isn't he?
0.56. Cut to Mirabel's cousin Dolores. Her power is super-hearing, and the burden of what she's telling Mirabel here is that she can hear that Bruno is still living in the house, in the secret passages behind the walls.
1.15. Cousin Camilo is a shapeshifter and something of a trickster. He alternates here between his natural appearance and an ultra-sinister version of Bruno.
1.35. A verse for various townsfolk who treat the family as the local gentry.
1.57. Mirabel's sister Isabela, who has fonder memories of Bruno.
2.14. A line for the grandmother (unseen here) telling Isabela that her suitor Mariano is arriving for dinner.
2.16. But Dolores secretly yearns for Mariano.
2.27. Isabela and Mirabel don't get along.
2.38. That's the glowing shards of the prophecy in Mirabel's handbag.
2.44. Camilo being a trickster again.
2.48. Did you notice that each verse had its own tune? Now Miranda combines them and plays them all at once. This trick has been pulled before (see the "Tonight Quintet" in West Side Story for one), but it's always fabulous whenever it's done.
3.00. One of the symptoms of the cracking of the magic is that Luisa is losing her powers. (Why just Luisa at first? That's part of what I don't understand about the plot.)

What happens next, and what is Bruno really like? You'll just have to watch the movie.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022


This is disturbing, in a niche sort of way.

Allan Sherman's 1964 song parody album Allan in Wonderland includes "Holiday for States," in which Sherman rattles off the names of all 50 U.S. states in 60 seconds flat to a modified version of the tune of David Rose's instrumental piece "Holiday for Strings."

This song has long been a Sherman favorite in our family, and my brother has the whole thing memorized.

So Mark Evanier has just found something disturbing: a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show, so this is not a little-known venue, from 1956 of a comedy team called Davis and Reese performing a routine that concludes with a 48-state version of "Holiday for States." That's 8 years before Sherman put it on his album.

(Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in 1959. In 1964, Sherman added another bar of Rose's original to cover Alaska, moved Nebraska over to rhyme with it, and inserted Hawaii where Nebraska had been. That's the only changes in the run through the states.)

I'm not encouraging you to watch the 1956 version. It's thoroughly unfunny. That's Pepper Davis, the one of the team who couldn't sing, tunelessly bellowing out the litany of states, with Tony Reese as straight man. I had to look Davis and Reese up on IMDB, because they're so (deservedly) forgotten as to leave no trace, singly or together, on Wikipedia. (If you try looking them up there, you'll get the movie Legally Blonde, which starred Matthew Davis and Reese Witherspoon.) But Ed Sullivan liked booking any comedian he could get, funny or not.

But what's the story here? Did Sherman write the lyrics for Davis and Reese and then appropriate the song for himself? Did he steal it from them? Did they both take it from someone else? Sherman's album credits Rose's tune but says Sherman wrote all the lyrics, but the credits are not always complete. (My mother was the person who discovered that the tune for "Lotsa Luck" on the same album was a piece by Victor Herbert, and I did get that fact to stick on Wikipedia.) Evanier has no explanation for this. Mark Cohen's biography of Sherman says nothing about "Holiday for States" at all. It's a disturbing mystery.

Monday, January 10, 2022

time sink from down under

So I was reading an article about Novak Djokovic, the egocentric Serbian tennis star who wants to play in Australia without a vaccination, and down at the bottom was a YouTube link to a segment of an Australian Mastermind-like quiz show with a contestant who chose Djokovic as his special subject but proves to know very little about him.

The humor of this situation, and the wit of the host as he takes this contestant apart with corrosive slyness but without the kind of abuse an American would be likely to employ, led me to search for more of this show on YouTube. It bears the unfortunately generic (unfortunately because a search brings up a lot of irrelevant 'false drops') name of Hard Quiz, and the host, apparently a well-known figure in Australian media, is named Tom Gleeson.

I found several full episodes online, as well as a number of shorter clips, of which the fullest compilation with the fewest unrelated inclusions starts here.

The wit and cleverness of the thing were very appealing, and I watched as much as I could get. I particularly liked it when the contestants brought their own wit as well as knowledge to the introduction segments, like the Star Wars fan who also raises chickens, and who gives them names such as Hen Solo and Princess Layer. Best of all, because it shares my view precisely, was this exchange:

Host: "So you're not on Facebook."
Contestant: "No, I don't do it. I don't agree with the morals of it."
Host: "What morals do you not agree with?"
Contestant: "The fact that it doesn't have any."

The only problem for me was that most of the special subjects were sports teams or stars, pop bands or stars, or tv shows which, even if I'd heard of them, which I often hadn't (and not always just the Australian ones), I know nothing about. Or something military, which is no good for me either. The show's Wikipedia entry lists all the special topics for the six years it's been around, and some of them, like "Tolkien" or "Beethoven," are precisely in my wheelhouse and I'd love to know how well I'd do, but few of those are online. The recent episodes are all on the show's website, but are only viewable if you're in Australia, and I'm not. The topic that is on YouTube that I'd have done best on is "Robert Kennedy," but that may be unfair, since some of the questions seemed pretty easy for an American but might be considered tougher in another country.

Anyway. Hard Quiz. Just the thing for Jeopardy fans. Check it out if you dare.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

world according to cat

I came downstairs this morning to find Tybalt pacing across the kitchen counter with cries of frustration. There was a spider on the ceiling, five feet above him, and he couldn't figure out how to get at it.

Eventually the spider crawled over to the side of the ceiling, above the cupboard cabinets. Now Tybalt was looking to see if it was possible to leap up the four feet from the counter that would put him on top of the cabinets, only a foot below the ceiling. But while I have no doubt that the mighty Pandora could in her youth have leaped that high, it was beyond the scope of a no-longer-young Tybalt, and I foresaw a giant crash even if he did. So it's as well that he didn't try.

Eventually he figured out that he could get to the top of the cabinets by using the top of the refrigerator, which he has visited before, as an intermediate step. He prowled along the top of the cabinets, fortunately not knocking over any of the bricabrac we keep up there, until he reached the spider's lair.

He stuck out a paw and knocked the spider down to the top of the cabinet. At which point it apparently stopped moving, because Tybalt lost interest and returned whence he had come.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Jane E. Hawkins

Another stop to pay tribute to the recently departed, again among Seattle fans of the olden time.

Jane Hawkins (the middle initial was for byline use, to distinguish her from others of that name) was the first local fan I met when I came to Seattle, and she provided me with a verbal road map of the cultural neighborhood. She was a good person for such an analytical task, because while most of us were fuzzy literary types, Jane was an engineer, and had a technician's crisp and clear view of the world around her. But she was as far as possible from the typical technician's failing of treating human beings as just more machinery. Her skills at both organizing and enabling social events were legendary.

I've known a few other people who've held private invitational conventions, parties to which they invite enough people and which last multiple days and have organized time slots, so that they function more like small conventions, and which are consequently held in hotels or other such spaces. But Jane is the only person I've known to have invited me to two of them: JaneCon, which was held at the now-departed "Tudor Nightmare Villa" that was the site of so many of the smaller Seattle conventions, and CroneCon, hosted by Jane and 3 other women known to me, all turning 50, in a warehouse space in San Francisco. They were both wonderful and memorable occasions.

I wasn't as close to Jane as many others who are mourning her today, but it was a pleasure to be somewhere in the orbit of the physically small and unimposing but gravitationally intense and captivating planet called Jane Hawkins.

Friday, January 7, 2022

in the days of omicron

The holidays are over, and we're transitioning back into the regular concert season. What effect is the omicron wave having on scheduling? The answers are all over the map.

Stanford University is cancelling all public events for January. This isn't out of character for them, as they've been tending towards complete shutdown throughout the pandemic. This includes ensembles like the New Century Chamber Orchestra, who play a program over a week at assorted venues throughout the area, and are now taken off guard by having one of them cancelled. I had been planning on reviewing that one, so I guess it's out.
Stanford is, however, still openly advertising concerts in February.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is closing its concerts to outside visitors, limiting in-person attendance to members of the Conservatory community. However, they're promising to livestream all the events that they weren't already planning to do that way. That's OK; I was already planning to watch a lot of their programs online anyway.

San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Performances (a chamber music promoter up the street), both of which I have subscriptions to, are updating their vaccination requirement to include a booster. No problem for me, because I've been boosted since November, but I'm skeptical of the efficacy of this. Should I skip out on MTT doing Shostakovich's Fifth in two weeks? How about Mahler's First (the only Mahler symphony I really like) the week after that? Or will they have changed their minds by then and cancel the whole thing?

Kohl Mansion is holding on to their previous vaccination/mask requirement and is socially distancing seating by holding the hall to 60% capacity, which I think they were doing already. I wasn't planning on going there until March, so we'll see how things are then. I don't think I'll substitute their January concert for my NCCO review.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Frank Denton

I'd like to pay brief tribute to Frank Denton, whose death yesterday was reported on File 770. Many people, some of them known to me, have responded in the comments section on Frank as a mentor and friend in SF fandom, and I also was one who had such experiences.

I knew Frank best when I lived in Seattle. At that time he was in his 50s, though he looked older because his hair and beard were entirely white. He was as enthusiastic and involving as anyone much younger, though, so his senior status compared to us juniors never seemed awkward.

He was always friendly and welcoming. At his suggestion, I came to visit him a couple times at his home far out in the southern suburbs of the city. Our conversations were often about music, and he wanted to play me some records, in particular hoping to spark in me an interest in jazz - the André Previn trio from ca. 1960, that sort of thing - but it didn't take. My ears attuned to classical variation technique couldn't follow what jazz players did to a tune (Previn distinctly avoided bringing his classical sensibilities to jazz work).

I remember discussing this problem with Frank, and it was a good example of how I enjoyed my time and conversations with him. We stayed in touch occasionally for a while after I moved away, and I retain good memories.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

conventional wisdom

Here's what used to be the conventional wisdom about masks in the pandemic:

1. Any mask that covers your nose and mouth is much better than no mask.

2. A cloth mask is better at preventing you from breathing out virus (if you have it) than at keeping you from breathing it in, but it helps enough with the latter to be worth the trouble.

3. An N95 mask does not offer much additional protection unless you fit it properly.

3a. And even people who wear N95s regularly, like health care workers, mostly do not know how to fit the mask properly.

4. If you do fit the mask properly, it will be so tight over your nose and mouth that you'll have trouble breathing, especially if you're exerting yourself. Another reason not to wear one.

4a. If you have a beard, forget it. The N95 will not have a tight enough fit.

Here's the current conventional wisdom about masks:

1. Cloth masks are almost completely useless. They're "mask theater."

2. An N95 is the minimum necessary prevention. Nothing about the difficulty of proper fitting. Just make sure you have the straps around your head in the correct manner.

What I want to know is, why did the conventional wisdom change? That it has changed, and that there are official pronouncements to back this up, is amply documented. That's not what I'm looking for. I want to know why the change.

I can think of some possible reasons:

1. The increased transmissibility of the omicron variant has changed the dynamics of risk.

2. New studies have overturned what we thought we knew.

3. The old thinking was folk-wisdom to begin with, and was never valid.

4. The new thinking is the result of hysteria or improper influence (like the reduction of isolation periods from 10 to 5 days) and isn't valid.

But which, if any, of these is true has not been discussed anywhere that I've seen it. Indeed, the old wisdom seems to have disappeared in enlightened circles as if it never existed at all. What's going on here?

Monday, January 3, 2022

the Old Took

J.R.R. Tolkien was 130 years old today (Monday), the same age reached by his hobbit character the Old Took (Bilbo's grandfather). Bilbo himself passed it, so we'll honor him next year.

I toasted him with a leftover bottle of Swedish pear cider, the last in the stock of bottles I brought home from Galco's last July, in the Tolkien Society's online session. Shaun Gunner read aloud Bilbo's famous birthday speech, which I guess is traditional.

Afterwards the 160 or so of us who stuck around were distributed into breakout rooms, where I met a Canadian with an interesting theory I hadn't heard before: that when the Lord of the Nazgul says "Come not between the Nazgul and his prey" to Eowyn, he's trying to get her out of the way because he doesn't have Sauron's permission to kill her as he does for Theoden.

What permission would that be? I wondered. True that the Nazgul's will is enslaved by their Rings, and true also that Sauron is capable of giving them specific commands which they're bound to obey, as when they wheel and fly to Mount Doom as soon as Sauron realizes what his enemies' plan really is, but I can't imagine that Sauron gave his top general specific battlefield instructions to kill this person but not that person. The goal was to wage war on Sauron's behalf and do whatever would advance that cause. The Lord of the Nazgul had no will beyond what belonged to his master, but he was not an automaton and was able to use tactical judgment on how best to obey that will.

In any case he does attempt to kill Eowyn ("He raised his mace to kill"), but she and Merry hinder him.

Also brought to my attention today, via CFH, is this curious interview excerpt with Tolkien from 1962. If you can get through the extraordinarily supercilious interviewer and the inaudibility of Tolkien's voice, you will learn (or re-learn, because many of these are recorded elsewhere) a number of interesting things in only 6 1/2 minutes:

1. Tolkien refers to what in "On Fairy-stories" he called "the cauldron of story" as an author's "private stock." Which the interviewer naturally misunderstands.

2. Tolkien tries several times to convey his intention that his invented world is not an outline or prescription for what he thinks our society should be like. It's what he thought was suitable for the story he wanted to write. Again the interviewer has trouble grasping that an invented world need not be utopian.

2a. Nevertheless, Tolkien is trying to say something meaningful in his work. At the end, asked by the interviewer if he wants to remembered as a man who made something or who said something, he says, "I don't think you can distinguish. A made thing unless it says something won't be remembered."

3. Tolkien explains the obsession with detail in his work by calling himself "a meticulous sort of bloke." If this is not the only time he called himself by the word "bloke," I'd like to know it.

4. Tolkien says that "The Hobbit was originally an attempt to write something outside" his invented world. Considering the number of references to the Silmarillion in the drafts, which was actually cut down in the finished book, that aim didn't last long.

5. Tolkien pushes back against the interviewer's incredulity that the Silmarillion (the name isn't used, but that's what they're talking about) already existed before The Hobbit, and lays out his theory of sub-creation.

6. Tolkien rejects the interviewer's assumption that God in our world created for moral purposes and not aesthetic ones (Tolkien having drawn that distinction regarding the invented world). Tolkien says that surely there is "an aesthetic facet" in God's creation.

7. Tolkien says that, as a fallen creature, Sauron is "several stages down from Lucifer." That's clear enough once you know that Sauron's master was Melkor. He's the Lucifer of the story.

8. Tolkien defines the absence of organized religion in his story as "partly aesthetic, partly auctoral, and partly ... the history," by which last he means the internal history, as recounted in the Silmarillion.

9. Tolkien says the Ring isn't an allegory for the H-bomb because the idea of a weapon that would corrupt its user long predates the H-bomb.

10. Tolkien pushes back the date of the writing of his legendarium. "I began building the stories in which - of the Dark Lord when I was an undergraduate; they were already in an advanced stage during the First War." This suggests he had the storyline already in mind with his early fragmentary Earendel poems, long before The Book of Lost Tales.

Fascinating stuff, and I'd like to see, or read, the complete interview.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

once more unto the year

How do we know that it's a new year?

B. attended part of the online round-the-world New Year's Eve party. I didn't.

B. took down the decorations from the Christmas tree. I put the (artificial) tree away for another year.

In honor of omicron, I didn't make a supplemental run to another grocery outlet to pick up the items that were out of our weekly order on Friday. Instead, I placed an order at the other outlet, but for pickup on Sunday instead of Saturday, just in case the holiday hours were wonky.

It's quiet here (though there were a lot of pops and bangs starting about 11.30 on Friday night) and rather dark.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

happy new year

for whatever your personal definition of the word "happy" includes.

So what is it now, um, twenty ... twenty-two? That doesn't sound as if it could possibly be correct. I may well have trouble with this all year.

It also feels weird to be lunching on leftovers from last year, even if they're only a day old.